The following piece, contributed by Sica Schmitz, focuses on motherhood, baby loss, grief and navigating the road after.
It was in a Walmart bathroom, but I don’t actually remember which state the miscarriage started. Idaho, or maybe Utah. It was early December and I was driving to North Carolina from Washington, hoping for a fresh start from many things, everything, including the father of this chemical pregnancy and the complications and heartache that went along with him.
There were so many things wrong with this scene. My career is focused on living wages in supply chains, among other social justice causes, so Walmart isn’t typically somewhere I would ever spend money or time. But a quick engine check led to the stop, which led to the bathroom where, unprepared, I found myself stuffing toilet paper into my stained white underwear through contractions.
It was a very clear message: this chapter of your life is now over. But it was not how I had envisioned things ending, so abruptly, alone, and undignified in a Walmart bathroom.
I apologized earnestly to the cells pouring from my body.
The father and I had had another baby together a few months prior. Or, I’d had a baby. He was with me at the time, outside the hospital room on that summer morning, but he hadn’t been with me for most of the pregnancy. He’d missed every ultrasound, the birthing classes, the baby shower. He didn’t know our son’s name until after he was born.
I’ve been unsure how to share this story, how to honor privacy but also to honor truth, and above all to honor my pregnancies. I’ve wondered how to talk about my children without talking about the complexities of their father. Though, his aunt had warned him that his choices were shaping the story of his life, and this is probably especially true when one’s choices include getting involved with a writer.
I have my own complexities, my own story, my own choices, which had led to me, at age 34, becoming a single mom. I had found it, at best, uncomfortable and challenging, despite plenty of support and privilege. It’s the assumptions, the speculations, that first kick, experienced alone. I’d heard paternity guesses including everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio (no, but I’m flattered) to a sperm donor. Some of us had taken to calling the father that, since, the only thing he had ever contributed was good genetics, and I figured I could do worse than a handsome, intelligent, and artistic sperm donor, as long as our son didn’t inherit his father’s morals.
Our relationship – or lack thereof – had been short and confusing and his treatment of me – and then towards our child – was consistently unflattering, so I hadn’t shared the father’s name with anyone, hoping to protect all of us from embarrassment. Especially him. He’s well enough known in our small town, a man of a certain status and reputation, who would post hashtags like #family and #integrity along with Bible quotes while ignoring my calls. It hurt, but I would assure myself that it wasn’t entirely personal; afterall, he ignored all of his children, and their mothers.
But I hadn’t known about this – or them – until much later. He has a public persona which initially causes many to think highly of him – including me, for a while. I had, optimistically, believed the hashtags, or at least been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, to focus on his depths and charms instead of the things he said and did to our son, and me.
Most people who don’t know him very well would be surprised to hear about such things. Or even to hear about our son at all, since, he’s managed to never publicly mention him. Most people who do know him very well aren’t at all surprised to hear about such things, though I wouldn’t know about this until much later either.
This is not the kind of man I would have planned a pregnancy with, but like most adults of a certain age and responsibility I had embraced this unexpected life, and quickly. Like most anti-abortion white males I know, he had not. As much as this had confused and upset me I was also somewhat relieved; during my pregnancy he had insisted on pursuing a relationship with a woman who had a violent criminal record, and knowing what she had done to her own child I wasn’t going to let her anywhere near mine.
He’d managed to never publicly mention her either.
While in general he didn’t want anything to do with me – us – every once in awhile he would change his mind so I had given him an ultimatum, my attempt at boundaries, at protecting my baby: he could either choose violence or fatherhood, but, when it came to our son, I wouldn’t allow both. He texted me, the final communication during my pregnancy, “I never wanted him anyway.”
He would get his wish. At 37 weeks our son died, a devastating full term stillbirth from a rare and instant placental hemorrhage, another abrupt ending, another apology I would spend the rest of my life whispering.
I had absolutely wanted him, unequivocally.
Despite our troubled history it never occured to me not to invite the father to the hospital, and it never occurred to him not to come. He cried when he met our son and stayed with me those horrific first few days, filling my kitchen with groceries, holding me while I sobbed. We picked out urns together, arranged gifts for the medical staff together. He looked over at me one night, seated across from me as I ached in bed, and said, “I love you.” I loved him too. It was the parenting experience I had always wanted, only not like this.
Our son’s death destroyed me, everything about me, including any anger I had been harboring about the past. Stripped raw, his father and I started talking every day, hours at a time, spending most nights together, navigating trauma and apologies and grief. He was the living other half of my most beloved, my baby, and I found immense comfort in him, though I don’t know what I was hoping for; redemption, healing, some happily ever after to this terrible tragedy. Maybe a narrative about forgiveness and people changing, or that he might finally become the father worthy of our child.
