Mourning the child we never had

The last few months have been eventful in our family. A relative experienced a health crisis, which necessitated a last-minute trip. School started, and while its rhythms are familiar to us, the first few weeks were chaotic as we rediscovered alarm clocks, uniform wearing, homework and piano practice, and all the million coordinations that come with the routine of classes and their concomitant responsibilities. Our eldest and Jon went on a class trip to Yellowstone National Park for a few days. Our family prepared for our annual open house, which coincided with our church district’s fall conference. We enjoyed the company of another pastor’s family at our house for some days, and then my parents came to visit. The Mount Hope Lutheran School PTO, of which I am a part, planned and executed its annual fall carnival, too, in the midst of all that.

And in early September, I took a pregnancy test, and it was positive.

The first few weeks were as normal as pregnancy can be with me. After seven pregnancies and six births, I know to expect extreme fatigue and nighttime insomnia (I wish I could take credit for that winning combination), as well as nausea. Throughout September, the symptoms were manageable. For the first time, out of all my pregnancies, I felt like I’d figured out how to balance the physical discomforts with daily living. I took afternoon naps and several times went to bed immediately after supper. I ate almonds and bananas and other small snacks as soon as the nausea started, and that normally kept it at bay (again, I wish I could take credit for the oxymoronic juxtaposition of simultaneous queasiness and the biological necessity of eating). I felt, with my husband, the 10% pure joy of knowing we would be parents again and the 90% nervous, half-disbelieving hilarity of knowing that, once again, we would be parents yet again.

Then October came, and all of a sudden, my nausea became intensely, irrevocably worse.

I spoke to our family physician at a well-child visit, and he chalked the sudden change up to my multiple pregnancies and my age. I slogged through a few now-hazy weeks, with the help of my indomitable husband who managed to fix meals, wash dishes, clean and fold laundry, and generally keep our household from dissolving into complete disaster. I took B6, a vitamin that can help with nausea, and Unisom, an over-the-counter sleep aid that also combats nausea. In the past, even a half tablet of Unisom would help me sleep and take away the nausea. This time, it seemed that nothing I did made any difference.

Along with many other questions I’d recorded in my little pregnancy notebook for weeks, I resolved to ask–no, beg, and on my  knees if necessary–my obstetrician, Dr. M, to prescribe something to keep the sickness at bay. At the same time, I thanked God every time I felt particularly awful. Two friends in early pregnancy had miscarried in September, and I knew that nausea was an uncomfortable, even debilitating, symptom that most experienced moms took as a good sign of a progressing pregnancy. When nausea is high, it indicates that hCG, or human chorionic gonadotropin, is also high. Most moms know hCG as the pregnancy hormone, the component that those little pregnancy test sticks measure and shows that, yes, baby is there and growing. My sister-in-law even speculated that I might be carrying twins. The thought was jarring, but not completely unwelcome. I told her at the very least I figured the baby was a girl. I’ve always felt significantly sicker with my daughters during pregnancy.

***

I was relieved to get to my first obstetrical appointment at my eleven week mark. The nurses and receptionists whom I knew from our last child’s birth greeted me warmly and congratulated me. They gave me a bag of goodies they give to all new moms, saying, “You probably don’t need this.” I told them I liked reading all the info I’d forgotten and savoring each baby.

Dr. M greeted me with a smile and a hug before my appointment. As we waited for the ultrasound room to vacate, I heard the leaving nurse ask, “So what do you think?” and a man’s voice, audibly shaking, respond, “I think we’re still in shock.” He didn’t sound frightened; simply overwhelmed at the sight of seeing their child. For the first time in weeks, despite the nausea that rose even as I waited, I emotionally grew excited at the thought of another precious baby in our family.

Dr. M asked me some questions as she prepared the ultrasound machine. I mentioned the nausea, and she promised to prescribe Zofran as a help for the next few weeks. She placed the wand on my belly, and we both watched as my uterus appeared. I’ve seen a lot of ultrasounds, and normally a big black circle with a visible squirming baby within it shows up within seconds. Instead, we both saw what looked like a snowstorm in my uterus, with no sign of a baby. After a brief silence, Dr. M said softly and slowly, “This looks concerning. I think you have a molar pregnancy.” She quickly arranged to have a local radiologist review a second ultrasound that I would get immediately at another facility. She gave me a hug and said she would call me that night.

Before I left the now empty waiting room, I thought about leaving the pregnancy goodie bag behind. But I just couldn’t leave it. I carried it with me to the car and cried all the way to the other clinic.

***

A molar pregnancy is rare–something like one out of 1,000 pregnant mothers experience one. Material I received through Wyoming Medical Center contained a more succinct description than those I found in the score or so of Google-led searches. “A molar pregnancy (hydatidiform mole) is a mass of tissue that grows in the uterus after conception. The mass is created by an egg that was not fertilized correctly and abnormally grows. It is an abnormal pregnancy… [in a complete molar pregnancy,] all of the chromosomes in the fertilized egg come from the father; none come from the mother.” I was diagnosed with a complete molar pregnancy. Neither ultrasound picked up any sign of a baby at any stage.

The little mole wasn’t just a devastating sign that what we had thought for six weeks was a baby actually wasn’t. It also meant that I would need a D & C, a neat acronym for a bloody surgery otherwise known as dilation and curettage that would remove my snowstorm tissue. For the abnormal cells could develop into tumors which could become pre-cancerous; they also could cause a hemorrhage. So Dr. M wanted to get them out, and fast. Another complication was that my hCG levels were the highest that Dr. M had ever seen–over a million. That number was–no kidding– higher than women who carry multiples. Such high levels can trigger severe bleeding as well as thyroid problems, some of them very serious.

