I told my husband, Russell, he could look at the pregnancy test first. After all, it was he who, after 12 fruitless months of trying to conceive, had the feeling we'd hit the jackpot; he who'd cycled as fast as his legs would take him to pick up the tests the minute I giddily admitted that not only was I two days late, but I was also tired with sore boobs. When he emerged from the bathroom, clutching sticks with plus signs, I thought his smile would take over the universe. "Really? Really?" I asked, clinging to him in delighted shock. We were finally, joyfully, pregnant.
The state of first-time motherhood was so blissful and exciting, despite the exhaustion and sickness, that I was in denial anything could go wrong. Once we hit the "safe" mark of 12 weeks, we couldn't wait to unleash the news. I was studying for a master's in English at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and was thrilled to be taking a course on the "cult of motherhood." I could now understand everything the female writers from the 19th century felt; I was part of their gang. After four years at a stressful job in New York City, I'd moved south with my husband; found a large, pretty home; and settled into a student's life. The move couldn't have come at a better time.
Because of my apparent dotage (I would be 35 when I delivered), my pregnancy was deemed high risk for genetic disorders, so along with our first scan at 12 weeks and two days, the doctors performed a nuchal translucency procedure to test for Down syndrome and other issues. It involved a blood test and an ultrasound, to measure the fluid behind the baby's neck. Lying on the hospital bed and seeing the faces of the medical staff turn ashen around me, I knew something was wrong. We were told the baby had too much fluid around its neck and brain. I felt woozy and sank back into the bed, my stomach still exposed and sticky from the ultrasound fluid, while Russell asked questions. The only thing I remember hearing was that we needed to see a specialist immediately.
After 72 agonizing hours pacing our house like zombies, waiting and weeping, we got more details — the specialist showed us a frank kindness I will always be thankful for. "This fetus has zero chance of survival," he said, advising against going through with the amniocentesis or CVS test that would give us more information. "It has some of the largest cystic hygromas I've ever seen, not just around its neck and brain but around its chest and stomach, too. The heart is deformed. It will die inside you within weeks or months. For your health and future fertility, I recommend you eliminate it immediately."
An abortion? My only options were to abort this loved little baby or to have it die inside me? I have always been pro-choice, so the idea of abortion didn't appall me morally, but I didn't feel I was being given a choice. This wasn't the black-and-white scenario activists imagine when they're deciding who to terrorize that day. I'd always felt strongly that women had the right to decide what to do with their bodies, but had carefully avoided getting pregnant before I'd wanted a child.
As soon as the news sank in, I knew an abortion was the only answer — how could I function as a rational, sane woman knowing my baby could die inside me at any moment? I was petrified of waiting too long and being forced to deliver a dead child, a nightmare a friend had been through. "If there's no hope for the baby, let them take care of it as quickly as they can," she pleaded with me. "Waiting for the baby to die and then having to deliver it was the worst experience of my life. Please don't let this be your first experience of childbirth." I remained strong in our decision until, five hours later, I was dressed in my pale blue gown, lying on the gurney. The anesthetist struggled to get the IV into my arm because I was crying so hard, tears soaking my cheeks and neck. I could hear my husband, outside the curtain, on the phone with my mother in London, assuring her I'd be OK. His voice cracked as he struggled to keep his own pain hidden.
"We really wanted this baby," I found myself telling the nurse. "We'd been trying to get pregnant for a while. My father-in-law just died, and we thought this was a sign our lives were improving."
"Are your family all in England? That must be hard," she replied, administering drugs to calm me. I was near-hysterical, trembling with grief.
"They are, but my mother-in-law and two close friends are coming to visit over the next few weeks. We're lucky to have great people around us in Kentucky, too. And my husband ..." I looked out of my cubicle, where I could hear him quietly weeping. "He's the most amazing person in the world."
She shook her head. "Are you religious?"
"But you believe in God?" she assumed. I nodded wearily, unable to argue in my current state.
"Good. You may think your husband, family, or friends can help you now, but the only one who can help you after this is God."
As the drugs took effect and my breathing slowed, she bent over and whispered, "So you'd better start praying for your soul."
Although the nurse did her best to preach her truth (from the goodness of her heart, I honestly believe), I knew my truth, and I remember thinking how cruel it was to undermine my support network when I needed it most.
I'm not sure Kentucky was the best place to go through this experience. I was forced to drive by giant billboards with photographs of fetuses, and pull up behind cars with "Pray to End Abortion" bumper stickers. I was bombarded by anti-abortion propaganda on local radio stations. Those things were there before my abortion, but afterward, they were painful to see. Not everyone in Kentucky has fundamentalist views, of course, but those who do seem to scream the loudest.
The weeks following the abortion passed in a blur. I was mentally and physically depleted. My swollen breasts and belly slowly deflated; the pain remained. My husband no longer kissed my tummy as he left for work each morning. Pregnant women popped up everywhere, but I was no longer part of their gang. My heart felt like it was too heavy to keep beating. I couldn't concentrate at school; I'd deliberately think of other things while students around me discussed the mother as literary heroine.
Now all that's left of our baby is a collection of memorabilia hidden in the bottom drawer of my husband's bedside cabinet: our positive pregnancy tests, the blue crosses still visible; the baby books he read to me on Sunday nights; a CD of the baby's heartbeat at 10 weeks; an ultrasound photo. Our child was due on Christmas day. I doubt that once-joyous occasion will ever feel the same; there will always be the shadow of what-ifs.
The condemnation of abortion under any circumstance pushes grief and depression into dangerous black spots, making women hide their tragedies, leaving them feeling alone and unsupported. If I have learned anything from my ordeal, other than what it actually feels like to be driven insane with grief, it's that women need to support one another, talk openly about this secret topic, and have faith in whichever support network will get them through this personal decision, be it family, friends, and inner strength, or a God who listens to their prayers.