by Alaina Scarano
It starts in Peru, in January. It’s the month of rest, of nesting, of resolutions and starting over and dreaming up the new people we can be. I want to be at home on my couch as snow falls out the window behind me. Instead I’m wiping the sweat from between my breasts as we walk the dirty roads of Lima, struggling to keep up with our walking tour. It’s the kind of trip you don’t pass up, even if you’ve got two kids at home—a sick toddler and one in kindergarten—and are newly pregnant with your third. All our friends are here for a wedding; my husband is a groomsman.
It’s summer here and the heat makes everything heavy, sticky. Every time I go outside, I feel it bubbling up from my stomach: the urge to vomit. Every time, I push it back down. No one besides my husband Philip knows about this baby. All the Fun Things are planned, and I have to keep up appearances. A rehearsal dinner in a club so exclusive it feels like a state dinner, where they take our phones upon entering; sipping Cuba libres on every corner; the wedding at a swanky yacht club where nothing is between the marina and the vastness of the South Pacific. I pull on bold-patterned baggy pants and long sundresses, hoping no one notices my growing uterus, hoping empire waists are still in style. After so many pregnancies, it’s hard to keep my body under wraps, even just a few weeks in.
Everyone else has already done Machu Picchu, but we are doing our trip the opposite way. All the childless friends flew down to spend New Year’s Eve partying at a trendy glamping resort before heading to Machu Picchu, then north to Lima for the wedding. Philip and I went straight to Lima, instead spending New Year’s Eve on our couch watching the ball drop in eastern time before dozing off on the couch in mountain time. After the wedding festivities, Philip and I fly south to Cusco. It’s a dream trip, a bucket list sight: visiting Machu Picchu. In most ways, I’ve been looking forward to this most of my life.
We purchased our tickets months in advance, before things changed. Before things changed, I was going to see a place I had only dreamed of visiting. I wanted to spend hours hiking the lush, green hills of the ancient Andes wonder. But now things are different, and before we board our flight to Cusco, Philip asks me if I want to go home instead. I think—for a moment—of my couch, of the luxury of sweatpants, the heaviness of a warm blanket, and the familiar comfort of throwing up in my own toilet. Instead, I refuse. I can’t let this pregnancy, one I haven’t made up my mind how I feel about, take this away from me. I know how much a baby will take. Instead, we board our flight and arrive in Cusco under a blanket of stars, walk through the plant-filled courtyard of our hotel, and collapse in an unfamiliar bed.
We spend a day wandering around Cusco, adjusting to the altitude. Philip nibbles on coca leaves the locals recommend, but because of my pregnancy, I abstain. I sip water slowly and walk even slower. We pick up handwoven Peruvian blankets for our kids back home. I wonder if I should buy a third, for this new growth, if this baby will make it out. Right now I am unsure. My body aches with the familiar swelling, my soul aches with an uncertainty I’ve never felt before. I want to be excited. About this trip, about this baby, about the wonder of the world we are going to visit.
On the day we are to visit the wonder, we wake up around four. Instead of anticipation, I feel dread. I hardly have the energy to shuffle to the bathroom and stumble around for toothpaste, let alone a three-mile hike. My mouth tastes of saliva and bile, and all I want is to climb into bed. Instead I look for my yoga pants, fleece vest, and backpack with water and supplies for the long day ahead.
We leave before the sun and sneak out of our hotel quietly to find a taxi. There is a taxi, then a bus, then a more crowded bus that stops at a viewpoint where we should see mountains but all we see are clouds and a local woman pulling a begrudging llama, then a dirty train station where we board our train to the next bus station. The bus takes two hours, and I shift restlessly between sleep and sickness, staring out the window at abject poverty before unfathomable beauty.
The train has a glass roof, and I spend the four-hour journey sipping tea and staring out the windows. Hikers with walking sticks and backpacks larger than most dog breeds dot the rugged mountainside. I’m thankful I stashed airsick bags from our flight in my bag, thinking I would probably need them at some point. Philip puts his hand on my thigh, reaches up to smooth my hair after I finish vomiting. The small black Sea-Bands I have on each wrist are no match for early-pregnancy morning sickness.
