The other night, my son was sitting next to me on the couch watching tv (it was I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here actually, please don’t judge me). Apropro of nothing, which is the way conversations often unfold when you have a 6-year-old, he pointed to the space on the couch next to him and said ‘a toddler would fit perfectly there’. Not understanding what he meant, I said ‘whose toddler?’ and immediately his eyes filled with tears and he said ‘our toddler, if I had a brother or sister’.
Right then and there, my heart, which has had its share of bruises and battering over the years and is generally pretty hard-wearing, broke into about a thousand pieces. Before I could stop my own tears, they were there, dripping down my face. That made Hugh cry more, and try to comfort me at the same time. ‘Mummy I know the other babies died and your tummy is broken, but I still wish I could be someone’s big brother’.
It would be impossible to express just how much I wish he could be someone’s big brother too. He doesn’t know that he also could have been someone’s little brother, and how much I wish he could have been a middle child, which is actually where he sits in the order of my pregnancies.
Miscarriage is still a taboo subject in our society (and many others). We generally don’t talk about it, or if we do it’s in hushed tones as if it’s something about which we should be ashamed. If I am completely honest, shame is the right word because each time my body let go of another pregnancy, I felt like an abject failure as a woman. Everyone else could do it, sustain a pregnancy 40 weeks and take home a healthy baby, but my body seemed to specialise in rejection.
My first pregnancy was a surprise – not because we were not trying to fall pregnant, but because it happened so quickly. I was 37, but got pregnant in the second month of trying. Because I wasn’t expecting to get pregnant so easily, I had no idea that I was and it was only after an epic, emotional meltdown after a stir-fry didn’t turn out how I expected, that I did a test and broke the wonderful news to Dave. In our naiveté, we decided to tell everyone, and the day after we’d phoned his parents to tell them, I started bleeding, and after five days of agonising cramps that left me breathless (what I later realised where contractions), I had the first of a series of surgeries because whilst my body couldn’t sustain the pregnancy, it couldn’t quite get rid of it either. Completely and utterly useless.
Three months later, and I was pregnant again. I so wanted to be happy, so wanted to think it would all be ok, but that was just not possible anymore. Or was it? I settled into the idea that my body might just do it this time, when again the blood … always the blood … Another surgery, another trip home from hospital with nothing to show but a more hardened heart, and a deepening sense of what was verging on hatred for my own body.
A couple of months after that, and yet again I was pregnant. We were nothing if not fertile. This time both Dave and I only talked of the pregnancy in an almost clinical way, waiting for the seemingly inevitable failure. The blood came, very early this time when I was only six weeks along, so we trundled off to the obstetrician’s office (again) for an ultrasound (again) to confirm that the pregnancy was lost (again). But then the glorious sound, a weird echoing sound like a wet drum being beaten, and the pulsating embryo on the screen. A heartbeat, not dead, and apparently not dying! We were incredulous, fearful, maybe even a tiny bit hopeful. I continued to bleed on and off for the next seven weeks, the fear and loathing of my body growing by the day, but each and every visit to the obstetrician, with his dreaded dildo cam, showed a healthy foetus, growing strong. The bleeding stopped at 13 weeks gestation, and whilst there was some sense of relief, the inspection of the underpants for tell-tale signs, and the sense of dread and foreboding, continued right up until my beautiful, big, healthy boy was delivered alive and kicking at 38 weeks and 5 days gestation. My body, it was a wonder! An amazing, fantastic thing, a joy! It had produced the most divine creature, it was redeemed.
Once the shock and awe of having a new baby settled down, we decided to try for a sibling for our gorgeous boy. He’d never be a little brother, but he could be a big one. Getting pregnant = easy. Done. The day I returned to work from maternity leave I was already pregnant again. I was in love with my body; it had given us Hugh and now it would give us his sibling. Then, the blood. Again. All over. Again. At least this time my body seemed to have worked out how to complete the miscarriage, so no surgery. Bad luck comes in threes, right? So that’s our three things, three miscarriages, next time will be fine.
Next time? Houston, we have a problem. Getting pregnant = hard. We went from taking 1-2 cycles to fall pregnant to 12 months with no success. We moved to fertility drugs, which send me batshit crazy. I remember contemplating physically hurting Dave for leaving some clean towels unfolded. Those drugs did nothing, except make me homicidal and therefore trying to get pregnant a terrible chore, but we were determined and moved onto IVF, which involved a four-hour return drive each time we need to see the specialist. More drugs, this time hard-core, injected by Dave into my stomach multiple times each day, causing bruises as big as dinner plates all over me. Because my body is once again useless, it does not respond at all to the drugs, despite me being given the highest legal dose, and it’s all over. No more babies. Ever.
Two years later, and we had come to terms with our only child. He is a blessing; adorable, loving, bright and healthy. I’ve had counselling, I have accepted the situation and finally I don’t hate my body any more. Life is good. And then I start feeling so shit, so tired, so over everything and it is all hauntingly familiar, so I find an expired pregnancy test in the back of the cupboard and as soon as I pee on it, it’s positive. I’m 42 years old, we’ve both been sick with the flu for weeks, I have been declared infertile by the best-known specialist in the state, and I’m six weeks pregnant.
Blood tests and scans are hastily done, and although it’s early it all looks good. My body, wow, my 42-year-old body, I am amazed by it. My mind takes a while to catch up, and I lie awake at 3am every night worrying how everything will work out. I am so old! I gave away all the baby clothes! I don’t have any good names picked out! But then, gradually, I get used to the idea, and during the day Dave and I email back and forth about baby names. I think I almost have him convinced on my favourite boy’s name (Arlo), when I stand up one day in my office and feel a weird pop, like I’ve wet myself. I make my way to the toilets, where I miscarry for the fourth time. Oh, my body, you have really done me over this time. I drive myself home, silent and stony faced, and am taken to the hospital from there, wheeled through the corridors and asked by a nurse why I’m not crying.
That baby, who might have been a boy who might have been called Arlo, would have been only a month or two old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Or quite possibly, I would not have been diagnosed with breast cancer because I would have been breastfeeding that baby, and thought the lump was a gland or mastitis or more likely I would not even noticed the lump because I would have been too tired and too frazzled to shave my legs, let alone do a breast self-examination. Maybe losing that last baby gave a boy a chance to keep his mum, whilst taking away his last chance to be a big brother.
Hugh knows that I had other babies in my tummy but they died, and that now my tummy can’t make any more babies. He knows it, but it doesn’t mean he has to like it. He’s the only child in his class who doesn’t have a sibling, the only one who has playdates organised for him most weekends to ensure he doesn’t spend all his time with adults, the only one who calls close family friends cousins so that he feels like he has something akin to a brother and a sister. He’s the only child.
As for me and my body, well the hate is gone. It may have produced a giant cancer that nearly killed me, and I did wonder how it could betray me again, and so deeply, but having marvelled at the way it withstood all the cutting and the poisoning and radiation, and how it soldiers on despite the legacy those treatments have left behind, I cannot despise it.
One day, when my boy is old enough, I will tell him about how my body gave me a son, and then gave my son his mother, and we will both see, that despite the pain of circumstance, those are our gifts.