There was nothing chemical about the pregnancy my body briefly nurtured. Its effects may have been invisible to those around me, but the child was real and much desired. The loss was greatly mourned.
A chemical pregnancy is an early miscarriage occurring shortly after implantation, about the fifth week of pregnancy. The cause of chemical pregnancies, which account for between 50 and 75 percent of all miscarriages, is unknown.
After experiencing one, I have come to loathe the term. A chemical pregnancy sounds like a false alarm, as if there had never been a baby, as if all those positive tests were produced by an odd reaction to something I ingested, as if I had cried “wolf.”
It was with incredible elation I discovered I was pregnant with my second child in late August. I welcomed with a happy heart the familiar symptoms of exhaustion, malaise, and shortness of breath. Each day, my assurance grew as the bands on a series of matchstick-sized pregnancy tests darkened, proving the hormones responsible for pregnancy were rising steadily within my body.
When the lines stopped getting darker, but my symptoms continued, I did my best to remain calm. On the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, things took a sudden turn.
The Harsh Realities of ‘Chemical’ Pregnancy
“I think I’m having a miscarriage,” I told my husband, the words making my stomach quake. All night, I tossed and turned, getting up to walk to and from my bathroom as I wondered whether the baby I felt such excitement about, and had so many plans for, was still thriving.
Come morning, I got my answer. Another pregnancy test returned the barest ghost of a line.
All the aspirations I had been clinging to came crashing down around me as I sobbed in the quiet darkness of my kitchen. I walked to my calendar, where I had marked each Monday for the remainder of 2019 with the number of weeks my pregnancy was supposed to reach. With a black Sharpie, I drew an “X” through the “5” written on Labor Day and thoroughly defaced each consecutive pointless reminder. Upstairs, I heard my daughter talking to the stuffed animals in her crib. From the moment I saw her face, my weak smile became authentic.
My obstetrician’s office was closed for the holiday, which dragged by incredibly slowly. I descended into a rabbit hole of message boards filled with women who shared my symptoms. While some had gone on to lose their babies, others carried perfectly healthy children to term. I struggled in the face of this new uncertainty, alternately convinced I was still pregnant, and then convinced I had lost the baby.
I waited for Tuesday morning to take the final test in my medicine cabinet. When it returned a negative result, I felt that last shred of hope disintegrate. Along my sink, an array of pregnancy tests displayed lines of increasing darkness, then progressive lightness, and now nothing at all. I gathered them up and shoved them angrily into the trash can.
I soon got a call from an empathetic nurse in my obstetrician’s office, who asked a series of questions. Because of my blood type, she immediately scheduled me for a shot of RhoGAM. She also wanted me to undergo a two-day series of blood tests to prove I was experiencing a miscarriage and not a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy. I knew neither option presented the possibility that my body held a viable baby.
“How are you feeling, physically?” the nurse asked me at the end of our call.
“I feel great,” I told her, explaining how my pregnancy symptoms were gone, and I’d just finished my first run in days that did not feel like I had undertaken a marathon up Everest. “But I wish I felt as terrible as I did a few days ago,” I added.
My blood tests proved conclusively what I already knew: I had experienced a chemical pregnancy.
Dealing with Miscarriage Requires Community Support
Between 10 and 25 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. Because about 80 percent of miscarriages occur in the first trimester, it has become common for women to wait until their second trimester to announce a pregnancy.
With my daughter, I held out for week 13 before filling in most friends and family about our bundle of joy. But with my second, I began to spread the good news right away. My excitement was too great to contain, and besides, those who know me best would have guessed at the news from the triumphant happiness exploding from my being.
After the test came back, I kept news of the miscarriage to myself, trying to process the simple fact that my plans had changed, that there was emptiness where a baby was supposed to grow. I felt foolish for speaking about the baby so early because it meant forcing my loved ones to share in my distress.
When I mustered up the positivity to explain the sad turn of events, I found my concerns were unwarranted. All were kind and expressed genuine concern. Nearly everyone I spoke with knew someone who had suffered a far more heart-wrenching loss but had gone on to have healthy pregnancies. Those who loved me made sure I was wrapped in love, surrounded by hope.
Mothers Also Need to Grieve Privately
Processing the loss personally, however, required periodically exiting the community of love and entering a world of solitary grieving. For the first week, I would occasionally feel a tremendous weight descend upon me as I remembered that the plans I was making had been cast aside. Inside my mind, I entertained thoughts that ran the gamut of sardonic acceptance, guilt, devastation, and a fear of what the future might hold.
