Photo: Courtesy of Sky England
“The embryo is lodged in your right tube,” the OBGYN told me. I looked down at the silver-zippered black leather boots peeking out from his scrubs. “It’s big—about five centimetres. You’ll need to go in for surgery today.”
For a week, I’d been waiting to hear if my surprise, IUD-defying pregnancy was miscarrying, ectopic or viable. We were two weeks into a global pandemic shutdown, and the world vibrated with uncertainty.
“So you’ll remove the pregnancy?” I asked.
“And the tube,” he said.
I burst into tears.
“If you’re done having kids,” he offered, “we can remove both tubes.”
I cried even harder.
The tears made no sense. My husband Dan and I were done having kids, weren’t we? It was just back to the original two-existing-kids plan, with the added bonus of a forever, ironclad birth control solution! I should have been relieved.
But your heart pretty much drowns out your head when you’re losing a pregnancy, body parts and—possibly—your entire reproductive system. I had not been prepared to consider No More Kids. No going back. The End.
I'd been saying I was done ever since my second, Charlie, arrived. While my first year as first-time mom had elated me, two kids under two had toppled me. Between breastfeeding, toddler tantrums, a seemingly endless sleep-deprived haze and, sometimes, forgetting how to feed myself, my body literally withered away, dropping to a weight I hadn’t been since I was 15.
I felt low, exhausted and lost—pathetic for feeling so swamped by my own two children and the infinite chores that accompanied them.
When my first-born, James, turned three, and Charlie turned one, I felt like I’d arrived somewhere. I sold all the baby things. I weaned Charlie, freeing up my spent body from another living creature for the first time in four years. Never doing that again! I thought (and said out loud many times).
But my initial triumph turned murky as the boys grew.
I’d stare at mothers with new babies strapped to their bodies and think, I’m not one of them. As eager as I had been to leave baby life behind, I had unwittingly entangled my identity with the idea that I was a ‘new’ mom.
At two, Charlie would still nestle his head on my shoulder at bedtime while I sang to him and I’d realize, I’ll never hold my own baby again. Never again know the weight and smell and transcendent intimacy of these moments.
I'd hear moms-of-three say things like, “Last night, I looked at my third-born and just couldn't believe I'd ever considered not having him!" Or, “I decided to have three because I felt like I had all of this love waiting to be discovered.”
Logically, I knew the comments weren’t about me. Of course those moms were in love with their new babies. But didn’t I also have love waiting to be discovered? The things they said lodged in me like shrapnel.
My feelings bewildered me. Did I really want another kid? Or was it, as a friend suggested that, “Maybe we’re evolutionarily programmed to always want more kids.” (She added: “I feel mad at biology about that.”)
Perhaps I had subconsciously subscribed to some archaic patriarchal bullshit about losing my purpose now that I had borne my children? Or was simply that something I had looked forward to all my life was now over?
I settled into a quiet, lonely grief. Most days, I could choose not to hear it. A little piece of me secretly clutched to a thread of possibility that we could still—maybe!—have another one. Why did it feel so heartbreaking to close the door on having kids? And why was I so unprepared for (and confused by) these emotions?
I asked registered psychologist Maria Schmid these very questions, and she pointed out that our traditions around women—bridal and baby showers—celebrate the beginning. It makes sense that that’s what we anticipate. When we’re done having kids, our perception of ourselves changes. “We must navigate the expansion and contraction of ourselves in relation to who we thought we were, what we expected to become, and the reality of who we are,” she said. She added that when women don’t firmly ‘close the door’—be it mentally or physically—they “can be tormented for years, never truly letting themselves feel complete or enough."
That torment was very much my company as the boys neared five and three years old. Then the pandemic hit. Then I found out I was pregnant. It was wild. Miraculous.
Until it wasn’t.
After the OBGYN delivered the news, Dan figured out a plan for the kids and drove me to the hospital. He walked me to the day-surgery desk but was allowed no further. I left his coat damp with my tears, then followed a nurse to a hospital bed in a little nook, where I cried and shivered in my hospital gown.
I was lucky and I knew it. Five pregnancies had yielded two boys who were at home, waiting for me. I was no stranger to the struggles, losses and raw hearts of hopeful parents. I thought of my little embryo; had it travelled just inches further, I would be at home, frightened and giddy.
When I thought about losing both tubes on top of the pregnancy, something primal happened in my body. My stomach turned. Tears poured out of me. I decided, alone there in my hospital bed, that I’d keep that tube.
Eventually, someone wheeled me down the hall and left me in the middle of another room, where I wept and wept. Nurses and doctors walked by, turned their heads, pretending not to notice.
Finally, four women gathered around me—the anesthesiologist, the surgeon, the registered nurse and the resident. They told me they’d put me to sleep and intubate me. They’d empty my bladder. They’d remove the pregnancy, the tube, the IUD.
“And will we be removing both tubes?” the surgeon asked.
I shook my head and whispered, “No.”
It was the tiniest comfort as the women wheeled me into the OR, transferred me to a steel table, pressed an oxygen mask over my face and a needle into my arm. I looked up at the enormous UFO lights, waiting for the relief of a drug-induced sleep.
A year has passed since that day. And I realize now that on that day, I grieved our loss, and The End. Though I kept that tube, I’m not holding onto the thread of possibility for another child anymore.
Just because I’ve processed the grief doesn’t mean I don’t feel it. It’s the bittersweet embrace of what’s here—and what’s not here. It’s leaving behind what was once ahead of us. It’s when I wonder if I’ll remember the particular feeling of Charlie’s little arms reaching around my neck when he hugs me goodnight, pulls me to his chest and says, “Stay, Mommy. Stay.”
It’s that the kids are getting older and so are we all. We will never be this exact way again. Today we are here—tomorrow we will be new.
So when I hear the grief, I hold it in my hands. I listen.