parallel pregnancies

With my first pregnancy, my best friend and I had due dates two days apart. After our positive tests we shared giddy glee, bewilderment and amazed that we would get to experience this side by side. I miscarried four weeks later. The grief following a miscarriage is intense; it will double you over and you’ll find yourself clutching your heart between your deepest sobs. When you realize you’ve been left behind, that the closest female in your life will go on to experience and have what you’ve just lost and so desperately want, it becomes unbearable.

A situation like this is truly complex and heart wrenching. You feel like you should still be able to feel only happiness for your friend, despite your deep pain. Isn’t that the definition of strength? To rise above your own misfortune to be able to relish in the joy of those you love? “You’ve been through a trauma,” I was told. “You can’t expect yourself to be able to do that.” I battled my conflicted feelings in the days following my miscarriage. I wanted my best friend’s support during my toughest days, to tell her everything I was experiencing and cry out the pain. But I couldn’t go near her. In my moments of strength I thought I could. “Update from my ultrasound today. I’m actually 11 weeks along right now, not 8” her text read. “Congrats” was my weak reply, before sobbing into my husband’s arm. “She didn’t even take her folic acid!” I wailed, knowing I sounded ridiculous. At our ultrasound two weeks prior we saw a slow-developing embryo, just three days away from it’s final heartbeat. I would have done anything to learn I was actually 11 weeks along, just one week shy of the desirable 2nd trimester.

As I focused on how difficult this was for me, she slipped away. Hearing of my misfortune, the agony and pain I’d been in, hit too close to home. She didn’t want to see her worst nightmare, personified in the form of her best friend, reflected against her own growing belly. She had too many of her own fears as she navigated pregnancy for the first time, and felt it was best if we stayed separate during this time.

I not only grieved the loss of my pregnancy and the loss of the baby I thought I would have, but I grieved for the loss of my best friend. I grieved not being able to be a part of this time for her, not being able to be her cheerleader, the way we both were for each other’s weddings. I became paranoid I was suddenly a pariah to pregnant women, as if somehow they would think what I went through was contagious. I thought I just needed to get pregnant again, to fill the void and mitigate the pain and jealousy. But it became so much more complicated than that.

The night of my wedding, as I was pulsing with love and appreciation for everyone who traveled to central Mexico to see my husband and me get married, I grabbed onto my brother’s soon-to-be wife. “I think we’re going to be pregnant at the same time!” I whispered to her delightfully, with all my innocence and naivety intact, giving her a booze-fueled hug. I knew she and my brother would be trying for a baby soon, just as my husband and I planned to. During my second pregnancy I had strong suspicions that she was finally pregnant. We spent three days over Thanksgiving nauseous and exhausted, complaining but never acknowledging to each other the culprit. I miscarried shortly after, at nine weeks along.  A few days later my husband walked into the kitchen and held me. “It’s true,” he said gently. It was something I already knew but still hit me like a thud in my gut. “She got pregnant the same week as you. She has your due date.”

I had wanted to be tough this time, to avoid the deep pit of emotional wreckage I experienced following my first miscarriage. But with these words,  every bit of displaced emotion emerged, and I collapsed into my husband’s arms and cried, sobs coming from a deep and broken place. “That’s MY baby!!” I wailed over and over, knowing I didn’t make sense, but believing it nevertheless. “She has my baby! That’s my baby, that’s my baby,” I cried, not knowing why I was saying it. “Where is my baby?” I finally asked my husband faintly, feeling overwhelmed with heartbreak that this question couldn’t be answered. I had tried to convince myself that this time it was easier, an embryo had never developed – there was never a baby to be lost. But in that moment I knew it didn’t matter. That familiar grief filled my body as I crumpled with the same heavy sadness.

