What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting to Have a Miscarriage on Halloween
Once I realized that my pain was not all that special, I felt so much less alone
My husband left early for work last Halloween. Like, before the sun came up early, as he often has to do for his job working on TV and film sets. Aaron had offered to go in late so that he could take our then-three-year-old son Sam to school and I wouldn’t have to. “Don’t be silly,” I said. “I can handle it.” I wanted to handle it, to keep going.
So I fed Sam his oatmeal, got him dressed in his Tin Man costume, argued with him for 10 minutes about why he couldn’t take his toy ax to school (first I tried “because you don’t want to lose it,” then when that didn’t work I offered “because it’s a weapon,” then finally had to fall back on “because I said so”), put him in the car, and drove him the 25 minutes to preschool.
I walked him up the steps, cheerfully saying hello to the other parents, as if nothing was wrong. I waved to the director in her office, in a meeting with one of the teachers. We entered the Castle Room where I signed Sam in and tucked his lunchbox into his cubby. His teacher (I forget what she was dressed as — maybe a witch?) came up and conspiratorially asked how I was feeling. I was just over 11 weeks pregnant, and she was one of the small, but ever-expanding group of people who already knew.
“Oh,” I said, “I lost the pregnancy. I found out yesterday.” She just stared back at me. “I’m having surgery tomorrow.”
“I’m so sorry,” she sighed, putting her hand on my arm.
I looked up at her as she finally lifted the wand from my belly, and instantly, I knew.
Without thinking, I blurted out “Oh, it’s okay. At least now I don’t have to dress up for Halloween since I have a ghost baby inside me.”
My instinctive attempt at a “joke” landed with a thud… because nothing about it was actually funny. But God bless her, she laughed anyway. What else could she do?
At my ultrasound the previous morning, Aaron and I chatted excitedly with the technician as I settled onto the exam table. She slid her wand over my jelly-covered abdomen, and we waited to hear the old familiar thump-a-thump-a-thump. But there were no thumps. The room was silent. I looked up at her as she finally lifted the wand from my belly, and instantly, I knew. “Really?” I asked, pleading. She met my gaze, nodded slowly, then said “I’ll go get the doctor. She has to be the one to tell you.”
When my OB came into the room, she took my hand as she confirmed that I had had a miscarriage (although no one had yet used the word). The fetus had stopped growing around nine and a half weeks, but I’d been carrying around the “dead tissue,” as she would refer to it, for the past two weeks. This is what’s called a “missed miscarriage,” which is a pretty egregious misnomer if you ask me. It’s when a fetus dies in utero, but the body has no idea. You keep pumping out hormones, your stomach expanding, completely unaware that you’ve become a walking graveyard. There’s no pain, no bleeding, and no warning. Just the look on the ultrasound technician’s face.
My husband was in shock. I started to cry. We followed my OB into her office, where I have no doubt that many women have cried before, and we listened as her words drifted in and out of focus: “one in five pregnancies,” “likely a chromosomal abnormality,” “not your fault,” “schedule your procedure…”
There were more hugs. Reminders that I “don’t have to be strong.” Weeping on the toilet next to the specimen collection cups, until I’d collected myself enough to walk out. The office staff apologized that they couldn’t get me in for a dilation and curettage, or a D&C, the next day, but how about Thursday at 7:00 a.m.? It was less than 48 hours away, but staring down the clock, I wondered how I would ever make it that far.
As we drove home in silence, Aaron gripping the wheel, I shot off a series of identical text messages to our friends and family: “I’m not ready to talk about it yet, but I wanted to let you know I lost the pregnancy. Having a D&C on Thursday.” There were more than a few people to tell, and I wanted to rip off the Band-Aid as soon as possible.
I had, maybe foolishly, not been too careful with the news, assuming that this pregnancy (like my first one) would be easy and uneventful. After all, I’d gotten pregnant on the first try both times, and I’d already given birth to one healthy, perfect child, so what could possibly go wrong?
I’d started spotting around five and a half weeks, and blood tests had revealed very low progesterone levels. The doctor on call prescribed hormone supplements, which stopped the spotting and cramping, and at my eight-week ultrasound everything looked perfect. The tech even commented on the baby’s “overachiever” 189 bpm heart rate. Between the high heart rate and my morning sickness, which was much worse than it had been with my son, I was convinced that not only was this baby perfectly healthy, but she was going to be a girl.
In retrospect, I guess I might have known that something was wrong when I was feeling better several weeks ahead of my normal “home free” threshold of around 13 to 14 weeks, but I try not to be one of those worried pregnant ladies who constantly Googles everything, waiting for some random woman I’ve never met to confirm my worst fears on a BabyCenter message board. I’m a lifelong worrier… just not about getting or staying pregnant.
Of course, I now know that the progesterone pills were likely to blame for the nausea I experienced, and that hormone therapy won’t prevent an inevitable miscarriage, although it can certainly prolong it, as was the case for me. Very low progesterone levels like mine are an early “red flag,” one that is often (though not always) a sign that a pregnancy isn’t viable. Without intervention, I probably would have miscarried by six weeks, as so many women do… many before they ever even know they’re pregnant.
Instead, I carried that pregnancy for almost 12 weeks. Long enough to tell our parents, buy several pairs of maternity jeans, and begin building a secret registry, despite my underlying fear that second-baby registries (while necessary!) are irredeemably tacky. Long enough to begin planning how we would share the news with Sam, who’d been begging for a sibling for months. Long enough that I’d require surgery to remove the dead fetus, which was too large to pass on its own.
