Jami Nakamura Lin
April 2018. This is an ongoing tale. The ending is still uncertain. Daily I examine the toilet paper every time I wipe, nightly I read my underwear like tea leaves, searching for the rust that means ruin. I try to talk myself down: this is okay, and this is okay, and today, everything is okay. Once in a while I believe the story I tell.
My pregnancies—the one I lost and the one that is ongoing, the one that is to be determined—I think about in fragments, and thus my retelling is fragmented. Maybe this is a convenient excuse, an easy out to explain away the lack of narrative cohesion, to sidestep that niggling issue that my advisor called the so what of the essay.
I lost a baby. So what? As of today, I am having another one. So what?
September 2017. These days I can’t stop thinking about origins. Maybe it’s the time of year: autumn in Chicago, the briefest of seasons. Because our schedule revolves heavily around my husband Aaron’s academic calendar, September is always the true start of the year, whereas January means just a turn of the calendar page. Or maybe it’s because my small group is reading through the book of Genesis, which opens: In the beginning . . .
But most likely it’s because this is the month I go to the doctor to have my intrauterine device removed. Next month, Aaron and I are “going to start to try,” a vague, euphemistic phrase that piles beginning upon beginning.
Originally (in the beginning) we had planned on waiting until the following January to take out my IUD. But then, over the summer, my father is diagnosed with terminal cancer. My generous, loving father who, dopey on drugs in the hospital, tells me how much he wants grandchildren. He wants to be called Agon, the Taiwanese word for grandpa, the word we used for his own father, who died when I was young.
So Aaron and I decide to start trying a little earlier. I cannot think about the timeline, about where my father will be in nine months. Even as I type this it hurts. So this is enough.
* * *
Though the majority of the tales in Genesis revolve around the men—Adam and his rib, Noah and his ark, Abraham and his covenant, Joseph and his dreams—I follow the matriarchs. What I understand is their longing. What I understand is their need.
For example. Abraham’s wife, Sarah, who had yearned for a child for years, whose childlessness had brought her so much anguish, was ninety when God told her she would finally—finally!—bear a son. She laughed in God’s face.
Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? . . .”
Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”
But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
What I understand is their disbelief that God would give them a good thing.
* * *
I whip myself into a frenzy of action. I meet with a certified nurse-midwife to make sure that my body is all ready to go in October. I make a plan with my psychiatrist about how we will taper off my bipolar medications once I’m pregnant. I talk to my therapist about all these fears, and we plot soothing strategies and coping mechanisms.
But for every minute I spend praying or trying to calm myself, I spend sixty perusing the baby boards, the websites and forums dedicated to assisting women through their pregnancies. While the articles and blog posts are genuinely helpful, the message boards—the meat and potatoes of these sites—serve only to feed my anxiety. There’s a post by a vetted medical professional that tells me that spotting and cramping in early pregnancy can be completely normal; there are also thousands of excruciatingly detailed posts by women for whom spotting was the first sign of the end. This is the problem with the Internet Age: the information is endless, and endlessly terrifying.
From the boards I learn about “symptom spotting”—tracking your pregnancy symptoms (or lack thereof) during the “2ww”—the two-week wait between when you ovulate and when you can take a pregnancy test. Boobs sore? Nauseous? Overly hungry? Not hungry at all? These are all “symptoms” that these women, many of them who have experienced repeat pregnancy loss, many who have struggled with infertility, look for. Most of the women will admit up front that what they are doing is illogical, that the signs don’t really mean anything at this point. And yet. Here they are. Here I am.
It’s ten in the morning and I’m on the boards. It’s midnight and I’m on the boards. It’s the only place where others’ anxiety matches my own. People in my own life, my husband, for example, don’t understand why I am so nervous. I have not experienced any loss or pregnancy-related struggle of my own. But my family, I try to explain. But my genes. But my bipolar disorder.
