The writer was devastated when she suffered a stillbirth after 21 weeks. But it made her realize that the decision to end a pregnancy belongs only to the woman carrying a child.
I was 29 when I lost Emily. I say lost because I failed to keep her inside of me, long enough for her to survive. I was 21 weeks pregnant.
That was nearly ten years ago, on December 4, 2006. The date looms so large in my mind—vibrant, fractured, sharp and precise in its searing pain. The days leading up to it are dimmer, happy days, when my husband and I had a tree-trimming party for our friends and their children in our home in Brooklyn. I had spent the past five weeks in off-and-on pain from what we had learned was a degenerating fibroid on my uterus—a huge, greedy tumor.
But during my 17th week of pregnancy, I went to the hospital because I was in more pain than I was willing to admit. I didn’t want to scare my husband, Sean. I’m tough. I’ve broken my share of bones in my life, dislocated shoulders and ankles playing sports in high school. I’d never been pregnant before and I simply didn’t know: I didn’t know if the pain was normal; I didn’t know how to talk about my body, or know what questions to ask.
As instructed by my doctor, I went to the maternity ward at our hospital. But they wouldn’t admit me. There was some discussion over viability, and they had me walk down to the ER. I got a little teary and then I was overcome with another bout of searing pain.
In the ER things seemed to move. Someone thought my case serious and I went right into an ultrasound room where they examined everything. baby: fine, placenta: fine. It seemed to go on for hours. They kept searching for a teeny squiggly thing likely buried far beneath a swollen uterus. Appendix, appendix, it must be the appendix. Another ultrasound tech came, then another ER doctor. But where was my obstetrician? They kept looking, it felt like hours but maybe it was only 40 or 50 minutes. And then someone sees a tumor—it’s seeping. No, it’s hemorrhaging. Into my body cavity. Blood doesn’t belong in the body cavity. It’s an irritant, it belongs in organs, in veins and arteries. Instead, it was sloshing all over my uterus, which at that moment had my baby inside.
And then I was discharged. We were given no recommendations. No care instructions. Just, “See your doctor and rest.” I went home and gritted my teeth through what I know now were intense contractions caused by the degenerating fibroid I had on my uterus. I took some Tylenol. Sweating as each contraction rolled over me. Moving tentatively from bed to bathroom, too uneasy to be still, in too much pain to move far. My doctor told me to come in for my monthly check up—which was two weeks away.
I slept a little that night, and the days that followed weren’t much better. I had to go back to work on Monday, having started a new job only a few weeks earlier. Sean took the subway with me to work, knowing full well that I was too proud to ask for a seat if none was offered. We rode the escalator up to the main level at the 34th Street station. But I had to walk myself up the last flight of stairs. I was huffing when we made it to the top, pressing as hard as I could to keep inside what was surely about to burst.
I made it to work that day. Tylenol, water, frequent slow walks to the bathroom. So long as I didn’t overdo it, the pain remained moderate but manageable. In two weeks I saw one of the rotating cast of doctors at my OBGYN practice. I was still in some pain. Is there anything I should know? Anything I should be doing? I asked. No, no, you seem fine, said my doctor after what turned out to be a routine checkup. Heartbeat is good. Can I start exercising again? Yes, yes, of course. Exercise, very important, for you, for the baby. Very good.
I took it slow anyway. I regularly met with a group of mom friends—friends of my very good friend Kristen, who’d invited me into their group. They were all a little older than me, and when next we met, I told them my crazy story of the last four weeks. They all looked at me with some degree of astonishment. I tried to laugh it off: It’s nothing, the doctor says everything is fine. Maybe if they had known me better they would have said something more.
As I started to feel better, I found myself doing more. I threw a tree-trimming party, which had me on my feet all day. It was exhausting, but I felt great the next morning. Good enough to head to the gym and go for a run on the treadmill—for the first time in weeks. It felt so good to be moving at a clip. But then I started to feel some pain, I slowed down and it subsided. I picked up the pace again and the pain grew more persistent. I slowed to a walk, then stopped, and finally, I went home.
That Monday, at my publishing job, we had an all-day sales conference, which meant there would be a lot of sitting. My back ached. I squirmed a little, and I could feel the baby squirming a little, too. I needed to go to the bathroom. We finally broke at 11:30 and I hustled to the ladies room. When I sat down to pee something thick and mucous-like came out and then a gush of water? Urine? I really wasn’t sure. I was dumbfounded—what was happening? I called out for help to another woman in the bathroom, asking her, in my trembling voice, to fetch my pregnant colleague, Mary, hoping she’d be able to tell me what was happening.
Mary handed me a sanitary pad from the rarely used dispenser. I was grateful for it, grateful for her. And then she told the other woman to call 911.
This time at the hospital, I was far enough along, at 20 weeks and five days, to be admitted to maternity. I was scared, in survival mode. Everything was fine, I kept saying, so much it became a mantra. Please call my mom. I got into a bed in a little room and a nurse came in barraging me with questions, about the fibroid; was I feeling movement; did my water break; when had I last eaten? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I had a buttered roll and some coffee around 9 a.m.
