When To Say When

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A couple of weeks ago, I got this in an email from Shutterfly with the subject message, “Congratulations on your new arrival.” As you can see, the email was trying to convince me that I should use Shutterfly to send all of my friends some nice thank you cards that match my birth announcement. 

Nope, you haven’t missed anything.  If you’ve been following this blog since it’s inception, you probably know that not only did I not just have a child, but that my husband and I have been trying unsuccessfully to conceive for a number of years now — although since we went through the fertility treatment unpleasantness last year, we’ve sort of been trying to take it a little easier about the whole pregnancy thing. But it’s hard to figure out exactly how to do that. We want to be realists: I’m 45 and we’ve been trying pretty consistently for four years or so, we know the statistics and I mean, we’re not idiots. We’re thinking at this point that we’ll probably just adopt, although we haven’t yet worked up the nerve to begin that whole process.

What’s hard, though, is knowing when to admit that, in at least one area that’s a big part of being a woman, you are basically done. Again, if you’re familiar with this blog you know that I’m not one of those wackos currently running for a Republican seat in the House who thinks that a woman’s prime function is as a baby factory — I can’t say I’ve even ever thought of it as a major function. But it is something we’re supposed to be able to do. In fact, it’s something I tried actively not to do for years and years and years, because I’d been taught in health class that if I didn’t, babies would practically be popping out of me left and right. It’s the blessing and curse that you’re born with if you’re female: you have babies. It’s why birth control belongs in every health care plan and why we call reproductive rights reproductive rights: because, without them, we can’t have control over that very central aspect of our lives that goes along with our biological make-up. 

Only now, I’ve reached a point in my life where I guess I need to face up to the fact that I really just…won’t? Ever? I mean, at my age, there are lots of things in life that I’ve accepted that I probably just won’t do – run a marathon (bad knees), have a threesome (married), climb Annapurna (not interested in risking my life) – but these are things I never necessarily wanted to or thought I would do. Plus, there’s always a chance they could  still happen – I mean, none of them are actually impossible for me, at least not yet. But having a baby very well may be. 

There are good reasons to stop trying, beyond just the annoyance of having to give up alcohol and sushi and Advil when I’m in the Zone of Potential Pregnancy, as I’ve come to call it. To be honest, as it gets more clear that I’m not going to get pregnant, I’ve gotten way more lax about the alcohol, as in toward the end of the month, as I wallow in hormones and feeling crappy about not being able to get pregnant, if I really really want a drink, it’s getting harder and harder to convince myself that I can’t have one. So I do, and then sometimes I feel like a horrible person even though I tell myself that many women don’t even find out they’re pregnant until they’ve already partied their way through the first six weeks, and then I inevitably get my period and the point is moot, again.

But another reason is that I’ve had two failed pregnancies already, and neither was exactly a barrel of monkeys. I know, this might be a bombshell to some of you, the kind that makes you uncomfortable with my degree of sharing, and I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy to just throw out there. But the crazy thing is that it’s actually very common: the non-viable pregnancy/miscarriage rate for women in their 40s who manage to get pregnant is 30-50%, and by the time you’re in your mid-40s it’s closer to that 50% end — so that means half of us. And sure, it’s crappy that this is true, but what’s crappier is that there’s a good chance the first time anyone will mention it is when your gynecologist is telling you you’re actually having one. 

That’s what happened to me the first time I found out there was no heartbeat at six weeks, and then waited two weeks to be sure before having a D&C – the short name for a dilation and curettage — to remove the contents of my uterus at eight. No matter how you say “remove the contents of my uterus,” it sounds pretty bad, but the procedure and the bleeding afterwards really weren’t — my gynecologist even suggested that I could keep my evening plans the day that it happened if I felt up to it. But of course I didn’t, not because I felt physically bad, but because, not knowing beforehand how likely it was that this was going to happen, I was emotionally unprepared. It’s a huge piece of information to adjust to when you’ve already spent a month or more thinking you’re probably going to have a baby: the idea that, all along, it was really more of a maybe/maybe not situation. Because after a month of being pregnant, even if you know there’s a reason why it’s too early to start picturing your child or picking out names, you’ve still already spent all that time working on adjusting your basic constructs of what you thought your existence would be like, from now on until forever, to a new reality. You basically started adjusting them from the moment when the little cross or line or whatever showed up on the plastic pee stick. And so I was miserable, and not being able to talk about it, which I felt like I couldn’t with anyone aside from with my husband and the doctor because I’d never heard anyone talk about it, only made that worse. If I met you during those couple of weeks, I apologize, there’s a good chance I was an asshole.

