Spring 2018 – Vol. 7
by Samantha Schoech
We were nearly two years into fertility treatments. In that time, I gained almost 30 pounds, had three miscarriages, and injected myself in the stomach every day for months and months and months. I had gotten acupuncture. I had taken herbs. I had stopped taking herbs. I had said prayers, and meditated, and held charms and hung on every ridiculous piece of advice I was ever given. Someone said milkshakes would help, and so I drank milkshakes. Someone said to lie down, and so I stayed prone on the couch. None of it worked. Not the relaxation techniques or the massages or the tablespoons of cough syrup meant to thin my mucus. I was fat and barren as a stone.
The silent waterfront clinic where our embryos were lying in wait, frozen like Han Solo in some dark back room, had become my unhappy place. As we drove there for the third and final transfer—that’s what they call it when they put the embryos into your womb using a long tube attached to a giant syringe of murky human cells—I had had it. Up to here. I’d had it with the injections and pills and disappointment. But mostly, I’d had it with remaining positive. If one more person told me to remain positive I was going to freak the fuck out. Remaining positive was just one more thing for me to do badly, one more failure in my increasingly large accumulation of failures: can’t stay thin, can’t get pregnant, can’t put on a happy face.
And so, I was negative. “I wish they’d get on with it and just put the fuckers in,” I said to my husband Pete as we sat in the well-appointed waiting room with the stunning bay views. “Then I can hurry up and have another miscarriage and be done with this whole thing.” By this time, Pete knew better than to try to cheer me up. Instead he patted my chubby knee and continued reading the paper.
This time they decided to insert three of our little eight-celled embryos instead of the usual two because one was a little sluggish and they wanted to give me at least two good ones. “Whatever,” I shrugged, sullen as a teenager. Throw good zygotes after bad, see if I care.
Pete and I went into the tiny operatory where I undressed and unfolded the plastic-lined paper gown across my ample lap. I lay back on the vinyl table. And that was when I started to cry, not loudly, but wetly, with big hot tears running across my temples and into my hair as I stared angrily at the nature-scene poster on the ceiling, meant, I suppose, to relax me.
Pete, whose job in all of this had been to masturbate into cups and support me, held my hand but said nothing. Because what could he say, really. So far history bore out my predictions: they would put the fuckers in and I would have a miscarriage. I have never been so bad at anything as I was at getting pregnant. Except maybe staying pregnant. I absolutely sucked at staying pregnant.
The nice doctor with the flaking skin came in and he inserted our three embryos while I lay back, my jaw clenched. It takes about a minute. Then the lovely Irish nurse patted me on the hand and told me to go home and relax and I smiled back with homicidal rage. Nobody tells me to relax.
After an insertion, you wait five days and then return to the clinic for a blood test. During those five days, I continued to not relax. I did not practice positive thinking. I did not drink milkshakes or wheatgrass juice. Instead, I spent my time editing magazine stories on spring fashion trends and wine country getaways, pressing my lips into that ugly little line, tuning out the stubborn pep-rally of hope that banged away in the back of my mind despite my best efforts to ignore it.
A week later I went back to the clinic alone; these visits were so routine by now it didn’t seem worth it to make Pete miss work. They drew my blood in the tiny room with the special chair. I waited a few minutes and then the same lovely Irish nurse I wanted to kill a week before told me I was pregnant. I believe what she said was, “Good news, love. You’re pregnant.”
My reaction was mixed. It was undoubtedly a score for my people: those of black moods and dark predictions. Take that, Pollyanna. But it also meant that I was probably going to have another miscarriage, and it was going to hurt, and I was going to cry and want to murder people, especially pregnant people, or people who smiled, or had nice hair or managed to look good in flats and skinny jeans. But, before I got to them, I would have to run away to Latvia and change my identity because I wasn’t sure I could stand the shame of failing again. My body’s inability to make a baby was becoming a humiliation. I wasn’t even sure I wanted kids anymore; I just wanted to prove to myself and everyone else that I could get knocked up like a proper female.
I went home and glumly told Pete that I was pregnant and he knew better than to act happy, even though his little pep-rally clanged on just like mine. What can I say? We were suckers like that.
