After Leah’s death, the crippling agony of my grief was immediately accompanied by another all-consuming emotion: Fear. It is difficult to imagine that any parent who has lost their first and only child will not be plagued by worrisome questions as they peer ahead into the uncertain future: What if subsequent pregnancies end the same way? What if I never have a living child to bring home and care for? And, in my case specifically: Will I ever be able to conceive again?
You see, throughout the entire nine months that I carried Leah, I had been quietly wondering if this pregnancy was a complete biological fluke. This is because, months before she was conceived, I had become attuned to the fact that my menstrual cycles seemed to show the classic signs of a luteal phase defect. In a nutshell, the luteal phase is the time between ovulation and the beginning of menstruation. Most medical professionals seem to agree that a 12-16 day luteal phase is “normal,” with anything less than that potentially inhibiting fertility since it may not provide enough time for a fertilized egg to properly implant in the uterus.
I am not sure why it took me so long to notice that my monthly luteal phases were disconcertingly short at 10 days—and sometimes less. As mentioned previously, I had been using the Fertility Awareness Method as natural birth control for about three years. While most women who have read Toni Weschler’s classic text, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, do so in their quest for pregnancy achievement, I had been diligently charting my basal body temperatures and cervical mucus each day in my efforts to delay motherhood. In any case, as soon as I noticed this anomaly in my monthly cycles, I began to wonder what complications it might pose when I did eventually want to conceive. While I didn’t see myself becoming a mother for a few more years, I did some research on the issue and decided to start taking a Vitamin B6 supplement each day for good measure.
This is likely why I had grown relaxed in my charting habits shortly before Leah was conceived, believing that I couldn’t become pregnant even if I did have intercourse during my fertile window. This is also why I was equally relieved as I was surprised when I discovered I was pregnant. This relief would continue throughout the next nine months as my pregnancy progressed perfectly, all the while wondering if this would be my only shot at motherhood without the aid of costly fertility medications and procedures. I had never envisioned myself with a house full of children, so if Leah ended up being the only child I was able to conceive without medical intervention, I would have proceeded through life content with my family of three. Needless to say, when she died unexpectedly at the tail end of my complication-free pregnancy, my anxiety wasted no time before shouting its concerns from the depths of my mind, reminding me that I might never fall pregnant again so easily, if at all.
Admittedly, this anxiety was more consuming at the beginning of my grief journey, when my chaotic postpartum hormones, unable to make sense of my baby’s absence, were urging me to become pregnant again as soon as possible. But this instinctive urge faded as the weeks and months wore on, and I finally accepted that having another baby would not be a magical cure for my grief. Throughout this time, my husband and I devised a plan: We would wait until December, six months after Leah’s birth, before trying to conceive again, with the understanding that it was unlikely to happen right away. If six months of trying bore no fruit, I would speak to my OBGYN about possible next steps. In the meantime, I continued to take my vitamins and chart my cycles so that I would have tangible proof of my short luteal phases to present to my doctor when the time came. I also tried my best not to fall apart each time my period showed up ten days after my ovulatory temperature spike.
With nowhere to go but forward, I trudged ahead on emotional autopilot, adapting to a new routine, a new job, and a new life as a bereaved mother. During this time I settled into a strangely comfortable state of apathy, not feeling much of anything beyond the ever-present ache for my daughter. At least, that was the case—until two pregnancy announcements and one birth announcement, all unleashed within the course of a week, reignited my raw grieving emotions with the force of a thousand suns.
Maybe a stronger loss mama could have handled it. I wanted to believe that I could handle it. After all, I did not want these babies, nor was I even sure if I was emotionally ready to be pregnant again. Nevertheless, it all crashed over me with the devastating impact of a tidal wave—the visceral reminders of what I had, what I lost, and what I may never have again. Not since June had my hormones and emotions run so hopelessly amok: For an entire week I hurled pillows against walls, surrendered to uncontrollable sob fests in the washroom at work, and launched more f-bombs into the atmosphere than I had in the previous 30 years of my life combined.
In short, I was a mess. And I was so consumed by this tornado of emotions that I hadn’t even noticed day eleven of my luteal phase come and go, with no sign of my period in sight.
When this realization finally hit me, the fog lifted and I immediately snapped out of my funk. Eleven days! No, it wasn’t perfect, but it was something. It was hope. Maybe next month I could make it to twelve days, which would finally bring my cycle lengths to the lower end of “normal.”
And then day twelve passed me by, still with no indication that my period was on its way.
On day thirteen, I tried my best to stay grounded and suppress the flicker of wonder that had ignited within me: Was it possible? My husband and I were not actively trying to conceive yet, but we hadn’t been actively preventing it, either. I told myself to wait at least a week before jumping to any conclusions. After all, a twelve day luteal phase was nothing to sneeze at, and I would likely subject myself to unnecessary disappointment by taking a home pregnancy test so soon.
Yet I couldn’t shake the deep, consuming question that continued to echo in my brain all day at work: What if? After much internal debate, my curiosity ultimately trumped my caution. I stopped at a drugstore on my way home and didn’t tell my husband about my excursion. I was even able to wait until after dinner before retreating to the washroom to carry out my covert plan.
So many thoughts and emotions flashed through my mind while I waited for the results. I could vividly see myself, fourteen months prior, smiling as two pink lines confirmed my pregnancy with Leah. And then, almost as if I had stepped back in time, they slowly appeared once again.
