A year and a half later, I still haven’t unpacked my hospital bag from my three-day stay in the maternity ward. Filled with makeup, books, special shampoo and other things I didn’t end up using or even needing, the bag reminds me of the woman I used to be before I had my son: hopeful, unprepared, scared. Every time I open it, intending to put those unused items away, I’m reminded of how much I feared I’d never get to pack a bag like that at all. I haven’t been able to untangle all the grief, joy and anguish I went through to get pregnant, and I’m clearly still not ready to, so I leave the bag in the closet.
Even though I’m not overly private, my infertility is one subject I’ve kept to myself. Even the word “infertility” is withholding—it suggests an inward fault that isn’t meant to be seen. When my first book was published in 2014, I was a few months pregnant after two years of trying and one miscarriage. I couldn’t shake the fear that, at any moment, I was about to lose my baby. A failing uterine artery and a family history of pre-eclampsia sent me to weekly doctor’s visits, more ultrasounds than I could count and multiple blood draws. When I was six months along, I risked a long car ride to attend a friend’s birthday party. A mutual acquaintance sat down beside me and pointed at my belly.
“I knew it,” she said. “I knew as soon as you published your book, you’d be ready to have a baby.”
I wanted to leave her mid-epiphany and walk away, even though she wasn’t completely wrong. I would have loved to launch my career before starting a family. But that took longer than I’d planned and, as I got older, I knew my husband and I couldn’t wait anymore. So we tried and tried and tried again. Every month I was convinced I was pregnant, but I never was. My husband and I completed the battery of tests and the doctors found nothing. We kept trying and I got pregnant after a year of peeing on ovulation strips, holding my legs in the air after every time we had sex and trying to remain optimistic every time my period came. I couldn’t believe it the first time I held a positive test in my hand. My husband and I went to dinner to celebrate. That evening, I started to bleed. The next day, I lost the baby. From the beginning, I blamed myself.
Given how difficult it had been for me to reach the second trimester, the pain of the journey was bad enough that I had no desire to hide it. Instead of escaping the party, I told this woman the truth.
“I had a very difficult time getting pregnant,” I said, “and I lost one a year ago, so this was no plan of mine.”
She felt terrible, and I committed to waiting in the awkwardness. If I’ve learned one thing from my infertility struggles, it’s that the idea of family planning is a lie, and I won’t perpetuate it.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said. “I got pregnant so easily with my two girls, I forget that it’s harder for some women.”
Some women. It’s a larger number than we realize, and it’s not an easier—or better—path to be overly fertile. That life places its own demands on a woman’s body and well-being. But these “some women” are members of a silent mass who are often forced to keep their mouths shut. When a friend of mine suffered a miscarriage, her high school students asked her why she had missed a week of class once she returned. She told them that she had lost her baby, and she was swiftly reprimanded by the administration when a parent complained. “I don’t want my child hearing about that,” the mother had said—a response she probably wouldn’t have offered if my friend had suffered a car crash, pneumonia or a burst appendix. A woman’s miscarriage is usually equivalent to her “unmentionables”—an item that is necessarily hidden and never to be heard.
After my miscarriage, I became convinced (and I still am, admittedly) that my body was toxic—I’d drunk too much Diet Coke in my 20s or had taken too many antibiotics, I thought. So from the moment I saw the flutter of a heartbeat on the fetal monitor when I got pregnant again, I held my breath. The woman at the party had also made another dangerous assumption that my tiny baby bump meant my pregnancy was a healthy and safe one. At 18 weeks, my doctor sent me for an ultrasound because something was off in my blood work. They suspected spina bifida, which it wasn’t, but then they worried my pre-eclampsia would flare up before the fetus was viable. I remember the moment the doctor told me that if I had to deliver before 24 weeks, the baby would not survive. I’ve never felt so scared. I quit my job, hardly left the house and committed to daily meditation to lower my stress levels. Stay, I whispered to the baby inside me. Please stay.
Near the end, the baby moved less and less as my blood pressure spiked. By the time I went into labour, he was under duress. I arrived at the hospital at 7 p.m. and my son was out via emergency C-section at 8 p.m. They had to resuscitate him and whisked him away to the NICU, where he stayed for 12 days. Not only was he three weeks early but he was also very small. But he was beautiful and perfect, all four pounds, six ounces of him.
I couldn’t sleep that night—a habit that would hound me for the next year. All I could think of was my tiny baby and my cloying need to feed him. I couldn’t hold him, so I pumped and pumped and pumped. I went home after three days, but I left my boy behind. I watched him on a video feed, lying alone, his black eyes staring up into the flash of NICU lights, and I cried. The C-section had cut through my abdomen muscles, and I couldn’t even stand up on my own. It was a daily battle to just get to the NICU, sit down in a rocker and try to get my little one to nurse. It took three months, but we finally got the hang of it.
Now, my little boy is a year and a half old, but even though there is so much happiness, this is not a happily ever after story. Here’s the truth about me as a mother. Right now, there’s a drawer in my kitchen full of sugar that my toddler spilled and I keep it closed because I don’t have the energy to clean it up. My hospital bag is sandwiched in my closet between an electric blanket and a box filled with hardcover copies of my book. And every time a fellow mother celebrates how big or strong or “ahead” of the game her child is, I catch my heart falling to the floor. I know my boy will grow in his own time, but it won’t be without its hardships. Strangers want to know how many words he has, when he started walking and why he’s so small, and I want them to let us be.
I don’t feel envy for mothers of kids whose progress fits neatly into traditional growth charts. But I do feel grief for the difficulty we’ve endured and an absolutely irrevocable gratitude that my boy and I are both still alive to love each other.
This is another reason why that hospital bag remains unpacked: the hope that I might someday get to use it again, though I’m as terrified of trying to survive another high-risk pregnancy as I am of discovering that I may never get pregnant again. Motherhood has made my heart expand, but I know it comes at a cost, too: the weight of growing someone, and the weight of letting someone go. Among so many things my little boy has taught me is that we can’t know what tomorrow will hold, so we must find our peace in the present.