Catherine is a professional educator, author, runner, wine nerd, and more. She had a miscarriage in 2006 when she was 25. Catherine and her partner now live child-free by choice. In the dialogue below, she shares her memory of the experience.
Q: What’s your story of not being pregnant? What happened? What was your experience of the health care system?
After initial enthusiasm, it took me a month to find the time and the emotional place to begin responding to these questions. Right around the same time as this idea, a friend surprised me with news that she was 14 weeks pregnant. What happened next is the same thing that happens to me every single time I hear such news. Step 1: share happy congratulations while my heart leaps out of my chest with panic, followed swiftly by Step 2: confirming they have already had an ultrasound and heard a heartbeat.
I ask about the ultrasound immediately every time because that’s where my story of not being pregnant began. That moment when–after 13 weeks of positive urine tests, nausea, extremely tender breasts, bloating, extreme fatigue, excitement, online “how big is your baby today” trackers, signing up for newsletters and whatever else–the ultrasound technician couldn’t find a heartbeat. And then the next one couldn’t either. And then the technicians were all consulting with each other and I was asked to get dressed, and we were pulled aside into a vestibule, a hallway, where a doctor said there doesn’t seem to be a baby. And my soul was instantly yanked out of my body in the single Worst Moment of my life.
As the implications were settling and tears welling, my husband hurried me into a tiny airplane-sized washroom where I collapsed to the floor and wailed with a pain that cut through my entire being. I don’t remember if he was crying (he probably was) because I was completely and utterly consumed by grief. I have a sense that he gathered me up and carried me through the fully populated waiting room while I attempted unsuccessfully to contain my wailing. Once outside, my grief exploded. I called my Gran, the only other person who had known since we knew. I wailed over and over the baby is gone but I was crying so hard she couldn’t understand what I was saying. I passed the phone to my husband for interpretation. I remember going to the convenience store, a 7-11, across the street and sobbing through the purchase of kleenex from a stunned clerk. I remember my husband holding me on the busride home (we still took the bus! We were in so much shock that the expense of a taxi didn’t even cross our minds). That’s all I remember from The Worst Day. It was 10 years and 13 days ago. I’ll always bear a scar.
Medically, it seems that a baby had begun but only grew to a few cells, just enough to trigger my body to go into pregnancy mode. It should have been expelled as a late period, but for unknowable reasons my body hung on to it. Initially, my GP thought it may be a molar pregnancy, and if it was I was at risk of the cells being cancerous and so I really should get a chest x-ray right away, like today. I am forever grateful that my (newly acquired) GP at the time was a gentle, compassionate, wonderful man. (A few months later he left the practice to pursue Psychiatry. I was sad but not surprised.) Because my (non)pregnancy was now “irregular” I had to be referred to an OB-GYN. This specialist was also a very nice man, rather grandfatherly. But all I remember from those appointments was sitting in the waiting room with all of these obviously successfully pregnant women, pictures of babies everywhere, and wanting nothing more than to scream in rage at all of them that my baby died but didn’t leave my body and that’s why I was there. I don’t know why I wanted to tell them that, but that’s what I remember feeling. I didn’t do it of course. I sat, my body still aching from (non)pregnancy, and endured those horrible moments. I didn’t know it was going to get worse.
I was to be scheduled for a D&C within the next few weeks, to occur at the local Women’s and Children’s hospital–they would contact me for my surgery date. I was also told that at any point those cells that should have miscarried might miscarry so I should be ready for that. They stayed put, and I eventually did get the D&C. Every day waiting I was still nauseous, still tender, still extremely fatigued, and now grieving the death of my baby. I remember a few things from the day of my surgery. I felt completely alone. Gowned, positioned, appropriately dehydrated, behind a curtain, waiting my turn. The nurses were nice but had their rounds to do. I overheard that the woman next to me (separated by a curtain) was there for a molar pregnancy removal too, which gave me some measure of comfort. I had general anesthetic. Then the Second Worst Moment of this whole ordeal happened. I had been brought to the recovery area for the anesthetic to wear off. The same recovery area that women who had just given birth to living babies were. That’s right. I “came to” while hearing the sound of a crying newborn a curtain away from me. Confused, alone, drugged, I cried out “I’m sorry baby” over and over until a nurse came over to quiet me. I’m forever grateful for her words that pulled me to reality: “it’s not your fault.” She checked my bleeding and told me they would move me soon. Until they did, I cried quietly alone while that baby cried.
Q: How did you tell your partner/family/friends you’d had a miscarriage? How did they respond? How do you wish they had responded?
I imagine that telling family and friends must have been awful, but in truth I don’t really remember most of it. My main supporters were involved immediately: my husband (who had expectantly held my hand in the ultrasound room and then carried my shell home), my Gran (who lived across the country and had received the news by phone), and my closest local friend Lesley (who I imagine I called on The Worst Day but have no memory of it–I just remember sobbing in her arms). Three days before The Worst Day was my mother’s birthday. Family had gathered, without me, as usual, as we lived across the country. I chose that day to tell her she was going to be a grandmother. It was a phone call full of giggles and squeals and excitement. I then called my dad, who had guests over and got all adorably choked up as stoic, farm-raised fathers do. Tears of joy. All good things. Ultrasound scheduled for Wednesday. I don’t remember telling my family there was no baby. Maybe Gran did, and they all just knew when they called me? No idea.
