Note: This piece is a potential trauma-trigger containing graphic description of a miscarriage I had. This type of loss is often concealed or minimized and I think it’s important to share our stories so we can be reminded that we are not alone.
This time it happens at home. There are no doctors around to deliver the news. My husband Brett is not at my side to absorb the shock or the literal emptiness of the moment or to physically hold me up when all my body wants to do is collapse. There is no sympathetic social worker to walk us through “next steps.” Instead, my mother-in-law is pouring tea for my father-in-law and, in their thick British accents, they are cheerfully talking about everything from the perfectly roasted rack of lamb at El Gaucho the previous night to the upcoming nuptials of their son, Craig. Actually it happens before I realize it. I remember a slight pain in my abdomen while reaching for a tea cup, but nothing that worried me. It’s certainly not the reason I excuse myself from the family chit-chat and slip upstairs to the bathroom. I needed to be alone. Away from the banal chatter. Away from the silent judgment maybe never intended, but felt nonetheless.
I step into the shower and let a steady stream of warm water beat onto my hair, down my face, drowning out my lingering guilt for skipping out on the in-laws and leaving a sink full of dirty breakfast dishes. Water runs down my body, the steam diffusing the whiteness of the bathroom tile, soothing away the aches of early pregnancy. I crack open my eyes and, through the spray of the shower, I see a flash of red from my freshly painted toenails, then a blur as the red swirls down the drain like a liquid kaleidoscope. Eyes close. I blow out water. Eyes open again. More red but this time it’s not on my toes. Red trickles down my thigh. Red smears on the tile floor. I open my eyes wider. My mind flutters. I instinctively place my hands to my abdomen. I take a quick breath. Opaque red drips burst instantly into dirty pink streams—a river of blood flowing down the drain. My knees knock and the shower wall takes my weight. My stomach crimps and one hand goes to clutch it. My other hand lingers upon the V between my legs, moving fingers deep inside me. A warm mass, like a beached jellyfish, slips into my palm. I stare at it, my mind slow and confused. Then suddenly I know—and I panic. I’m holding an embryo—my embryo—in my hand. But it’s supposed to be inside me. What can I do to get it back inside? I cup it tight at my belly as if it is a caterpillar, a tiny frog, a baby bird, but its not any of those things. It’s my unborn child and I don’t let it go.
I don’t know how much time passes, water—no longer soothing but assaulting—showering over me, my blood still mingling with it, swirling down the drain together. And then something closes down inside of me and the thread of hope I had for this baby is severed. Motherhood is not what it is suppose to be. I slowly, gently, open my cupped fingers, releasing this mass of life and allow him/her to slide from my hand and onto the shower floor and swirl down the drain into lostness.
Moments later, I would step out of the shower, apply a pad to my underwear before slipping them on, then step mechanically into my satin bridesmaid dress as if that was the perfectly natural thing to do. I’d stare at myself in the full length mirror that hung on the back of the bathroom door, my washed out skin and faraway eyes clashing against the burgundy sheen of my dress. Laughter from downstairs would waft up through the floorboards, swirling around my head. I’d resent them for being there, resent me for being the favorite daughter-in-law, deep down knowing I was favorite because I was best at acting like I had it all together. I’d look deep into my eyes and imagine myself in a ball under thick, protective bed covers, wailing, purging the rest of my insides, but instead, I’d gather my wet hair and clip it up at the back of my head. I’d dab concealer under my eyes, apply blush across my cheeks, then eyeliner and mascara to complete the facade.
I would walk like a dress-up doll down to the kitchen, to the talking heads of my relatives and the clinking spoons against teacups. Brett would return that evening from his brother’s stag night and I’d tell him what happened and that I was fine. There may have been a hug. I didn’t need to talk about it, I’d tell him, other than to say it happened and I-was-fine. We both agreed to be fine. There would be nothing else we could do. Nothing either of us could do except keep going. Miscarriages are common this early on—we knew that. This was not the first time it happened. The first time we were not prepared for the loss. There was no distancing, no busying, just the naive excitement and anticipation of our first child. But this time we knew better. We knew not to get attached. Besides, this weekend wasn’t about us.
Driving through Snoqualmie Pass to the wedding, I perched in the passenger’s seat and kept the window cracked open so the thoughts of my miscarriage could be sucked out and scattered amongst the forest trees until it was gone. When they wouldn’t leave, I shoved them into the glove box, trapped them inside with my feet. I reviewed our packing list, changed the CD; I frantically dug around in my travel bag, searching for something—chap stick, hand sanitizer, sticky notes, an old string cheese, I don’t know. Broken crackers coated everything like my ordeal in the shower was coating every thought I had, every act carefully conducted as if it never happened. And I didn’t know what to do with that. Did it really happen? Am I really not pregnant anymore?
“Are you okay?” I hear Brett, and I glance at his knuckles on the steering wheel. I keep digging, my shoulders hiked up to my ears. “Hey, are you okay?” he asks again.
I stare out the window and try to focus on the blur of the forest streaking past me, but everything is unsteady and too fast and nothing has shape. I can’t make out anything and I have to keep looking forward because what is now behind us is too much for me to grasp.
“Does it look like I’m okay?” I snap, pulling out pens and receipts from my bag, furious that Brett seems perfectly okay.
“There’s too much crap in here and I can’t find anything and there’s smashed crackers everywhere and I can’t deal with it.”
Brett lifts one hand from the steering wheel and rubs my shoulder. I lean in slightly to his palm, and I rock. My bag slips down by my feet and I pull my knees into my chest.
“It’s gone, Brett. I watched it go down the drain.” He doesn’t say anything, just keeps his hand on my shoulder and drives. The silence holds that truth in the air. I will him to say something, to rationalize it away for me. To tell me it wasn’t my fault. But the silence allows my own voice to go on a rampage in my head—Oh God, what have I done? How could I have let go, just like that? I knew I couldn’t have saved it, but the biological need to protect one’s child isn’t rational or reasonable, and my grief and guilt thrashed out of control, like a cedar branch twisted off by the raw power of the wind.
At the wedding, when the memory of my miscarriage came in violent waves, I drowned it with champagne toasts and flung it out across the dance floor, but it grabbed me like a stitch in my side, causing me to contract and hold my breath. I sat at an abandoned table trying to contain my insides raging against everything— the laughter, the music, the betrayal that came from the romantic versions of motherhood we are all spoon-fed. You know the ones: The family trip to Cabo- the mom, dad and children splashing in the surf, sun setting behind them, the Pedilite advertisement where the loving mother gently strokes her daughter’s flushed cheeks, or the one with the adoring husband—always handsome— holding his wife’s pregnant belly, trying to sell prenatal vitamins. I knew it was all bull-shit but that didn’t stop me from aching for the perfect family I never had.
For several weeks after that miscarriage, the phrase ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ would play on a loop in my head. It showed up every time I stepped into the shower and in the baby food aisle at the supermarket, but I didn’t let myself feel anything. It just replayed like a scratched record, over and over. Since it wouldn’t leave, I found a place in my body for it to stay—a place I barely knew was there. Not my stomach or my throat, but a dark place that doesn’t ever say much. A space that can hold pain in a knot, a nook lodged between ribs, to keep it contained and sealed up with a dense protective layer, so that I could continue on and around it.