At times, I have been deeply concerned that this miscarriage is somehow a precursor of losses and fierce anxiety to come. I wonder, more often than ever, whether I was ever intended to become a mother of two. I certainly have struggled with the sensation that the loss was my karmic comeuppance for past wrongs. More than anything, I have wondered whether my own actions caused the loss.
In between bouts of wrestling with those dark thoughts, I experienced moments of tremendous positivity. I sought the stories of women who had experienced pregnancy loss. I found strength in their ability to press on toward the future while grieving losses which occurred at more advanced stages than my own. I also felt a gushing sense of gratitude for my daughter and for the uncomplicated nature of my prior pregnancy and birth.
I eased myself back into normal life by reintroducing the activities I love, but which had so recently become forbidden: taking long, hot baths with a good book, sipping giant mugs of fully caffeinated coffee, drinking dark beer and red wine, and returning to a more challenging running routine. Slowly but surely, I was feeling like myself.
I had not thought about the miscarriage for nearly a week when an email arrived with my medical bill. I was bothered at how this unexpected expense ate into the savings my husband and I had accumulated to cover the copay for what we had hoped would be a live birth. The several hundred dollars I owed my obstetrician were another reminder that a chemical pregnancy is a very real event.
Over the next few days, the familiar sadness resurged and descended at unexpected times. Then, as before, it gradually began to retreat.
My Mind Needed Healing, Too
The moment I knew my daughter was forming in my womb, it seemed my heart began to expand. It was only after nurses placed her in my arms that I understood the tremendous factor by which it had grown.
I had already sensed my heart making room to accommodate the newest member of my family. My miscarriage had made that new space cave in utterly. Hoping to repair by rebuilding, I initially wanted to cover this loss with another pregnancy as quickly as possible.
The nursing staff at my obstetrician’s office had other plans. They advised me to wait at least a month, until my body returned to normal function, before my husband and I began to try for another child. My lengthy grieving process proved that the part of me that truly required healing was my mind.
Last Saturday morning, I set out to plant several dozen tulip bulbs along the border of my front garden. Tools at the ready, I stared with frustration at the series of dahlia plants crawling across the future tulip border. The dahlia vines were as thick as my wrist and bore at least 30 beautiful but wilting flowers the size of salad plates.
I had planted about a dozen of the dahlia bulbs during the late spring months, after the hard ground had thawed. Half had thrived, putting out almost 100 intricate, colorful flowers, while the remaining half sprouted only thin vines and nary a bud.
The previous week, I had carefully cut back all the thin plants and gently pulled their small bulbs from the soil for indoor storage during another harsh Michigan winter. It had been light, painless work. I was reserving the harder labor for later but forgot about it until it came time to plant my tulips.
I exchanged equipment and began cutting back the thick dahlia vines, which I piled in the wheelbarrow as their spent petals littered the mulch around my feet. When I dug my fingers around these root systems, however, I found the bulbs had doubled and even tripled in size and were firmly planted deep in the soil.
Hopes Are Difficult To Uproot
As I sweltered in the sun, the exercise became fraught with purpose: My dahlias became a metaphor for my grieving process.
Because of the early stage of my pregnancy, some of my hopes never had the chance to flourish. I had never heard the baby’s heartbeat or hung sonogram printouts on my refrigerator. I felt neither the second-trimester fluttering kicks nor the third-trimester jabs and gymnastics. I did not discover my child’s sex, decide on a name, or decorate a nursery. The death of those unfulfilled hopes was simpler to grieve. Like my flimsy, nonflowering dahlias, the roots were easy to extricate.
But some of my hopes had taken off. I knew when and how I planned to welcome my child into the world. I had imagined my daughter becoming an older sister just weeks before her third birthday. I had pictured my growing family of four and had begun sharing my hopes with others, who echoed my enthusiasm. That baby had started to make its presence known — my poppy seed-sized running companion, my tiny napping partner. Those realities had flourished. Like my flowering dahlias, uprooting them was no easy task.
By the time the bed was clear, I was covered in soil. My fingers and shoulders were sore. My energy was spent, and I saved the tulips for another day.
A chemical pregnancy may be invisible to onlookers, but it is a loss that demands grieving. The hopes associated with having a child require little to take root, and when they are cut down, it can feel devastating.
Soon, I expect I will have prepared my heart for whatever aches or joys the future may bring. But for now, rather than merely plastering over my sorrow, I am content to complete the hard work of saying goodbye to what may have been.