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Ordinarily I am distracted by looking at myself on zoom calls, but tonight at UUCA’s congregational meeting where we announced our call of Rev. Amanda Poppei to be our next senior minister and she accepted, I was beaming. I couldn’t stop smiling.

There are few endeavors I’ve been a part of that have been as demanding and singularly focused as the ministerial search committee. The two that come to mind are pregnancy and childbirth. While those experiences were definitely more physically taxing, I think serving on the MSC may have been more emotionally and intellectually challenging. Of course since it’s been 7 years since I was last pregnant I could be misremembering in that way that the details of childbirth become hazy when you’re removed from it.

In one of the books I just read, Writers & Lovers, the narrator—Casey—talks about how all the male writers she’s known have been unwaveringly confident that they have at least one great book inside, ready to be written. But neither she nor her female writer friends ever seem so sure, even when they devote their lives to writing that book. In one scene, Casey is talking with her obnoxious landlord and he says to her about her book something like, “I can’t imagine you have anything to say.” Which makes Casey wonder if she does.

I was thinking tonight about this and about a conversation I had with my friend Art from church at a leadership retreat a couple years ago. I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about except that it had to do with my writing, and what was keeping me from sharing more of it with the world. I think he asked me something like what was I afraid of, and I didn’t know. I realize now that this is vague and doesn’t sound particularly motivational, but whatever he said made me feel braver.

At first I resisted the nomination to join the MSC, for a variety of good reasons. Then my friend D, who is also a writer, and who served on a previous MSC, told me that the heart of the search process is storytelling, and that’s why I needed to serve. She explained that the first part of the search is listening to the congregation’s stories and crafting a narrative from them about the church. The next part of the process is listening to the stories of the ministers who apply for the position. And finally, you have to tell the story of your candidate to the congregation so they will see in the candidate what you saw and vote to call them as your minister. Of course this is a significant oversimplification, and she didn’t mention how many thousands of hours the whole thing takes, but what D describes was true. And I thought, that’s what I’m good at—listening to people and helping tell their stories.

Often when strangers ask what I do for a living and I say writer, they ask if I’ve written any books. No, I haven’t written any books, I explain. And most people move on or tune out after that. But if they actually want to know more, I tell them. And I am really proud of what I do. I’m proud of the people who I interview and write about and they say, “you made me sound so much more interesting than I actually am.” But they really are more interesting than they realize. I’m proud of the stories I write about nonprofit organizations that educate and inspire people to get involved or contribute. I’m proud of the essays and poems I write that people can relate to, or that make people laugh, or think about something differently. And I am proud of everything I wrote for the ministerial search committee because what I wrote helped us find a spectacular new minister. Of course I didn’t do it alone. Our team was made up of some of the most thoughtful, intelligent, and hardworking people I have ever known. The rest of them have skills and insights that I do not possess. But I am proud that my skills and insights mattered. D was absolutely correct that the search process is about storytelling. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to be a storyteller for this community that I love, especially knowing that the person we found to be our next minister is going to change people’s lives and those people will change the world, in ways large and small. To know this, and to know that words I wrote are catalysts, like the object at the beginning of a Rube Goldberg invention that gets the ball rolling to cause a spectacular chain reaction, fills me with joy.

I think girls and women are often told, subconsciously or overtly, to stay small and be nice, and are criticized when they stand up for themselves or proudly stand by their hard work. Elizabeth Warren, Taylor Swift, Megan Rapinoe, and Glennon Doyle are women I admire who come to mind, but there are a million more examples. I will probably never be famous, but I am a role model for my kids, and I’m a writer, and I’m proud of what I do.

Zeke is nine days old today. Four years of yearning have come to a fruitful and blessed conclusion with his birth. I can hardly express how much better it is in every possible way to be able to snuggle with him outside of my body instead of carrying him within. Our lives have changed so much in the past couple weeks that any words I can think of frankly seem inadequate to the task of describing what we’re feeling and have experienced, but–being a writer–I feel compelled to try to come up with those words anyway. So here are a few brief chapters.

