Having a Miscarriage and Losing the 2016 Election Taught Me That We Have No Choice But to Keep Going
You’re not supposed to tell people right away, but we did. We looked up our child’s birth sign (an Aries/Taurus cusp, a force to be reckoned with). We teased each other about our choices in names (My husband Dan briefly tried to sell me on Beowulf). We downloaded all of the apps that compare the size of our baby to fruits. During work meetings, I snuck rubs of my belly, feeling the blueberry growing inside of me.
That is what I’m thinking about while sitting in the obstetrician’s office at my nine-and-a-half-week appointment. The room is dark with a glowing blue light coming from the ultrasound monitor. In one breath, Dan and I are watching our little cherry on the screen, oohing and ahhing. Dan takes out his phone and the ultrasound technician snaps at him “You’re not allowed to take pictures.”
In this moment, I know something is off. I can feel it.
As the technician takes measurements of my insides, she types away without speaking, labeling various parts of my uterus with words and numbers that seem almost cryptic by design. When I ask her if anything is wrong, she breaks her silence only to tell me I’ll have to wait for my doctor. I know she’s just doing her job, and soon the doctor will come and do hers, but the stillness I see on the screen and feel in the room makes me know something isn’t right. It’s all I can do to exit my body, and in an instant, I’m far away, looking into the room where Dan is staring at a screenshot of my womb covered in hieroglyphics, and my doctor is entering, shaking her head.
I can see myself in Dan’s arms, screaming. He howls in pain and I hold him, reminding us both that the love and future we’d been placing on our unborn child was always about him and me. That part isn’t going away, I assure us.
The first thing I tell my doctor after we stop crying is that I will have a baby, this just isn’t the one. I want this thing removed from my body immediately so I can go ahead and start this next part of my life.
And then my mind goes to my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, and the stories I heard about her hiding in the forests of Russia with her brothers, who were in the Soviet Army. As the story goes, my grandmother hid and watched while her brothers jumped down from trees to snap the necks of Nazi soldiers. I knew I came from strong women. I just never thought I’d actually have to put that particular part of my DNA to practical use.
This is how it began: I got pregnant during the July 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Watching stump speeches isn’t a turn-on for me (I don’t think), but it’s when my fertility app told me I was ovulating. It was easy to imagine the America we were bringing our child into; one where our Supreme Court was finally progressive and all of the hope and change we were promised was unfolding in front of us.
I knew the moment I became pregnant, too. It was our first time trying, but I swear I felt it. A tiny twinge, where in an instant I felt a million itty bitty cars traveling on a highway express lane. It was unmistakable, even if not entirely backed up by science.
Then, at the nine-and-a-half-week appointment to see the baby’s heartbeat, there is none detected.
My doctor tells me my body can’t get pregnant again until about a month after the procedure to remove the contents of my uterus. My reproductive organs will need time to heal before they give the signal to release another egg. I just need to have this mass sucked out of my body first.
This mass, this little ball of cells that was the embodiment of every notion of hope, love, and joy I’ve ever felt in my life. And not in a metaphorical, dreamy sense. An actual, physical being.
My doctor is still talking. She tells me I can’t have sex, exercise, or go in water for two weeks after the surgery.
Against all odds, the time passes. I get my period. I ovulate right on schedule. We have sex again—good sex, at that.
Everyone says trying is the best part, which is incredibly annoying, but we make the most of it. I lay upside down afterward to help his sperm meet my egg, a technique that has long been debunked but can’t possibly hurt our chances, so why not? While the two weeks between my high-fertility day and the day I’m supposed to get my period crawl by, I stay obsessively positive. And when I do get my period, I cry hysterically on the subway as I commute to work.
Another two weeks later, it’s October 29, four days before my next high-fertility day. It’s also the Saturday before Halloween. Dan and I are out to dinner with friends—and we’re the only two people in the restaurant wearing costumes. Dan is David S. Pumpkins from Saturday Night Live because this is 2016, after all. I’m in a white wig and a form-fitting black dress with a design on the front that makes it look like I’m just a bunch of bones with no blood or skin or organs or nerves.
Six weeks earlier, I was on Etsy looking at pregnancy Halloween costumes. There was a skeleton dress just like this one, but with a little baby skeleton inside of it. It was smiling. You could even get one with a bow if you were having a girl.
We leave dinner early and go home.
Finally, it’s November 2. We can try again. Chicago and Cleveland are playing game seven in a historic World Series. Dan and I have sex on the couch after the Cubs win, and even though we’re not Cubs fans, we both have a feeling that the universe is telling us this is our moment. It’ll be two weeks until I know for sure if I’m pregnant again, which means I just have to wait until November 16. At least during this two-week wait, I have the election to distract me.
When I vote the morning of November 8, it’s the first time since before July that I’m hopeful about something non-baby related.
FiveThirtyEight has Hillary Clinton’s odds of winning at 71 percent. Coincidentally, that’s not far off from the chances you have of carrying a pregnancy to term, with experts saying that about 10-20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage.
Instead of focusing on that hopeful 71 percent, I can’t stop thinking about the odds of a loss. The very thought of this makes me sick, but the truth is that it’s funny, laughable even, to think about how unbelievably horrible it would be if the odds of losing were to win out again. I’ve lived it already. The Huffington Post has Clinton at 98 percent. Knock on wood.
