My stomach feels too tight. I shift in my desk chair and place one hand on my pregnant belly, feeling for movement. The pressure remains, so strong I could bounce a penny off of it. The kick never comes; my baby is likely sleeping.
Is this Braxton Hicks? The start of real contractions? Something scary? These questions circle like vultures, eating away at my peace.
At 38 weeks pregnant, I’ve felt this way before. I know I need to up my water intake and possibly lie down. The problem is, I’m supposed to be working. A full Outlook calendar stares at me from the screen of my laptop. Can I make my 11 a.m. call? Will I have to cancel my 1:30 p.m. interview?
I feel my belly again. No, the answer is obviously no. I guzzle the rest of my water bottle, message my coworkers that I’ll be offline for a bit and waddle over to the couch.
Smartphone in hand, I summon a message my nurse sent weeks ago after I sent her a frantic note about third trimester belly tightening. On that awful day, I feared I’d missed an important signal from my body. I feared early labor. I feared the worst: damage. Perhaps this is lingering trauma from miscarriage — the inability to trust one’s own womb to carry life.
The nurse wrote back quickly: “as your uterus continues to grow, the strain will increase, which may bring on Braxton Hicks contractions. No need to be alarmed just make sure you are getting enough rest and water. Pay attention to frequency and if they become painful.” I scanned her words a dozen times until I felt better.
Today I read the message again: No need to be alarmed. The vultures dissipate. I drop my phone on my chest and succumb to a nap.
Joyful bucket list
I’m not one who enjoys being pregnant. To clarify: I’m deeply grateful to be pregnant, but I don’t love the associated bodily changes. Not the severe nausea nor the pregnancy insomnia. Neither the back pain nor the sweats (in the middle of winter, no less!). And don’t even get me started on the weight gain.
From another angle, I see this parade of pregnancy pains telling me that my body is doing a miraculous thing: creating life.
At the moment, my chest is simmering. Is this the roasted cauliflower I ate for dinner? I dig around in the cabinet for the chalky tablets I take to relieve heartburn, another side effect of pregnancy. I throw back two and remind myself to be grateful that my stomach is no longer tight and the countdown to baby is less than a week away.
Flipping open the pages of my journal, I make a post-pregnancy bucket list of all things I hope to enjoy once baby has arrived:
An ice cold glass of Riesling
Sushi and sashimi
NOT having to pee constantly
Saunas and hot tubs
Hot yoga class
NOT feeling like a beached whale
Less worry (maybe?)
The list does its job. And so has the heartburn medicine. I put down the pen and picture myself holding and nursing our new little boy. I can’t help but smile like crazy.
How does it feel?
One evening after our son’s asleep, my husband Jay and I cozy up on our leather couch to watch Station Eleven. Here’s a show that projects the future after a deadly pandemic, cast through the eyes of individuals who are inextricably linked by a graphic novel of the same name. Given our current context, we find it both haunting and hopeful.
Tonight’s episode centers on Jeevan, our favorite character. We wince when a crippling accident separates him from the girl he’s been parenting, landing him in a makeshift hospital filled with pregnant ladies. Jeevan’s so sick with worry for the girl he abandoned he looks physically ill. When a patient embraces him, he holds on hard and asks her, “How does it feel to be pregnant?”
I grimace. Countless times throughout this pregnancy I’ve been asked “How are you feeling?” Most of the time I’ve responded with “Fine,” peppered with a physical shift: “Fine, but I’m not sleeping.” “Fine! The baby’s really kicking.” “Fine, but my back aches.”
“How does it feel to be pregnant?” is an entirely different question.
The mama-to-be rests her head on Jeevan’s shoulder and answers honestly: “Scary.”
Tears arrive unbidden. Never would I ever expect to feel so seen by this show. I turn toward Jay and remark, “That’s it. Sometimes, that’s exactly how I feel being pregnant — scared.”
When I met my dear friend at Starbucks last summer, we had a lot to catch up on. She told me she’d changed jobs and moved to a different home. We traded updates on our writing. I shared about my miscarriage.
“I’m so sorry for your loss, Erin,” she said, setting down her coffee. “How are you doing?”
“Honestly? I’m up and down. I’m still devastated, but I’m also pregnant again…”
She let out a little shriek. “Congratulations!”
“Thank you!” I answered, beaming. “I feel a little guilty for how happy that makes me.” I took a sip of my chai tea latte. “I’m also pretty terrified.”
My friend nodded and furrowed her brow. She asked, “Can I give you some advice?”
“Yeah, I’ll absolutely take it.” She rarely doles out advice so I knew this was important.
“After I miscarried, then got pregnant again, I felt the same way as you. Actually, I was so anxious I struggled to enjoy it,” she said, her eyes growing a little misty. I clutched my chai, hanging onto her words. “Please don’t forget to enjoy it,” she continued. “Eat the ice cream, buy cute new pregnancy clothes, take pictures of your belly bump. Don’t let worry steal your joy.”