I. The Birth Story (only for those who are truly interested)

We checked into the hospital on a Sunday night so I could be induced on the day before my due date because the doctors suspected Zeke was particularly big and might be too large to be delivered normally if we waited until he was late. The clinical term for this, we learned in the hospital, is macrosomia. It turned out that he was not gigantic, or even bigger than his sister was at birth, although he felt much bigger and heavier to me when I was pregnant. And throughout the day I labored, every person who gave me an exam said, “wow, he has a big head.”

But it was definitely the right time for him to be born. My OB showed me after Zeke was born a knot in his umbilical cord. She said it was a loose knot, but a knot all the same. Anyway, mid-morning on Monday they started me on Pitocin. I breathed through the contractions for a few hours. The doctor broke my water. An Austrian anesthesiologist gave me an epidural. Every single nurse I interacted with in the labor and delivery ward was fantastic. They were all professional, knowledgeable, helpful, and kind. In terms of the hospital staff, our experience this time was completely different than when Zoe was born. It was a pleasure giving birth at Virginia Hospital Center.

Sometime in the evening the contractions broke through the epidural, my cervix went from 5cm to 10cm dilated in less than an hour, Zeke’s heart rate dropped, they gave me oxygen, and suddenly it was time to push. I pushed for nine minutes and he was out. It was a great labor and delivery. Thankful and relieved.

II. Best Baby Daddy Ever

IMG_8525I am so thankful for my husband. He was extraordinarily wonderful throughout every moment of my labor and delivery and those first days in the hospital and at home. It has been powerful to watch him fall in love with our son and I have deeply appreciated everything he has done for me, for Zoe, and for Zeke. None of us is happy that he has to be back at work now. All of us are lucky that he is Zoe and Zeke’s dad.

III. Siblings

IMG_8510Zoe loves her brother. This is clear. She wants to assist with every diaper change and every bath and she asks to hold him often. She kisses his head and she says he is the cutest baby ever.

She has also said, “I wish I were Zeke,” and “I wish I could nurse,” and “Zeke’s getting more attention than me,” and there have been more than a couple moments of sisterly anguish. We know this is normal. It is not unexpected. But it is not easy either. It’s hard when it’s my turn to put Zoe to bed and Zeke interrupts us by demanding dinner number two or three. Zoe loves it (as do I) that I can once again snuggle in bed with her without my belly getting in the way, that I can sit on the floor to play with her, and that I am not quite as delicate as I recently was.

But competing for attention is hard, especially with someone who is attached at the breast to your mom for a good chunk of every day and night. She has insisted that he sleep in the crib in their room even though he sometimes squeaks very loudly at night. She has stopped asking to carry him around. She is enjoying the extra attention from her grandparents who are here to help out, and she hungrily soaked up all the extra time with Daddy before he returned to work. It’s a transition and an adjustment for all of us, and we’ve been very honest about that with her.

When she was holding him on her lap, in her bed at bedtime the other night, I asked her how she felt when she held him. “Proud,” she said. We’ll go with that, for now.

IV. Me

IMG_1870My friend Kim says this post-arrival haze is called Planet Newborn in her family. Makes sense to me. Spending hours nursing or just holding this little person who recently lived inside of you is an otherworldly experience. It can be meditative. It can be exhausting. It feels miraculous and at some moments overwhelming. Sometimes you never want to leave, because you know you can’t go back (at least with this baby). Your regularly scheduled existence feels so far away, which may be a good thing, but which you also know is not sustainable. I don’t want to think about the future too much because it kind of breaks my heart, and because I need to be in this Zen place right now to attend to Zeke. But at the same time, I have a kindergartener to whom I want and need to give generous love and attention to right now as well. But I don’t want to think about returning to my work, or making a to-do list, or anything else besides loving my family and providing for some of our basic needs. That’s all I can handle right now, and all that I’m good for.

On Sunday at All Souls Church, Unitarian, Rev. Rob Hardies preached a sermon based on the words of William Henry Channing, an abolitionist minister who was actually the leader of All Souls during the Civil War and the advice of Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church. The theme was “want what you have, be who you are, do what you can.” This is my mantra for 2013.

