I discovered I was pregnant in March last year. There were a lot of things I expected now that I was expecting: a baby shower, a plastic pile of baby toys, friends and family lining up to touch my stomach. I expected the loss of free time, the end of the years in which I could just pack a weekend bag and leave. I expected motherhood. I expected the most profound experience of my life.
I tried to fashion the idea of a mother in my mind. Do prospective mothers look like oversized Cecilie Bahnsen dresses, their gauze caressing taut stomachs? Do they look like swollen but manicured feet bursting out of Birkenstocks? And what was the chance that I would look like the pregnant supermodels I looked up on Google?
They certainly don’t look like the tight-waisted PVC-dress I wore to an art opening soon after I discovered the news. I was convinced that it was my last chance to dress in such juvenile attire, corseted but carefree, not having to worry about how its fabric would feel to anyone but myself. At home, I swept my fingers along the garments in my overfilled closets, playing out the same thought experiment with every piece I touched: Is this what a mother looks like?
I did not yet have many close friends who had had children, so I built an image of motherhood through a series of purchases. I shopped for organic prenatal vitamins, baby books, and sensible undergarments. After that, I’d start browsing maternity wear, cribs, strollers. Despite the fact that my stomach was still flat — or perhaps because of it — I used material to paint a vision of motherhood.
That image truly crystallised with my first ultrasound. On the screen, I watched a white blot float around space. I squeezed my eyes to see whether I could discern a face, one that resembled the Black-Asian babies whose photos I had studied. What did people do before this, I wondered. Just wait nine months to find out whether they were pregnant or bloated? I wanted to frame the picture the doctor gave me to remember a milestone not of the fetus but of my own: it was the first time I heard a second heartbeat emerge from my own body, the first time I saw what my future would hold. Within a span of minutes, I became a mother.
But at the next ultrasound, the doctor fell silent as she kept the wand in my vagina, twisting the buttons on the machine as if she was trying to focus a blurry lens. After a while, she told me she could no longer detect a heartbeat and recommended a dilation and curettage (D&C), a procedure that would scrape my uterus clean so that no ‘products’ would cling on and stay behind. Why wouldn’t I want it to cling on? I wanted to ask. But time folded into itself, and before I knew it, I woke up in a clinic with a two-star Yelp-rating, wailing in my hospital gown. Just like that, I was no longer a mother.
As my mind stumbled out of general anesthesia, it was still filled with images of doula-influencers and a pregnant Doutzen Kroes. Despite all my research, the possibility of miscarriage had never entered my imagination. I couldn’t conceive of the fact that a baby could be lost, that the trail to motherhood, with each of its stages marked with rituals and gifts, could suddenly hit a dead end. I knew what a mother looked like by then, but what about one who has just lost a baby? Laying in bed after the operation, my underwear lined with the thickest pads my partner could find at the pharmacy, I browsed pages and pages of summer sales. Does she look like the figure-hugging dress of blood-red lace I had added to my cart? Or the stretchy skirt that could help me imagine needing room to grow, once again? Does a woman who has lost a baby still go out, does she still need cocktail dresses?
In the weeks after, I tried to explain my grief to friends and acquaintances. I told them that I missed the baby, that I replayed every minute of my pregnancy to understand whether there was something I could’ve done to prevent its loss, that my body felt too weak to withstand the weight of death. In turn, they told me that miscarriage is common, that I’d ‘move on’ and try again. I told a friend I felt like a wailing mother elephant who has just found the lifeless body of her baby, its tusks stripped by poachers. She responded by saying that at least I have a partner who wanted kids.
All the while, friends got pregnant, friends organised baby showers, friends exchanged hospital gossip with other pregnant friends, while me and my scraped-out uterus sat on the side. When a stranger bumped into me on the subway, I pictured how they would’ve given me their seat had I been visibly pregnant. I pictured pulling my pants down and showing him the blood and mucus dripping through my bruised cervix. And then I pictured my baby, its remains chucked, after the operation, into a biohazard bin.