The second time it turned out I was unprepared again, but in a totally different way. When I found out I was pregnant, I tried to come to some place where I could accept either outcome, and I figured out fairly quickly that that was basically impossible. Trying to live in the indefinite space between two completely opposite realities and feel like both are truly possible and truly okay was a new sort of hell for someone like me who doesn’t like ambiguity to begin with, so my solution was to more or less tune my brain to the “I’m most likely not going to have a baby” setting. I knew that some people would think this bad luck (which I don’t really believe in but still don’t want to hear, thanks), and I knew I might have to cope with perhaps not being so mentally ready to actually have a baby if everything went well. But it genuinely did make things easier when there was no heartbeat again at six weeks and we set an appointment for me to come back in two for the D&C if I didn’t miscarry in the meantime. That was the part I wasn’t prepared for: the “miscarry in the meantime” part. When I started bleeding a few days later, I thought, Oh, okay, this is a miscarriage, but I figured it would be like what happened after the D&C — nothing a couple of maxi pads couldn’t handle — so I packed a few and went off to take the subway into Manhattan, because I had evening plans and figured that trying to go about my business would be a good idea to take my mind off of things. 

If you’ve had a miscarriage you know and if you haven’t you’ve probably guessed that this turned out to be a colossally bad move. At dinner, I started to get the sense that I was bleeding more than usual, and feeling a bit more crampy than usual, but I didn’t pay much attention to it until we were finally all preparing to go and I happened to look down at where I’d just been sitting and saw, even though it was (thankfully) dim in the restaurant, that the seat of my chair appeared to be slightly smeared. I tried to say a mild-mannered goodbye to as I hurried to the bathroom, where I discovered that, sure enough, there was a torrent of blood in my jeans that had seeped all the way through. But even then, having been through the "Oh, shit, my pants!” experience in my early teen years when menstruation was a new reality, I thought, “I’ve got this,” cleaned myself (and the chair) up as best I could, wrapped my sweater around my waist, and headed for home. It was only when I momentarily passed out on the subway on my way to Brooklyn that I realized that this really was not a familiar situation, at all, and I shouldn’t be treating it like one. Luckily, some nice people caught me, gave me a seat, and handed me a bottle of fizzy lemonade, which revived me enough to get me home. Still, the brand new experience of fainting had me a little freaked out — as did, even more so, what was awaiting me in my underwear. It didn’t look identifiably human, or identifiable at all really, but it was something that I had not really considered I would see and had no idea what to do with. By the time the doctor on call at my gynecologist’s office had gotten back to me, the bleeding and cramping had subsided somewhat, leading me to believe what she confirmed: that this whole messy experience was, indeed, your standard miscarriage. But while knowing I wasn’t going to die was a relief, knowing that this all was to be expected only made me feel stupid for not knowing what it was going to be like in the first place, and not realizing it was something I’d want to do in the privacy of my own home rather than at dinner in Manhattan.

So after all that, why keep trying, especially when the world just seems to be mocking you? I mean, the Shutterfly email was just the latest on that front; the feeling of failure is a sore spot waiting to be poked, because it’s not like you can get away from people in the world getting pregnant and having kids, especially when we have Facebook. Sure, I would like to make the asinine marketing people who sent this email feel bad and give me free stuff for life for doing it, because let’s be honest, they were truly butt-headed to insert themselves into something as personal and potentially complicated for any family as having a baby. But with the way social media, and the generation of people who have grown up with it, are headed, it seems like soon there’ll be nothing too personal to make public, or commercialize – so they’re just riding the trend. 

…She says, fully aware that she is a person who just made public the details of her miscarriage — but there actually was a reason for that. I’m not sure what the answer is to knowing when to accept that you are no longer a fertile female, but I think talking about infertility and miscarriage makes it all a little less dark and furtive, and knowing how common these problems are helps women feel like we’re less alone in having them. As experiences they suck on pretty much every level so of course nobody really enjoys talking about them, but they’re even worse if they’re treated like something to hide or if you go into them not knowing what to expect. Pregnancies that end up ending prematurely are a fact of life for a lot of women (and their partners), particularly now that more and more of us are trying to get pregnant later in life, and we have to just treat them that way. Because if we don’t, the undercurrent of it all is that it’s somehow our fault — particularly for those of us who are middle aged, who made the decision, for whatever reason, to wait to have children. And you can’t just keep blaming yourself every time the wrong thing shows up in your inbox.

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