But there I am that evening, watching the unlikely thing happen. “Watching” and “happen” are understatements, actually. It’s more that I’m standing there, submerging back into my living nightmare. I’m watching a screen and I know what I should be looking for, what the right sequences would be, what the combination of words should be to signify that everything is okay. Except nothing is following the script. Again.
I’m in a crowded room that’s silent save the sound of CNN on the TV. Someone starts asking loud questions. “I don’t get it, why are they already calling California? The polls are still open there, aren’t they?” To her credit, it shouldn’t really make logical sense that a state as big as California can be a guarantee while a state as small as Iowa could change everything.
When you get bad news, really Bad News, what hurts the most is realizing the complete lack of agency you have over your own life.
You’ll spend months if not years trying to figure out a way to warn previous you, whispering to her all of the answers and outcomes in hopes that time isn’t linear.
I’m told my miscarriage didn’t happen because of something I did or didn’t do, but because of bad luck when the sperm met the egg, or maybe the egg itself wasn’t quite right. This is supposed to reassure me, but instead I’m embarrassed for the kumquat-sized mistake I had been carefully and lovingly carrying in my body, especially when I can still remember the joy I felt the very moment the disaster apparently took hold.
CNN calls Pennsylvania. Red.
When the doctor confirmed I was having a miscarriage, she didn’t say, “You’re having a miscarriage.” Instead, she explained that what was happening in my body was “consistent” with having a miscarriage. No other details given, and I didn’t ask for any elaboration. She knew what the words on the ultrasound screen meant, even though I didn’t.
Dan and I wake up sad the morning after the election, but that’s routine for us. The surreal part is that more than half of America wakes up sad, too.
You wouldn’t be able to tell from watching the morning news show, where a woman is on to talk about athleisure, but there is a palpable cosmic shift in the universe. Not just because of the news itself, but because of what the consequences of this reality mean for so many of us.
New York City feels like Purgatory. The subways are silent. I watch complete strangers cry and know the exact reason. There is no going back—but also, going forward isn’t quite what it should be, either. The worst is yet to come. And it will come, but for now, everyone is in the waiting area. It’s not a new place for me, but it’s the first time I’ve noticed other people here. When did everything become so fragile?
When I had my embryo removal surgery, as I stepped into the operating room I took a moment to acknowledge that this was, without a doubt, the saddest moment of my life to date.
The loss of something that you only held briefly brings with it a certain kind of grief. There was a room in your house that you never knew existed. Not Narnia—not a magical wardrobe leading to a fantastic world—but a modest room in a normal universe with reasonable outcomes. You started to decorate it. You were looking at paint samples when Bad News hit.
And suddenly, you’re locked out. You bang on the door, begging to get back in, searching every pocket and every drawer for the key that will get you to that place where you can think about the future without dread. You research every long-shot technicality that could possibly reverse it.
What if the ultrasound machine wasn’t working and the baby was fine? What if Jill Stein’s recount swings Michigan?
It’s all useless.
A few weeks later, Dan and I fly to Seattle for Christmas to visit his family. The first morning we’re there, I get my period. Another inevitable disappointment. His mom asks how I’m doing, and when I talk about the last few months, she nods knowingly. “My mother died March 2001. On September 11, it felt strange to finally see people experience the same sadness I’d been feeling for all that time. The world was over for them.”
She begins to cry. “Mine had been over for 6 months.”
On the last day of 2016, it’s another high-fertility day. We have sex.
Two and a half weeks later, it’s Trump’s inauguration. There’s a TV on at my office and a crowd watching. It’s a dreary afternoon in D.C. while Three Doors Down plays to Trump’s family.
Maybe someone will run in and stop the proceedings, finally proving Clinton won after all. Maybe Trump will have a heart attack as he’s sworn in. Maybe an asteroid will hit the Earth.
I turn away from the TV, put on headphones, and get back to work.
Eight months later, I give birth to my daughter.
On September 17, 2018, almost exactly two years to the day I learned I was miscarrying, my daughter turned one.
Dan’s mom made her a cake that looked exactly like the cover of Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? She spent her birthday playing with her cousins and eating too many french fries.
When I look at my baby girl bounce through life with such joy, I wonder, what did my grandmother think about in those Russian forests? Did she picture her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren honoring her legacy, telling her story, holding on to her hope? Did she dream about one day immigrating to the safe haven of America, where the Statue of Liberty would welcome her at the harbor with her glowing torch?
The day after we learned I was miscarrying, Dan held me as I wept for Future Dan and Rachel, worried that they’d be scared to try for a baby again. Even though the pain we were feeling was excruciating, the bliss that came with our pregnancy when we thought everything was okay was incredible.
Those feelings of hope and joy and seeing all of the possibilities of life ahead of us: the expansion of our family, bringing a human into this world who we’d get to teach. Even though we barely held that happiness for nine weeks, it was something I knew I needed to feel again, as much as it terrified me. I didn’t want fear to hold them—us—back.
Dan told me that worrying about future us wasn’t something I had to spend my energy on. If anything, he said, they’re probably more worried for us, because they know for a fact everything turns out okay.
So we kept trying.
Rachel Christensen lives in Brooklyn with her daughter and husband. Her work has appeared in BuzzFeed, Real Simple magazine, and New York magazine.