By Ali Dondero
Earlier this morning, I held a plastic cup in my hand. It had my name and date of birth on it, a tiny sticker, verifying my identity and my “advanced maternal age.” My obstetrician breezed in, asked how I’m feeling; any updates? We’re getting close, she reminded me, as if it weren’t all I think about. As if I could put my guilt on hold.
The truth is hard for me to say. Bitter. Vaguely acidic. To admit it opens the doors to criticism—from others, yes, but mostly from myself. It starts and ends with an image on a screen.
The first image was still. A cone of white, and a tiny bean shape, frozen. “You’re measuring smaller than you should be,” the tech had said, quietly. She took a moment. “And I’m not seeing a heartbeat.” She left the room to confer with her colleague, who came in moments later, looked at the same image, and confirmed the diagnosis. A missed miscarriage, the doctor said, patting my leg. It happens a lot. I’d need a D+C to remove the tissue to minimize the chances of it happening again.
The following months brought memories in snapshots. A student stopped me in the hall of the high school where I was teaching and asked me why I looked so sad. My mother brought me back stones from a recent trip to Sedona, one ziplock baggie marked “grief,” the other marked “hope.” The acupuncturist I started seeing twice a week showed me a series of 15 photographs of women she’d needled who’d gone on to deliver healthy babies. The obstetrical surgeon in Newton showed me imaging of my uterus, using analogies to explain how the “ceiling” and the “floor” were stuck together, making it impossible for anything to grow. With her fingers, she made a snipping gesture. A different obstetrician confirmed a second miscarriage, then gently asked if I was getting enough mental health support. A kind-eyed chiropractor tilted my head. “Your neck is wicked tight,” she said, before making it pop.
The second image on the screen, in July 2022, moved. There was the same white cone, but this time, a tiny black shape wiggled. Eyes blurry with tears, I grabbed the technician by her wrist. “Is the body supposed to be so jolty?” I asked. The tech pried my fingers away and nodded. “See that flicker? That’s the heartbeat.” Fast forward to the third image, taken last week, which showed a baby so big, he couldn’t even fit on the screen. “What a whopper!” a different doctor said. “You thought you were getting a cornish hen, but you got a turkey!”
It’s true: I didn’t anticipate growing such a big, healthy baby. I certainly didn’t anticipate growing a baby whose weight and ensuring high fluid levels prompt me to get alternating weekly ultrasounds and non-stress tests. But here is where the ugliness pokes its head, where the guilt that’s been sitting on my shoulder knocks on the door and lets himself in. Because the other side of my reality is this: I can’t put on socks. I dropped a green onion on the floor while making dinner and just…kept cooking, hoping I’d remember to ask my husband to pick it up when he got home. I can’t give my daughter a bath. I no longer feel at home in myself. I am perpetually annoyed and exhausted. I carry discomfort and nerve pain and bursts of anger at strangers.
Picking my daughter up from preschool feels like running a marathon. But what right do I have to feel this way? I wanted this for so long. The version of myself in those snapshots would have given anything to be in this position. She looks at me, scoffs, looks away. “You think you have a right to complain?” she asks. “Look at us here,” she says, pointing to a map. I crane my head to see what she’s referencing, but she gesticulates too wildly, and I’m distracted. “Here, too!”
“I’m sorry,” I say, my swollen cheeks reddening. But a new finger points, its owner vaguely reminiscent of my mother. The way she looks at me says: You were lucky. You lost the baby before you had to give birth to it, stillborn. Without your father. He couldn’t bear it.
“I knew his name,” I say, quietly.
“I still can’t say his name.” Her ensuing silence says: it is not enough.
Raised eyebrows and thin lips from women I’ve never met say: I would never complain. I would have killed for swollen ankles. You already have a child; now you’re complaining about being able to have another? And louder, now, faster: You are selfish. You are weak. You are privileged. You are proud. You are ungrateful.
“Quiet!” I say, and turn my back on the noise, arrows flying but no longer hitting me where it counts. “It’s enough.”
And so I enter this last stretch trying to figure out how to carry the weight, or where I can lay it down. I find both gratitude and anchorlessness on my weekly trips to my OB’s office, where you can find me in a corner, strapped in a chair with blue and pink monitors on my enormous stomach.
Look for me there—I’ll be the one watching the machine track baby’s heartbeat and movement—my very own lie detector test, lines moving up and down as I try to even out the scales.
Ali Dondero welcomed her second child in February 2023 and continues to seek balance in the ambiguities of parenthood. After ten years in the classroom as an English teacher, she parlayed her love of language into freelance B2C copywriting for clients in the education, health and wellness, and consulting industries. She lives in Boston with her husband and children. You can connect with her here.
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