The day I found out I was having a miscarriage, three days before Christmas, it had rained all twenty-two days in December. It was the rainiest month in Portland’s history. By the twenty-seventh the rain had turned to snow, and still I was waiting.
A “missed miscarriage.” It sounds so innocuous. Ho hum, I guess somehow we just missed it.
Here’s what it actually means: Your baby died without your body giving you any signs, but your miscarriage is not yet in past tense. It has happened, is happening, and will happen. This is what the present continuous feels like. A physical lesson in grammar. You wake up every morning and you are still having a miscarriage. Your grief is literally stuck inside of you. All you can do is wait—wait on this body of yours that first failed by not properly carrying your baby, and is now failing again, by not having a fucking clue what has happened. Is happening. Will happen.
The future perfect tense indicates an action that is certain to occur. But when the future is not perfect or certain, the conditional “would” is more appropriate. I always imagined I would be alone when I found out I was pregnant, maybe in the afternoon with a few hours to savor my secret and plot a creative unveiling for my husband. He would pick me up, spin me around, and press his ear against my belly, which would gradually swell as the months passed.
Instead I came home sweaty from yoga, hungry for dinner. My husband was lounging on the couch with his iPad, unwinding from work. I gave him a kiss on the cheek on my way to the hallway cupboard, to my pregnancy tests stashed on the bottom shelf. I set a five-minute timer on my phone. Laid the stick on the back of the toilet. Sat down on the living room rug with nail polish remover and rubbed the cotton ball vigorously over chipped orange polish.
Even though I watched the seconds tick all the way down to zero, I still jumped when my phone jingled. My husband tossed his iPad aside and walked in with me. We peered down at two red lines.
We stood on the bathmat in our tiny, slightly mildewy bathroom. There were no squeals of joy, no tears. No picking up and spinning. We had no words for the tumult of emotions—shock, elation, terror—pressing in on that one small moment. We could only stare at the lines, then at each other. Eventually we hugged and took a bewildered selfie, the shower curtain as our backdrop. Then we ate leftover curry for dinner and watched something on Netflix.
A week later, I reported to jury duty. The early morning was painful without my full dose of caffeine. Sitting in the juror box while the prosecuting lawyer ran through his jury selection questions, I was mostly thinking about how the courtroom smelled like Pop-Tarts.
“What would you do if you heard two contradictory stories?” the lawyer asked, casting his gaze slowly across the box, pausing to make intimidating, legal eye contact with each of us. Nobody volunteered an answer.
“Ms. Barker,” he prompted me.
“Well,” I paused, my face warming, “I guess I’d feel … reasonable doubt?” My fellow potential jurors chuckled.
“Ha, okay, good answer,” the lawyer conceded. “But what if there was some corroborating evidence for one of the stories, then what would you feel?”
“Um… slightly less reasonable doubt?”
The lawyer cracked a slight smile. “But there isn’t such a thing as a little bit right or a little bit wrong, is there?” he pressed. “Just like there isn’t such a thing as a little bit pregnant—right?”
My ears flushed. He was looking right at me.
“Right,” I said.
There is such a thing. It’s six weeks pregnant with one week to wait before your first midwife appointment, when the only evidence of something growing inside you is a second red line on a cheap piece of cardboard, your tender breasts, your constant paranoia over what you eat, your heightened sense of smell and caffeine withdrawal headache. When you know that you are still in that tenuous time (the present indefinite) when twenty percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, but you don’t yet know that yours will be one of them.
But the lawyer thought he’d asked a witty rhetorical question.
Don’t tell until the end of the first trimester. It’s practically gospel. And for a few weeks I followed it religiously, but I couldn’t help myself once we saw the heart flutter on the ultrasound monitor. Proof that I was a little bit pregnant. Seven weeks, to be exact. We told our families first, on Thanksgiving, and then I told three of my closest friends. The night before my 11-week checkup, I told a fourth.
My skirt and tights were pushed down below my hips. The ultrasound tech had perfectly flat-ironed hair. She was wearing a puffy black jacket. She kept gliding the wand across my cold skin, slippery with gel, pressing harder, saying nothing, squinting at the monitor in front of her. When she finally spoke, her words seemed to float slowly toward me.