So in a morbidly ironic circumstance, I had won the statistical lottery. I had not only scored a mole–and not anything as comforting and gentle as Mole in The Wind in the Willows, a simple, endearing creature out looking for adventure. I bore all the physical signs and symptoms of carrying a baby, but without a baby. And the experience would not end with my surgery, which posed its own risks. I would also need to get weekly blood tests to measure if and how fast my hCG would drop, which would indicate if the mole would grow again and require further treatment–or more accurately, annihilation.

Dr. M was incredibly thorough and supportive. She called me three times the day before the surgery to explain what would happen and what could happen. A hysterectomy was a possibility; if I started to bleed too fast, she would remove my uterus to save my life. I could hardly wrap my mind around the whirlwind of facts. On Wednesday afternoon, I thought I carried a baby in my womb. By Wednesday night, I knew not only that I did not carry a baby–not a girl, not twins. I also knew that I did carry something potentially dangerous. On Friday morning, my womb would be empty, and my chances of ever carrying a baby again might be zero.

***

Simple, Loveable Mole from The Wind in the Willows By Eli Moody.

I am now ten days past my D & C. The surgery proceeded as successfully as it possibly could. Dr. M was ecstatic afterwards, explaining how none of the careful backup plans and extra personnel involved had been necessary. I still have my uterus. My healing has been swift and my recovery good. My family and I have been overwhelmed by prayers, messages, the presence and help of many friends, which I will write about soon. But suffice it to say, I am extremely grateful to be able to write this, feeling as I do, and cherishing what I have.

Most of the above details about my experience are likely superfluous, but I leave them here, in part, because unlike a miscarriage, I have no physical tie to a child. We suffered a miscarriage thirteen years ago, and while the experiences are similar, the particulars make them vastly different. Someday I will write about the miscarriage here. For now, let this post serve as my memorial to our child that never was.

One of my favorite Lutheran writers is a wonderful woman named Katie Schuermann, whose first book was He Remembers the Barren. The book and blog by the same title speak clearly and compassionately to the ongoing suffering women, and husbands and families, experience when God has not opened the womb. It also speaks to the boundless love of God in Christ, who loves us not because of what we do or bear or birth, but because He lived and died for us. I don’t know if Katie has spoken about molar pregnancies, but having experienced this, I feel more deeply for barren women and the ache they carry in their empty arms. They know what grief for a child that never was is like.

Because molar pregnancies are rare, and because they carry the term “pregnancy,” they are difficult to explain, particularly with a complete molar pregnancy. People understand miscarriages; they are unfortunately common enough that everyone knows someone touched by infant loss. Many hospitals hold burial ceremonies for miscarried babies, a wonderful service to grieving parents and families. We know what to think and do when a child, even a tiny one, dies. But when our bodies proclaim “Baby!” and no baby ever formed, our grief is strange and dreamlike, yet visceral and shockingly physically real.

Years ago, I had a friend I’ll call Lilly who told me excitedly that she was expecting. She and her husband enjoyed their children, but years had gone by since their youngest was born, and I think Lilly had experienced secondary infertility for some time. So the fact that she was carrying another child was overwhelmingly joyful. I can still picture her, crying and beaming on my front porch as she brought us apples.

A short time later, Lilly was diagnosed with a molar pregnancy. I read about it as she went through treatments, thankfully, and became somewhat familiar with its particulars. At one point, she asked me if it was okay for her to mourn. “I just don’t know if I should feel so sad,” she said, tears running down her cheeks. “After all, there never was a baby.”

Perhaps I’m completely theologically wrong about this, but this is what I thought then, and this is what I told her. In a perfect world, where all eggs and sperm would have healthy chromosomes, and bodies would be able to carry wee ones effortlessly, Lilly would have a baby. So of course she could mourn the loss of a child, even though she could not point to a burial site for that child. I have held on to this as I mourn the loss of our child that never was. When our children asked, “Are you sure there’s not a baby?” and felt sad that they would not enjoy another sibling, we grieved, and still grieve, together. Again, it is a different grief from losing a child in the flesh. But it is grief nonetheless, a weeping for the ideal that we do not have, for the reality of life that in these instances is impossible.

In another small irony, I wrote about Mole in The Wind in the Willows years ago, under different circumstances involving saying goodbye to a beloved home. Mole remembers his home that he feels is lost, and his grief echoes ours.

The Mole subsided forlornly on a tree-stump and tried to control himself, for he felt it surely coming. The sob he had fought with so long refused to be beaten. Up and up, it forced its way into the air, and then another, and another, and others thick and fast; till poor Mole at last gave up the struggle, and cried freely and helplessly and openly, now that he knew it was all over and he had lost what he could hardly be said to have found.”

“It was all over and he had lost what he could hardly be said to have found.” This is us–mourning the loss of a life that this earth had never seen.

Our experience has been so recent that I may sound glib in saying this, but God has been so gracious to me and to our family. I can’t pretend to understand why this happened, but I am not bitter. I am sad, very sad. I know I will cry again over weeks and months. But I do not begrudge God or anyone our experience. Truly, how could I? We have been overwhelmingly blessed. And I have been reminded so many times in the last few weeks of how faithful God is to us. My father sent me Psalm 119:50 before my surgery: “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.” God has given me life here on earth. He gave me faith in my baptism, the faith that confesses that even though someday I die, yet shall I live in Christ. Christ lost everything for me. He bore my suffering on the cross, and He bears me now, even and especially my afflictions, and will unto eternity.  Therefore, even as I grieve, I give thanks, for He has done all things well. 

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