I think I need to write this.
I say “her,” but of course I had no biological evidence that she was a girl. There is painfully little evidence of her at all, in fact: a photograph on my phone, a positive pregnancy test, and a Father’s Day card I bought for my husband but never got to give him. That’s why I think I need to write this. I need to create some evidence, something real in this world that says, “She was here.”
I think of her as a girl because, before I got pregnant, I had a dream. I was standing next to my kitchen table, painting a butterfly onto the freckled cheek of my daughter. When I was finished painting her face, I tucked a lock of long, dark hair behind her ear, and she turned and trotted off. Then I woke up. She was like looking at a photograph: all me. I thought to myself, What if that was her? So, I carry that small vignette, that momentary flash of her smile before she turned away, the touch of her hair, nestled inside me like a diamond ring inside its box.
I knew I was pregnant for a week before I started bleeding on a Saturday morning. My husband and I had been trying to get pregnant for eleven months before the “not” on the digital pregnancy test screen finally disappeared, and I felt a jolt inside my gut, like your seatbelt catching you at a sudden stop, or the snap-back of a rubber band. He was in the kitchen making breakfast, and I flew down the stairs to show him, bearing that pregnancy test like a torch.
My niece graduated from high school that day, and I kept the news secret through the entire ceremony, watching, dizzy with silent elation, as three-hundred identically-dressed students had their names called and walked across the stage. I dutifully took photos with the newly-minted graduate and her family afterward; I made conversation with the five-months-pregnant guest at the party that afternoon while imagining the fall sweaters and scarves I would use to dress my own baby bump in five months’ time. I waited to say a word until that night when the party was nearly ending, when my niece had left to attend someone else’s celebration, my sister was drinking wine and laughing with the few remaining guests on the back deck, and my mother was starting to nod off on the couch.
For the rest of that week, I felt like I could fly. I remember literally skipping down the hallway one afternoon on the way to my office to google early pregnancy symptoms and browse Amazon for infant bathtubs or carriers or nursing bras. I came across a post on one of my often-visited “Trying to Conceive” discussion boards from a woman who took a second pregnancy test on a whim a few days after her first one, and it came up negative. It turned out that she was about to miscarry.
It turned out that I would also have a negative pregnancy test later that day, and it turned out that I too was about to miscarry.
My friends who’d had miscarriages told me of crippling grief and even long-lasting depression and anxiety after their losses, but it wasn’t the loss that shook me; it was the uncertainty. Just as it was when Andy and I had been trying to conceive, it wasn’t really the lack of a child that turned me inside-out; it was the not knowing. I had gone to the doctor the same day that I’d read the post about the negative test and then ran to the bathroom and taken my own, and the nurse drew blood to check my hormone levels. She told me the results would be in the next day, but it ended up taking several. That part—the waiting—was like having my heart in a vice. I remember lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, willing my phone to ring so I would know whether I was a mother or not. Lying there, every minute that ticked away was like another brick on my chest, and I thought, I cannot take this.
When I finally did get the news that my levels were extremely low for a five-week-old pregnancy, and when I started bleeding on that Saturday morning, it wasn’t grief I felt, but relief. I know myself well enough now to understand that that’s just who I am: I can deal with whatever happens to me, as long as I can look it in the eye. The not knowing, the standing on the edge of it, that’s where my real suffering is. I know this about myself now, but at the time I couldn’t shake the fear that something was wrong with me because I actually felt better when the miscarriage happened. I cried once, but it was disappointment, not grief. I buried my face into my husband’s flannel shirt and murmured, “I was really excited.” I used up a box of tissues over the meanness of it, the tease, the “back to the drawing board” feeling of trying to get pregnant. Then, the next day, I googled how long you have to wait after a miscarriage before you can start trying again, and I carried on.
Three months later, I was pregnant with my son. Instead of the light-as-air giddiness I’d felt with the first pregnancy, I was terrified, convinced I’d lose this baby too, afraid of the disappointment, afraid of what two miscarriages in a row might mean for my chances of ever conceiving. I didn’t tell anyone other than my husband for eleven weeks, and even then, I only told my sister until I was fourteen-and-a-half weeks along, when I told the rest of my family. I waited to tell my colleagues at work until the morning sickness made it obvious, and I didn’t say a word to anyone else for a full eighteen weeks. I didn’t scour baby gear reviews; I didn’t think about nursery themes. I cautioned the few I told not to get too excited.