I know my addiction to these boards is unhealthy. And yet. On the boards, the women understand without any explanation. They don’t try to dissuade you from your irrational thoughts. They don’t try to spew facts at you. Instead, they say, Hugs, mama. They say, I know. It’s so hard. They know the fear that waits and watches, that breathes every time you take a breath.
* * *
I come from a people who birth with difficulty. The women in my family fought for the children they had. My mother, with her three daughters, probably had the “easiest” time of all; still we grew up with a rose bush in our garden to commemorate the child she lost after me.
My aunts on both my Japanese and Taiwanese sides have struggled. Miscarriage, infertility, infant loss. Growing up, what I took away from this was that wanting a baby in no way guarantees getting a baby. I was young. I did not know the statistics. What I knew was what was in front of me: pregnancy is hard, infertility common, miscarriages frequent. What I knew was my aunt and uncle praying at night with my cousin for years: and please bring him a little baby brother.
They say that many women are uninformed about how common miscarriage is. I had the opposite problem. I thought, for me, with my lineage, it would be the default.
And yet: everyone in my family has at least one child. There is that.
* * *
October 2017. Our first month trying. During the two-week wait, I am certain I am pregnant. I write in my journal that I just feel different. I can’t tell anyone because they’d think I’m crazy, I write. But I’m writing it here, first, as proof. I take a test much too early and wait for the second line to show up. It doesn’t. Next day, same routine, same result. This goes on for three or four days until I start to spot.
I hope that it’s just implantation bleeding—when the embryo attaches to your lining, it can cause blood that some mistake for a period—but the next day and its river of red proves to me otherwise. I am sad in a way my husband doesn’t understand, a sadness that, later on, will seem so inconsequential.
* * *
November 2017. Our second month of trying. Though I am “temping” (taking my temperature with my basal thermometer every day to track my thermal shifts throughout my cycle) and using OPKs (ovulation predictor kits—strips that look like pregnancy tests that you pee on to determine when you’re ovulating), I am sure I didn’t time our sex correctly and that we’re out for this month. Unlike last month, when I started peeing on a stick a week before my period was supposed to come, this month I don’t think about it at all until I realize my period is late.
Two blazing lines right away.
Um, I call from the bathroom, opening the door with my foot. We’re pregnant.
My husband runs over and looks at the stick I hold up in two hands like an offering. My pants and underwear still at my ankles.
Hurray! he says. Can we not have a gender reveal party?
My parents are overjoyed with the news.
When my father speaks of his friends from my Japanese-American church—whose parents were friends with my grandparents, whose children are my own friends—he talks about how much they love their grandchildren, and says they can’t have all the fun. He is so excited for us. When he sees two toddlers, cousins, poke their heads above a pew in front of us, he leans over and whispers, I want one of those.
My mother’s cousin texts me: You think it’s your baby, but it’s all of ours. She’s only partially joking. I am the oldest in my generation on both sides of the family, and they are all deeply invested in the life growing in my womb. While others might find this claustrophobic, our Asian sense of family and community is what gives me peace when I think about raising our child. We will not be alone.
* * *
December 2017. I have my first ultrasound. We see our baby, which looks like a gray blob. The crown-to-rump length marks it at eight weeks, one day. I take a picture of the sonogram with my phone and send it to all our family and close friends. Aaron and I go to Stan’s Donuts afterwards to celebrate. I order three for myself: a cruller, a Boston creme, an apple fritter. I’m pregnant. We’re pregnant.
The ultrasound is on Tuesday. The following Sunday I start spotting. I am very worried, but I try to tamp it down: spotting in pregnancy can be normal, I tell myself. There’s no cramping. I’m not filling a pad. I keep my panic in check.
Three days later, when I’m still spotting, I message my midwife. The next morning, she emails me that it might be nothing, but I can come in for an ultrasound just to check things out. She has an appointment available at ten. Or, she says, I can wait a little longer to see what happens.
