I’ve had two experiences over the past week or so that have made me feel like I’m in a time warp back to last year.
This past weekend, I was one of the organizers of a big regional event for undergraduate women in physics. Last year I attended the same meeting, held at a different university, four months after the death of our daughter. That was one of the notable times that I lost it in public. During the meeting, a string of female science professors got up to introduce themselves and talk about their work and personal life. One, who works in my field and whom I know casually from conferences, was just slightly less pregnant than I would have been if our daughter hadn’t died. Seeing her up there and hearing all those women talking about how important their kids were to them was incredibly painful — somehow amplified since it was a bunch of female scientists living the work-life situation that I so desperately wanted. I quietly sobbed in the crowded auditorium, and found myself physically shaking afterward.
This year, I was the hugely pregnant woman at the front of the auditorium, and it felt odd. On the one hand, it was wonderful to have such a clear reminder of how far I’ve traveled in a year. On the other hand, it was also a clear reminder of what my emotional state was like last January, and I was acutely aware that seeing my large belly might be painful for some of the women at the meeting and I might not ever know.
Similarly, the last time I went to a prenatal appointment, I saw a woman sitting with her partner in the waiting room with THAT LOOK on her face. Fighting back tears, looking down, clearly avoiding eye contact with anyone else in the room, but not looking at anything in particular. Her partner was holding her hand and hovering protectively. I don’t know her story, of course, but I strongly suspect she’d just had a miscarriage. And there I was, in all my 8-months-pregnant glory, remembering exactly how painful it had been to sit in the waiting room last year watching heavily pregnant women and newborn babies come and go around me. To remember how even when they moved me to a private waiting area, a woman about as pregnant as I now am waddled up to the water fountain in front of me and all I could feel was the bleakest despair. I wanted so desperately to say something to the woman in the office last week. To tell her I was sorry for her loss. To tell her that I’d been there. To tell her she’d make it through, even though it didn’t feel possible right now. To let her know I wasn’t the carefree pregnant lady she probably assumed I was. But how can you start that conversation? I couldn’t. I smiled hesitantly at her partner. And then my name was called and I walked away.
The pain of pregnancy loss has so many associations for me now. Seeing sad women in the waiting room of an OBGYN practice is an obvious one, but who would have thought that an event for female physics students would do it too?
These two situations brought me back strongly to last year, but I’m also happy to report that my husband and I are moving forward and planning to welcome our son home in just a few short weeks. We finally took the plunge and started organizing our baby stuff. I washed and sorted all the hand-me-down clothes, and we started buying stuff to fill in our needs around the edges. The Amazon boxes have been arriving in a steady trickle. We even took a trip to Ikea for some furniture, and now the room in our house that has stood empty since we moved in a year and a half ago is starting to look terrifyingly like an adorable nursery. I still feel the dizzying duality of fear and joy when I think about it. I imagine holding our son, rocking in the old rocking chair that my in-laws brought us at Christmas. When that gets too scary, I remind myself that even if we don’t bring home our son this year, we will eventually be parents, and that the nursery will eventually be used by a living child, even if it’s not this one. Thinking about it as our family’s nursery, rather than our son’s nursery, is my coping technique du jour. I wish I could fully commit to making it HIS nursery, but I’m just not quite there yet. And still, we act like he’s coming home soon. The carseat is installed in the car, just in case. We’re planning on taking a trip to Target this weekend for exciting necessities like diapers and wipes. We’re preparing, ready or not. While it’s not likely yet, he could theoretically arrive any day (now that I’ve reached the 36-week mark). I mostly feel calm, until I think about things too hard. But I suspect that’s a normal feature of late pregnancy.
Physically, I’m fine. Most of the time I feel pretty placid about the wait. Other women have told me they were miserable by 36 weeks; I’m not. Sure, there’s some discomfort, but it’s all minor aches and pains. I can still walk my dog two miles in the morning (just slowly). I can mostly sleep at night (with a few interruptions). I can mostly focus on work and sit at my desk comfortably (as long as I waddle to the bathroom every so often). Life feels more or less normal. The strangest thing about this week is the buildup to the start of classes. It’s the first time in three years as a professor that I haven’t been caught up in the buzz of the start of the semester. I’m working hard, trying to finish two papers before the baby comes (I finished a draft of paper #1 and sent it off to collaborators today!), but I’m not putting together a syllabus or writing lecture notes or fielding frantic student emails about whether there’s space in my class. Students mostly aren’t bugging me about stuff, because within my little department they all know that I could disappear at any moment. I’m watching my colleagues buzz around instead. I’m guiltlessly saying no to any requests that do make it to my inbox. It’s unsettling to start to disengage from work so thoroughly, but also kind of exhilarating to imagine how different our first few weeks of parenthood will be from the academic life that has been my “normal” for… well, forever.
So that’s where I am at the moment: in a strange time warp, in limbo between my painful past and what I dearly, dearly hope is our impending future with our son.