Sean burst into the room, looking wild-eyed. He managed to hold himself together, for both our sakes.
The nurse came in with a speculum to check my cervix—she gasped as water gushed at her. She turned to the other nurse in the room to tell her the baby’s arm is in the birth canal.
Something builds inside me at that moment. “EVERYTHING IS FINE!” was building and building until it exploded, shattering into a million tiny shards of pain. A sound emanated from me that I had never heard before and I hope to never again. Sean was instantly at my side. My baby sister appeared, as if by magic. And so too did my doctor, the one I saw at my last appointment. She told me she’d put me under and deliver the baby. “It will be over soon,” she said. I balk. “No,” I told her, “I want to be awake.”
“Sure. We’ll get an epidural then.”
“No. I’m not in pain. I don’t want that.”
She looked at me like I’m crazy. I’d been in labor for nearly five weeks. I could handle another few hours.
I sat on a table in the labor room, my husband and sister next to me in scrubs. I couldn’t be still but I didn’t cry. I squeezed their hands with the contractions but I was silent. I desperately had to go to the bathroom, but there’s nowhere to go. I looked around, wildly. A nurse placed a pan on the table for me to urinate into. The final indignity of a tragic day? I attempted to sit on it—but I didn’t have to go to the bathroom. Childbirth ignorance rearing its ugly head yet again.
My doctor was now in the room. I pushed. I pushed again and the OB pulled her by her two tiny arms. I could feel them dislocating inside me as they unnaturally exited my body. I howled but my daughter was silent.
They cleaned her, swaddled her, and brought her over to me. She was tiny but she was perfect, with the tiniest frown on her silent face. I held her and whispered my apologies to her. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I didn’t know better. I’m so sorry I couldn’t hold on to you. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.
The nurses took her from me, just as my mother arrived and she went to say hello and good-bye to her first grandchild. Then, she got to work, taking care of everything. She somehow knew the right things to do. Autopsy, yes. Funeral home contact, yes. I asked Sean if we should name her. No, he said, quickly, definitively, sadly. I considered his answer for a second, and decided he was wrong. I named her Emily, after my beloved Aunt Em.
An hour after I was moved to a small room to recover, my mother, father, sister, and husband crammed in there with me, I put my maternity clothes back on, which felt like adding horrible insult to injury. They gave us a little card with her footprints on it.
My parents drove Sean and I home. I peeled off my clothes and crawled into bed. I couldn’t shower or eat or even think. I curled up and fell sleep.
The next day I had an overwhelming desire to get out of town. It was Tuesday, December 5, and Sean and I decided to head to our favorite inn in New Hampshire for a few days. As we settled into our room, my breasts—swollen, inflamed—started leaking milk. There was no relief for the aching. Not for my breasts, not for my heart.
Time, time will fix it, my doctor told me. She was wrong, nothing will ever fix it.
I had never spoken publicly about this period in my life until May 14, when Congress passed, by a clean majority, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. That day, I posted on Facebook a shorter explanation of why I believe this Act is a slap in the face to the women of the United States. Except for a study from 1988 conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, there is very little information about the reasons women have abortions after 20 weeks.
I can say with certainty that no woman would choose to terminate a pregnancy at this stage unless it was absolutely necessary. This tends to be a decision not made lightly. Late-term abortions are often a medically necessary procedure. If my circumstances had been just a little different, it could have been me making that choice. If my daughter had failed to grow a heart or a brain, if she had Neimann-Pick or Tay-Sachs, I might have chosen to terminate; to save myself and to save her from even more pain than we had already suffered. I say might because I can’t know definitively what I would do until presented with that situation. And I can say that to you because I am honest with myself, because I have no illusions about the emotional conflict that a woman experiences even during a healthy pregnancy. I can also confess that at this time, I may not make the choice to have an abortion. But I am adamant that I am the only person who has the right to make that choice. Not a legislator, not anyone but me. Women are not idiots. We are not children in need of management; not frivolous little creatures who need our decisions made for us. We make hard choices every single day for our families, our survival, for our health, for our children.
My pregnancy was filled with ignorance—and I’m a well-educated woman. I had every book: The Mayo Guide, What to Expect… and three more. I still went into my pregnancy not knowing much of anything. I have to at least be generous enough to think that it’s ignorance of women’s pregnancy and its many woes, dangers, and desperately unhappy endings and not misogyny that drives politicians to consider such a law valuable for the people.
I could speak to the hypocrisy of this law: the 25 percent of children under the age of 18 living in poverty in America, the lack of funding for public education, the cannibalization of our higher education students by banks, the lack of any kind of paid maternity leave requirements, the insane “rape and incest provisions” in this very Act, the call for smaller government as politicians create law after law after law regulating social issues that should never be criminalized in the first place, the refusal to support a living minimum wage. But I won’t. This essay is about hard decisions. Life and death decisions that are a woman’s to make alone. My husband and mother remember the date my daughter was born and died but no one else does. That daily burden, that pain, I carry alone as does every other woman who has ever carried or tried to carry a child with fear in her heart.
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