What to expect when you are unexpecting

thin tree branches in front orange and pink sunset

By Maggie Downs

•  The obstetrician fiddles with the ultrasound wand.

“I’m not getting a heartbeat here,” she’ll say, squinting at the fuzzy black and white image on the monitor. She will look closer, tilt and turn the wand to get a better look inside your uterus. “The baby is too small. I’m very concerned.”

She’s seen this before. The baby seems to be about six weeks along. You should be eight weeks.

•  Receive three options from the doctor. You can get a medicine to induce labor. You can have surgery to suction out the tissue. Or you can wait for your uterus to expel the fetus naturally, spit it out like a foreign body. None of these are good options. This isn’t what you want.

Decide to wait a week and see what happens. See if your body will make the decision for you.

•   Buy a snack food you haven’t craved in years. Rippled potato chips with cheap, nasty French onion dip. Don’t stop crunching until all the chips are gone. Eat until your stomach stretches. Eat until you cry from being too full instead of too empty.

• Whatever you do, stay away from the movies. There will be a woman who arrives late and sits directly behind you. She will carry a box of chicken in her oversized purse and smack her lips with grease and chicken fat during the film’s love scene. When her cell phone rings, she will answer it. And she will do all of these things with an infant hanging over the crook of her arm, cooing and gurgling for attention. You will spend the entirety of the movie determining the woman’s worthiness. Why does she have a baby, not you? The judgment will be a hot metal sliver in your brain, impossible to extract even after the credits roll.

•  Return to the doctor for another ultrasound. This time she will find a heartbeat. This time you feel the unfurling of a pink blossom of hope. The doctor, however, will warn you that the baby still looks smaller and weaker than it should.

She will schedule another appointment two weeks later. “By that time, we’ll know one way or another,” she’ll say. “You’ll either have a strong baby or bleed it out.”

This is a lesson in parenting, you understand. You must allow your child to either thrive or fail.

•  Do not listen to the pop stations on the radio. Ninety-nine percent of pop songs include the word “baby,” and that word makes you furious. Why does the world revolve around babies? Drive to work in silence. Let your anger marinate.

•  Beets. Eat a ton of beets. That has to be good for you, right? Kale too. Buy more kale.

•  Do so many google searches on your phone that your typing thumb becomes sore. “Miscarriage statistics.” “Misdiagnosed miscarriage statistics.” “False miscarriage.”

Remember you have a tilted uterus. That’s what went wrong! The doctor didn’t know she was seeing everything at a tipped angle, which would make the baby look small. Of course. It’s an optical illusion.

•  Each day without blood is satisfying. You are smug. Several online message boards agree: you are right, and the doctor is wrong. You rub your belly and whisper to your unborn child that everything is going to be okay.

•  Four days before the appointment, blood. It will feel as though you’re being torn in half.

•   In the days of spotting and cramping, rarely leave your bed. This will make your husband angry. He will snap at you, “Stop it. Just stop it. You need to be positive. The mind is a powerful tool.”

Snap right back at him. You know better. You’ve watched blood and tissue drop from you, the way autumn leaves surrender their branches. You’ve clenched your whole body tight and you’ve balled your hands into fists, and nothing makes the bleeding stop.

Tell him, “Listen, I’m all for thinking positive, but this is happening. I don’t need your hope anymore. I need your support.”

You will both cry. He will cling to you, the way you wish your baby still clung to your body. You will not have the strength to return his embrace.

•  Return to the doctor for another ultrasound. See nothing on the screen but a black hole. A void where a heart once beat. The place where you have been pierced by grief. The doctor shakes her head, she won’t look you in the eye. The electrical current that was humming through you, that surge of life, is now gone.

When she says the word “miscarriage,” you can’t help but wince at the cruelty of that word. You didn’t miss-carry anything. You carried just fine.

Blame the kale. Maybe you didn’t have enough.

•  Your mother died a few years ago, but there were rituals to honor her passing. Visiting hours, a service, interment. This, though? There is no rite for this wrong. There is nothing to bury, no body to become ash, no name for a tombstone. Nobody will send flowers. You don’t even have a face to conjure when you think of this child.

•  Privately, though, you will be confident this was a spunky girl named Olive, and you will miss her even though you never had the opportunity to meet her.

Remember the streaky orange and pink sherbet sunset the night your mom died, the moment you knew her spirit was leaving her body, days before her remains were placed into a satin-lined box and lowered into the earth. Remember also the devastating sunset a few days ago, blazing through the sky like fire, then settling into red embers. The moment the spirit was leaving you.

You are the remains.

Maggie Downs is a journalist and essayist based in Palm Springs, California, where she frequently eats kale and occasionally delves into a bag of rippled potato chips. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and Smithsonian, among others. She has one child, Everest.

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