My doctor asked us if we wanted to have the tissue tested for chromosomal abnormalities, but we declined after learning that insurance wouldn’t cover the testing unless it was our third consecutive miscarriage. As much as I wanted answers, I quickly decided there were a lot of other things I’d prefer to spend the $900 on — specifically, a plane ticket to France to attend the wedding of a dear friend on the same weekend my now-dead baby was supposed to be born. “Good news!” I texted her. “Looks like we can come to Paris for your wedding after all!”
One of the first things they tell you when you get pregnant is that you shouldn’t go sharing the news until you’re safely in the second trimester, presumably to spare you the pain of having to announce a miscarriage. But in my case, my indiscretion proved to be a blessing in disguise. Because so many people already knew I was pregnant, I had no choice but to tell them about my loss, so suffering alone was simply not an option.
I spent the rest of that day and most of the next surrounded by friends. They came over to feed me deep dish pizza, regale me with insane Tinder dating stories, perform crystal energy healings (whatever, it’s L.A.), and eat a lot of CBD candy (again, it’s L.A.). My best friend in New York overnighted me all three books from the Crazy Rich Asians series. My favorite boss sent a huge bouquet of flowers. I texted with a former co-worker who walked me through what to expect from the procedure, and in the weeks and months that would follow. She warned me that I would be “extra nervous” when I got pregnant again, and smartly advised that when people asked what they could do to help, I should tell them to “bring alcohol.”
I looked her straight in the eye and told the truth. “Actually, I just had a miscarriage a few weeks ago.”
On the eve of my surgery, Sam and Aaron got all decked out as the Tin Man and Scarecrow, respectively. I’d been so excited for Sam’s first year of real trick-or-treating, all the more so that he’d assigned me to dress as Dorothy, a role I very much enjoy. But as much as I wanted to be there with Sam, I just couldn’t bring myself to go outside. I worried I might break down at the first sight of a tiny chubby baby in a pumpkin costume. So off they went, a duo instead of a trio, and home I stayed to wallow and drink wine with my friends.
Plus, I had a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call the next morning to prep for surgery. Another angel of a friend (who had her own two-year-old daughter at home at the time) was going to come over to be at our place when Sam woke up, and hang out with him until we got back from the hospital. I took another CBD chew and went to sleep.
The D&C itself was fairly straightforward, performed at a specialty surgery center affiliated with the hospital closest to our home. For those unfamiliar with a D&C, they dilate the cervix, then scrape out and dispose of the tissue inside. It’s exactly the same procedure, medically, as a first-trimester abortion. Maybe that’s why the inappropriately cheerful pre-op nurse, sensing my anguish, tried to soothe me by offering “Don’t be nervous, sweetie. The doctor has already done three of these this morning!” As if that were the problem.
When they wheeled me into the operating room and the sedatives started to kick in, I remember apologizing to the doctors about how sad I was. I told them over and over “I know I’m not very funny right now, but you need to know that I’m usually a funny person. Actually, I’m hilarious.”
The next thing I knew I was waking up in recovery, my husband by my side. “You did great,” he said. Waves of relief, and of sadness, washed over me. It was finally over.
A month later, I was at the Thanksgiving event at Sam’s school chatting with two of my favorite moms, one of whom was about a month further along in her pregnancy than I would have been. She’d just found out she was having a girl. I was keeping it together remarkably well until the other mom turned to me and asked: “So, when are you going to give Sam a little sister or brother?”
In that moment, it would have been so easy to give a discreet, socially appropriate response that moved the conversation along without offending anyone. I could have smiled and said something like “I don’t know, hopefully soon!” But, I did not do that. Instead, I looked her straight in the eye and told the truth. “Actually, I just had a miscarriage a few weeks ago.”
I saw her expression change as the conversation suddenly shifted from small talk to Real Talk. I felt a twinge of guilt that I couldn’t just let it go. “Oh,” she said, “I’m so sorry.” She took a breath, and then she said something else, something I didn’t expect. “You know, I had so much trouble getting pregnant that I ended up using a donor egg.” Then the other mother chimed in: “It was hard for us, too. It took us almost a year to get pregnant the second time.” Far from being offended, they both seemed almost relieved that I’d opened the door to a conversation women just don’t have out in the open all that often. We talked and talked, about age, pregnancy, fertility, the insane hormone regulating diet my acupuncturist had me on, the pressure of being working mothers in Hollywood, and the shame we feel when our bodies start to betray us.
Over the last year, I’ve found myself in a lot of these conversations, and my unflinching candor has definitely led to its fair share of awkward moments. But more often than not, when I’m willing to go first and just say out loud “I had a miscarriage,” the next thing I hear is some version of “Yeah, me too.”
I’m part of a sisterhood now, one that no one wants to join, but one that has made the unbearable, well, almost bearable.
A year later at Halloween, I was 33 weeks pregnant with a healthy baby boy.
I know how lucky I am that I was able to get pregnant again so quickly, and it’s definitely helped me make peace with what I went through. But so has talking about it, as often and as openly as I possibly can. I’m not interested in suffering in silence, or participating in a private pain Olympics where everybody loses. Miscarriage is deeply, deeply sad, but it’s also sadly normal. Once I realized that my pain was not that special, I felt so much less alone. And that’s when the real healing could begin.