I am bad at waiting.
I call her office and take the ten o’clock appointment. It is 9:25. If I leave now, I’ll barely make it. I drive, frenzied, sobbing from my gut. Please, please, I pray as traffic stalls along Lake Shore Drive, please let the baby be alive, please let me get there in time. I call my mother, who says she will drive in from the suburbs to meet me.
I am late, but the midwife isn’t ready for me anyway. I pee in a cup, and it is filled with webby red strands that look like those I know. Finally, I am led into a room. My mother gets there just as the midwife takes the ultrasound wand out.
Another doctor comes in. She confirms that there is no heartbeat, no blood flow to the baby.
I’m so sorry, I tell my mother, who weeps harder than me. I cry too, but not hard, not like in the car, when I still didn’t know. Now I know.
I was right, I think. I knew that this would be the way it ended.
* * *
Because I am so far along, the midwife recommends a D&C. My husband takes off work, and we go to the hospital the next day. We wait around for many hours. It is all very simple. The worst part about it is when the nurse can’t find my vein for the IV. I am put under. They take everything dead out of me. I wake up, and my husband and I get Shake Shack. We take a photo and send it to my family to show them I am okay.
I feel that I have let my entire family down. I cannot bear to talk to them about it. My mother disseminates the news. When my grandparents call, when my aunt leaves a message, I do not pick up.
There is also a sense of relief: that what I had expected would happen this whole time had actually happened, and now it is over.
* * *
I read a lot of essays and blog posts about miscarriage after my experience—all of them by white women of privilege. I suppose that they are the ones who have platforms and time to blog. The blog posts especially are so aesthetically pleasing—littered with photographs of the bloggers, beautifully styled, looking into the distance, or rocking in a wicker chair on a porch with the sun setting behind them—that I cannot stomach it. All the comments talk about how brave they are.
One of the problems is that these blog posts are one-offs, a one-time intimate look on what is usually a lifestyle blog. The rest of the posts—before and after—are again about how to refurbish your barn door, how to water your succulents. What I can understand better are the blogs set up specifically for women going through infertility, but I am not going through infertility. But I identify with the heaviness present in all their posts, even the ones about the rest of their daily lives, because infertility is a weight you carry around constantly. Miscarriage is often treated like an event that happens and is over.
The thing is: luckily, miscarriage is often just an event, not a lifestyle. It is over, and women go on to have many children.
How to hold both these ideas in your hand?
The women writing about miscarriage don’t look like me. They don’t sound like me. There is nothing that resonates. I want a quote that I can watercolor in my sadness and put on my wall.
* * *
January 2018. I begin this essay on January 1, two weeks after my D&C, still reeling from our loss. And yet in that pain there is also stillness. There are no unknown quantities. The thing I was most afraid of has happened.
My midwife tells me to wait until I get my period again before trying again. So we wait. For the first time in our marriage, we use condoms. Seeing the box sitting on my husband’s bedside table is depressing. Having sex with the condom on is depressing. To prevent the thing we most want.
Finally, I find a quote worthy of watercoloring, only it’s not in an essay about miscarriage, and it’s not about miscarriage at all. In Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a father ruminates about the aftermath of his child’s death:
But here’s what no one says—when it’s your child, a part of you, a very tiny but nonetheless unignorable part of you, also feels relief. Because finally, the moment you have been expecting, been dreading, been preparing yourself for since the day you became a parent, has come.
Ah, you tell yourself, it’s arrived. Here it is.
And after that, you have nothing to fear again.
Though I wouldn’t compare my first-term pregnancy loss with the loss of the character’s grown son, this quote sums up what I feel. I am devastated, yes, and I had expected to be devastated.
I wait for forty days before I bleed—the first benchmark. I start tracking my temperature again. I wait another three weeks until I reach my fertile window, the days around ovulation. Aaron and I have a lot of sex. I wait another two weeks.
