"How is Alana doing?"
It is a question my husband has been asked frequently in the three and a half years since our pregnancy losses began. Sometimes it comes from a parent at the T-ball field. Other times he is pulled aside at holiday gatherings by concerned family members or friends. His ability to carry on after loss is assumed. Mine is apparently cause for concern.
It all started out with such promise. Our beautiful son was 3 years old. After several unsuccessful fertility treatments, we conceived during a month off from "trying." I decided to surprise my husband with the news, so I wrapped the positive home pregnancy test in a box and presented it to him as a gift. He was shocked and overjoyed. We could not wait to welcome a new addition to our family.
Then, at seven weeks, the complications began. It started as spotting, then heavier bleeding. A trip to the doctor's office revealed I was still pregnant, but my progesterone levels were dangerously low. For the next three weeks we balanced medical appointments and progesterone shots with daycare drop-offs and story-time.
But at the 10-week checkup, the flicker of a heartbeat that had filled us with such hope was gone. I had miscarried.
I'd like to say that I picked myself up by my bootstraps and carried on with life, but the truth is more complicated. Yes, I managed to get showered and dressed each morning. Work responsibilities were met, and our son was clothed and fed. I read him his bedtime stories each night.
But it took all my energy just to get through the day. I crawled into bed each night hungry for the mental and emotional respite of sleep. Little energy was left for my husband.
Yet Michael patiently soldiered on. He picked up take-out dinners, accompanied our son to birthday parties when I couldn't stand to see the other parents with their babies, and fielded the ubiquitous questions from concerned family members and friends.
Slowly, I began to acclimate to the sad reality of our loss. My hormones eventually settled, my mood improved and we were finally ready to try growing our family again. Eleven months later, we were cautiously excited to learn that I was again pregnant. I was assured that recurrent miscarriages were rare, though progesterone shots were initiated as a precaution. Michael lovingly administered my injections each night and accompanied me to each prenatal appointment.
Sadly, that pregnancy too ended in miscarriage.
Our second loss was a bit easier to bear. We had been through this before, had a better idea of what to expect, and knew that eventually we would make it through. Having another miscarriage somehow made me feel even more fortunate that our first pregnancy had been successful, and grateful for our wonderful son. Several months later, armed with a diagnosis of "bad luck" to explain our losses, we decided we were ready to try again.
Our fourth pregnancy was reminiscent of our first, a fact that filled me with cautious optimism. Unlike our two miscarriages, this baby -- like our living child -- was conceived by intrauterine insemination. We also learned that we were expecting a baby boy (our miscarried babies were believed to be girls) -- further evidence to us that the outcome this time would be different. Still, we held our breath at each ultrasound, and held tight to every talisman we hoped might predict a positive outcome.
As we entered our third trimester, I was finally ready for a little optimism. I posted my first "pregnancy picture" on Facebook and gave in to Michael's requests to empty our home office and begin transforming it into a nursery. While I was still nervous, I comforted myself with the knowledge that even if our baby boy arrived early, at this point in pregnancy the odds of survival were good.
So I was only mildly concerned that Friday morning in May when I realized that I hadn't felt much fetal movement in several hours. Our baby's heartbeat had been strong at our prenatal visit just two days earlier. I was almost certainly overreacting, but would go to get checked out just in case. Michael would drop our son off at school and then I would let him know whether to join me at the medical office.
I arrived at my doctor's office that morning, my book and cross-stitch in hand, thinking I was prepared in case of an extended visit. I had no idea how unprepared I was.
Until the medical technician began searching for our baby boy's heartbeat that morning, I hadn't really stopped to consider that she might not find one. I shifted from side to side, trying to find a position that would allow her to track my baby's heartbeat. She feigned difficulty with the machine as an excuse to usher me into a sonogram room.
From there, reality set in quickly. I watched the doctor's face as he moved the sensor across my belly, eyes fixed on the screen. I had seen that concerned look twice before, on other doctors' faces.
"You're not finding a heartbeat, are you," I said, more a statement than a question.
"Not yet," he said. But I could read between the lines. Moments later, he confirmed the news we both already knew.
As I slowly tried to get used to this new reality, it occurred to me that Michael was waiting for an update. This wasn't news I could share over the phone, but I needed to tell him something. I sent him a text message, five words long: "Please come. I love you."
Moments later, he arrived. The receptionist came out from behind the counter to greet him and usher him into the doctor's office where I was waiting. I watched as his face registered that something was terribly wrong. Still, he was in shock when the doctor broke the awful news.
During the next two days, as we waited for the induction drugs to take effect so I could deliver our baby, my husband was more bereft than I had ever seen him. At one low point, he confided his fear that he would be too overcome with emotion to support me through the delivery. I reassured him that it was OK and that the nurses and doctors would be there to support me if he couldn't. Yet when the time arrived, he was right by my side, supporting me through each painful step.
The next several days were something of a blur, as my grief-stricken husband and I went through the motions of calling funeral homes and ordering a casket for the baby whose future we had been planning just days before. We were both overcome by the magnitude of our loss. Yet it soon became clear that, while I received a "free pass" from life's day-to-day responsibilities, the expectations on Michael were only growing.
As the reality of our loss set in, Michael was thrown into the roles of gatekeeper and protector. He fielded questions from concerned family members and friends, intercepted coupons for baby formula that arrived in the mail, and tried to figure out what I needed to cope with my grief, though I still had no idea myself. Yes, there were times when I put my pain aside to support him, but more often, it was the reverse.
It is an unwelcome job that he never asked for. But he was and still is determined to do it well.
So this Father's Day, I'd like to say a huge "thank you" to Michael and all the other dads who parent and partner through grief. I know it isn't easy to intuit the needs of a grieving partner while parenting a child and managing your own feelings of loss. But it is appreciated more than you will ever know.