Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Heartbeat

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My follow-up appointment was the same day as Pope Francis's visit to Washington, D.C. I sat in the doctor's waiting room at 8:00 a.m., dressed in jeans and my comforting olive-colored anorak, typing work emails on my tiny phone keyboard. The entirety of the D.C.-area federal workforce had been instructed to telework if possible during the papal visit, to keep the roads around the Capitol, White House, and National Mall clear.

I switched away from my email to the news coverage. A news helicopter was showing a bird's-eye view of the Washington downtown area, while the commentator narrated the route around the National Mall and Ellipse that the popemobile would travel. It was a nice route of wide streets, flanked by stately buildings and mature trees. I'd run nearly the same path many times. I flexed my calves, which felt doughy from lack of use. I hadn't gone on a run in three weeks. I'd been treating my body extraordinarily gingerly, making pleading little bargains with it. I won't run at dawn. I won't throw the 3-year-old into his loft bed. Look, I'm drinking this must-be-nourishing, bland-as-water herbal tea. Just get through this for me.

~

The bleeding had started sometime during my commute on a Thursday morning. I noticed when I arrived at the office. I knew bleeding between periods wasn't generally considered a medical emergency, but it wasn't normal, either. As cramps radiated across my lower back, I closed my office door and called my OB/GYN's office. When I explained to the triage nurse that I was bleeding but had just had a period ten days before, she asked, "Have you taken a pregnancy test?"

"Well, no," I stammered. "Because I just had a period."

"Go take a test. Right now. Then call me back," she directed.

 

I didn't need to wait the three minutes on the test directions. I watched as a second bright blue line materialized, bold and solid, in just a few seconds.

 

Tiny fingers of fear clamped around my heart and made my chest feel tight. As I opened the door again, I was suddenly aware of my heartbeat, thumping in a way that felt audible.

Less than an hour after arriving at work, I was back out the door, fast-walking to the drugstore.

"Going so soon?" joked the security officer posted near the entrance. I laughed thinly. At the CVS, I picked up a three-pack of tests along with a travel-sized packet of tissues and a granola bar, just to feel less conspicuous, wondering why—at age 36—this sort of adolescent pretense still felt necessary to me.

I had never imagined taking a pregnancy test in the office, especially not when "the office" is the world's most-visited natural history museum, which had just opened its doors for the day. Instead of heading to the restroom in the exhibits staff corridor, I chose the relative anonymity of a public restroom outside the Ocean Hall. Among the shrill voices of a group of 4th graders on a field trip and the hum of hand dryers, I ducked into a stall.

I didn't need to wait the three minutes on the test directions. I watched as a second bright blue line materialized, bold and solid, in just a few seconds.

The triage nurse directed me to come in that afternoon for a blood test. My husband received the news of both the pregnancy and the bleeding in a flurry of text messages, because he was in a training session at work.  When we finally connected on the phone, he urged me not to look beyond the blood test.

"Let's just worry about today," he advised.

We'd decided to stop using birth control only a few weeks before, and I was frankly shocked by how fast this pregnancy—my second—had happened. Conceiving our first son had taken many cycles of careful timing, now I felt like a walking public service announcement for a middle-school health class: "Remember, it only takes once, folks!"

The blood test confirmed I was indeed pregnant. "Congratulations!" the doctor said. She told me that perhaps what I'd thought was a period had been implantation and reassured me that light bleeding in early pregnancy was common. She said it would probably stop as suddenly as it had started.

And it did. I got out my day planner and circled my expected due date. I began to imagine how we'd tell our son that he was going to have a baby sibling. I thought how nice it would be to have a summer maternity leave.

Then, about a week later, the bleeding started again, stronger. This time the doctor asked me to come in for an ultrasound. The results were not promising. Though I knew it was early, I'd been hoping for a heartbeat, willing a blinking white spot to appear on the screen, waiting to hear the soundtrack of impending motherhood. Instead, I squinted at a grainy image of a tiny yolk sac. The fetal pole—an early indication of a viable pregnancy—was missing. The doctor told us she was sorry, that most likely my body would complete the miscarriage on its own in the next few days, and I should come back after a week to be sure.

I sobbed silently against my husband's chest after she left the examining room. I'd read What to Expect When You're Expecting and enough articles and online message board posts to know that early miscarriage is astonishingly common—one in four pregnancies, with higher percentages for women over 35. But the cold logic of statistics meant little when I was suddenly among the data points.

I left the doctor's office feeling like I was enveloped in the kind of cold, damp haze that persistently fogs windows, making everything look dull and indistinct. I took the Metro to work, looking at the other young women commuters, and wondering which of them was also among the one in four. Were any of them also miscarrying right now? Did any feel as betrayed by her body as I did? I felt torn between competing desires: to retreat into silence, and to make my anger and pain public—to seek solace in what must be a sizable sisterhood.

 

In past iterations of this exercise, I'd counted my health, and my family's health. Today, while I noted my gratitude that my son was thriving, I pointedly avoided any thankfulness for my own body.