Now my eyes had begun to mist. “I promise,” I said, meeting her gaze. “I promise to enjoy it.”
My task for this weekend is to pack my hospital bag. I’ve been telling everyone who asks that we have everything we need for our new baby, however, once I start packing, I realize there are some things we can’t find in the storage bins from our firstborn’s baby days.
I pull up my Target app and start searching for the missing items: one new bottle brush for baby — click. New Lansinoh cream for nursing — click. A soft crib sheet studded with stars, a new nursing cover, extra deodorant for my hospital stay. Click, click, click.
I hit one final click to confirm my purchases and announce to Jay in the kitchen, “That’s the last of it!”
“The last of what?” he asks, looking up from the dishes.
“The last of our baby list,” I say, striding to the refrigerator to cross “pack hospital bag” off our baby to-do list. “I just need you to pick up this Target order and we’ll be set.”
“Sure babe,” Jay replies, turning a dish over in a stream of water.
“This is exciting! Thank you for all your help,” I say, kissing him on the cheek. “I’m lucky to have you.”
I turn on my heel and enter our nearby bedroom, which will also serve as a nursery for our newborn. My son’s old crib sits against the far wall by the windows. Kitty-corner stands our maplewood dresser, once covered with picture frames, now donning a changing pad, baby monitor and sound machine. My eyes land on our newest addition: a dove gray glider, a gift from Jay to replace the old rocking chair I used to nurse our son Jack. I settle into the glider and issue a little exhale. It is so comfortable.
Just then Jack ambles around the corner and leaps into my lap. “Hey buddy,” I say, folding my arms around him and readjusting him so he isn’t pressing on my belly.
“What are you doing, Mom?”
“Oh just getting some things ready for baby brother,” I say, combing my fingers through his straight blond hair. “Are you ready to be a big brother?”
“Uh-huh… uh, Mom?” he asks, looking up at me.
“What’s up buddy?”
“Does the baby already know how to swim?”
I giggle and pat my stomach. Jack’s learning to swim himself right now and making good progress in his lessons, that must be where this question came from. “Your little brother’s swimming in my tummy, I suppose. But can he swim like you in the pool? No. Maybe when he’s old enough — closer to your age — you can help teach him?”
“I’m so excited for the baby to come!” he replies, leaning into my arms and gently pressing his arm around my belly.
“Me too, buddy,” I say, relishing his closeness. “You’re going to be a great big brother.”
I’m at my final doctor’s appointment before my scheduled C-section. Two straps belt my belly, one holding a circular device that monitors the baby’s heartbeat. The other holds a piece that monitors my contractions. In my left hand is a clicker I’m using to count baby kicks while I take this non-stress test.
Bah-thump-bah-thump-bah-thump goes the baby’s heartbeat, intermixed with the fake laughter of the daytime talk show playing on the television in this room. I press my clicker on occasion, hearing a delayed beep.
After 25 minutes, my OB arrives to check the monitor. “I want to keep you here a little longer,” he says, eyes still on the screen. “The baby’s heartbeat slowed for a bit. We need some more time to watch him.”
With that, he leaves. My heart pounds in my chest, drowning out the bah-thumps of baby’s heartbeat. The talk show hosts’ chatter grows more annoying by the minute. Time slows to a trickle. The vultures return, nibbling away at my once calm demeanor.
Just when I think I can no longer take it, my OB returns. Suddenly he’s saying, “You’re good to go!” and I’m releasing the breath I didn’t even know I was holding.
Later, in the exam room, he asks if I have any questions. “Just one,” I answer, gripping the edges of the exam table. “How do I deal with all this anxiety? I’m so nervous for the baby to come . . . Honestly I’ve felt this way a lot while expecting.” I can’t bring myself to add “because of the miscarriage.” He knows though. He has my chart in front of him.
My OB stands and places one hand on mine and squeezes it. “This baby is healthy and beautiful,” he says, holding eye contact. “You’re going to be fine.”
I float out of the office, my steps a little lighter.
Cartwheels in the dark
At 3 a.m., I wake with a string of words in my head. Darkness floods the bedroom. I fling my arm out and scrounge inside my nightstand for a pen and sticky note to scribble the words before I forget them. I’m not sure where this sentence is going, but I know I need to capture it, however illegibly, so I can go back to sleep.
Finished writing, I reposition myself on my left side, one hand resting over my belly. Mercifully, my baby’s moving. First I feel a flutter, then a jiggle. Next comes the cartwheeling, a pleasant rolling in my womb.
I recall the promise I made to my friend and my OB’s words about this healthy, beautiful baby. I realize what I’m feeling is joy, pure joy, alongside an ever present twinge of worry. While I can’t extinguish fear completely, I believe I can carry both. I want to savor these magic days before everything changes.
I can’t wait to meet you, I think, imagining some sort of telepathy between me and my baby. “I love you,” I whisper aloud, including his full name, all six syllables of it. His presence is a gift. A miracle. Our hope in the midst of this never-ending pandemic. With every cartwheel in the dark, my joy increases.