I have long clung to anxiety so tightly that at times I forget how to relax. I don’t know what to do if I’m not worrying about something. I am always asking myself an unending series of usually unanswerable questions that begin with “what if.” While trying to anticipate my own and others’ needs and always be prepared for what might happen can sometimes be useful, mostly it just makes me crazy.

It happens that things usually turn out ok. And if it doesn’t, there isn’t necessarily anything I could have done to prevent problems. Although there are many glittery and bejeweled wands in our house, I have yet to use one to create actual magic.

Especially when you’re facing a big event such as the birth of your long-awaited second child, there are a lot of unknowns. When will he arrive? How will the birth go? What will he be like? How will his sister react? How are we going to rearrange our house to accommodate another human? Only the last question is one we can actually figure out and deal with. Most of my questions will be answered only in time.

I have never been one to sit well with the unknown. Dealing with fertility issues proved challenging and even once I was pregnant, I didn’t stop worrying. I am all too aware of all the potential dangers and I know a heartbreaking number of people who have suffered losses of all kinds. And this pregnancy has not been easy and I have not felt good throughout it.

But I am thankful every day for the little boy who is now the size of an ear of corn wiggling around in my womb. I would not trade the itching or the heartburn or the discomfort for anything. I am thankful that Zoe is so eager to become a big sister, even though she has no idea what she’s really getting into. I am moved every night when she kisses my belly and tells her brother a joke or sings him a song or tells him she loves him with all her heart.

There are so many things I don’t know, about this baby and about everything else. My worries aren’t going to dissolve. But I know from experience that amplifying them and letting them consume me doesn’t make them go away or solve anyone’s problems. I can clean out closets and register Zoe for camp and make lists of baby gear we will need. That helps. Worrying about when we will do everything will not help. We will do it, sooner or later. People who love us will help when we need it. We are so lucky to have a home and means to take care of a new family member. I know that his early existence will not be the same as Zoe’s–not that it will be worse or better, but it’s guaranteed to be different. So worrying about that will not help. It is what it is. I have a baby coming this spring, and I want it. I am a great mom, and I relish in that role, even though it’s often a challenge and will soon be even more exhausting. And I’m doing the best I can. I care for others and I contribute to the world. I could do more, but I could also do less. I’m doing what I can.

I’m thinking of painting this advice on the wall above my desk. Seems so obvious, but also so wise, at least for me.

Last night when Zoe’s foot was nestled in the small of my back and her elbow wedged into my neck, as we listened to the Banana Slug String Band for the fifth time, trying to drown out the sound of hail on the window and thunder in the air, I was thinking. What else was there to do? Sleep was not an easy option.

Among other thoughts, I was thinking about the appointment scheduled for this morning to begin testing for fertility treatment. After three years of trying to create a sibling for Zoe and only a miscarriage and two D&Cs to show for it, we realized that something needed to change. We didn’t want to give up. But continuing to do what we’d been doing seemed fruitless, and if you’ve ever been down this road, you know the fun diminishes rapidly. I’ve tried acupuncture, herbs American and Chinese, and supplements. I’ve taken all kinds of well-intentioned advice, and ignored some. What clearly worked like a magic charm for everyone else hadn’t done the trick for us.

And we’d already consulted a fertility specialist a couple years ago. He was rude and arrogant and supremely unhelpful. So part of me dreaded seeing someone else, given our unpleasant experience. But someone reminded me that our sample was very small. So I made an appointment. Then I postponed it for a week. They sent us a lot of forms to fill out. They asked me to call our insurance company, which covers pretty much nothing. They cover the cost of seeing a doctor to see if something’s wrong with you, and if it is, they will pay to have you fixed. But technically one’s inability to have a baby is not a medical problem that requires attention.

So every step I took slowly and consumed with apprehension.