“Yep,” the doctor said five weeks later as he maneuvered a plastic ultrasound wand up inside me and watched my murky insides on the pixelated screen. “There they are. Baby A and Baby B.” Twin kidney beans with little beating hearts like distant flickering stars.
I am not going to lie. I don’t get romantic about little floating kidney beans and tiny beating hearts. Yes, yes, they were potential life, our potential children. But in my experience they had the staying power of a stubborn zit. I wasn’t going to start buying booties. What we felt, watching those blurry beans, was not some miracle-of-life thrill. We were mildly giddy, but our overriding emotion, as we watched these potential children float in my body, was terror, terror for what might not happen, and terror for what might. Our Scylla was another miscarriage; our Charybdis was twins.
It was as if my body were a great practical joker. First, see, we’ll make her despondent, like she won’t ever have a baby, then, bam! When she finally gives up, we’ll give her twins.
What we did was laugh, nervously and hysterically, while the doctor continued to enter me with his wand and the fetuses continued to float and flicker. We laughed in the exact same way I had cried during the insertion, uncontrollably and against our wills. Then we went out for dim sum and squashed down our fear and our hope with Shanghai dumplings and greasy Peking duck.
There was a time, much of my twenties in fact, when I didn’t want kids. I just couldn’t see how having kids could be nearly as rewarding as traveling the planet saving people or becoming a famous photojournalist or writing globally praised novels, all the things I vaguely planned to do one day. My mother had told me once when I was a teenager that girls in the ghetto had babies so young because it was the most creative thing they could think of to do with their lives. It was her way of telling me not to get knocked up, but it had the effect of forever making me equate motherhood with a lack of possibility, with giving up.
The irony that I was now spending $20,000 and years of my life and wellbeing trying to have kids was not lost on me. Nor were the years of uncomfortable, icky birth control or the nights spent paralyzed with fear, thinking I was pregnant. In college, I arrived in Hungary on my study-abroad program, convinced I was pregnant and going to have to seek out some Soviet-style back alley abortion performed by a drunk pharmacist in one of those fur hats.
But I never was pregnant; not when the condom broke, not when I got drunk and sloppy, and not when Pete and I first tentatively decided to start “trying,” the grossest euphemism for sex that I know of.
Except now I was. With twins.
Early on I convinced myself I would have what is called phantom twin syndrome, when one of the fetuses simply disappears and is reabsorbed by the mother’s body. There was no particular reason for me to believe this except that having twins seemed completely absurd. It felt as weird as if someone had showed up on my doorstep to tell me I was now the Queen of England. Even though I understood math and biology, and that inserting multiple embryos could obviously result in a multiple pregnancy, it felt dreamlike. Next, I would be running through an orange grove with my dead grandmother trying to escape the flying monkeys.
When I told the fertility doctor that I suspected phantom twin syndrome, he laughed at me. “That’s not going to happen,” he said. “You are really pregnant, really, really pregnant.”
You know that thing people say about how you can’t be a little pregnant? It’s not true. I had been a little pregnant three times. And now I was not simply pregnant. I was really, really pregnant.
Even when you are really, really pregnant you are supposed to keep your mouth shut about it until you finish the first trimester, just in case it turns out you were only a little pregnant. But I am even worse at keeping my mouth shut than I am at getting pregnant. So I started telling people. A lot of them. And as I told them, it started to seem more like a reality and less like a dream. Telling people felt like making them a promise. Not having these twins would not only be sad, it would be a breach of contract. It would make me a liar.
I was on assignment (I know, not exactly Aleppo) at a health spa in Mexico with my mom when I was eight weeks pregnant and, during a get-to-know-you exercise, we were supposed to introduce ourselves and say one thing about ourselves that we were pretty sure no one else in the room shared, a single unique attribute. “My name is Samantha,” I said, “And I am pregnant with twins.” The room burst into applause and I felt a moment of elation before the guilt crept in, because I couldn’t be absolutely sure I was still pregnant. What if I miscarried and let down all these fit, wealthy strangers?
There was nothing to be done but drink milk and give myself shots in the belly and eat folic acid and buy bigger pants. Meanwhile, the fetuses grew and the marching band played louder and I tried my best not to get attached to either of them.
