Last July, we sat in the NICU with our fourth–and only living–baby. We were enormously grateful that our baby Evelyn was breathing on her own, generally healthy, growing and alive. While she may have had to spend most hours of the day enclosed in her plastic incubator, it was the best outcome we had ever gotten from four pregnancies. For some families we met, having their precious babies in the NICU was a bombshell ending to their pregnancies. For us, it was the highest we had been throughout our pregnancy nightmares.
Taking a break one day from our NICU bedside vigil, we sat with a middle-aged volunteer in the break room. Cautiously, she chatted with us, asking how our baby was doing. Sharing her story of her daughter, who had recently lost her own baby, she asked me a profound question that most of us going through pregnancy loss and fertility issues face: “how did you find the strength to keep trying?”
For five years, we spent our time beating the odds–and always in the bad way. It is estimated that one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage. We managed to have one of four babies survive. With three lost pregnancies in a row, we officially joined the club of recurrent pregnancy loss. Only 1:100 get the invite.
Our first pregnancy started out typical; all my tests and checkups were good, and the first ultrasound ended with a tiny white blob and a beating heart. It was not until our 18-week ultrasound that our world collapsed. Backhanded by the traumatic news, we never suspected our baby most likely had a rare genetic condition resulting in her non-viable status. Her limbs, unable to stretch out in the womb, were contracted and bent in ways that were clearly not okay. From that point on, nothing was okay. The daunting option of termination dangled in front of our ever tearful eyes, slaying the dream of taking home our baby with each moment we had to contemplate this soul-crushing decision. Saved from this impossible choice, two weeks later our baby Sophia was born. She breathed on her own for an hour-and-a-half. She never opened her eyes, never let out a small cry, never reached her small hands out to us. But her energy, her presence, her soul made us a family of three for the first time. As we smiled at her tiny face and snuggled her gently in her blanket, a calm settled over us. We watched her take her last shallow breath while in my husband’s arms; my heart ripped in half. We had to find a way to leave the hospital empty-handed, and to carry on with life without her.
Our following two losses were far different. Despite the obvious similarities, each miscarriage is like no other. The second baby stopped growing at nine weeks, but we waited four more weeks for my body to naturally let go of the baby. The delayed end was brutal, but I trusted my body to once again do the right thing as it did with Sophia. The last time this little one and I were together was in our bathroom at home. Hysterical sobs echoed around the four walls as I sat slumped on the floor. The doctors told us this loss likely had nothing to do with the first. It was minimally comforting.
The third loss occurred as we neared the end of the first trimester. I had been monitored very closely, had bloodwork done every other day, and all was going well. A heartbeat had been detected several times. The baby survived through some scary complications, as I suffered subchorionic hematomas, passing large clots and bleeding that seemed to definitely indicate another loss. But it did not and the heartbeat lingered–until it didn’t. There was no reason, no warning, no protection for our already bruised souls. Choosing to forgo the excruciating wait for nature to take over, I chose cytotec to help my body along. The day I turned 32, my baby was bottled up and taken back to the doctor for testing.
My response to that NICU volunteer reflected how each pregnancy, each bit of traumatic bit of news we received, each test I endured, each loss we suffered changed my outlook. What drove my life in this direction was not strength. It was not courage. My drive was born out of fear, which prevented me from stopping. In this moment, after our years of unexplained loss and an innocent baby now unfairly fighting each day for her life, I told that volunteer the only thing I knew: “While suffering another traumatic loss is terrifying, going the rest of our lives without knowing what would happen if we tried again was unimaginable.” In other words, we never let the hope, the unknown, slip away from us completely.
There are never guarantees with infertility and pregnancy loss. Clinging to hope does not always end in success. As we enter National Infertility Awareness Week, I am acutely aware of how fortunate we are to have finally beat our odds, and how sensitivity to those who continue to struggle is of utmost importance. Even now that our lives include our rainbow baby, the pain, sadness, and occasional traumatic response to triggers that we have been conditioned to over the past five years never vacates our weary souls. Making peace with what we have been through– and what may still be on the horizon–is a necessary daily struggle. Hope might be blind and unsubstantiated, but it is the faint beacon needed to guide me through our journey.