When we finally reach the wonder of Machu Picchu, the fresh air treats me much better. We wander through the ruins, we climb stairs, I pause to catch my breath too often. Feel invigorated at the beauty, moved at what humans can accomplish. We see llamas and take pictures and watch in awe as the clouds glide by us nearly at eye level. I look out over the mountain peaks and see no valleys as we sit above clouds, shielded from what is below us. This is what life could be like, I think to myself. I ask a stranger to take a picture of us, and I move my body sideways against Philip, my stomach against his side, hiding my body as much as I can. “Now let me take one of you,” he says. I’m uneasy and unsure, but I turn and smile for the camera anyway, my hand nervously on my belly. Trying not to show off the bump that, after four previous pregnancies, is already appearing six weeks in. It’s so when I look back at the photo, I remember. I will know I tried to be happy, that one day. I put a smile on my face and a hand on my belly, and I tried to remind myself that I could still exist, even if the baby existed, too.
At night, when I close my eyes, I think of running. Of the sound my feet make when they hit the pavement. Of the weight of my body and how I am able to carry it, move with ease. I think of the music I would play when no one else knows. The time alone. That’s what I love most about running: solitude. It’s the only time in my life right now that I am by myself with my own thoughts, responsible for no one else. It’s only been since my youngest started preschool that I have been able to run. Those few precious hours in the morning to myself, to do with as I choose, which is still new to me after years of babies in the house or on my body or in my body for five straight years. Five straight years of pregnancy, of breastfeeding, of pregnancy again, and then breastfeeding again.
Babies are miracles. I know this. It took what felt like a modern medical marvel just to have my first baby, my son. I’d had two miscarriages before I got pregnant with him; one was early enough to just get my hopes up. The other was a gut-wrenching and physically unbearable experience I wouldn’t wish on any breathing human in the world. They called it a “missed miscarriage,” wherein the fetus had stopped developing and my body didn’t know; my belly grew, my early pregnancy symptoms worsened, and from the outside, it appeared to be a normal pregnancy. Inside there was nothing. I was given what some call the “abortion drug” and sent home to miscarry with nothing more than a bottle of Motrin. Then came invasive fertility testing, the phrase “unexplained infertility,” and lots of drugs. Drugs I took by mouth, drugs infused into my body with needles, drugs I squeezed from tubes into my vaginal canal. When I found out I was pregnant for the third time, I was in Bangkok, and it was one lovely day filled with rose tinged optimism before I was struck ill with food poisoning. I’d been unable to keep down even water, and threw up in the background as Philip phoned the airlines to book an emergency flight home. I threw up on each of the four separate flights back to Boston: from Krabi to Bangkok, then Bangkok to Zurich, Zurich to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Boston. The morning after we arrived home we called my obstetrician, jet-lagged and anxious, and made an appointment for an ultrasound. Despite everything, there it was: a flicker of electricity inside a bean-shaped grey dot inside of my body. I laughed till I cried with my head thrown back on the crumped paper on the exam table.
The next time I got pregnant, I was still nursing my baby full-time, still sleep-deprived and unsure of my footing as a mother. We were shocked. Despite all that, it felt right, like this baby was supposed to be. We hadn’t discussed having another baby, but it felt as if that decision was made for us, and I never thought about not keeping the pregnancy. There it was. This time my obstetrician told me I would likely miscarry, my HCG levels dangerously low for where I should have been in the pregnancy. We were days away from a trip to Croatia and Italy, our first trip away as parents, and debated cancelling. “Go,” my doctor had said. “There are hospitals in Europe if anything happens.” We traveled nervously for the first half of the trip, ensuring every piece of local fish was overcooked, every plate of fresh cheese was pasteurized. After a few days I let go, telling myself whatever happened would happen and if it was another miscarriage, it wouldn’t be because of anything I did. When we arrived in the States a week later, there hadn’t been any cramping, any bleeding. My bloodwork looked great, my HCG levels had risen to where they should be, and an ultrasound confirmed a healthy baby growing inside me. There was never any doubt in my mind that it was meant to be, and when I birthed another boy, everything felt like it was in its right place.
My phone is ringing in my back pocket. I stop at the grocery cart paused in front of frozen foods and pull it out of my jeans. The number flashing on the top of my screen is unfamiliar, but I know who it is. I press the button firmly and slide up to answer. There is a buzzing in my head as my OB/GYN on the other end of the line tells me what I already know. “It’s early, but you’re pregnant.” I crouch down in the freezer aisle, dropping down past bags of shredded cheddar and mozzarella. I look down at the speckled linoleum, and my eyes blur with tears. The buzzing in my head has taken over my ears, and I can’t hear the rest of what my doctor is telling me. But I know how this goes; it’s my fifth pregnancy, even if it’s been a little while. My oldest son is in preschool and just months away from kindergarten, my youngest is going to preschool just nine months from now. Nine months, I think. Just about when this new baby would come. When I would get some small sliver of my independence back.