I felt somehow like going to a fertility clinic was admitting defeat. Saying we’d failed at doing this thing that people are supposed to be able to do easily. This thing that everyone else in the world seems to have no trouble with, at least that’s how it appears when I feel like I’m being assaulted by an army of pregnant women every time I leave the house. I do have a few friends who conceived their babies through IVF. Of course I don’t think that they failed. They did what they had to do. But the fact that we’re at this point where I feel like we have to do something is maddening. I don’t want to have to make this choice. But I want a baby, and waiting around does not improve the odds. As our new doctor (who reminds me a bit of the actor Richard Schiff) reminded us when we met him, you really can’t think about the odds too much, because you’re either pregnant or you’re not. Zero or 100%. But when you’re thinking about treatment, you have to look at the numbers. At my age, the changes of getting pregnant during any given month are only 2%-3%. Turns out every month when you think you’re ovulating, you’re only sending out an egg–or at least a good egg-maybe half or two-thirds of the time. And you have no way of knowing when the good months are and when you shouldn’t bother.

The doctor said there’s no reason we shouldn’t have another baby. The fact that Zoe exists and that she was conceived naturally is the biggest item in our favor. But, as Tom Petty so eloquently put it, the waiting is the hardest part. So the doctor said he recommended IUI, which is a step below IVF in terms of invasiveness and in cost. None of this is cheap, for sure. And it all involves a lot of hormones and ultrasounds and blood tests and all kinds of things that you wish you didn’t have to do.

Which, obviously, I don’t have to do. No one is forcing this on me. But we want a baby. Zoe wants to be a big sister more than anything. She has long been so interested in pregnancy that we’ve predicted she will become an OB or midwife or perhaps a neonatologist. And I loved being pregnant with her. I want to be pregnant again. And I don’t want to be 45 when it happens. At the same time, we have this wonderful girl. As much as we all want a baby, when we are getting dressed at the pool, or going to gymnastics class, or driving anywhere, and I see families with more than one child, I realize how relatively easy we have it. Zoe can feed and dress and bathe herself. She can read. She can swim. We’re in a good place.

I was seven when my sister was born, to the utter surprise and delight of my parents. So I enjoyed being an only child for quite a while, as does Zoe, but I too begged for a sibling. I don’t even know what reproductive technology was available to my parents, but they just assumed they were lucky to have me, and that was that. I know we are spectacularly lucky to have Zoe. I don’t think it’s wrong to want more though. But having to step into this world of unknowns and procedures and calculating the odds seems so forbidding.

I had my appointment this morning. Everything was normal. Which is good. Next test is Friday. I’ve realized that the scheduling of this procedure will depend somewhat on Zoe’s school schedule, because the testing they do is all in the morning, when I am typically driving Zoe to camp. Obviously most people they’re treating don’t have to worry about anyone else’s camp schedule, and would give anything to have such a complication.

From down the hall I hear yet another round of the Banana Slug String Band. Evidently Zoe can’t sleep either. I heard her reading Mouse Tales. I heard her coloring pictures of princesses (ok I couldn’t hear what the pictures were of, but I went to inspect). I don’t know what she’s thinking about. I told her to count American Girls to help her sleep. Maybe I should try that too, or maybe visions of ripe follicles filled with healthy eggs ready to burst forth into fallopian tubes. Or maybe I should stick to sheep.

When I was pregnant with Zoe in 2006 my mom gave me a book that had belonged to her when she was pregnant with me in 1973. She gave it to me because she thought I would enjoy the photos of embryo and fetus in various stages of development, so I could see larger-than-life representations of what was going on inside me. The pictures were neat, but then I made the mistake of reading the text. The spirit of the book seemed to be “you can be pregnant and STILL be pretty, feminine, and otherwise pretend you’re not pregnant at all!” The author detailed various techniques women could use to hide their growing bellies, including putting a band-aid or tape on the offending belly button that pops out a few months into a pregnancy. The book also recommended make-up as well as accessories such as scarves, all of which would draw attention away from the baby inside you while emphasizing your lovely womanhood. I suppose they wanted you to look womanly, but not so womanly that you would reveal that you were in the process of the embodiment of womanhood-carrying a child.

Certainly we’ve come a long way in thirty-some years toward making pregnancy more acceptable in polite society and embracing–at times even exploiting–the female figure with child. Think naked and pregnant Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair. But there remains a great deal of secrecy around pregnancy, the symptoms that often accompany it, and the risks and challenges of it.