Again, I anguished over the way I was feeling. I had looked forward to being an aunt for so long. I loved my brother and sister-in-law so deeply and was devastated that I would feel anything other than happiness that they were expecting. Their pregnancy announcement became about me, not wanting to cause me more pain, not quite sure how to share the news. I had robbed them of one of the more exciting parts of getting pregnant – sharing the news with loved ones. Once again images of them at their ultrasound getting good news, your baby’s heart is beating and is growing right on track, something we had yet to experience, filled me with that same sick feeling, the envy that pulsed through every bit of my being, the ugly pit in my stomach I had grown to hate. I knew from experience that time doesn’t dissolve these feelings; as she becomes more pregnant I will feel more and more empty.

I don’t understand why I had to endure such a difficult situation twice, why one of the more painful aspects of my first miscarriage had to replicate a second time with my sister-in-law. It seemed cruel, and unfair. But I knew I needed to use what I learned through the first experience to keep my relationship with my brother and sister-in-law healthy and loving. I knew the best way to make it through would be through love and communication. And I knew with silence comes misunderstanding. You start to project what you think the other person is thinking and feeling, always assuming the worst. She’s mad because I’m not going to her baby shower, I had thought of my best friend’s silence. She doesn’t understand what I’ve been through. She has no empathy! When we finally spoke I found the opposite true, she had been harboring feelings of sadness and guilt throughout her whole pregnancy, often so deep she had trouble maintaining contact. Because of the distance I felt the first time with my best friend, I immediately started grieving the loss of my brother and sister-in-law. I thought they would slip away too, in a blurry mess of awkwardness and not knowing how to not cause me more pain.

I know I’m being tested, and I know that I will need to harden myself enough to not let the seeping pain control me and cause me to experience the loss of more people in my life. I’m going to be an aunt and I’m going to let my love for my brother’s unborn child, my future niece or nephew, help me get through this.

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“poor fertility potential”

My husband and I decided to pursue as much testing as possible before deciding to try getting pregnant again. I had already had a few doctors blow off my two miscarriages as “not statistically significant” citing that until you have three there really isn’t a real indication of a problem. It infuriated me. Every woman who has had three miscarriages must have been told at two to just keep trying, and that she likely didn’t have a problem, I thought. I couldn’t bear the thought of getting to three. Luckily my OGBYN understood that emotionally we would not be able to take the leap of faith to start trying again until we had done everything we could to discover if we had an issue. We had both received good news on our blood karyotype, and felt like with every normal result we would have just a bit more peace of mind.

At my husband’s urology appointment, we hoped for the same “normal” results. We sat in the doctor’s office, answering a bunch of questions when finally it was time for my husband’s exam. “Oh, here are the results of your husband’s SA,” the doctor said to me casually, handing me a piece of paper, and exiting the room with my husband. I took the paper, quickly scanning through the numbers and percentages until finally my heart stopped. I felt the room start to close in on me as my breathing constricted and my hands began to shake. Prognosis: Poor fertility potential. I sat alone in the office, knowing I had terrible news in my hands, knowing that my poor optimistic husband didn’t know yet.

I wanted to scream and cry and protect my husband from this news. I worried about how he would feel, knowing he would be worrying how I would feel. I couldn’t believe the doctor left me to digest this news with no explanation, no context, and alone. I started taking deep breaths to steady myself and keep the tears at bay. Part of me was not surprised, because of a diagnosis my husband received as an adolescent, I had suspected this might be contributing to our issues. But normally it would prevent someone from even getting pregnant and we had gotten pregnant twice in the last six months. We just couldn’t stay that way.

My husband could see my distress immediately when he walked in the room; my expression quickly caused his face to fall. The doctor explained our results and our options. My husband had a varicocele, and it was affecting his sperm production. It came down to two options, my husband could undergo a small surgery that may help increase his fertility, or we go straight to IVF. He explained that if we were of “advanced maternal age” and didn’t want to waste time we should do IVF, if we were young and had plenty of time the surgery was worth trying. “I’m 33,” I told him “I’m not young or of advanced maternal age.”  “You have some time,” he told me. It didn’t feel that way.

