Even though she’d never missed a single dose of her birth control pill, at age 28, Mira Ptacin got pregnant. (“I am that 0.01%,” she writes.) Despite knowing the father, Andrew, for only three months, the couple decides to keep the baby and marry. However, at the twenty-week ultrasound, she and Andrew discover that the baby, a girl whom they’ve decided to name Lilly, has a constellation of birth defects that will make it impossible for her to survive outside the womb.
Mira’s memoir, Poor Your Soul, which was released in January, is a gorgeous, lyrical retelling about what comes next: The heart-wrenching decision she and Andrew are forced to make about the pregnancy; the grief of losing a baby you never really wanted; and how we can find joy and love in the face of unimaginable sadness and loss. What makes this an exceptional book is that it always steers its eye away from self-pity and toward a greater understanding of love and acceptance—and of the different, beautiful ways a family can come together.
Mira and Andrew are now married and have two kids, Theo, who is almost three, and Simone, who is six months, and live on Peak’s Island, Maine. I spoke with Mira about the pain of losing a baby, the importance of reproductive choice, and sex and pregnancy after loss.
Before you find out that Lilly has a constellation of birth defects, it’s clear that you are ambivalent about the pregnancy. How did these feelings change or morph once you found out that this child you hadn’t really wanted—but were learning to accept, to love, to embrace—was not actually going to survive?
I felt extreme guilt and superstition. I wondered if my hesitance to accept my pregnancy (and lack of joy in the beginning) had somehow done this to Lilly; like my bad thoughts had mutilated her. It was a terrible, violent, ridiculous belief but it existed. It took me a long time to move through it and make peace with myself. I had to mature and be good to myself, trust my body and my feelings, and not punish myself for having them. I thought that my body was flawed and broken because the pregnancy hadn’t worked out. So I had to reprogram the way I thought about myself. I had to learn to own and be confident with my body and its abilities, and love myself.
The decision that you and Andrew were forced to make—terminate the pregnancy, induce delivery, or do nothing and inevitably miscarry—is one of the most difficult any person can make. What were those days like? How did you come to your decision? What would you say to other couples who find themselves in similar situations?
The days leading up to that choice were incredibly sad and taxing. Everything was gray, and I felt like it was my fault. It still gives me a gut punch when I think about it.
I had ten days to make the decision (and I believe it is a decision all women should be able to freely make for themselves). I knew what the best decision was overall—it was the decision that was healthiest for me, because I was the only one coming out of this alive. The best decision was to terminate the pregnancy. But I was used to the term “partial birth abortion” (which is not the correct medical term) being synonymous with controversy, and it made me scared. And I felt guilty and confused and out of my mind, so I literally ran away to a writer’s retreat for a week and acted as if nothing was going on.
But during that time, my truth emerged. I didn’t want to do something that would make me “the bad guy”—and thanks to the loud anti-choicers with smear campaigns against women who have abortions, I thought I would be doing a terrible thing by terminating the pregnancy. But my doctor made it clear that the best decision for me medically was to take care of the only person who was going to survive this—and that was me. It was a horrible procedure, and all my options were devastating, but it was the healthiest choice for me.
For any couple or person facing a similar situation, I would say: do what you feel is best for you. If it’s to follow through with the pregnancy, then you do that. If it’s to terminate an ill-fated pregnancy, then you do that. Trust your gut, listen to that tiny voice in your head, not the loud voices from the outside that aren’t yours. This is your life, this is your body, this is your decision.
You write about how, after Lilly dies, you recoil from Andrew’s touch: “When Andrew kisses me or touches my shoulder, I tense up or squirm away. My body feels foreign, dried up and stale….I shout that my vagina is a rotted tree stump.” You also write about the fact that his sexual desire overwhelms you and triggers your anger. Can you talk a little about sex after loss? When and how did this shift?
I’m still recovering from it. I was diagnosed with PTSD, which doesn’t help my sex life much. I am still working on trusting my body, trusting Andrew, not hiding or recoiling when anything comes near me, or when my husband gets near my lady parts. I think having children again was empowering. It made me feel like a fucking boss. I grew these two little, brilliant human beings! My body can do great things! It made me feel less flawed—not that I was flawed in the first place, or that anyone who can’t or doesn’t have children is flawed—I just felt like I was broken. I suppose I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not, and seeing my kids is a pretty enormous reminder.
For a lot of women who undergo this kind of loss, the idea of getting pregnant again is terrifying. How did you know you were ready to try again?
The desire just felt primitive. It was very simple, and not a feeling that was intellectual or thought-out. I just felt it in my bones. My body was ready, and I wanted to have a baby. This was almost five years after we’d lost Lilly. I felt like I had grown up, and wanted to listen to myself and my body. I’d never felt that way before—my first pregnancy was an accident and I wasn’t happy about it. But five years later, after a lot of writing and therapy and self-care, things changed. Andrew and I had just left New York and moved to Maine for a better quality of life. We quit our jobs, threw caution to the wind, and just went for it. We started with a fresh slate and two dogs. We moved to a tiny house on a tiny island and began anew. And I was pregnant within a month. It was a bit scary at first, every time I visited the doctor, and it was still scary with my second child. But I’m sick of fear, so I pushed through it.
You announced your pregnancies with your two kids, Theo and Simone, around week 6 or 7 on social media—much earlier than what is deemed “safe” or culturally acceptable. Why did you do this? And what do you make of this cultural imperative? Did losing a baby at 20 weeks change your tune on this?
I did share the news early, even though those close to me said not to. “What if you lose the baby? Wait until you hit that safe mark,” people would say. But there is no safe mark. Nothing is guaranteed, and I didn’t want pregnancy loss to be taboo. It is a journey. I knew that if I lost another pregnancy, I wouldn’t shy away from talking about it. Even if things came to a sudden stop, it happens. And if I lost a baby again, I would be incredibly upset, but I would have no problem talking about it, adding my story to the conversation about reproduction and, well, life, because talking about it breaks the taboo. For me, it’s therapeutic to talk about things. When other people share their stories, I feel less alone in my head. So I want to do that for other people, too.
Obviously we need to mention the assault on abortion and reproductive rights currently making headlines. How does your story speak to this? Why are these personal stories so vital to the conversation?
I feel it is important that we not generalize the narratives and situations of the women who choose to have an abortion. Current political debates surrounding reproductive rights show that questions about women’s freedom to choose are urgent, important and complex. I think my story can add a personal and meaningful dimension to the reproductive rights debate, as it shows that abortions happen for many different reasons. Stories create empathy. We need empathy, not bans and laws. Everything, all our truths, sit on a spectrum.
Abigail Rasminsky is a graduate of Columbia’s MFA Writing Program and lives in Vienna, Austria. More at abigailrasminsky.com and @AbbyRasminsky.