Now that was a loss I felt right away. The miscarriage had stolen a long-awaited moment that should have been filled with excitement and joy. I should have been comparing my tiny belly to those of my pregnant friends, commiserating with them over morning sickness and caffeine withdrawal. Instead, the only person other than my husband I spoke to regularly about my pregnancy was God, begging Him to let me keep this one and promising the tiny soul inside me that I would take care of him if he would just stick with me.
He did stick with me, and on May 25th, 2017 at 1:36 a.m., I delivered my boy, Owen John, into the world.
He. Was. Everything. I was woozy with anesthesia from the C-section and exhaustion from the preceding sixteen hours of labor, but the second the doctor held him up over the surgical drape and I had my first ever look at my son, he felt, clear as day, like he belonged to me. The nurses wrapped him up in a blanket and put a pink-and-blue striped newborn hat on him and placed him in the crook of my arm, and everything around me went fuzzy as I stared at him for the whole bedridden ride from the operating room to the recovery room. I did not take my eyes off his tiny, red, sleeping face. This was my son, forever, and I wanted to memorize what he looked like, at this beginning-of-forever moment.
This is supposed to be the end of my miscarriage story. I’m supposed to have had a happy ending because I was able to get pregnant again and deliver a healthy child. This is supposed to be the part where I stop talking about it because my son is my “rainbow baby,” the promise after the flood; the dawn after the dark. But that’s not even remotely true because my son is not the ending of someone else’s story. He is his own story, perfect and whole all by himself.
It is also not the end of the story because it’s the start of the chapter that I apparently skipped over when I miscarried. It was about a week after Owen’s birth, and we were driving home from his first doctor’s appointment. At this point he had become an actual fixture in our lives; I knew his cry by heart, and I had seen him look for me when he heard my voice from across the room. My husband and I had learned at the doctor’s that he seemed to be struggling with breastfeeding and we might consider switching to formula; we’d learned that he might sleep better if we left his arms free when we swaddled him. We were passing the fruit stand near our house and I was thinking about these little preferences that Owen had, how whole and how real he was, and it was then that I understood all that she would have become. She would have grown into a child who was just as unique and complete and human and mineas Owen was, and at that moment, in front of the fruit stand, I felt that knowledge sink into my heart like a stone into the sea. For the first time I felt my miscarriage not as a disappointment or a frustrating re-setting of the calendar or even as the thief of the joy of my second pregnancy, but as a loss.
Owen’s birth wasn’t the end of her story because that story continues, and it probably will forever, and I am caught flipping around between her pages, constantly moving forward and then jumping back to the beginning just when I think I’ve found a stopping point. It’s a confusing story and I don’t know how to interpret it sometimes. My family is complete with my one perfect son, and I know if I’d had her, I wouldn’t have him. How can I feel sad for the loss of something that would have kept me from my greatest joy? Still, every now and then, when I see mothers going shopping or having lunch with their teenage girls, or when I hear about women planning their daughters’ weddings or dressing their toddler girls in headbands and matching “mini-me” outfits, I think about her and imagine myself doing the same things. I wonder whether she would have been as happy as Owen, or as stubborn, or as easy to get to sleep. Her story is complex and ongoing, and so is my part in it, and I don’t know where to land.
Just as Owen isn’t the end of her story because he has his own, her story is her own too, and she doesn’t need her brother to finish it for her. She was here. She was real, even if only for a short time. For months I thought I had nothing except my dream to remember her by, until one night when I was scrolling through some photographs on my phone. Several of them were from my niece’s graduation, and I was in one of them, smiling with pride for my niece, but also with secret excitement and hope because I was pregnant. It’s a photograph of my niece and me, but it’s also a photograph of her.
She was here. She was real. She has her own story, and she deserves to have it told.
Stacey Hohman McClain is a teacher and writer whose work has appeared in Away: Experiments in Travel and Telling and Literary Mama. She lives in Charlotte, NC with her husband and son.