I remember the moment it happened one year ago.
I was washing dinner dishes in my window-surrounded kitchen, embraced by the dark cave that is the Canadian winter in the dead of January, when I felt the gush.
I tiptoed to the bathroom, trying not to disturb something I knew I had no control over, pulled down my pants, and confirmed it—bright red blood.
My head dropped into my hands and despair clutched my body.
At that point, my husband and I had been doing in-vitro fertilization (IVF) for almost two years. Little Embryo Number Eight, currently clinging to life inside of me, was our last one.
As I sat on the toilet, I practiced my daily mantra: I am one of the lucky ones.
I was lucky because Little Embryo Number Five had somehow, miraculously, made the long journey from a hatching embryo in a Petri dish to a beautiful, real-live baby born 39 weeks later. And as I sat there bleeding, my adorable 15-month-old child, the light of my Canadian winter, was wriggling in her daddy’s arms as she emerged from the bathtub one floor above me.
So many of the couples I had met throughout my IVF journey were not as fortunate. And there were many; In North America, estimated infertility rates range from about 10-15 percent, and the number of people using IVF services is steadily growing. My heart breaks every day for them.
Our IVF journey had begun many years earlier when my husband and I decided we wanted to have kids. Or more kids, in his case. (I am a proud stepmom to two amazing young adults.) We decided we would try to start a family even though he had shut the door on that option more than a decade earlier, with a couple snips and a bag of frozen peas.
Initially, the doctors were optimistic. I was still under the dreaded age of 35 (the year women begin to die, reproductively speaking). I was healthy. All my parts were working nicely. And so at first I didn’t mind all the drugs, injections, mood swings and road trips to the closest clinic, two-and-a-half hours away. We were going to wield the powers of modern science in our fight against infertility. Amazing!
But then the first round ended in miscarriage. And then the next one. And then the next.
And it wasn’t exciting anymore. It was exhausting.
So by last January, I was an IVF veteran. And as such, I had figured out that the key to handling the process with sanity and grace was maintaining the right balance between optimism and realism.
(Your chances of handling it with dignity go swiftly out the window the first time you are given universe-shattering news with a cold medical device shoved up your hoo-ha.)
I had also figured out that maintaining this balance was virtually impossible.
I tried constantly reminding myself how lucky I was.
I have a wonderful partner and a wonderful life. We have this amazing reproductive technology available to us. We can afford to do it. Most of all, we already produced one healthy, amazing baby.
But I also found it impossible not to feel sorry for myself. Historically, the women in my family have been impregnated by merely “sitting downwind from” their husbands, according to my aunties. Meanwhile, I couldn’t even grow an embryo properly when it was expertly crafted in a dish and precisely placed inside my medically-prepped womb.
My gratitude would quickly turn into a spiral of questions (all the mood-altering hormones and medications did not help).
What will my daughter’s life be like with no siblings to grow up with? Will I never again get to hold and smell and feel a tiny baby of my own in my exhausted, new-mom arms? Will this absence—this yearning—leave me bitter and empty forever?
I knew these thoughts were irrational. I knew I shouldn’t ask for too much. I felt selfish.
But in those days, my world flashed quickly between lightness and dark.
What a miscarriage feels like
Miscarriage is painfully and beautifully choreographed.
Once she’s decided the time is right, Lady Miscarriage shoves her elegant arm up inside you and starts scratching and churning the insides your uterus with her long black fingernails.
She works away, in intervals not unlike birthing contractions, until eventually the cocooned fetus gives up its squatters’ rights to the cozy dark cave, and begins its descent. Your body ejects the materials in the form of thick clumps of blood and tissue, pain, blame and defeat.
The duration of miscarriages can vary. Some are just a couple hours. Some last for days.
Pro tip: Contrary to popular belief, you’re better off being out somewhere where you’re distracted when Lady M strikes. Work situations are ideal, because if you’re like me, you cannot show emotion or weakness in public and you will at least be distracted.