 

The next day, I took my son to a three-year-old friend's birthday party and tried to smile as the children played with bubbles and ate pizza on picnic blankets. After they ate, my son wanted me to run with him and jump off the playground slide platform, something I normally would have done with aplomb. I gently put him off, afraid to hasten along what I suspected was already a foregone conclusion.

A close friend, the mother of another preschooler, noticed something was off. I rarely sat still, and certainly not for nearly two hours at a time. "I'm having a miscarriage," I finally blurted out in a whisper. "Oh no," she whispered back, hugging me. Then she told me she'd had one, too. I felt a new surge of anger at my body, for both of us. Despite our chumminess, our frequent texts and confessional chats on the inanity of raising small children, I had never known. How could you?! I fumed, at my body, and at hers—the corporeal entity housing a soul I knew to be brilliant, honest, and refreshingly willing to be vulnerable. She didn't deserve this. I didn't deserve this.

That weekend, my husband and I drove three hours to the Virginia mountains to visit my college roommate and her family, as we'd previously planned. I hoped the change of scenery would be distracting. While my husband drove and our son slept in his car seat behind us, I tried to enumerate the good things in my life—an exercise that had been helpful for me in the past. I counted my supportive spouse and my spiky-haired, always-talking, adorably clumsy three-year-old. My interesting job with my dream employer. Our home, the fact that all four of our parents were still active and enjoying their retirements, our diverse, welcoming community. I even counted tiny things, like the fact that I could now have a glass of wine with my friend when we arrived, and that I'd recently gotten a really good haircut.

In past iterations of this exercise, I'd counted my health, and my family's health. Today, while I noted my gratitude that my son was thriving, I pointedly avoided any thankfulness for my own body.

On Monday, I returned to my office, banned myself from both Google and motherhood-related websites, and systematically dug into my current project. It sure was good that I wasn't having a baby next May, I rationalized—the exhibition I was working on would be at a critical point by then, and I wouldn't want to take time away from it. Next time, I'd plan everything much better.

As the week progressed, I wondered when the miscarriage would be over. While I was still bleeding, it wasn't dramatic, and I wondered if this meant the worst was still to come. Perhaps with all my careful avoidance of exertion, I'd simply been delaying the inevitable? The doctor had said a surgical procedure might be necessary if my body didn't miscarry completely. If that were the case, I wanted it done as soon as possible. I scheduled my follow-up appointment for a day that I'd be teleworking during the pope's visit to Washington.

~

"Laura? Come on back." A nurse was calling my name. I closed the window on my phone with the news coverage of the pope's parade route and followed her to the ultrasound room. The sonographer was a chatty woman whose name tag said "Sharon." I was grateful for her kindness as she talked about how glad she was to be able to avoid the road closings downtown, but made no mention of "seeing the baby" or getting pictures to take home.

With gentle precision she placed the ultrasound wand and focused on the screen. She paused. Then I heard her inhale slightly.

Heartbeats by Jennifer Gemar. See more of Jenn's work on her website BeatsByJenn.com.

"Laura," she said. "I'm seeing a heartbeat here."

I craned my neck awkwardly to look over my right shoulder. She was pointing to a white image on the dark background, a flicker that pulsed persistently, over and over. All at once, I began shaking. I tried to still my body but heard my elbow thunk against the examining table. My palms and underarms began to sweat.

"Looks like 150 beats per minute. And the fetus is measuring around 7 weeks."

Fetus. Still shaking, I peeled my sweaty hands off the crinkly-paper-covered table. I looked at the screen again. Flicker, flicker, flicker. Like a lightning bug but more regular; it beat even faster than my own racing pulse.

I got dressed and waited in the examining room for the doctor to come in. When she opened the door, she was grinning.

I got into my car and called my husband, elation bubbling over and blurring my words as I recounted the details. "Wait, what?!" he said. "Really? Really?" I could hear his smile over the phone. Then I started texting: my mom; the friend I'd confided in at the picnic; my college roommate who'd nurtured me all weekend. I'd call them later. For now, this sweetness was mine to savor.

I drove home with the sun on my face. I apologized to my body for my short-sighted anger—for doubting it, when it was sustaining two heartbeats at once. I recognized that I would never know exactly what my body had in store for me. It harbored both incredible resiliency and vast potential to let me down. This would not change: not as this child grew and developed, not as my body brought it into the world, not as I nursed and nourished it, not as I took my first tentative run after childbirth, and not as I aged.

But today the autumn sun was warming my chest, where my heart felt like bursting. I had a printout of black-and-white images in my handbag. I had a follow-up appointment in two weeks.


Laura Donnelly-Smith is an exhibits writer and editor at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Prior to beginning her museum career, she spent a decade writing about education for various publications. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with her husband and two young sons.


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Jenn is a stay-at-home mom-turned-small business owner. When her daughter started school, she decided to take up painting heartbeats as a hobby. She started with small paintings for friends, and before she knew it she was running a small business. You can find her most of the time painting in her dining room-turned-art studio...and reminding her daughter and husband not to touch the wet canvases.