I have a friend, Molly, who gets annoyed when parents preface complaints about their children by first declaring how much they love them. “We all know you love your kids, now get to the good stuff,” she says, rolling her eyes. I was like that about wanting my babies to stick. It was obvious that I wanted the pregnancy to bear fruit, but I wasn’t going to go around declaring it like a sap. I was going to go around rolling my eyes and preparing for the worst. My last miscarriage had nearly destroyed me. I couldn’t let that happen again.
But the worst never came. There were close calls: trips to the ER, nights of bleeding and writhing in fear. I believe there were times when I literally bit my pillow and cupped my hand over my crotch in an effort to keep those fetuses—because they were not babies, I could not allow them to be babies yet—inside.
But then I passed the first trimester. And then I passed 24 weeks, the earliest babies had ever been born and survived, and then I finally understood that I was having twins and there was no getting out of it.
I cartwheeled into the pep-rally, and for approximately a month, I was one of the positive people, a jolly fat woman with a cheerful disposition and a crazy sex drive. I cheerfully ate whole boxes of mac and cheese, I cheerfully bought giant underpants, and I cheerfully masturbated like a monkey when it became clear that Pete was in no way able to keep up with this new version of me.
And then we made the mistake of taking a class called “Twins, Triplets and More: Preparing for Multiples” at the hospital. It was taught by a mother of twin five-year old boys who had made it her mission to help couples prepare for impending doom, which she did with astonishing suburban officiousness and very unflattering jeans. She was all kitted out with PowerPoint and thick handouts and depressing statistics on twin births.
A word about my expectations: I happened to be having my kids in a decade in which the act of being a parent was elevated to an art form. Raising children was not something you just did, in the way the generations before you had. It was not innate or natural or easy. It required study and vigilance and a philosophy. If you’ve ever visited one of those fetishistic parenting websites you know the terms: attachment, free-range, traditional. And there were rules: you would breastfeed exclusively and on-demand; you would carry your baby everywhere, preferably in a sling, but if not a sling than at least a Baby Bjorn; you would allow no TV for three years; you would make sure there were lots of developmentally appropriate playthings, but nothing electronic or plastic; there would be tummy time but no pacifiers; there would be yoga but no toy guns. Most importantly, you would attend to your child’s every emotion with monk-like concentration.
And so, even though I was an eye-roller, already afraid that motherhood would diminish all other possibilities in life, I was going to do it right. Not all of it, I was no fanatic. But I was, at the very least, going to have a drug-free birth and breastfeed for a year. On the traditional to groovy scale, I fell somewhere between a water birth and eating my placenta.
Which is why Twins, Triplets and More sent me spiraling into my dark place. It was a grim, three-hour march away from all my free-to-be-you-and-me hopes and desires. The officious mom — let’s call her Sharon — started with birth, holding up her hand and ticking off all the reasons why we could give up on our idea of a vaginal birth, drugs or no, and reconcile ourselves to C-sections. “Baby A is a breech, you’re gonna have a C. Baby B is a breech, you’re gonna have a C. One baby is much bigger than the other, you’re gonna have a C. Your placenta is in the wrong place, you’re gonna have a C.” Having a C seemed inevitable, but what was infinitely worse was that becoming a woman like Sharon started to seem inevitable too. Having twins and becoming a humorless taskmaster with checklists and graphs to keep track of everything from poopy diapers to doctor’s appointments, seemed eerily causational.
The one thing I took away from the class was that having twins was a total bummer, and without a strict schedule and complete personality overhaul, it was going to eat me alive. In addition to having a bad attitude, I tend to be highly suggestible.
I decided I didn’t want our hard-won $20,000 babies. Or at least not both of them at the same time. My mother had been right, this motherhood thing was the path to loserdom and bad wardrobe decisions. No matter what I did, I was going to turn into Sharon. And if I didn’t turn into Sharon, I was going flail through motherhood and fail miserably. I heaved my 194-pound body into the car and cried all the way home.