February 2018. I tell Aaron I won’t take a pregnancy test until I miss my period. That’s a good idea, he says. It is a good idea but an unachievable one. I test six days before I’m supposed to miss my period.
I am pregnant. Again. For about one second I am elated. I know we are lucky, blessed. I know—now that I am armed with statistics, too many to handle—how often women have to wait an unspeakably long time for what in trying-to-conceive parlance are called rainbow babies, the babies that come after the storm of miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss.
The thing about fear: how insidious it is. How a drop of fear can taint a whole bucket of happiness.
What they didn’t tell me to expect when I was expecting again: how it feels worse in some ways than those weeks after the miscarriage, when I wasn’t yet pregnant. Then I was afraid in the abstract. Now that I am again with child, I carry the fear too, deep in my belly.
You see, when a good thing has been taken from you, it is hard to believe that you will be able to hold it in your hands.
Do not be anxious about anything, the Bible says, but in prayer and petition, in every situation, with Thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
I present my requests. And still I am afraid. If I were stronger, I think, if I had more faith.
* * *
March 2018. My psychiatrist and I work out a plan to taper off of my medications again. After I miscarried, I went back on, and so now I have to wean off. Since the first time went so well, I am not expecting any problems.
During the first pregnancy I thought I had been afraid. Now I know what it is to be afraid, and I feel it in my body and my mind. I cannot talk about the pregnancy without qualifying it: if, if.
My fear somatized looks like extreme agitation. I’d had these symptoms as a teenager, before being diagnosed with bipolar, but in the decade since, I’ve forgotten what it’s like: a flailing. A thrashing. Rolling around on the floor, on the bed, pulling at my hair, scratching at my skin. I call my psychiatrist, who adjusts my dosing schedule so I wean more slowly.
I cannot concentrate. This is a blend of being in my first trimester, when every woman is probably some level of discombobulated, and being off my medications. I am tired. I am writing in simple sentences, in separate chunks, hoping that they will come together. I am too tired for subordinate clauses and complex syntax, too tired to focus on more than one paragraph at a time.
To people who ask how I am doing, I refer to my frenzies as psychomotor agitation. I use the word my psychiatrist uses: akathisia. It’s too ludicrous to try to explain what this feels like. What it looks like is a toddler throwing a tantrum. A twenty-eight-year-old woman racing to the recycling container in the kitchen and fishing out the largest Amazon Prime boxes, then ripping each one into pieces. Paper is not satisfying—it succumbs to my will too easily. My therapist recommends ripping up a phone book, but who has a phone book anymore? The boxes are hard to tear into but not impossible. It takes exertion. Ripping releases my energy, though not my fear.
My husband tucks me under my twenty-pound weighted blanket, climbs straight on top of me, curving his spine up so he won’t put pressure on my belly—he is always concerned about smushing the baby, no matter what I tell him—grabs me with his arms and legs and rocks me back and forth.
Squeeze me as hard as you can, I tell him. Harder than that. Harder. Later in life I discovered, with my therapist’s help, that the coping skills and methods used for people on the autism spectrum also help me when I’m spiraling. Weight, pressure, motion: these often, but not always, stop the flailing.
When the coping skills don’t work, I rage, stomp around the house, throw my phone. The episodes last “only” fifteen minutes or so, but that quarter of an hour feels like nights. My poor husband. Afterwards, a half an hour, an hour of crying, of me apologizing, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, what grown woman, what kind of grown woman—
* * *
As I get further into Genesis, I have to come to grips with the truth. I am not like the matriarchs of the Bible. The women in Genesis give me hope, but I do not see my face in their faces: waiting, obedient. I see my face in the woodblock prints of the yokai I find in my research on Japanese mythology, the legendary supernatural spirits and creatures and demons.
During the summer, the stories go, they journey through the streets of Japan in a long procession. Anyone who has the bad luck to stumble upon the yokai will be “spirited away.” This is called the Night Parade of One Hundred Demons.
