Sunday, December 18, 2016


Written by: Mindy Woerter

I remember the moment when my husband and I decided we were ready to have kids. We were finishing up a dinner we cooked together -- shrimp scampi or some kind of pasta, probably, since I always suggested that kind of thing -- and enjoying another glass of wine. We had been married a little over a year and settled into our own home. I had asked my husband a couple times before, “Do you think we’re ready?” and he’d answered pragmatically, as he generally does: Let’s wait until we buy a house. Let’s wait until we have more money saved.

When you’re newly married and talking excitedly over a bottle of wine about the babies you can’t wait to have, you never expect this -- the moment in the doctor’s office when you’re told that your baby has no chance of survival outside your body. You can’t imagine the ways in which everything you’ve dreamt about and planned for could all go wrong, even though you know it does happen -- people lose babies. It’s called optimism bias, that belief that the bad things that happen to other people won’t happen to you.

By the time we had arrived at this moment in the doctor’s office, though, we’d already faced our share of bad things. Though we had decided we were finally ready to have kids, nature had other ideas, and we struggled to conceive even though all our testing came back normal. “Infertility of unspecified origin,” they called it. After two and a half years, we were finally able to conceive our first daughter with the help of fertility treatments, and we got lucky that it worked the first time. 
Our daughter arrived on a cold day in January, three and a half years after that night of shrimp scampi and excited conversation. She was three weeks early but healthy, a tiny little thing with rosebud lips and a dainty nose. She’s so feminine looking, the nurses cooed. It didn’t matter anymore that it had taken her so long to get here -- the journey had brought us together and so it was just as it should have been. 

Eight months after she was born, I was shocked to find out we had conceived on our own without even trying. I marveled at how effortless it had been, and felt like I had gotten to experience what “normal” couples get to have. I went to buy my daughter a Big Sister shirt and the sales clerk laughed and said they didn’t make anything in her size. I bought a 2T that my petite eight-month-old wore as a dress and surprised my husband with it when he got home from work.  

I miscarried two weeks later, on a sunny September day. I felt so guilty -- for wishing for more time to spend with my daughter just us two, for taking such a long walk that day and not drinking enough water, for the glasses of wine I’d had before I realized I was pregnant. I felt foolish for thinking our infertility struggles somehow inoculated us against more heartache. But I also felt hope. We had gotten pregnant on our own.

Six months later, we conceived again with relative ease. After two ultrasounds showing a strong heartbeat and a growing baby, my fears of having another miscarriage slipped away, replaced instead with excitement. We talked about what kind of family car we’d need. I started cleaning out the baby’s room. I bought my daughter a book on being a big sister and cried while reading it to her.

But after our second ultrasound, my phone rang and my doctor’s voice was on the other end. I knew right away it wasn’t good news. She said it could be nothing, it’s so early, she didn’t want to worry me, it could probably be fixed with surgery -- but the tech saw the possibility of an abdominal wall defect called omphalocele. She said she’d send me to Maternal Fetal Medicine for a follow-up scan.
In those two agonizing weeks until the scan, I spent many late nights reading about omphalocele, finding as many happy stories as heartbreaking ones. I Googled ultrasound pictures and compared them to mine, trying to diagnose myself if the baby really had an issue. Maybe the tech was wrong. Maybe our baby would be fine. The universe had handed us enough pain already -- there couldn’t possibly be more.

By the time of our follow-up scan, I felt emptied of emotion. My body went through the motions of getting in the car, and driving, and checking in at Maternal Fetal Medicine and filling out the paperwork, but inside I felt hollow. The office was busy, the staff running behind, and as we waited I watched pregnant women come in and out, and with each one I felt my lungs constricting.

Finally, we were taken back to ultrasound, where a harried tech greeted us with an apology for the wait. As she prepared her equipment, I anxiously watched the screen where we’d see our baby again.
The ultrasound was excruciatingly brief and mostly silent. The tech pulled up our baby’s image and told us quietly what we could already see -- that our baby’s heart was beating outside of her body, that most of her other internal organs were outside her torso as well, that her brain was surrounded by fluid and her facial features unrecognizable. A few minutes later, a doctor came in to tell us our baby had Limb Body Wall Complex, a rare and severe defect that could not be corrected surgically. Her brain had not developed properly, and her heart likely hadn’t either. Whether I decided to continue the pregnancy or end it, he said, the outcome would ultimately be the same: our baby would not survive.

I felt frozen, like if I didn’t move or breathe then everything would somehow fade away like the nightmare it was. This couldn’t be happening to me. This baby inside of me -- how could it be that she would never take a breath, or open her eyes, or reach out with her little hand and grab my finger? 
Mothers will do anything for their children. They’ll step in front of runaway cars and speeding bullets. They’ll give them the food out of their mouths and the last ounce of energy they have left in them. I would have done it all if it meant making my baby healthy. But there was nothing I could do to make her better -- all I could do was spare her pain. Continuing the pregnancy also meant a higher risk of complications for me like infection and infertility. My living daughter needed a healthy mother to take care of her, and we desperately wanted to bring another healthy child into this world someday. 