Back home, I rushed to the computer to search for ‘miscarriage items,’ as if there were objects I could buy to fill the void left in my body. There were memorial bracelets on Etsy, there were pregnancy loss awareness pins, there were cards that aid, ‘There is no good card for this.’ I looked for books, movies, anything that made it clear that someone believed pregnancy loss was worth making art about. But there was surprisingly little I could find, and there was certainly nothing that would suit my purpose, which was to communicate to the world that I had once been a mother, and perhaps still am. I had long relied on consumerism for answers and comfort, but it seemed that even in a society in which every niche has been commercialised, miscarriage carries little capital.
A pregnancy protrudes. It heightens and widens and deepens to take up space. Miscarriage empties. The fetus leaves the body, the hormones flush out, whatever visions for an expanded family suddenly seem no longer perceptible. I wondered whether the problem of miscarriage was a lack of imagination. It couldn’t be dressed up, packaged, and sold. It couldn’t be glamorised with a nude Annie Leibovitz photo shoot in Vanity Fair. Whatever damage had been done occurs under the skin, out of sight. There was no scar that would make it clear how much I’d been hurt, no item I could wear to communicate that I was a person in grief. Even the English language does not provide a space for my experience: the word miscarriage suggests a wrong turn, a missed exit. I wasn’t even far enough in my pregnancy for my loss to be categorised as a stillbirth, a word that at least suggests that a life had been created.
After a while, I returned to the doctor for a follow up. She inspected the ultrasound, and let out a satisfactory yelp announcing that nothing was left behind. I kept staring at the screen of the machine, which now displayed only emptiness, a black hole.
After my miscarriage, expectation turned into hope, its less arrogant cousin. Each month, I counted off the days until ovulation. Each month, I thought about which sexual acts were useful and which just frivolous. Each month, I dissected the grainy signals of my own body. Was I cold, or was I pregnant? Was I constipated, or was I pregnant? Was I losing my mind, or was I pregnant? I bought tight clothes, convinced I would have a long time to wear them still, and then I bought loose ones again, once my optimism returned. I counted off the days until my period with a jittery dread, waiting for the first possible time to do a pregnancy test. And when the test was negative, I would do another one and then another, convinced that at some point, the single stripe would, like cell-division, split into two.
By December, I was pregnant again. I felt good, I felt bad. I was mostly incredulous that my body, after having survived months without rest, nurture, and serotonin, could still grow something. I rushed to the doctor to confirm the news since I had habituated my mind to no longer trust at-home pregnancy tests. And yes, I was expecting, again. I tried to keep a lid on my hope, resisting the urge to consult my pregnancy manuals. Yet I found myself stretching my clothes again every time I got dressed, just to visualise how many more months I would be able to fit in them. My conclusion was that I owned more stretchy clothes than I expected.
Two weeks later, blood splashed into my underwear. Another ultrasound, this time showing an ectopic pregnancy. The embryo had implanted itself in my right Fallopian tube. It wasn’t willing to empty, to let go of the flesh it had buried into. The doctor gave me a dose of methotrexate, a chemotherapy agent she said would target ‘rapidly dividing cells.’ It was injected into my ass cheek as if I was nothing more than a big baby myself, and when the needle hit my skin, I cried like one too. I didn’t understand why a difference of a few centimeters distinguished a baby from cancer, love from harm.
I’ve tried to undo my expectations. I know now that pregnancy is not just a healthy and joyous experience. I know now that pregnancy can lead to death instead of life. I know now that I can be devastated enough to punch a guy on the street for harassing me in front of my obstetrician’s office, as I shouted: ‘I’m having a miscarriage!’ And every time I passed that corner again, he’d come after me and yell across the whole block he wished I’d have another one. It’s only now that I realise that the incident manifested the nightmare version of what I wanted: for everyone around me to hear about the losses I had endured. Now that the pandemic has kept both of us off the streets, I tell that story to people as a joke-filled anecdote. It elicits their laughter rather than their bewilderment, camouflaging how my sadness literally spilled out of my body’s bounds.