Some of these yokai are ghosts, and some of these ghosts are women, and some of these women look more like me than not. Pale and haggard, always with long, black hair, bedraggled and knotted, an external representation of the roiling inside them.
For these formerly human women are in turmoil, which prevents them from crossing peacefully into the afterlife. Perhaps someone had committed a crime against them. Perhaps they had a score to settle. Perhaps they’d suffered a loss. For whatever reason, they could not let go. Instead they remain on earth, haunting others, until whatever strong emotion tethers them to this physical plane is released. They need absolution, and until they receive it, they remain as “faint spirits,” haunting the world during the hour of the ox (one to three in the morning), when the fabric between the living and the dead is the most permeable.
These are the women I think about when I can’t sleep. These women who have lost something.
* * *
What does it mean to trust I write in my journal. I agonize that I cannot let go of my fear, and I am frustrated that the things that soothe me are the tangible. Heartbeat, Doppler, ultrasound. But faith is being sure of what you hope for, and certain of what you do not see. But I like seeing.
I carry the fear like the baby’s invisible twin, or more like a subchorionic hematoma—a condition some pregnant women face, when a pocket of blood forms in the uterus. Sometimes the hematoma gets smaller over time, and everything is fine. In some cases, it can cause a miscarriage. If you see this on your ultrasound, it’s often just a waiting game.
When I have my ultrasound, the technician doesn’t tell me what I desperately want to know: that everything is okay. It is seven thirty at night; the hospital is empty. We are in a large, dimly lit room, barren but for the table for me to lie on and the ultrasound equipment. She takes so many photos, so many more than at my first ultrasound, that I feel certain something is wrong.
You’ll have to wait until your midwife calls you for your results, she says.
She was so chilly! I complain to my husband after. She didn’t tell us anything, I’m sure there’s a problem.
He tells me he didn’t notice anything strange in her manner. But he wouldn’t; he’s not on high alert.
I examine the photograph of our ultrasound and tried to imagine all the potential problems. Please, I prayed, please let it only be a subchorionic hematoma. In that case I still had a chance. The other option, I felt, was that there was something wrong with the baby itself. A hematoma I could handle.
Instead nothing was wrong. I did not think of this as a real possibility.
* * *
When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”
Jacob became angry with her and said, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?”
Then she said, “Here is Bilhah, my servant. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and I too can build a family through her.”
We make our own contingency plans.
* * *
April 2018: My nausea is going away, I tell Aaron. Good! He says. Once I throw up in front of him and my sister and her boyfriend while we are all in the car together. We don’t have a bag, so my sister, an illustrator, yanks one of her art prints from its flimsy cellophane envelope. Aaron holds it for me while I gag and puke, and then he holds it gingerly, with his finger and thumb, while I drive home.
The car fogged up like in that scene with the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, Aaron recounts to my parents.
You have a good husband my parents tell me again. I know.
It makes me nervous, I tell him. That I’m feeling better.
I know this is normal, that at this stage the placenta starts taking over, and the pregnancy symptoms wane. I am relieved to not be nauseous all the time, and yet in the absence of it I do not find peace but fear. I had no symptoms with my first pregnancy, and that one ended. Some studies have shown a correlation between lack of morning sickness and miscarriage.
Jami, my husband says, with the mix of love and exasperation so common to marriage, there is no pleasing you.
* * *
April 2018: My father’s CT scan shows eight new tumors. We are not sure if we can go on our trip to Taiwan this summer.
On the plus side, he tells me—when I call him just to hear his voice, because the only thing that can calm me when I hear such news is his voice because his voice means he is here and he is alive—on the plus side, if I get the surgery in the summer, it means I’ll definitely be out by November, and we won’t be in the hospital at the same time!
That had been one of his worries, that he would be recuperating from his operation at his hospital in the suburbs at the same time I was delivering in the city. That he wouldn’t be able to be there for my birth.