Both my husband and I experienced a complex avalanche of emotions. “You look mad” my husband would say to me, likely projecting his own fear of how I was feeling about him. I wasn’t mad. I felt heavy. I felt sad for my husband, having to carry the burden of feeling like the miscarriages were his fault. But at the same time a part of me was relieved it wasn’t something wrong with me, although I had yet to see our fertility specialist and have my own onslaught of testing. My husband was finally feeling how I had been feeling all these months, that something was wrong with me, that somehow I had caused all this distress. As normally a hugely communicative couple, we were suddenly quiet. I didn’t know how to console him while grappling all my feelings and heartache. I was overwhelmed with the giant question mark with what was before us. I wanted to cry, but something had shifted in me through this struggle. I was either pushing the feelings inward, or had started to become hard. Or perhaps I was just adjusting to this new reality, and finally accepting that this was going to be our struggle.

When we spoke to other OB’s about the varicocele we received eyerolls. Urologists love to tell you that you have a varicocele, and that you need surgery, they said. You get pregnant, you’re fine. It didn’t make sense to me. Wouldn’t having 97% abnormal sperm morphology contribute to a higher likelihood of genetically abnormal embryos? When I researched, I read conflicting opinions. Abnormal sperm won’t fertilize an egg, I read….but by those accounts it should have been incredibly difficult for us to even get pregnant.

In the end we decided he would undergo the surgery. I had to stay true to my promise to myself – that I would do everything in my power to decrease our risk of miscarriage before trying again. In two-thirds of men the varicocele repair improved sperm production. We scheduled the surgery, spent a lot of money on fertility supplements, and crossed our fingers. In three to six months we will know if the surgery worked.

“these are the days of ugly emotions”

I stumbled upon this entry in the NY Times Motherlode blog by Amy Klein called “Baby Envy”, and found myself in complete resonance with the experience of the author. I found it so hard to be happy for other pregnancies when I was in the midst of the deep pain from my miscarriages. And I felt terrible about it. I was hard on myself, telling myself if I were stronger I’d be able to muster happiness for others despite my misfortune. I told myself I should be able to support my pregnant best friend and sister-in-law, even though I shared due dates with both of them before I lost both pregnancies, and the progression of their pregnancies only amplified the absence of mine. I put tremendous pressure on myself, and grappled with where the line was between swallowing the pain and taking care of my emotional recovery.

The author is candid in explaining how much pain other women’s pregnancies brought her. I assumed it was a common experience among those of us struggling with fertility, our deep, dark secret, but also our common bond. I was intrigued so I read through every comment posted after the article, and was horrified that so many women, including those claiming to have suffered painful infertility issues, blasted the author for her honesty. What do other women’s joy and pregnancies have to do with your own inability to get pregnant? they commented. (As if we actually think that those pregnancies can take ours away).

I got a knot in my stomach reading that perspective. Is there some fault in my character that I’m so wholly immersed in my own losses that other pregnancies cause me pain not happiness? I would have glimmers of happiness, and I would try and hold onto that feeling as much as I could, trying to prove to myself that I was a big enough person. I want to be that person, strong, joyful, happy for others even during my own times of adversity. But there’s a certain trauma that follows infertility and pregnancy loss. It attaches to you and makes it impossible for your wounds to heal. Each month, each menstrual cycle, it’s own small death, with it’s own fresh cycle of grief.

Sometimes I feel as if I’m living in fear of the next pregnancy announcement. I gravitate towards my friends that feel “safe” – those that are unmarried, those that don’t want kids. I dread the punch in the gut that the news inevitable brings. The belly photos that populate my Facebook feed, with no warning whatsoever. And although I remind myself I don’t know their backstory or what their struggles may be, they illuminate my own losses. Forces me to remember. A trigger for my own sadness.

“These are the days of ugly emotions.” And we feel guilty for having them. Another reason to feel bad about ourselves, in addition to the shortcomings and failures of our bodies. We know we don’t want our friends to suffer. But no one wants to feel alone either.