So we decided to terminate the pregnancy, to spare our baby the suffering she would have endured and instead take it on ourselves, so that all she would know is being surrounded by love. We said goodbye to our second daughter, Sophie Grace, a few days later. That baby bump just starting to grow, really only noticeable to me, was gone. I went home instead with an impossibly small set of handprints and footprints and the elephant security blanket I had kept with me during the procedure -- the first and only thing I bought for her.

It’s all over now, I thought. I can go back to normal. I realize now how naive that was. I expected physical pain but felt very little except a crippling dizziness, remnants of the anesthesia and side effects of the antibiotics. But the emotional pain -- it was nothing I’d known before. I tried to sleep but I couldn’t turn off my brain. I lay on the bathroom floor in a fetal position, sobbing. I was a zombie for my living daughter, shrouded in a fog of grief so thick I felt like I couldn’t breathe. She clung to me, begging for my attention, and I wished I could fade away into the fog and be lost. I felt like the worst mother who’d ever lived. I hadn’t been able to heal my baby, and now I resented my first child and the way she needed my body and my spirit when I had nothing left to give. 

But the days went on, I felt able to reenter the world, little by little. I found an online support group for people who had ended wanted pregnancies, and I clung to their words like a lifeline. It was weird at first to find such solace in strangers, but I did. Reading what they had to say, I realized that it wasn’t about being “going back to normal.” I could never be that woman or that mother again. Having to make that decision had left an indelible mark on me, one that I would carry forever. I couldn’t go back -- I could only find a way to move forward.

I struggled in silence with my infertility. I never breathed a word of my miscarriage except to my closest friends. Five months after my abortion, I decided I couldn’t bury one more thing that has shaped my journey as a woman, especially after I watched our now president-elect and his legion of supporters paint women who have abortions as bad people who deserve to be punished. I decided to share everything on my Facebook page, even knowing I had friends and family who wouldn’t agree with my decision. I wanted my Facebook friends to know what I had endured, and I wanted to be able to grieve my lost daughter in the open.

And I wanted people to know what abortion really looks like: Me. Anti-choice groups have sadly succeeded in making abortion a black-and-white issue, which Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro Choice America, highlighted in her speech at the Democratic National Convention. “It’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families," she said. "We’re the same women at different times in our lives each making decisions that are best for us.” 

It’s too easy for people to ignore the issue of abortion access when they believe it’s something that happens to other people, and not to women who know and care about (or even themselves). Well-meaning, loving people have said to me, “Well, yours wasn’t really the same,” or “It doesn’t really count as an abortion.” Maybe they thought they were being nice to reassure me that I wasn’t one of those “bad girls” who gets an abortion. That distinction only made me feel worse. If I wanted to continue to be seen as a good wife, a good mother, a good woman, I had to separate myself from my loss -- pretend that it didn’t happen, at least not in the way it happened. 

But for me to fully grieve my loss and heal, I have to embrace my decision and reclaim what abortion means for me. It's not wrong or bad or shameful. It's part of my story as a mother and a woman. It's a part of mothering just as being pregnant, giving birth, and experiencing infertility and miscarriage have been for me. I've been on all parts of this spectrum, and I could no sooner deny the part of me that dealt with infertility or the part that gave birth to a living child than deny the mother in me who had an abortion.

I don’t deserve punishment. I don’t deserve for my insurance to deny covering my abortion. I don’t deserve politicians telling me that my decision was immoral or should be illegal. I’m a good mother. I had an abortion. These things are not mutually exclusive. No matter the reason, a woman who has an abortion is making the decision that is best for her, and no outside party should be allowed to intervene.

My journey to motherhood has been messy. It’s been filled with anxiety, grief and, of course, joy -- boundless amounts of joy for the little girl I get to hold in my arms every day, and even for the babies I hold in my heart. They brought me joy, even though they were only with me for a short time.
My first daughter, my living daughter, made me a mother. She turned my world upside down in the scariest and most amazing ways. She changed me profoundly, in ways too numbered to list and too complex to describe. She’s the reason I try every day to be a good mother, in whatever ways I can. 
But my second daughter, the one who died, made me a stronger woman. She spent just 13 weeks growing inside of me but has left me with her memory for a lifetime. It’s because of her that I can finally embrace it all -- the wonderful and the heartbreaking. She deserves to be remembered. She existed. She is loved.

But this time, when I asked him, he said, “Yeah, I think we are.” I’m pretty sure I cried and said I’d toss out my birth control pills the very next day. I don’t remember everything we said but I remember the feelings of anticipation and elation, like I was standing at the top of a mountain looking out over this beautiful vista, and I was finally ready to explore it.