The conventional wisdom when you’re pregnant is that you keep it a secret at least until the first trimester is over. The rationale here is that if you should have a miscarriage–although people generally say “if anything happens”–you wouldn’t want to have to tell all the people you shared the good news with that you now have bad news. Or you wouldn’t want well-meaning people asking how your pregnancy is going when in fact, it isn’t.

I think this attitude about the beginning of pregnancy, and the resulting secrecy, is absurd and perhaps even dangerous.

Why, during the first trimester of pregnancy in which you are usually completely exhausted, nauseous or throwing up all the time, and overwhelmed by the avalanche of hormones that’s making you crazy, are you supposed to keep it a secret? This is when you really need the help. Sure, in your third trimester when you’re huge, it’s a welcome relief to have someone else helping with physically demanding chores, or making dinner, but it’s also easier to solicit assistance when you’re lumbering around. It’s obvious you’re pregnant and most (polite and thoughtful) people will ask if you need help. It’s especially easy to get a lot of sympathy from your husband during this stage. But at the beginning you’re not supposed to tell anyone what’s happening, so there’s no way to ask for a little relief or commiseration. Particularly when you’re pregnant and the parent of a preschooler, any kind of helpful hand would be such a blessing. Really, not even physical help, but just compassion and empathy is so welcome at this point. Being able to say to someone when you’re dropping your kid off at preschool “I feel so nauseous today I can hardly stand up” and hearing that someone else has been there, and that it sucks but you’ll survive. Particularly when you’re pregnant with your second child, it would be nice to be able to pull aside parents of two or three and ask “how did you manage this? What secrets can you share about not ignoring your child when you’re growing another one? And how did you make it work for your kids to share a room?” And all of those questions that you have absolutely no way of answering yourself.

For these reasons alone, it would be so freeing and reassuring to feel comfortable telling anyone you wanted to that you’re pregnant. But then, what if you have a miscarriage?

Are you supposed to suffer in silence? A miscarriage is a loss whose significance I am still trying to comprehend. I found out at my first prenatal appointment, when I was eight weeks along, that something was wrong. After a congratulatory hug, an initial physical exam, and a conversation about upcoming tests and procedures, my doctor spontaneously ushered me into the ultrasound room across the hall “for a quick look.” I’m still not sure why she did it. My husband, who had planned to accompany me to the appointment, was home with swine flu, and the doctor said “we can send you home with some pictures for him to see.” Maybe that was the only reason she wanted to check things out, but I know it wasn’t standard procedure to have an ultrasound at eight weeks. Once I was lying on the table, I started to wonder what was going on from the doctor’s expression. She said she wasn’t seeing what she expected to see at eight weeks. That didn’t sound good. She asked repeatedly if I was sure of the dates of my last period and conception, which I was. After she had asked several times I said I would go home and check, even though I was positive that I was correct. Maybe I was trying to be hopeful for her, I’m not sure. She said I would need to come back in two days for the sonographer to double check what she was seeing, which she suspected was a blighted ovum. So I went back that Wednesday and the sonographer confirmed the bad news. There was an 8 1/2 week-old yolk sac in my uterus, containing a 6-week-old embryo. For whatever reason, which we will never know, the embryo stopped developing at 6 weeks. Unfortunately my body hadn’t yet gotten the message, since the placenta was still growing, and I was still experiencing all the symptoms of pregnancy, even though I wasn’t pregnant anymore.

Even though I had worried about having a miscarriage, which I imagine any pregnant woman does, I certainly didn’t expect it. I had also thought that miscarriages were characterized by a sudden gush of blood. I hadn’t bled a drop and didn’t realize until it happened to me that not everyone’s body reacts to the end of a pregnancy the same way. After the ultrasound, Randy and I were led into another exam room, where we held each other and cried for a while. I had already done some crying between the first appointment and that one, but those tears were just a sneak preview of what was to come. Eventually the doctor came back and outlined my options: wait for my body to figure out what had happened and clean itself out, which could take weeks. The thought of this made me want to throw up. I couldn’t bear to spend another unnecessary minute feeling pregnant when I wasn’t going to have a baby. Option two was to take medication to accelerate the body’s understanding and release. Basically you go home and wait for the blood to gush, often ending up in the ER with an infection. No thank you. The third option was a D&C, which seemed scary to me but also like the safest and most efficient way of handling it.