I had been between birth control for one month; after being diagnosed with endometriosis while on a non-hormonal IUD, my gynecologist thought it would be best to switch to a hormonal version to help decrease my symptoms from the disease. Instead, I got pregnant. One month. After struggling with fertility for years. I think, maybe it’s meant to be? We tell ourselves stories in order to live, as Joan Didion said.
This isn’t something I can deal with right now. It’s Christmas in two days, and then my baby’s birthday on the twenty-eighth, and then five days later we are leaving for a long-awaited trip to Peru. These are the things I can do now that my babies are older; we can go away— sometimes for ten days at a time, while the boys stay at my mother’s house. They have their own bedroom there, and she aches for days alone with them. I’m so close to freedom, to uninterrupted hours of work. My boys sleep through the night, we are done with diapers. Bottles and breast pumps no longer take up room in my kitchen, no more hunting for the lost pacifier under the couch. Things have gotten… easy. I like this phase of parenthood. Right now, I am not so sure about going back.
Rather than rushing home to tell Philip, I say nothing. I don’t breathe a word to my husband. I hide a secret that no one can see and I can’t yet feel. I find myself not wanting to tell him, not wanting to talk about it. Maybe it will go away before I have to figure out what to say to him. I’ve miscarried twice, maybe this time it will just… fade away. Like before.
A thing that people say sometimes is you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. This usually refers to something or someone you miss, a person who has left your life or the way you don’t know how good things are until they’re not so good. But the thing people don’t say out loud is that this can be a good thing. A relationship you are relieved to leave behind. A phase in life you’re happy to be rid of. Or maybe, a pregnancy you’re just not sure about. I think about a joke I heard in a comedy club once: How are babies like shots? You never know when you’ve had enough until you’ve had one too many.
By the time we arrive home from Peru, I can’t sleep through the night anymore. I wake up at night to pee, thanks to growing pressure on my bladder, and can’t fall back asleep. Soon I will be up nursing a baby again, I think. Or changing a diaper. I think about getting up and making lunches for school while holding a baby. About seeing Philip leave for a business trip and knowing I’m by myself with three of them. I feel something else growing inside me other than a sac of cells.
Each day feels stretched out, elongated, punctuated only by what I won’t be able to do nine months from now. The boys entertain themselves. Soon I won’t have these few moments to myself. One leaves for preschool. Soon there will be two home with me instead of just one. Stretches of time where they play together quietly with stuffed animals or race cars or train tracks and I’m able to read or even to write are now filled with the realization that soon this time will be gone, I will be back to where I was two years ago. A dark cloud settles over me, and rather than feeling expectant and joyful, I feel as if I am harboring an alien that will soon change everyone’s lives.
I have my first ultrasound scheduled for next week. It’s on a Friday morning, and my mother is coming over to take the oldest to preschool and hang out with the youngest, who somehow still has a lingering ear infection. We haven’t told them about the idea of a sibling yet, and I’m not ready to. Not until we know it’s for sure, we agree. We all know how it can change in a moment. I’m still holding on to hope, hope that I will get excited about this new addition, or hope that this will slip away. Maybe it’s a fog, a phase, a blip of pregnancy anxiety that will fade.
In the week leading up to my ultrasound, I find myself consumed by anxiety. Biting my nails, picking my cuticles, twirling my hair, focusing on nothing. Snow falls, ice coats the sidewalk, and it’s too difficult to run, which is what I would normally do to calm myself. With nausea and exhaustion creeping in, I couldn’t run away. I try listening to happy music as a distraction. “I want to be the one to walk in the sun,” sings Cyndi Lauper. I want to walk in the sun. I want to stay out late with Philip until the babysitter texts me. I want to drink margaritas and yell at hockey games with my girlfriends. I want to be selfish with my time and exist as something besides a mother.
I don’t remember the drive to the doctor’s office, or waiting to be seen. I just remember the chill of the exam room, the paper gown. What it’s like to be exposed. The ultrasound tech is a woman and she’s kind. She pushes the wand deeper inside my body, and I close my eyes. The paper crinkles under me, and Philip grips my hand. I’m not ready to see that flicker of light, that flash of electricity that signifies viable life. But this time, she excuses herself from the room and goes to get my doctor. This isn’t my first time, I know what this means. She doesn’t get paid to be the bearer of bad news. Within the next hour, my doctor is explaining to me that there’s nothing there, and he can do a dilation and curettage today, or we can give it more time. “Maybe it’s just too early,” he lies. He knows this isn’t my first time. Philip gently tells me he is okay with whatever I want, and excuses himself to call my mother to make sure she can stay with the boys a few more hours. I tell my doctor I’m done and I want the procedure today, now.