Or, children. After a particularly close night I told him I was worried that I might be pregnant again. He took my hand, gave me one of those smiles which had gotten me into these situations in the first place, and said, “If you are, then it’s meant to be.”
I couldn’t help but disagree; it was poor timing. I had already decided that I needed to end whatever it was that we were doing – this undefined intimacy, this complicated trauma bond. I had recently found out that the nights he wasn’t spending with me were spent with someone else, and while we weren’t in a relationship – he’d made it very clear he didn’t want me any more than he had wanted our son – and I didn’t think he was exactly an honorable man, I had at the very least expected more of him than crying naked in bed with the mother of his dead child and then leaving the next morning for someone else.
Though, he’d done the same thing to me when I was the mother of his living child, so, I don’t know why I expected any differently this time. I guess I had just thought that if anything could change a person it’s the death of a baby. It had, at the very least, changed me.
Even though it was much too early I took a pregnancy test and after it came out negative I worked up the nerve – the self respect – to end our non-relationship. Despite our connection and my deep feelings for him, despite my sorrow and loneliness, I knew the first step in healing my own childhood father wounds was to stop reliving them with the wounded father of my child. I knew that I deserved honesty and love, from myself and everyone else in my life. I knew I owed this much to my son.
But when my pregnancy symptoms ramped up – a missed period, intense nausea, swollen milk ducts, and that odd metallic taste, just like my first pregnancy – I didn’t feel right not telling him. And just like my first pregnancy he got upset, told me he didn’t want it, and stopped talking to me. Again.
I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t ready for another pregnancy, especially a pregnancy with the same due date; it was too soon after our son’s death, and might always be. And I was mortified to admit that I was pregnant again, going to be a single mom again, with the same man, as if I had learned nothing from the past year. His family and I had grown close and they were still angry at him for the way he’d treated us, me and my son. My family was still angry at him for the way he’d treated us too. And my therapist – who had gotten a wide look in her eyes when I had first mentioned his name, as I suppose can happen when one has counseled enough women in a small town – had strongly encouraged me to cut ties with him immediately. I didn’t want anyone to be disappointed in me, especially this child, who I didn’t want to put through the father wounds my first one had already gone through.
And I didn’t understand how this kept happening. I had managed to make it my entire adult life without getting pregnant and now I seemed to conceive any time I so much as looked at this man. It was as if the Universe was insisting that we should have a child together. I wondered if maybe it was meant to be, afterall.
Not long afterwards I had a vivid dream: a beautiful little girl walked up to me – I knew her name the moment I saw her – and she took my hand. She said, in the sweetest voice, “I’ll come back to you later.” I didn’t know when; in this lifetime, in the next? Would she be a child, or an animal, or a spirit? All I knew was that I loved her instantly and that this pregnancy was going to end, which it did over the next few days as my symptoms subsided. It was as if the Universe was insisting that we shouldn’t have a child together; apparently it wasn’t meant to be, afterall.
I cried intensely, though this wasn’t new for me; I was already doing this every day over her brother, the other instant love of my life.
It took almost three more weeks for the cramping to start then the heavy blood later in the Walmart bathroom, as if on cue the day I left Washington, the past slipping away from me quite literally. I wasn’t surprised but I was sad; yet another life having ended in my womb, yet another child whose blue eyes I would know only in my dreams.
I called the father but he didn’t answer and never called me back. The final communication, a very clear message: this chapter of your life is now over.
Our culture is so uncomfortable with being alone, and especially being alone in pain. When a relationship ends, when people die, we’re supposed to fill the void with distractions and other people. When romance ends we are encouraged to find a new one, as if to prove our worth to others and to ourselves. In babyloss communities there is a strong emphasis on the “rainbow,” the baby after the storm, to make our mortality, our lack of control, seem more palatable.
But I knew that there was no other person that could fill this void – these voids. I knew that the only healing I would find was within myself, within my own body, not with another that I could create or hold. Which is not an easy ending, nor a happy one, but it is a real ending, and one which all of us will confront eventually, once we realize that we cannot ultimately ignore or numb the inherent human emptiness inside each of us, or replace the now-missing pieces that had once at least covered our hollows.
I left the Walmart bathroom and got back on the road, leaving behind the sunsets to the west. I knew there wasn’t a rainbow, clear skies, or blue eyes that could fix this. But as I drove east I hoped ahead of me, inside of me, I would eventually reach a sunrise.