I had the D&C, which went fine. Every member of the staff at Virginia Hospital Center, Arlington, was extraordinarily kind and helpful to me. I had little pain and recovered–physically–surprisingly quickly. I have no idea how long it will take until my heart stops feeling broken.

As it happens I had told several people I was pregnant, even though I was not “supposed to.” I told my immediate family right away, primarily because my dad is planning to undergo treatment for prostate cancer that will make him radioactive for 85 days and he was warned to stay six feet away from pregnant women. I had no idea how we were planning to handle that, but we knew we would figure it out. So they wanted to know so that whenever my dad’s treatment started he would not be endangering our baby in any way. I had also told a few close friends, mostly people who were pregnant or trying themselves, because we’d been going through the process together. I had even told a couple random people like my hairdresser, because last time I was pregnant my usually curly hair went straight and I wanted her to give me a haircut that would work with my hormones, and the contractor who was remodeling our bathroom because the smell of all the construction materials was making me feel ill.

So I certainly received sympathy and love from all these people. But I also felt incredibly isolated. For a few weeks, all I wanted to do was sleep, punctuated by crying. Meanwhile, my husband and daughter were still sick, my husband was behind in his work because of his prolonged sickness, and my daughter was still two and appropriately demanding. It was rough. I found solace emailing a couple friends of a friend who I had learned had experienced miscarriages and offered their stories and support. I deeply appreciated friends who invited Zoe over for day-long playdates with their daughter two weekends in a row so I could just rest. Still, I mostly felt sad and alone.

Last night I watched a video blog, recommended by a friend, about the stigma of miscarriage. I watched it a few times and read all 45 comments. I cried as I read story after story after story of so many women’s heartbreaking losses. As I wept I felt a wave of relief wash over me. Why did this have to be a secret? I needed to share it because my heart needed to be healed, starting with accepting the love and sympathy of my friends, colleagues, and extended family. I have realized in the past few weeks something I never understood before about life before and after birth. I have grieved for loved ones I have lost–both young adults and elderly people. Before my miscarriage I didn’t really believe you could be as attached to someone who hadn’t yet come into the world as you could a person who had lived and breathed beside you. I was wrong. This baby I lost already had a name. The baby lived in my heart, and my husband’s. This baby already had a big sister who constantly talks about taking care of babies and babies coming out of mommies’ tummies, and breastfeeding and giving babies rattles and bottles and pacifiers. No, we hadn’t told her, but she’s already prepared herself for an eventual future as a big sister. This baby lived in my mind, as the person who would completely change our family and our lives next summer, whose future we were already imagining and wondering about and fantasizing about. This baby was growing inside me. I felt the baby’s existence all day, every day, for several weeks. I had already talked with this baby, even if it wasn’t out loud.

Last fall my husband had to have two eye surgeries to treat his strabismus, a condition that causes double vision. Friends, family, neighbors, and people from church rallied around, bringing us dinners, offering to babysit, sending cards, and generally expressing concern and love while we went through a difficult time. There was no shame or embarrassment about his eye problem. In fact the reason he had a second surgery was because the first one caused an unexpected reaction that further impaired his vision. But thankfully we could talk to people about the challenges and they supported us throughout.

My family and I have gratefully received similar expressions of love and concern when we lost my Nana, my Papa, and my Aunt Judy. I have often felt comforted to know that people are thinking or praying for us, thankful for the hugs and cards, and appreciative of the meals that appear when you are too exhausted or sad to think about cooking.

Why should a miscarriage be any different? Why should we pretend we’re not pregnant when we feel miserable and could really benefit from love and support and (solicited) advice about how to cope? Why would we not want to tell people when we experience such a profound loss and are most in need of some help just to survive? I know some people like to think they can take care of themselves when something bad happens, that they don’t need anyone else. I will not kid myself. When the hardest thing I’ve faced in my life happens, suddenly and unexpectedly, why would I want to be alone?

That’s why I’m telling you. If you have a story, please tell it too.

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