My parents speak about the baby like it is a given. When you have the baby. It is so hard for me to believe that we will take home a baby and it will be fine, though this is the most statistically likely scenario. After everything with my father, I expect the worst in all situations.
I worry about all my worry. It’s bad for the baby, the Internet tells me. Stress can lead to miscarriage. So I talk to the baby. I sing to it. When I hear the heartbeat at my ten-week appointment, I begin, slowly, to believe. I create a Pinterest board of all the crafts I want to make for the nursery. I start knitting a Totoro stuffed animal.
* * *
We announce our pregnancy at twelve weeks exactly. The night before, curled in bed on my left side (the better for the baby to receive blood flow), I invent different drafts of status updates. I want to talk about my miscarriage, but it seems wrong to mention that in the same breath as a new baby. I worry that people will not know how to respond, that they will feel compelled to temper their happiness the way mine is tempered.
What I want to say: Today we are twelve weeks. After everything, getting to this point seems like—is—a miracle. What I say: The Center for Jewish-Japanese Relations [my husband’s and my pet name for our household] is premiering its best project yet!
What I want to say: A lot of fear. A lot of trepidation. And yet: a lot of prayer and a lot of joy. What I say: two star-eyes emoji, two puke-face emoji.
After posting this truth-but-not-the-whole-truth announcement, I worry about how this will affect an old college friend who posts honestly about how hard it is to see pregnancy announcements after her own infertility and pregnancy loss. (And how many women like her yet invisible.)
Among all the likes and congratulatory messages, her comment—an image of a rainbow, with no text—stands out to me the most. What grace.
What my post says: Things are great! What I want to say: Thus far.
Another fear: who am I to speak of this sorrow, when so many other women have seen so much more? My relative luck is most salient to me on the motherhood forums where I stew in my anxiety and lurk the day away. On these baby boards, you have the option of adding a signature, which works the same way as email signatures: the text pops up every time you post. Only instead of listing a phone number and address, as you would in an email signature, women list their births (and losses) in a type of shorthand.
DD 3/99, ^DS^ 6/02 28w, mmc 10/04, one might say. This woman had a “darling daughter” in 1999, then lost a son in 2002 at twenty-eight weeks (on the baby boards, carrots around a name indicate that that baby has passed away, as the symbols look like they’re pointing above), and a missed miscarriage in 2004. Or ttc #1 since 2012. 6 mcs, PCOS. This woman has been trying to conceive her first baby since 2012. She’s had six miscarriages and suffers from polycystic ovarian syndrome, a condition common in women struggling to get pregnant.
Many of these women would love to be in my situation. Who am I to tell this tale?
But also: there is no this tale. The story of miscarriage is not singular. It is plural, it is various, and it is so often silent.
The so what of my story is that I am so afraid. I am afraid of losing this baby. I am afraid of having this baby and losing my father. I am afraid of losing them both. I am afraid of losing my mind, which some days seems like it is hanging on by the most tenuous of threads. I am afraid of postpartum psychosis and postpartum depression.
I become more and more attached to the idea of this baby.
* * *
Well, he said, that’s pretty common in early pregnancy. He paused. I hear it usually goes away by the time the baby is eighteen.
It was good to laugh, to laugh together.
* * *
I tried to make my fear go away. It wouldn’t. Now I try to live alongside it. It kneels when I pray. It whirls while I fret. It watches over my shoulder as I try to write again, my words coming only in short, simple sentences. It picks through the stitches while I knit a circular baby blanket, which, when finished, will look like a chunk of coral or the ocean.
I tell people about the pregnancy. I speak the news into the world like an incantation, as if the more times I say it, the more real it will become. Like in Harry Potter, how the students practice saying wingardium leviosa, win-GAR-dium levi-O-sa, chanting the words over and over again, until their feathers start to fly.
So: I am having a baby.
Right now this is true.