It hits you hardest when you aren’t looking, when your guard is down and you’re living your life. For example, you’re at a picnic in your neighborhood park, chatting with your friendly neighbors as you watch your children play on the playground. As you discuss the upcoming school year, one of the mothers says to you, “When are you going to have more kids? Your son is growing up so fast. He needs a brother or sister.” She then asks if you’d like to try the homemade salsa she whipped up while her youngest daughter was napping this morning. You appear aloof as you stare at your nails. A week later you’re sitting in a meeting, and someone surprises everyone by bringing her newborn daughter with her. People take turns holding her, and you are overwhelmed by her new-baby smell combined with the faint scent of breast milk. Someone says, “I can’t wait until it’s my turn to hold her.” You, on the other hand, feel as if someone punched you so hard in the stomach that nothing comes out when you try and speak.
You recall this same feeling in your body when you looked at a monitor with your infertility doctor who had helped you conceive your son. Now he’s helped you conceive a second baby after over a year of infertility treatments. He was searching for this baby’s heartbeat, wondering why she wasn’t moving like last month when you saw her on the screen. You looked at her and knew she was gone. You likely knew before you had medical evidence. Just a month earlier, when you felt her moving, you told her that many mothers pregnant with their second babies have told you that they can’t imagine loving this baby as much as they love their first child, but that you already know how deeply you love her, that you, her father, and brother have so much love to give. A couple of weeks later, when her moving stopped as did your lethargy, you knew something was different, but your heart and mind weren’t ready to communicate about it. Your kind doctor told you, “I’m sorry, your baby is gone. There’s no heartbeat anymore. I’m so sorry, Kari dear.” He stood quietly with his head down and his hand on your shoulder while your husband held the lower half of your body, burying his face into your legs. Minutes later, your favorite nurse walked into the room crying, hugged you and didn’t let go. In that moment, it was there, that feeling as if someone sucker punched you without warning and all you could do was wail, in the fetal position, but the room was completely silent.
In 2012, two and a half years after my miscarriage, I spent the summer in a Hmong village in Northern Thailand, conducting fieldwork for my dissertation. During this time, I told myself I would not get close to the family I stayed with, Joua and her only child, Mai, who was five. It seemed easy enough since Joua’s English was limited, and my Hmong and Thai weren’t much better than her English. Each morning, Mai woke me by pressing her sweet face against my mosquito net, giggling. I pressed my face up against hers and smiled sleepily, but happy that she was the first person I saw every day. I loved watching Joua and Mai together, loved the rhythm of their lives in their two-room house made of bamboo where they welcomed me in as if we were kin. I liked Joua immediately when I met her. We were both in our late thirties at the time and shared the same sense of humor. She was lovely, warm, and kind, never hesitating to help other women in the village. I knew that if we could speak the same language fluently, we would never run out of things to talk about, just like me and my girlfriends back home in Minneapolis.
In the evenings, the three of us watched Thai soap operas. The door remained wide open as a warm breeze gave us temporary relief from the thick July heat as we laughed, snacking on red licorice and occasionally yelling at a couple of dogs in the village who had roamed into the main room, which served as a living room, kitchen, and eating area. Mai reclined in her lawn chair, Joua lay on a blanket that covered part of the uneven, concrete floor, and I sat next to Mai. Some evenings we went to the market on Joua’s motorbike as Mai sat in front, Joua sat in the middle driving, and I sat in back with my arms stretched out holding Mai’s waist. With no air conditioning or windows in Joua and Mai’s house, I relished the cool breeze of mountain air on my skin as Joua navigated her bike through several dirt roads, quickly buzzing by houses belonging to other Hmong clans.
At the market, Mai often grabbed my hand, and I held hers, surprised at how natural it felt to walk hand in hand with her. Women selling food in the market often remarked how pretty Mai was and that someday she would win a Hmong beauty pageant. Small plastic bags filled with prepared spicy ground pork, papaya salad, and purple sticky rice sat on tables, but Mai always guided me past them and asked me to buy her a tricolored tapioca dessert in a plastic cup, at which Joua scolded her, telling her to stop asking me, and purchased three cups of dessert for us to eat before heading back to the house. We often left as the sun set, the three of us connected to each other by a string of longing and love, holding one another tightly on Joua’s motorbike. I enjoyed these evenings together immensely and wished we could ride around the village all night like that.
Back then, and sometimes now, little girls are challenging for me to be around. I tire easily with them, unlike boys, whose energy I will happily soak up on any given day. I need no invitation to get on the floor and wrestle with my son and his boy cousins. I love running and hiking with my son and his friends, playing sports with them, and promoting books to them I think they will like. I’ve settled into a comfortable narrative that I’m just a mom who was meant to have a boy. We all wear armor in one form or another; mine is the neat and tidy identity I’ve constructed as a boy-mom.