I wish I could say that this reassuring result filled me with joy and excitement, but this simply wasn’t the case. Instead, I shed silent tears for the daughter whom I seemed to miss more than ever in that moment. I instantly thought about all the things that this new baby would get to see and experience if it managed to beat the odds and make it home—all the things I dreamed of doing with Leah, but never got the chance to. However, I also shed tears for myself, thinking about the nine months of emotional turmoil I was about to experience if this pregnancy progressed normally (which would be the best case scenario), as well as the utter devastation that I would feel if it were to result in another loss.
Was I thankful to see that my fears about secondary infertility were apparently unfounded? Yes, profoundly so. At this point I had interacted with too many loss mamas who had faced (and were still facing) fertility struggles to dismiss this glimmer of hope completely. But the brutal truth is that my grief and fear trumped my ability to feel the same joy and excitement that I did when I first discovered I was pregnant just over a year ago.
As I write this, I am 18 weeks pregnant with Leah’s sibling. To say that the past four months have been an emotional roller coaster would be an understatement. First, there are the flashbacks. Goodness, the flashbacks. Within the first eight weeks I made two visits to the emergency room for reassurance scans, and each time I felt like I had been transported back to June. I was bombarded with visions of myself wandering into the same lobby and telling the triage nurse that I had noticed a reduction in my baby’s movements; being directed to the Labour and Delivery unit, where I broke down crying at the intake desk, trying to explain that I had come to the hospital in a moment of panic, and no I had not called my midwife yet; watching a team of doctors remove my daughter from my body and whisk her away, not knowing what was going on or where they were taking her; holding my beautiful girl to my chest while her body seized and convulsed against my skin, and crying out in agony as she breathed her last laboured breath in my arms. I continue to experience these intrusive flashbacks on a daily basis, and I imagine their frequency and intensity will only increase as I move closer to my due date.
Second, there’s the anxiety. I held out okay until week 6 arrived, at which point the dreaded brown spotting started. Now, brown spotting can be totally normal if it is merely old blood being shed from the uterus during the early weeks of pregnancy—but of course, sometimes it can also be an early sign of miscarriage. I count myself fortunate that it was harmless in this case, but I was still overcome by a wave of panic each time it re-surfaced over the course of the next two weeks. I was also fortunate enough to have far more pronounced first trimester symptoms than I did with Leah, including debilitating fatigue and nausea. I was thankful for these corporeal reminders that my body was seemingly reacting to this pregnancy as it should—until I experienced the occasional day where these symptoms seemed to disappear completely. Of course, this can also be a totally normal response to fluctuating pregnancy hormones—but sometimes it can signify that a missed miscarriage has occurred.
I did not experience a reprieve from my anxiety until I reached week 10. Against the recommendations of the medical community at large, I decided to rent a medical grade Doppler so I could listen to the baby’s heartbeat at home. I can honestly say it is the best decision I have made for myself and my self-care during this pregnancy. It arrived by week 11, and after two practice runs I became quite proficient at finding the baby’s heartbeat during each subsequent use. I now use it twice a day: In the morning before I leave for work, and in the evening when I return home. Not only do these daily sessions allow me to feel connected to the life that is growing inside me, but they also give me reason to pause, smile, and find assurance in knowing that, at least for the present moment, my baby is alive and well.
Even so, I cannot speak or think about my future with this child in definitive terms. While I wish I could say that this pregnancy marks a happy ending of sorts for me and my family, the reality of being a loss mama is far more complicated than that. However, this does not mean that I do not love this baby tremendously. To the contrary—rather than plan ahead for things that may or may not happen, I spend each day acutely aware that this could be the only time I get to spend with this child, and I do not take a single heartbeat, flutter, or kick for granted.
As grateful as I am for this pregnancy, and despite being well into the mythical “safe zone” that comes after 14 weeks gestation, there are no guarantees that I will get to bring this baby home. As much as I am hoping for the best, I also know how suddenly and unexpectedly a complication-free pregnancy can careen towards the worst. Moreover, even if I do get to bring this baby home, doing so cannot suture the loss wound that Leah has left on my heart. Don’t get me wrong: Having a living child will certainly restore some of the joy and hope that disappeared from my life when Leah died. But I will continue to ache for my firstborn daughter each and every day, just as I do now.
I also understand that this development will inevitably change the nature of this blog. As a friend and fellow loss mama said to me not too long ago, the only thing harder than being pregnant after loss is not being pregnant after loss (assuming that the woman in question desires to have another child). I know firsthand the difference between being a pregnant loss mama and being a childless mother, and I can say without a doubt that the latter experience is far more difficult. While this pregnancy—like all pregnancies—may result in a heartbreaking loss, the imminent possibility that I may bring a living child home makes all the difference in the world. I thus recognize that sharing my pregnancy experience means this blog may become one more trauma trigger for loss mamas without living children, and especially for readers who know the pain of infertility and secondary infertility. For this reason, I cannot say that I am blessed to have fallen pregnant again so soon, when so many women struggle for years to conceive, and many others never do so at all. There is no way around the fact that this is devastatingly and infuriatingly unfair, yet it is the reality that many loss mamas are forced to live day in and day out.
In the meantime, all I can do is continue to write about what I am living, which for now is a chaotic mixture of grief, anxiety, fear, and—dare I say it—hope. Despite my aching loss wound and my trepidation about the uncertain future, I do count myself fortunate to awake each day with a heart that is filled to the brim with love for my two children—the one whose hand I hope to hold throughout the years to come, and the one whose hand I hope to hold again someday.