The narrative of human life is most beautiful when told truthfully and without boundaries. -Shonda Rhimes
I am used to the occasional innocuous question, such as “How many children do you have?” I start. Stumble. Never answer the question the way I would like. Struggle between what I need (to recognize that I have had four children) and what the world needs (which is to pretend that everything is fine).
The past few days have been a constant bombardment of “what the world needs to hear.” It began in O’Hare airport as I was eating lunch in a restaurant before my flight to Denver for a conference. My reading of The New Yorker was interrupted by the words “Is this your first?” I looked up into the face of a man who looked like Santa Claus. His wife was seated across from him and they both waited expectantly for my answer. “Um, no,” I replied. I wanted to just leave it at that but I could tell by his expression that a follow-up question was coming, so I said “It’s my third.” I turned away, but another question called me back to the conversation: “When are you due?” “End of August. Mid August,” I replied, then correcting myself. I couldn’t even say the date. Every time I think the date, it feels so very far away. I turned firmly back to my magazine, determined to stop talking. And also to keep my head low so that they could not see the tears in the corners of my eyes.
At the conference, I was standing in front of sixty work customers. It happens once a year. Never happened while I was pregnant with Nelle (conference was right before I was pregnant) or Iris (conference was right after the loss). Only one customer in the room was aware of both losses and that only happened because of a long-term project I was working on at the time and needing to convey timing around an impending maternity leave, and then that the leave was no longer happening. No one else knew. And being now six months pregnant with no hope of hiding the pregnancy, I knew the questions that would be flung in my direction. My therapist wryly suggested that I wear a sign around my neck saying “Yes, I’m pregnant. 25 weeks. Yes, I know the gender. No, I’m not sharing that information.” I slept incredibly poorly the night before, running through all of the scenarios of questions in my mind.
The group was a mix of customers that I have known for years and years, and customers that I have never met. When I thought about how I would answer the various questions, I pictured two different types of responses, depending on who asked. With customers I didn’t know, it would be “It’s my third child.” With those I have known a long time, it would be “Well actually, I’ve had two stillborn babies.” I decided on a medical modification of the truth, because I still can’t get over the fact that Nelle is medically classified as stillborn and Iris a miscarriage when I went through Labor and Delivery for both. They were both born.
It took zero time for the questions to begin. “When are you due?” “Is this your first?” “Do you know what you’re having?” And “Congratulations!” Over and over, smile plastered on my face. Finally, a long-time customer that I have known for ten years asked if Theo and Quentin were excited about the baby. We were off to the side, away from the earshot of others at the time. I took a breath and replied “Well, actually I’ve had two stillborn babies in the past two years. So I think we’re all just hoping for a healthy baby.” Her face immediately fell into the “oh I’m sorry…” to which I quickly said that everything has been fine so far and I’m being closely monitored. That was it. That was the only time I managed to say anything other than the expected response.
I had another chance, but I couldn’t bring myself to say what I wanted. At dinner, I was at a table of six, with customers that I knew well. It was a more relaxed environment and we were talking about tattoos. Being bankers, they were talking about the conservative environments that they worked in and the need to have tattoos be covered. I said that I have one, on my back, easy to hide. Someone asked me what the tattoo was of and I replied “the birthdates of my children.” It was a perfect opportunity to elaborate. But I didn’t.
It was two days of staring at that invisible but much-felt boundary of what I need and what is expected. I have swallowed what I need in terms of acknowledging my babies to maintain the professional “line” of not making people uncomfortable. I’ve hated every minute of it. I’m exhausted by the energy it has required. I’m scared that if something happens and I lose the baby, that at this time next year, at the conference again, I’ll be greeted with questions of “how’s the baby?” at which point I’ll have no choice but a painful response.
I hadn’t used my heart rate monitor in a few days because I was feeling enough movement throughout the day that I hadn’t needed that assurance. But I brought it with me, just in case. A few minutes before I needed to head down on the first morning, I was anxiously waiting for a reassuring kick. When it did not come at that precise moment I needed it, I pulled out the monitor, scared, needing that sound before I faced the crowd. I used it again immediately before dinner, also needing that immediate knowledge that the heart was still beating. I sat for a few extra minutes to listen, rather than quickly packing up the device like I normally do. Today, back home, decidedly less movement. I know that movements are irregular at this point in pregnancy. My head knows that. My heart is shaking a bit.
Today, my body is tired. Physically, I am tired from the exertion of being on my feet and in front of customers for two days. Emotionally, I am tired from the drain. This morning, I wanted nothing more than a piece of tiramisu; I don’t know why. Not wanting the effort of going to an actual restaurant, I went to Whole Foods. They only had an entire cake of tiramisu, not just a slice. I wound up with carrot cake. The elegance of tiramisu replaced by the rather ordinary and earthy carrot cake.