The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My baby was never born. But I was a mom, too.

Pregnancy loss is tragically common, but we still don't know how to talk about it.

A few years back, in my early 30s, my answer to this question was usually a resounding “Nope!” delivered with a cheerful smile and a change of subject.

These days, I have a new auto reply: “Not yet.” But saying it always comes with a stab of guilt, because with those two little words, I’m denying the existence of a baby I lost two years ago.

It was the first, and so far, only, pregnancy for my husband, Chris, and me. I had taken a while to come around to the idea of having kids, and although we were officially trying, watching those two pink lines appear on the stick was a huge shock.

We told our parents the next day, which happened to be Easter, via Skype and an egg dyed half-pink and half-blue. For the next few weeks, I stumbled around in a haze, still digesting the news. Mother’s Day loomed on the calendar, and it seemed surreal that before long, I’d be one, too.

Everything changed in a heartbeat: that of our baby’s, a strong, promising whoosh-whoosh on the sonogram at our first prenatal appointment. In that moment, I grasped an inkling of what parents mean when they gush about their mind-bending love for their children, a notion I’d rolled my eyes at many times before. We nicknamed our baby “Tadpole Tilton,” after Chris’s last name.

Soon I found myself talking to him — I sensed it was a boy, though we were waiting to be surprised — saying good morning and good night, and how excited we were to meet him in a few months. Meanwhile, I cut out wine and caffeine —neither an easy feat— and started watching my language. On a work trip abroad, the homesickness that sometimes creeps up when I’m far away from home was replaced by a comforting sense of companionship from my little travel buddy. I couldn’t resist buying him a hand-knit yellow cap, complete with tiny ear flaps, in the market of a tiny desert town in Chile.

But that joyful anticipation quickly turned to heartbreak with the confirmation that our baby had a rare, almost always fatal chromosomal abnormality. The chances of survival past a week of delivery were infinitesimal; even if that happened, a life of pain and suffering awaited. After days of soul-searching, Chris and I made the gut-wrenching decision to terminate the pregnancy.

In my head, I knew we were making the kindest, most humane decision for our baby, one that no parent should ever have to face. But my heart will always bear the scars of that anguish, knowing we chose the day to end our child’s life. I was 13 weeks along when my doctor performed the D&C.

I was well aware beforehand of the statistics about pregnancy loss —about one in five won’t make it full-term (though some studies place the number much higher)— and that my age, 37, upped my risk. But what really knocked me off my feet was the depth of my grief, the most profound of my life, and discovering just how misguided our society is in reacting to such a loss.

For the next few months, I felt like I was drowning in a quicksand of ugly emotions: despair, hopelessness, guilt, anger and uncontrollable, seething jealousy at every pregnant woman on the planet. I often thought how easy it would be to swallow a bottle of pills or jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, just a quick drive across town.

Along with Chris, a handful of friends and loved ones bore the pain with me. But for every heartfelt condolence, there was a well-intentioned but flippant remark: “This is just nature taking care of its problems,” “You can have fun trying again!” or, my personal favorite, “I believe things happen for a reason.” One of the few things that brought any comfort was hearing about other women’s losses, only shared after they learned of my devastating news.

According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one million fetal and stillborn losses occur every year; another 6.1 million women of reproductive age have infertility issues. These are huge, staggering numbers —but I felt alone in my grief. Pregnancy loss is deeply personal, accompanied by varying degrees of self-blame, shame and stigma. But there seemed to be another factor at play: the cultural taboo of talking about out-of-order death. People simply do not want to be reminded that there’s a terrifying side to procreation. After all, it’s hard to imagine a more horrifying, heartbreaking image than that of a dead baby. In utero loss illuminates our vulnerability as humans and mothers: As hard as we try, we aren’t in control. Nature still holds the reins.

But not talking about such loss doesn’t make the pain go away. And by not talking about it —or, rather, not feeling as if we have permission to talk about it— women struggling with reproductive trauma feel even more isolated and alone, banished to the sidelines with their suffering.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Michelle Duggar, but when she made headlines last year by holding a memorial service for her stillborn daughter, complete with images of the baby, I felt a certain solidarity with her. I’m sure her motivation wasn’t to shock people or stir up controversy; instead, she was simply validating the existence of her daughter to the world. Isn’t that the least we owe our lost children?

Two years after losing Tadpole Tilton, time has smoothed the raw edges of my grief and softened my anger. But, every month, the wounds are re-opened a little with the arrival of another period, chipping away at my dream of having a child of my own. Chris and I eventually turned to IVF, but our first round was a disaster: all three of our microscopic maybe babies deemed unviable. We’re trying to figure out next steps, what we can afford and how much more hope we can summon. The uncertainty is exhausting.

Equally difficult is the constant feeling of exclusion from the mommy club. Scrolling through social media and its nonstop stream of kid-centric updates, my heart breaks knowing I’ll never get to see Tadpole Tilton smash his fist into his first birthday cake or kick a soccer ball. I watch moms in line at the grocery store, guessing the ages of each others’ babies and commiserating about sleep deprivation, and the words always form in my mind: I once had a baby, too. I just didn’t get the chance to raise him.

Perhaps this Mother’s Day, amid the celebrations of our beloved and deserving mothers, would be an appropriate time to reflect on the silent sisterhood of women who will no doubt be remembering their angel babies today, or mourning a loss of motherhood altogether. Honoring their journeys can be as simple as being aware of how much, and to whom, you share the joys and hardships of parenting. Or sending a card or flowers to a woman who has suffered a miscarriage with the same sentiments if she had lost any other loved one, no philosophies or predictions, simply, “I’m so sorry.” Or reaching out to a couple who has been struggling with infertility, just to say you are thinking of them.

Because I was a mom too, even if the world doesn’t recognize me as one. The next time someone inevitably asks, “Do you have kids?”, perhaps I’ll just answer with the truth: “One, in heaven.”