By Shannon Frost Greenstein
On December 24th, 2014 I officially became “pregnant.”
I do not use quotation marks because I conceived on Christmas Eve; I do not even recall having sex on Christmas Eve. I use quotation marks because a woman is already a month pregnant when she gets a positive pregnancy test, and after my own two pink lines appeared, it worked out that my last menstrual period had started on December 24th.
I will never understand obstetrics.
Regardless, Christmas Eve in 2014 was an auspicious day, but it was not until mid-January that I learned we had conceived. It was not until I walked into my fertility doctor’s office for my first ultrasound that I understood the reality, the innate concept, of being pregnant. And it was not until I walked out afterwards that I wondered if it had all been a mistake.
You see, at that very first appointment, I learned something I had not ever considered, even as I signed consent forms with the information explicitly printed on the paper in front of me. A 10% chance of multiples, it had said, and I had signed my name cheerfully. You would think, then, that I would not have been surprised when found out I was carrying twins.
You would have been wrong.
“What do you mean, two?”
“I mean there are two fertilized eggs. I mean twins.”
My husband is silent for a beat, then stands up and begins to pace in tight circles while wringing his hands.
“Well…what else did they say?” he asks.
“They said one looks smaller than the other. It could catch up, or it could stop developing.”
“Ok…” he says slowly. I see a million different scenarios bouncing around his hippocampus, as they have been circling my own since the appointment.
“What…would we do?” he asks, a question I understand to be rhetorical, because how the hell would I know?
Tears well in my eyes as I try to imagine our future. Planning for a baby involved years of financial gymnastics, and we know our budget will be stretched to the max once a new addition comes into the family. But two? Two cribs, two car seats, two cradles, two sets of tuition to dance class, and the tears fall down my face as I think about how screwed we are.
They call it a “Vanishing Twin.” Two fertilized eggs eventually diminish to one, as one embryo is absorbed back into the body. This is apparently more common than people think; it is only with the onset of reproductive medicine and the tracking of early pregnancy that we are aware of Vanishing Twin Syndrome. Given that I gave birth to a single baby boy nine months after that first ultrasound, this is clearly what happened to me.
I recall the rush of relief I felt when told I was carrying only one child. As first-time parents living paycheck to paycheck, I was truly worried about our ability to care for twins. I was certain it would drown us, both financially and emotionally (because isn’t it so often the case that one directly impacts the other?). I knew, even before I was officially a mother, that I would not be the best one I could be if I had twins; I knew my own limits. Therefore, the news that my twin had vanished was not cause for sorrow.
At least—not then.
“Do you know what I’ve been thinking about?” I ask my husband.
“What’s that?” he answers.
“How we almost had twins.”
The look on his face, today in 2020, is mildly amused. He does not yet sense my mood; he does not yet know where I am coming from.
“Yeah, that would have been crazy,” he says, and I realize I am not properly conveying the reason twins are on my mind. I’ve been thinking about our second embryo, I also realize, for quite some time. I’ve thought about it since our son was born in 2015; I’ve thought about it, truthfully, since the beginning. When a coworker had twins; when I hear the name we would have given to that second baby; when my son befriends another little boy just his age.
“Do you ever think,” I begin again, “about the twin we lost?”
My husband looks confused.
“I thought it was never, like, a baby,” he answers.
“Well, it was never a fetus,” I attempt to explain. “It’s not like we miscarried our full-term child.”
“Then…what?…” he says falteringly, recognizing that he should empathize, trying to support me even as he has no idea what I’m talking about. “Are you sad about it anyway?”
How do I explain this sadness? How do I explain that I am mourning the possibilities, the unknown? For such a short time, I had growing in me unlimited promise, a multiverse of possible personalities and prospects. When we lost our second embryo, we lost who that person could have been.
“It’s just…they could have grown up to cure cancer, you know?”
“We wouldn’t have managed with twins back then,” he says gently (conveniently not mentioning that we still live paycheck to paycheck).
“I know,” I acknowledge.
But I still can’t help think about it.
Until now, I never thought I was grieving my vanishing twin, the little boy or girl who would have joined our family at the same time as our son. Perhaps it’s because I was terrified of that second fertilized egg turning into a child we could not afford; perhaps it’s because it vanished so soon after I became aware of its existence.
I never thought I had the right to mourn. I know women who have suffered pregnancy and infant loss. I know women who have suffered through countless miscarriages. I know women who have delivered babies that never took a breath. I know women who have never held the child they so desperately wanted and that is a level of pain, of heartache, I cannot even imagine.
However, I also feel that I would be doing a disservice to myself—to my own emotional health, to my own psyche as it processes the big feelings of loss five years later—if I didn’t admit that I am sad. I’m sad that we never got to meet that twin.
My family is perfect as it is; the universe unfolded as it needed to. But sometimes I think about what might have been, if this quantum reality had turned out even slightly differently. I think about the potential of the child I might have had, who they would have been, what they could have done. I think about that theoretical family, with the two cribs and the two carseats, with two birthday cakes and two drivers’ licenses. I think about two independent dependents, inextricably linked, forever.
And I recognize the stirrings of grief.
Shannon Frost Greenstein is a Philadelphia-based writer and poet. In addition to relishing time with her soulmate and neurodiverse children, she enjoys theater, Philosophy, social activism, and annoying the cat. Follow Shannon at shannonfrostgreenstein.com
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