Where did my initial, naive expectations come from anyway? Was it from the ads of glowing women in maternity wear that kept popping up in my browser, even by the time I had entered more searches for ‘miscarriage’ than ‘pregnancy’? Was it from the books that portrayed gestation as an advent-calendar, with each chapter revealing the next stage of fetal development along various fruit-sizes? Or was it from the doctor, who, after the heartbeat was first detected, told me to start thinking of baby names?
Perhaps it was to be expected that my expectations would be such. I was born in China during the one-child-policy. Having children was not a matter of personal choice, as the country conducted mass campaigns of forced sterilisation and abortion to enforce a low birth-rate (which continue for the Uighur population today). If miscarriage did have the opportunity to occur, it might have just hastened a fate that the government would have coerced anyway. My mother had had two abortions, one before my arrival and one after. She pictured she’d be able to have more children after we left China for the Netherlands, though when we eventually did, she and my father separated. Miscarriage was never mentioned as a possibility when I was growing up. Pregnancy loss wasn’t caused by individual conditions but societal ones, the obstacle between my mother and more children situated outside of her body.
I now live in the United States, a country that has one of the most advanced medical industries but also one of the highest infant mortality rates among wealthy industrialised nations.1 It’s a country where a child can only be brought into being through a series of consumerist choices, where ‘having’ a baby depends on the health insurance one is able to afford and the amount of reproductive technologies one has access to. And even in states where women have ‘ownership’ over their bodies to a certain extent — through access to abortion and birth control — it’s clear that not every body possesses the same value. Black newborns die at twice as high a rate than their white counterparts2, while black women die at three to five times the rate of white women from pregnancy-related causes3 In the country I now live in, having a child is a privilege, even though it shouldn’t be.
In the years since I left China, my own privilege has grown. I now visit clinics where white doctors talk to me about my ‘pregnancy preparedness’ and my ‘fertility journey,’ hiding the possibility of death under their glistening surfaces and sanitised language. I’m part of a pregnancy loss support group with middle-class white women. I feel at home among the one ectopic pregnancy, two stillbirths, and five miscarriages we share among us. But as we discuss IVF-cycles, ovulation monitoring, and the best fertility doctors, even amidst a pandemic and a social uprising against racial violence, I wondered what expectations — of care, of access, of support — we still hold onto, despite all the traumas we’ve experienced.
It’s been a year since my first miscarriage, and the summer sales have returned. I buy a loose kaftan, I buy a pin-tucked denim dress, I buy cotton shorts with an elastic waistband, I buy skin-tight hotpants. There’s no coherence in the silhouette or materiality of this selection of garments, no vision of what I want to be. The pandemic rages on, and in the convergence of societal crises it has caused, I find myself escaping into consumerism again, despite the ways it has failed me. My vision of how my life will unfold is no longer progressive or linear, I don’t assume it will just heighten and widen and deepen.
I think about how the condition of the world now reflects the inner turmoil I’ve experienced in recent times. Almost everyone around me lives in uncertainty and waiting, not knowing whether their bodies will be able to withstand the traumas lurking around the corner. But I also think about my mother again. When my parents and I moved from the North of China to the wealthy South in the early 1990s, our sort was seen as uncivilised, speaking with clipped tongues and smelling of garlic. My mother and I would stroll through the first shopping malls that had been erected in the city of Guangzhou, handing over cash for whatever the salesperson said was French. We fashioned our new identities in the mass-market stores we were slowly getting to know, and did the same when we moved to the Netherlands. We believed we could force the arrival of our Dutch identities by dressing like the strange foreigners we were suddenly surrounded by. Perhaps my habit of using material to fashion a new future started long before motherhood entered my mind. And perhaps it’s something that has helped me survive previous upheavals, too.
As I’m writing, I keep going back and forth between my text editor and the browser windows of summer sales I have opened. I scroll through rows and rows of garments, hopeful that one of them will evoke a better future. I am not pregnant, but inside me, the image of motherhood I’ve conceived continues to grow.
Mary Wang is a Chinese-Dutch writer, now living in New York. She is a senior editor at Guernica.
This article was originally published in Vestoj ‘On Doubt,’ available for purchase here.