Each morning after breakfast, Mai caught a bus to a private school outside of the village, and I left to do fieldwork. On days when I returned early, I’d see Joua on the same blanket in the middle of the floor, holding her legs to her chest, watching Thai soap operas without Mai and me. Her sadness was palpable. Once I found her crying, holding a picture. In the evenings, after Mai fell asleep, I listened as she talked in almost a whisper to her husband, using international calling cards and a cell phone that she had purchased at the 7-Eleven with money he wired her from South Korea. Much of this money was spent on Mai’s schooling, which they believed would give her opportunities to leave the village for college. Like many men in the village with young children, Mai’s husband had been away for over two years as a foreign laborer. She sang love songs to him and sounded half her age when she talked with him. When Mai was home, this side of her was absent, but I knew she was grieving for a man she feared she would never see again and whom she loved deeply.
One evening, I was given a Hmong name and adopted into Joua and Mai’s clan. After the naming took place at her sister-in-law’s house, Joua had me cut herbs in their garden for dinner. “You eat these herbs tonight, and when you go home to America you’ll get pregnant with a girl. When you come back to visit us, she’ll be with you,” Joua told me as she piled the boiled herbs on my plate next to the chicken she had killed and cooked for the occasion. All of the women in the clan said I had to have a daughter because I’d already been blessed with a son. I didn’t tell them I’d already lost my chance at having a daughter or the words of the nurse who called a couple of weeks after my miscarriage. “The fetus was a girl. If you have any questions, follow up with your doctor.” Click.
I’ve got no punchy comeback lines when people remind me that I’m too old to give my son a sibling. Just recently a family member remarked that I should be grateful that I only have one child because my life is infinitely less complicated than those of the women in my family who have two or more. The truth is, I’ve never feared getting older, it’s just easier and more digestible to tell everyone that I’m in the midst of a forty-something midlife crisis, instead of discussing the reason behind the crisis. There are nights when I hold my son as he sleeps and can’t stop the waves of sadness followed by guilt that wash over me. Get over it, I say to myself, you have him. Move on. It has been several years now. After my miscarriage, I received immeasurable support from women who were already part of this club that nobody wants to be a member of. One of them told me to prepare myself for the hurtful things people would inevitably say to me, but she didn’t warn me about the judgmental things I would say to myself.
A friend tells me that the experiences we have in other countries are untranslatable. I think this also applies to miscarriage. It is hard to describe what it’s like to lose someone I never saw outside of my body, never held, never grew to know or love, but whom I felt intimately attached to and who was already connected to my husband and son. As a Korean adoptee, raised in a white family, I longed to have babies that were related to me. I could only imagine what it would be like to finally look at another person’s face and see myself reflected back. When I miscarried, I experienced yet another loss of a person who was a part of me. It is challenging to articulate and impossible to find words in any language to describe what it’s like to long for a family that was supposed to be, when I am grateful for and fiercely love the family I have. It is the incompleteness that I struggle with. It is missing someone I never knew, but whom I wanted desperately to be a part of my life.
The day I left the village to fly to Bangkok, Joua was busy making breakfast, so I brushed Mai’s long hair and put it up in barrettes like she wore it to school. She sat in her Thai school uniform, at her pink plastic table near my makeshift bed, and decorated her Barbie ruler-lined notebook with princess stickers I’d brought her from the United States. We took selfies together with my camera. In each one we are laughing with our cheeks pressed together and her arms are wrapped around my neck. Early before breakfast, she’d been playing with other children in the village. I watched as a small posse of boys and girls followed her around the dirt paths between houses as she made plans and gave them tasks to carry out in their imaginary world. As I brushed her long hair, I thought about how my daughter would have had long black hair too and that no matter how much I would try and steer her away from all things pink, princess, and telling other kids what to do, that’s the sort of daughter I imagine I would have had. As Joua and I embraced several times before I left, she said in tears, “I wish you never had to leave us. All of our meals taste so much better with you here.”
On the small plane I flew in to Bangkok, I put my suitcase into the overhead bin and then realized I had been assigned a seat across the aisle from a little girl and her mother. I saw them at the gate at the airport and noticed the girl’s father was sitting behind me. I turned around and said to him, “Hey, do you want to switch seats so you can sit across from your family?” He smiled and said in a thick French accent, “Thank you. That is very kind.” We switched seats quickly, and his daughter and wife turned around and exclaimed happily in unison, “Thank you!” His wife was Asian, and their daughter, half Asian, a hapa, like my son, reached for her father’s hand across the aisle and never let go until the plane was above the clouds. She and her mother, both beautiful with long black hair like my own, held hands the entire flight. Every now and then she turned around to look at me and study the dress I was wearing, my shoes, and my purse. When I smiled at her, she smiled back shyly and looked away.
Sometimes she and her father spoke together in French as her big brown eyes grew with excitement about whatever they talked about. When the one-hour flight landed in Bangkok, her father handed me my suitcase from the overhead bin, and we wished one another farewell. I thought of my own family of three as they walked together, hand in hand, to baggage claim. Once I was in a taxi, I saw them standing nearby at the curb, waiting for a ride. I looked at the girl, who appeared to be around my son’s age, chatting with her parents. And as my taxi pulled away from the curb, I watched them watch me, until we were all out of sight.