Panicked, I called Sarah, who was in charge of planning my shower. “I take back all the cute stuff I registered for,” I told her wildly. “I just want money. I want money and lasagnas because if you don’t have money you can’t hire a night nanny and if you don’t have a night nanny you will fail miserably and your children will grow up to be feral beasts who hate you.” Sarah was my reference point for all things maternal. She had a four-year-old daughter, so she knew a thing or two. She is the one who told me about nipple discharge and the sexed-up second trimester and how useless wipe warmers are.
“Ok,” she said, distractedly, “money and lasagna. I have to go now. David and I are watching Real Housewives.” She would later ignore me, and I would get all sorts of useful and adorable baby things at my shower like any normal person.
For a little while after I was born, my parents lived in an Oregon campground. My mother washed my poopy butt in a spigot, put me down for naps in a tent, and cooked over an open fire. I’m not sure what my dad did, but whatever it was, he most likely did it on mescaline.
This experience did not make my mother a sage old grandmother type with infinite patience and wisdom. It made her divorce my dad.
But what did it matter? These days you could hire yourself a calm sage filled with wisdom. Maybe with the proper hired help I could raise twins — and I was most definitely, unquestionably having twins now — and remain coherent and sane. Maybe with enough hired help I could even keep my sense of humor. What I needed was a village, and because I am neither Amish nor Mormon, I was going to have to buy one.
I got a reference for a night doula named Plum. For $26 an hour she would be the wise, old grandmother with all the knowledge and patience I was sure to lack. And even though she was 29 and I was 36, I wanted her to be that grandmother. I needed Plum to be that grandmother.
But, as it turns out, $26 an hour for 8 hours a night, five nights a week, is a little more than a thousand bucks a week. There would be no Plum. There would only be me and Pete and my mom, all of us woefully imperfect and un-sage-like, especially when together.
The twins burst through their watery home at two in the morning, six weeks before my scheduled C (Twin A was a footling breech and I can’t say Sharon didn’t warn me). Contrary to my groovy wishes and water birth dream, I was strapped Jesus-style to an operating table while I cried and shook uncontrollably. I slipped under general anesthesia without noticing and woke up a mother of two preemies, Oliver and Magnolia, both of them beautiful as only wizened little preemies with wandering eyes and translucent skin can be beautiful.
When I first held them in my arms I did not instantly feel that flood of maternal love I was supposed to feel — that would come later. Instead, I felt supremely drugged (morphine), and like some sort of hiccup was caught in my throat. I nuzzled and nursed and kissed them, and floated above myself in the NICU, noting that I at least looked like a normal mother who knew what she was doing. Fake it ‘til you make it and all that. In photos from those first days my eyes are half-mast and my smile is so tight my lips have cracked. But somehow, I remembered to put on earrings. I am wearing fabulous, dangling earrings with my hospital gown.
When we finally got to bring them home, nine days later, my C-scar still prevented me from standing up straight and I was so scared. I had the nervous dry heaves alone in the bathroom while family members fussed about downstairs.
But then, slowly — it took weeks — I started to do what people had been telling me to do the entire time. I started to relax. I stopped gagging in the bathroom and panicking when they cried in stereo for no determinable reason. I still had a flickering pessimism, a limited income, an imperfect village, and an inordinate fear of officious suburban moms. I was more or less upright, and my children were alive and in clean diapers.
And then it was June 5, their official due date, and they were finally a plump eight pounds, a weight I had longed for every time I undressed their scrawny chicken bodies. And we were alone in the park, taking a walk with that enormous double stroller that attracted so much attention from strangers. Nothing much was happening. I suppose birds tweeted and leaves did their rustling. It was — and this is the astonishing part —totally normal. Just me and my babies, out in the world like regular ol’ folks.
After the initial drama of it all, it was all so much subtler than I expected. Motherhood was not a radical, Hulk-like transformation of your entire personality. And it was not giving up. It was just a simple giving in, like an exhale. I just gave in a little and muddled through. And sometimes I was better than I ever expected, and sometimes I was worse. But I was neither crazier nor saner than I was before, neither smarter nor dumber. I was just me with a minivan, plugging away like I always have, maybe with more determination and a heart tender and swollen and ripe, but without PowerPoint or charts of any kind.