Miscarriage means to carry badly. “A morbid expulsion of an immature foetus,” according to the Comprehensive Medical Dictionary. But the cases where the body hasn’t expelled the fetus are called “missed miscarriages.” A double miss. You miscarried the baby, but you also missed the miscarriage altogether.
The exam room where my husband and I waited for news about our ultrasound was small and dark. It was a routine appointment, 13 weeks, silver shadows on a big screen. We waited for the doctor to come in to tell us about the baby we had just seen for the second time, the round-headed, perfectly formed little thing that was growing inside of me.
The door opened and a doctor we hadn’t seen before came in, but that wasn’t unusual for this hospital. She had brown hair and brown eyes, which she kept trained on the floor.
She stuck her hand out to my husband Zack. “I am Dr. Minnick,” she said. She sat down at the ultrasound machine. When she finally looked at me, I felt like I was going to throw up.
“I couldn’t find a heartbeat,” she said.
I found out I was pregnant on the morning of my 31st birthday. The pregnancy test was one of a two-pack I had bought during a scare earlier in the year. When, after a forced minute spent rearranging the bathroom cabinets, the second line was hard to see, I frantically googled “faint second line pregnancy test.” I found out that no matter how faint the pink line was, its presence indicated elevated levels of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG). A positive.
I rinsed the stick off, snuck back down the hall into our bedroom, and put the test on my husband’s pillow for him to see when he came back from making me breakfast in bed. He walked in with a cup of coffee in one hand and a plate of peanut butter toast in the other. “This is the best toast I’ve ever made,” he said. I stayed silent.
He looked at me, and then the pillow, and did a double take. He set the coffee and toast down on the dresser and grabbed the test. “Is this— are we— does this mean what I think it means?”
None of it felt real. I nodded while we hugged, but I wondered if the test was wrong. We had been married six and a half years, and even though we had been talking about getting pregnant for a while, I wasn’t excited — I was terrified. Part of me still felt more like child than parent, made even smaller by this news. My heart knocked around in my chest, and I wondered if Zack could see the anxiety on my face. His joy made me more afraid, and more excited.
The next day, I told my mother and sister that I was pregnant at a café in Elko, Nevada. We were on our way to vacation in Jackson Hole, where Zack and my dad and brother would meet us. I had wanted to wait until we were all together to say anything, but once the three of us were together I knew I couldn’t keep the secret for another 24 hours.
“I was thinking next spring we could go to Sedona,” my mom said while we browsed our menus. “Maybe fly into Vegas and rent a car, go hiking.”
My face changed. “I don’t think that’s going to work for me,” I said.
My sister Mallory, who had been sitting quietly next to me, roared to life. “You’re pregnant!” She yelled with such ferocity that all the diners inside the restaurant turned to us, sitting at a table on the sidewalk outside. I could feel their attention on us as Mallory leaned over to hug me, crying, and I could see our mom steel herself, just in case this wasn’t the news, just in case Mallory had jumped the gun.
I pictured the two pink lines I’d seen on the test, and nodded. Recovered, my mom got up to give me a hug and realized everyone in the restaurant was still staring out the window at our small explosion of emotion. “She’s pregnant!” Mom yelled, making a belly with her hands and then pointing at me. The two women I love most in the world sat on either side of me, and I couldn’t tell their tears from mine as they slid down my cheeks. “We’re going to have a baby,” Mom whispered.
My mom couldn’t stop herself from sharing the news, so we left a wake of well-wishers in roadside diners from Nevada to Idaho. A waitress who called everyone “sis” asked me if I believed in love at first sight. “Because that’s what it is, sis. You push that sucker out and look it in the eyes and you’re a goner.”
We came home from Jackson Hole to three enormous packages from a friend, presents for the baby that had made our house sitter suspicious. “Is there something you should tell me?” he asked over text, with a picture of a Jumperoo. “Tell him it’s for someone else’s baby shower,” I said to Zack, but Zack was too excited. His excitement was contagious, and as we slowly started to tell more people about the pregnancy, I found myself less scared.
Nine weeks along, at our first ultrasound, we saw what looked like a silver bean with a fluttering center. “That’s the heartbeat,” the midwife told us. We took pictures of the screen to text our families, along with bad jokes. “Looks just like Zack!” I wrote to my in-laws. We scheduled our next ultrasound for four weeks out.
“You will be such a good mom,” my sister told me, and part of me still couldn’t believe this. Moms were supposed to be so many of the things I was not: selfless, calm, wise, mature. Nurturing has never been high up on the list of qualities I possess. What if I failed? What if I wanted to return the baby? The next week I read a book on postpartum depression, just in case.
On a hike on vacation in Santa Barbara, Zack and I asked each other questions. “What about sleep training?” I asked. “Sleep training?” he responded.
“Okay, well, diapers. Cloth or regular?” I asked.
“They make cloth diapers?” he asked, making a face.
We kept hiking until we could see all of Santa Barbara, the town we had met and fallen in love in, and its red roofs and the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands, Santa Cruz and San Miguel and the three little dots of Anacapa. The day grew warmer as we walked. “I think regular diapers should be fine,” he said. We fell in step, holding hands. We’ll be fine, I thought.
That afternoon I took flowers to a friend who had recently miscarried, at 13 weeks. I held the bouquet over my belly, embarrassed at the thought that this new life in me might be painful for her to see. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “It’s so common.” She looked like the picture of health as she put the flowers in water and thanked me for bringing them over. She didn’t cry, and I didn’t ask many questions. I would have done that differently, knowing what I know now.
The ultrasound was scheduled for 8:30 on the Monday morning after our trip to Santa Barbara. I was 13 weeks and 4 days pregnant, and the app that I checked every day told me, “Your baby is now the size of a jalapeño.” Three inches long, with a body that was growing to match the size of its enormous head, with tiny hands and feet.
We checked in at the doctor’s office at UCSF. I lay down, and within a minute we were seeing that small silver bean again, but this time it was shaped a little more like a baby. The ultrasound technician took pictures as she ran the wand over my belly. “To show the doctor,” she said as she snapped measurements. The measurements seemed small to me, but I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t sure. Zack held my hand as we looked at the tiny thing on the screen.
I worked on convincing myself that everything was just fine as we waited in that dark room. And then the doctor came in and she told us that she couldn’t find a heartbeat.
I leaned all the way back in the exam chair. My face got hot and the backs of my hands were numb. I couldn’t feel my toes or my tongue. I took the tissues the doctor had handed me and started mopping at my face. She couldn’t find the heartbeat, okay. Did she need to check again? Could she check again?
Zack’s hand reached out for mine and I took it, even though I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. The doctor kept talking, but her words didn’t register. The screen in front of us still held the image of the baby floating upside down, tiny limb buds protruding from a tiny body. Too small. I hadn’t felt much growth the last four weeks. I hadn’t noticed my belly getting bigger. How could I have missed it?
“Oh,” I said. “How did this happen?”
The doctor looked startled. “The fetus stopped growing at nine weeks,” she said. “This happens commonly in the first trimester, usually due to a genetic abnormality that makes the fetus incompatible with life. It was doomed from the start.”
“Oh,” I said.