What I notice the most is the emotion I don’t feel: sadness. Instead, relief washes over me.
Philip is asked to leave the room, and a nurse takes his place. She pushes a needle gently into the vein inside my right elbow as I lean my head back. I let my knees fall open, hear the metallic clanking of medical instruments on a tray near my feet, as my shoulders start to shake. I’m shaking because I’m cold, because I’m somehow hurt and relieved at the same time, because I’m mad at myself. Did I make this happen? Did I wish this baby away? Does it matter? I cry through the procedure, through the forcing of instruments, the scraping of tissue, the sucking of it out. What I notice more than anything else is the sound the machine makes, a constant low pitched whirring that stays with me. The pain I feel inside and outside my body. But I’m thinking about running, about my life, about what it will be like after this blip. After this moment in time, when I became sure of what I wanted more than I ever had before.
There is another version of this story where I choose to be here, I choose to terminate the pregnancy. The dread doesn’t go away in my stomach, and I know what I want when I see that heartbeat, and it isn’t another baby. Where I am completely overwhelmed by the idea of another baby and admit to myself that I just can’t do it again. I like to eat sushi, I like to sleep. I like to have wine with dinner, and to go out without planning out bottles of breastmilk. Maybe I would have chosen this procedure I am having right now. It’s painful, even though they say it won’t be, and the nurse thinks maybe she hasn’t given me enough anesthetic. She roots around for a vein again and pushes more into my body as my obstetrician takes some out. I hear the loud sound of the machine he’s using. Philip isn’t allowed to be there with me, but there are more nurses than I thought. Besides the one working my vein, there’s one helping the doctor. Another one is smoothing my hair and wiping my tears. She’s telling me not to think about it, not to dwell on it. She doesn’t know I’m thinking of how long it will be until I can run again, my body once again my own.
Abortion is usually framed as trauma, but the truth is it can also be freedom. Choosing not to have a child can give a person their freedom, their autonomy, their lives back. People who aren’t traumatized by their abortions, but rather freed by them, can face further guilt when society expects abortions to be a traumatic event. This is a great disservice to women and the idea of abortion as necessary healthcare. Abortion can be about mental health.
In this story, does it matter if I chose to end the pregnancy or not? The result is the same. I think of this often, what would have happened if I’d had that baby. It probably would have been fine, and we all would have gotten by with a little less. A little less spending money. A little less attention for each child. Less space in our home. Less time for my husband, for myself, for my work. When I didn’t have the baby, what I did get was clarity. Would we ever really have known we were done having children if I hadn’t gotten pregnant again and had such a strong reaction? I’m not sure that I would have come to that conclusion on my own. Perhaps the whole experience was the way it had to be to keep me from second guessing any decisions we had made on future children, whether to have them or not.
The sun is strong in early fall, but my office stays cool. It’s the fourth bedroom upstairs in our home; there’s the master, one for each of our boys, and this one. It would have been a baby’s room. It’s a room I spend more time in, now that both boys are in school. It’s painted with a stripe of my favorite color, a bright and happy teal. The color of the ocean in the Caribbean, a beautiful turquoise. There are plants on every shelf, meaningful knickknacks all over the place, and an easel in the corner for painting whenever I have writer’s block. I spend hours here each day now that I have mornings to myself, working on various projects. Writing, painting.
Right now, my project is going through all the leftover baby items that we haven’t tossed out. There are bins for each age range of infancy and toddlerhood. I pick through onesies and baby toys. Most of them are put together for a friend expecting her first baby soon. But with each item, I pause. The wooden dachshund teether my son’s godfather gave him. The blue striped onesie both of my boys wore for their one-month photos. A pair of Nike’s my brother bought for my oldest son, ridiculously expensive and equally adorable. Worn out and loved books, Elmo Loves You, Dinoblock, Daddy Kisses. Each item brings a flood of memories of those early, exhausting, emotional days. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I set one bin aside for things I can’t bear to part with and set them gently aside for storage. Then I move all the bins out of my office. It’s only once they’re out that I realize how much space it all took up.
Alaina Scarano received her BA from the University of Colorado. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize as well as Best of the Net, and has appeared in Pidgeonholes, Gastropoda, Watershed Review, Allium, Litro, and elsewhere. She lives and writes in Denver, Colorado.