My best miscarriage was when I was on a tour for work of a local historical cultural center where Indigenous Canadians used to grow plants and herbs used for medicine. It was a warm day, the setting was beautiful and the slow walking helped ease my cramps. As I was bleeding through my pad and hoping to god there was a bathroom close by, one of the tour guides showed us an ancient herb that was used to prevent miscarriage.
The irony! I laughed out loud. People thought I was laughing at the sensitive nature of the subject matter and joined in awkwardly.
My worst miscarriage took place during a three-day work course. I was sitting in a metal chair—excruciating when your back is on fire and your insides are falling out—and across from me each day was a heavily pregnant young woman who had two more little ones at home. She had bright, excited eyes, and told the group she was having a girl.
I hated her.
Everyone grieves differently
No matter how much I promised myself that I would not get emotionally invested in the dream of a healthy, live baby, I always did. I mentally calculated the due date. I planned how I would tell my family the happy news. I promised myself I would eat lots of fruit. But in the end, the battle was almost always futile—I was always invested.
For me, miscarriage is relatively quick. My body is amazingly efficient at discarding the materials and hormones that are no longer of use.
The grief lingers a lot longer.
Charles Bukowski wrote, “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”
I don’t think I walked through the fire very well.
My husband’s grieving process was practical. His grief let him sleep through the night while mine kept me awake, writhing in sweaty-sheet purgatory. Maybe if I hadn’t kept running. Maybe if I hadn’t drank coffee. Maybe if I had stayed off my feet. Maybe if I hadn’t stressed out about work.
His grief went with him to work every day, where he was productive. My grief made me sit in front of my computer Googling “what causes miscarriage,” “IVF success rates,” and “can women who never have babies still be happy?”
My husband’s grief made him say things like, “We’ll just keep trying. It’ll all be worth it when we get one that works!”
My grief was childish and immature. One day a woman I knew from high school posted a photo of her newborn for the millionth time that week. My finger crashed into the “delete friend” button so hard it hurt. (I regret this.)
Another day I overheard a woman sitting behind me in a restaurant telling her table that she and her husband wanted a December baby so they were “going to start trying in March.” I instinctively backed my chair into hers with a sharp thud. (I do not regret this.)
Initially I resented my husband’s grief, thinking it wasn’t as genuine as mine.
But I came to learn that everyone grieves differently.
And every once in a while I would see flashes of raw sadness in him. Annoyingly, they were brief and efficient. But in those moments, my grief felt slightly lighter.
I am not proud. I wish I could have grieved better. But that’s just another thing I feel guilty about.
Hope after loss
After Little Embryo Number 8 failed, I buried myself in a black hole for a couple weeks.
And then, in the springtime, I emerged and my husband and I decided to rally. We chose a new clinic, in a different province, and I underwent the entire egg-retrieval process once again. We were thrilled to be given the gift of six embryos that tested as normal.
And then, during the most vividly green weeks of June I can recall in a long time, one of those little embryos stubbornly implanted itself into my uterus and stuck around.
Throughout this pregnancy, I’ve been experiencing the usual anxieties. Each small twinge of pain or discomfort rustles up the memories of loss, and I am keenly aware that there is still an envelope inside me holding grief and despair, ready to be opened if needed.
But this pregnancy has also brought something unexpected: the negative feelings are washed away more easily, by overwhelming waves of gratitude, hope and light that I have not experienced before in my life.
IVF has given me the gift of understanding that life’s highs and lows are related and relative. Happiness feels lighter when you know how sad you can feel.
In late January, one year after my last miscarriage, eight months pregnant, I found myself sitting awkwardly on the bed in my OB’s office after a routine examination. She told me the baby was breech.
My hormones surged. My hormones wanted me to cry. They wanted me to go directly to the worst case, irrational scenario: Could this possibly translate into another loss?
The paper beneath me crinkled as I took a deep breath and sat up straighter and stronger—surprising myself.
There is now a peculiar new centre inside me, a hard core that has grown around the wriggling happy fetus. This core forces me to stand up straighter, breathe deeper and know that no matter what, I’m going to be OK.
Delaney Seiferling delivered a healthy baby girl in February 2020.