I do remember two face-to-face instances related to work. I was teaching statistics labs, so had to tell the course instructor that any day now I might have a miscarriage, which was a weird thing to say so I ended up sharing the whole story. I don’t think I cried. His wife was about 6 months pregnant at the time. He was gentle and logical, offering to cover whatever was needed. The other person I remember face-to-face was a fellow grad student who had pieced things together to guess the pregnancy. He’d been adorably thrilled for us. The next time he saw us we were dazed, propping each other up, staggering home from the “it might be cancerous” x-ray (still too stunned for taxis, I guess). We must have told him. He must have expressed condolences. Then he sent flowers. Come to think of it, those were the only flowers I received. What a kindness. Usually people just backed away. He didn’t. That was kind.
On one of what must have been daily phone calls with my Gran, she responded to this horror with the greatest gift she could have given me. She asked me if I wanted her to come to visit. This was momentous: my Gran had been phobic of airplanes her whole life, and remained unwilling to conquer that fear. Instead, she offered to spend four days in coach class on a train–each way. My husband and I had moved across the country three years earlier, and I feared she never would make it out here. With great relief and gratitude, I accepted her offer. She arrived after my surgery and stayed on our couch for about 3 weeks before returning on another train. We cried together, I showed her around our new city, and she came with me to most appointments. (Just in case the D&C failed to alert my body it was not pregnant, I had to have blood drawn and tested once a week until some hormone was down. She came with me.) Her visit became the first of about five annual trips she made while she was healthy enough to do so. Years of wonderful memories shared, triggered by the worst experience of my life.
Only two people I knew at that time had had a miscarriage before. To protect their privacy, I won’t disclose details. I know one story but not the other. One person’s unwillingness to talk with me about it was alienating and hurtful at the time–I was desperate for someone who understood what I was going through. I don’t blame her for her choice. It is personal and I still do not know her story. But the way her choice made me feel helped me be more open about the fact that I have miscarried. I want people to know that miscarriages happen, that I have some insight into what they may be experiencing, and if they want to share I can listen from that space.
(So please forgive me when I ask if you’ve had the ultrasound yet. I don’t want to be a downer. I want to be able to exhale and enjoy your news, or let you know that no matter what happens next you can call me. So if the worst happens you know you’re not alone.)
Q: What do you wish someone had told you before you’d had a miscarriage?
I wish that someone had not told me to wait to tell people about the pregnancy. It is common practice to wait weeks to tell even the closest family members. I was so glad that a few (three) people knew before the miscarriage so that I could lean on them immediately. I wished that I had told my full inner circle of family and friends immediately or close to immediately. That way, everyone would be hesitant, everyone would be there with support either way. Anything to avoid that excited up and the devastating down.
Q: What helped you heal?
While I was waiting for my D&C I barely functioned. The only thing I remember compelling myself to do for work was teaching a lab each week. It got me out of bed and captured my attention for a while. I poured everything I had left into making a positive learning experience for those students. It became a coping mechanism and source of positivity in days otherwise filled with aches and tears. I had already been interested in teaching before then, but I became obsessed with it. Maybe I would have dedicated my career to teaching and learning without my (non)pregnancy experience. It’s impossible to know. It would be naive to think my career was not at all influenced by the connection between my teaching and my grief that term. Teaching helped me heal.
Love from people helped me heal. Turning to my husband (not away from him) helped me heal. My dear husband was devastated too, but his grief did not seem as deep or last as long as mine. We talked about that. He shared that he hadn’t felt it was as real as I had felt. It was not something living inside of him, it was still relatively theoretical at that point. To help us heal together, we did two things. First, we named the (non)baby: Pluto. About a month earlier, the celestial body Pluto had been demoted from its status as planet. Just like our baby, it was and then wasn’t. We still pause for Pluto. Second, we sponsored a child through World Vision who shared the same birthday as our due date. That child’s community is now self-sustaining, and so we continued to sponsor another child to honour our Pluto.
I thought what would help me heal was becoming pregnant, at least by the former due date. It turns out that did not happen. After months of trying, we became so stressed out we decided to pause our attempts. I went back on the pill. Sex became spontaneous again. We exhaled. And then a funny thing happened. Life moved on. And well. Over time, we realized that we enjoyed our life. We enjoyed our work and social life. We enjoyed each other. And, gradually, we no longer envisioned ourselves with a child. Our close friends had a child–we were there through the whole pregnancy, birth, and have absolutely adored that baby since before she was born. But the whole time we kept looking at each other, asking if we wanted to try again. Our answer surprised us: good for them, but not for us. We have not tried again
Q: How do you feel now?
Every choice has trade-offs. If Pluto had become a baby, we would have been delighted. We would have adored that child, and any others that may or may not have followed. We would have a very different life from what we have now. My career would have looked very different. I doubt I would have had the time to become eligible for the job I have now (though maybe I’m wrong). We may not have stayed in our city. Who knows. All we know now is that we continue to choose a child-free life because we enjoy it. We consider Pluto a gift. A lot of good came from that devastating experience, including the imperative to choose life on our own terms rather than societal expectations. A child-free life is not without its challenges, but I hear parenting has its fair share too.