I’m so sorry, but I don’t see a heartbeat.
I couldn’t swallow.
Some babies just don’t make it and we don’t know why.
Why did I tell my husband not to come?
It’s only measuring 8 weeks.
My baby had been dead for three whole weeks. How was that possible?
I’ll leave you alone for a moment.
I found my phone. I called my husband.
The linguistics shift once they discover the missed miscarriage. They instantly stop using living words like “baby” or “fetus.” Now they say “pregnancy tissue” or “evidence of conception”—which seems to suggest a crime.
They get scientific, inanimate, because they have to talk to you about what comes next, specifically how the evidence will leave your body. Your first option is to wait it out, but you cannot do this forever, so you are given a deadline. Mine was one week. If I went past it, I would have to choose between the other options: D&C or Misoprostol (the clinical terminology): a surgical scraping of my uterus or a pill to induce cramping and bleeding (the everyday terminology).
I sat on my couch, under a yellow blanket, and gazed blankly out the window at the rain. I bought the thickest maxi pads I’d ever seen. I went to work so I didn’t go completely mad. As the rain fell and I waited, I needed to be angry with someone, to blame someone, so when I wasn’t blaming myself, sometimes I thought about that smug lawyer from jury duty. I wanted to shake him, to tell him that he knew nothing about being a lot or a little pregnant. I wanted him to know that there is such a thing. I was living it.
The books and apps and websites tell you it’s the size of a sesame seed, a lime, a grapefruit. That this week it has taste buds, now fingernails. They say your skin might itch, your mood might swing. They never tell you to expect this—but as soon as it happens they tell you how very common it is. They think these words will comfort you somehow, but you only feel duped, because your devastation feels anything but common, your heartache anything but expected.
Our culture avoids the language of loss. And we get especially skittish around miscarriage, perhaps because it pairs loss with the female body, so we gravitate toward the safety of medical jargon and diluted euphemisms. But none of it accurately describes this vast new territory in your body. This country you now live in without a language or a map. You search for a grammar that might make sense of it, a vocabulary that will guide you through.
There was no morning or evening. No workday or weekend. No Tuesday or Friday. Even Christmas slipped by in a vague haze of forgotten presents and concerned glances.
Exercise helped. When I ran through the cemetery near my house, my body belonged to me again. I controlled its movements. I chose the verb to define myself: a woman running, not a woman miscarrying. Exercise was A Thing I Could Do, a contrast to all the things I could not: go back in time and fix whatever went wrong, ensure that it went right the next time, force myself to not be afraid or sad or angry, make the miscarriage happen. I hoped that if I ran fast or hard or long enough, I could induce the cramping. But I didn’t say that out loud—I worried it would sound heartless, blasphemous. How quickly we adapt to new realities.
We only took one baby bump photo. It was on my phone, in front of the Christmas tree. I didn’t really have a bump yet, but if I tilted my pelvis and you used your imagination, interpreting the glow of little white lights to be the glow of pregnancy, you could believe—like I did. But it’s almost certain that I wasn’t pregnant any more, not really. That photo is still on my phone. I can’t look at it, but I also can’t delete it.
I asked my husband to hide all the evidence of conception: the prenatal vitamins, the stretchmark prevention lotion, my sister’s copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, the 7-week ultrasound photo where the baby resembles a shrimp. It vanished, like nothing ever happened.
Is that why we created The First Trimester Rule? Do we think we can make it vanish if we don’t talk about it? Who are we trying to save? If we don’t give it a vocabulary, will it stop hurting? If we don’t speak of it, does it not exist?
Miscarriage is an insultingly insufficient word.
In the miscarriages of movies and TV, the woman wakes up on white sheets stained in blood or clutches her belly and disappears off-screen. The emotional and physical strike all at once. The pain in her heart has a palpable counterpart. This is the scenario I once envisioned on the rare occasion that I thought about miscarriage. Never the way it was happening to me, ten days separating my heart from my body. I didn’t know there was such a thing.
I was in the car with my husband when the cramping started, driving to my sister’s for a low-key New Year’s Eve. I was past my deadline for waiting it out and had spent the day agonizing over my decision. I woke up convinced I’d get the surgery but by the afternoon I’d filled my prescription at Walgreens instead. I would take the pill the next morning.
