A heartbreaking voyage into parenthood

“Okay, this is going to feel cold,” the tech warned, spreading the gel over my pregnant belly with the ultrasound probe.

“I’m used to worse,” I said, smiling. After years of IVF, three miscarriages, and a few false alarms, we had finally gotten pregnant. I nearly fainted from excitement when the tests came back positive, one after the other. Four hours, eight cups of water, and six tests later, I resigned myself to temporary happiness: maybe, this time, we would be parents.

I’d been preparing myself for this moment for years. We started trying soon after we got married. Our friends were getting pregnant seemingly effortlessly, and I watched — caught inside my barren body — as they brought these beautiful, shiny lives into the world. I held their children and felt a gnawing pain in my gut, where life had never survived. I smelled the tops of their heads and cried tears of happiness and sadness all at once.

It took us the better part of a decade to get pregnant. Between fights, financial issues, and disappointments, we often lost heart. We turned on each other even though we knew that our love was the only thing sustaining us, keeping us from drowning.

At some point, we stopped telling people when we got pregnant. I couldn’t stand to hear the false consolations — the sad recitation of “well, maybe it just wasn’t meant to be” — and the way their eyes fell and almost always rested on my midsection. And then, without fail, they’d innocently intimate that next time it would be different.

My husband is a patient man, a loving man, a kind man; even so, I projected my own disappointment on him. I perceived in his casual remarks or lingering looks an unhappiness, a resentment for me that perhaps wasn’t there at all. And perhaps it was. I don’t know. We never talked about it. We were afraid of what would come if we lifted the dam.

I knew that I felt damaged and broken. I became obsessed with the inability to do something that was natural — that should have been easy. I felt angry constantly. I felt the heaviness of my womb, recognizing its otherness inside of myself. I imagined it choosing to thwart my happiness over and over again, and I cried. I cried a lot. 

To keep myself afloat during sleepless nights, I fantasized about the day my husband would come home, and I’d leave little hints around the house that we were pregnant. I watched his face in my mind’s eye as it dawned on him that he would finally be a father. My husband isn’t the crying type, but he always cried in my daydreams.

That day, I made my way to the dresser drawer where I’d hidden mementos of my almost lives. I reintroduced myself to every neatly-folded piece of clothing, and thought to myself: this one was for James, and this one I bought for Ava. With a heavy anguish in my chest, I framed my hands around my barely-there baby and whispered to it: “You have to make it. You have to be strong.”

Then, I picked out a onesie and put it in a pale lavender box. I snuck a positive pregnancy test into a Ziploc bag and arranged the twosome just so on our dining room table. I hovered over it for hours — fussing and rearranging listlessly until I heard the back door open.

He wandered in as he always did, taking large lazy steps and swinging his bag wildly in one arm. He gave me a hug and then dropped his bag on the table. I watched him carefully because I wanted to be able to remember this moment — what he was like before he knew he was a father, and then the second right after.

“How was your day, my love?” he asked, already eyeing the box.

“Oh, good!” I exclaimed, gleaming. I couldn’t help myself. “I got you a little present,” I said, pointing at the box.

“Oh yeah?” he asked in a playful singsong, approaching the table almost shyly.

“Well, open it…” I prodded impatiently. He tore through the wrapping greedily and fished the onesie out. Then, he stormed towards me and buried his head on my shoulder, his chest heaving against mine.

He sat next to me now as the probe hovered over our baby. The two of us looked at the screen, trying to make out little feet, hands, and the beautiful flutter of a tiny heart that was beating against all odds. We were in wonder of what was happening, but afraid to be fully happy.

When we spoke about the baby, we did so in whispers, terrified that anything stronger would burst the bubble that the three of us precariously existed in. We looked at each other and thought — “this is the one” — but we didn’t say it aloud, we didn’t breathe it into being, because we’d been wrong so many times before.

“Alright,” sighed the tech, peering into the screen. She paused, a tiny frown burrowing into the fine lines between her eyebrows.

“Hmmm,” she murmured again, swirling the probe over the same area a few times. I tried to read her face for an explanation and cold waves of fear trickled through my body, paralyzing my heart. I squeezed my husband’s hand and searched his eyes for safety. The tech left the room to call in the doctor. 

So we waited there, alone, and I cried more in those few minutes than I’d cried in one lifetime. Warren gently placed his hand on top of our child, to soothe us. I stared at the ring that symbolized our marriage and the way that it stood, out of place, against his tan skin. I wondered if this would break us, if the sadness would finally be too much for us to handle, and so we would wither quietly — without anger, without fight.

The doctor came into our room an eternity later. He had affixed a sympathetic smile on his already exhausted features. Warren squeezed my hand as we braced for his verdict.

“Mrs. Andrews,” he began. “Mrs. Andrews, at your age, it is not unusual to have complications in pregnancy.”

I didn’t hear much of the rest of it. It felt like someone had sucked all the air out of the room, and I just sat there, on the table, struggling to stay alive.

“But the baby will live?” I heard Warren’s disembodied voice ask.

“Yes,” I heard the doctor say, “and surgery can be helpful, but often dangerous…”

That night, I dreamt that I was a tree — a giant, thousand-year-old tree — with gnarly, deep roots that extended into the earth for miles and miles, surviving storms and tempests, drought and famine. I saw the seasons, good and bad, documented on my body — showing anyone who cared to see how much I’d survived. And I dreamt that our baby was a born a bunny — that it lived safely in the hollow of my womb, nourished by my body, and protected from the world.

Author’s note: Christine’s baby was diagnosed with spina bifida — a birth defect that affects the proper development of a baby’s spinal cord and can lead to severe complications. She and Warren chose to have their baby in spite of being advised by doctors to consider an abortion. She told me that she always thought of the defect as a “bunny tail” — it helped her see the situation in a more positive light. Christine’s baby had corrective surgery and is doing well.