A few miles from her house, I let out a gasp. The clenching was sharp, like nothing I’d ever felt, but mostly I was afraid of what was about to happen—was happening, had already happened. My husband parked the car and I ran straight to my sister’s bathroom. My one-year-old niece pounded on the door like she always does, eager to play. On the other side, I understood why they only use words like “pregnancy tissue.” You have to in order to survive. In order to flush the toilet, such a maddeningly ordinary thing.
My brother-in-law made me peppermint tea. My niece did naked summersaults. My husband and sister both studied me with wide, worried eyes. I waited for the next wave of cramps, which were painful but nowhere near what I’d braced myself for. Maybe because the most painful part—that shattering moment in the dark ultrasound room—had already happened. And now the waiting could finally end.
Back home, when it was all over, all the evidence gone, I got into bed with a heating pad. My husband laid down next to me in the dark, in the empty husk of our dream. We listened to the New Year’s countdown from the TV in the other room.
Even though my miscarriage is now past tense—a thing I had—the loss is still present continuous. In the days that immediately followed, talking was the only thing that provided momentary relief to the echo in my head. No heartbeat, no heartbeat. So I told people. Lots of people. I still do—to let out what wails inside me when I stop speaking, but also to find other women who are fluent in this new language. They are, to my surprise, everywhere.
When we cannot find a syntax that organizes our grief into a comprehensible shape, we return to what we know. We rearrange the pieces we have, trying to construct an answer.
The dental x-rays. I cannot stop thinking about the x-rays I had the week before the pregnancy test.
And what about the hot yoga even after I learned I was pregnant? Could I not live with regular old room-temperature yoga for a few months?
There was a sip of wine here and there. Split-shot Americanos when I could have braved decaf. That night when nothing except sushi sounded good. The time I ate some aioli before I realized “aioli” was a synonym for “fresh mayonnaise,” which is on all the Don’t Eat Lists.
Then there’s my age—thirty-two—which is not old, but also not young.
And then I have this thought: Maybe I didn’t want it enough. Maybe we weren’t happy enough when we found out. Maybe we didn’t properly celebrate with our leftovers and Netflix.
It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t meant to be. These things just happen sometimes. Mismatched chromosomes, most likely. It’s so common. You can always try again.
They’re speaking a different language, full of simple declaratives. They’ve never been to this country you live in now, this place of interrogatives where their words don’t translate. This is what you hear: Walk across the bridge that just collapsed beneath you. Nobody knows why it broke—which screw was loose, which wooden plank rotted. There have been no improvements made, no fortifications. Go ahead, try again.
How large a dream can grow in eleven weeks. There is such a thing as being too close to something to depict it accurately. But there is also such a thing as being too far away to remember the texture. The hollowness it leaves behind. The disorienting sorrow and rage. The prickling anxiety of next time.
I want to live in another country, one with sturdy bridges, one where people say things like “hope” and “healing.” But I can’t speak those words yet; they feel empty in my mouth. So I seek out metaphors, objects that hold what words cannot.
I go running one February afternoon, further than I have all winter. Daffodil buds pushing off the grip of winter are about to split open. My breasts have shrunken back to normal; they no longer hurt with the bounce of my stride. Afterward, while I stretch in the grass strip between the sidewalk and the curb, a hummingbird flits past. I watch it pluck fuzzy, mint-colored leaves off the Lamb’s Ear. I thought the stalks, bent over by a harsh winter, were dead. Nothing left to give, no chance of nurturing anything. But the hummingbird hovers there, beating its wings, greedily stuffing its beak until it zips off in a vermillion blur.
What do you call the day you are supposed to have a baby but won’t? How do you commemorate an absence, what never came to be? What is the word for the anniversary of a non-event?
When the due date arrives in July, the same day as my sister’s birthday, she brings me wild flowers in a mason jar. I have nothing for her, my memory eclipsed by the arrival of this day, so the next weekend I take her to brunch. She places a small black box on the table. Inside is a little ruby—July’s birthstone—on a thin gold chain.
On the days when I want to speak but have no words, I wear that stone around my neck. A reminder that there is such a thing.