October 30, 2016

A small loss

October is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month. All over social media, I've seen pictures and stories shared from family, friends, and colleagues who have walked through the most challenging journey, who have grieved the greatest loss imaginable.

In 2012, my then-boyfriend had hernia surgery, and I stayed by his side through the recovery process, helping in anyway I could. After a few weeks, he felt able to resume all normal activity, and we tried having sex again. It was over as soon as it started, something we thought was due to the dry spell but turned out to be nerve damage from the surgery, and it would never be fixed again. The result, though, made itself known a few weeks later in the form of a positive pregnancy test.

In the days (and even the hours) before the test, I fantasized about leaving him, about packing my things and just disappearing one night while he was at work. I had recently discovered a series of messages he exchanged while I was busy waiting on him hand and foot in his recovery - the details are painful, and the content was explicit. But I'd left my job to be closer to him, and the jobs I'd secured locally had fallen through, so I stayed quiet and stayed put and tried to figure out what to do next.

When I told him about the test, his reaction was exactly what I expected: shock, then silence, and eventual anger. The first painful question: "how do I even know it's mine?" - as if he expected my fidelity to be as flimsy and negotiable as his was. Then: "well, what are we going to do about it?"

I've always maintained that I am pro-choice, with an asterisk - that I fully support the option being available to any woman who wants or needs to pursue it, but in the position myself, I did not know if I would be able to make that decision. It was a difficult concept to consider when it was theoretical, and infinitely more so when it was tangible. He said over and over, "it's just cells," and I tried as best as I could to see through his eyes.

We made an appointment with the therapist at Planned Parenthood, who met with us calmly, asked for our thoughts and feelings, and sent us home with brochures on what she called "our three options." My boyfriend, who needed the counseling as desperately as I did, was defensive and quiet during the session.

I told him I would think about it, and in the meantime, I carried on as if I would be keeping it: eating well, taking prenatal vitamins, staying as active as I could while nurturing a almost constantly queasy stomach.

He was working overnights at that time, leaving for work around 10 PM and returning home shortly after 7 in the morning. The contrasting schedules that I'd loved so much when we were dating - enough overlap for time together, enough time apart to satisfy our introversion - were now painfully difficult. He would come home from work, and I'd want to try to talk through things, but he would head straight to bed. As someone who has struggled with depression for much of her adolescent and adult life, I recognized his behaviors, and did everything I could to coax him out of it - finally, at the recommendation of his father, he started seeing a therapist.

The decision about therapy was made shortly after I announced my own decision, that I would not terminate the pregnancy. It was a decision I had thought about for months, that I had discussed with every close and trusted friend and family member, and what it ultimately came down to was a conversation I had with my boyfriend. I couldn't stop thinking about the lewd conversations from a few months earlier, mainly how specific they were to a particular interest of his: being Jewish. And I asked him, through tears, if he would still be this staunchly in favor of termination if I was Jewish. And the defensiveness came back, and he insisted "no, no, if anything, it would be worse. My parents would kill me. You can't abort a Jewish baby."

When it was mine, it was cells. If I was Jewish though, it would have been a baby to him. And in that moment, I knew what I had to do: I needed to protect the little person inside me at any cost. Whether my boyfriend was in or not, I would be strong enough, I would be parent enough for this baby. He said he was in, but not the resounding excited "yes" you see in commercials and romantic movies. More resignation than anything else, he would rather be a halfhearted-but-present parent than a deadbeat.

As the pregnancy progressed, his demeanor shifted, but always manically. At dinner, he would ask how long we have to wait before we could take the baby to Disney World - but it wouldn't be long before he was back to his claims that the idea of being a father had him actively suicidal, that he could not shake the thought of jumping in front of the train.

The most painful comment he made was actually one that he made not once, but many times. He told me with depressing frequency that he kept praying that something would happen, that I would lose the pregnancy, that it would all be over.

Prayers from a self-proclaimed agnostic are more like wishes, going against what he otherwise so firmly stood for in a last ditch effort, desperately grasping at straws when faced against something so impossible that only something as equally impossible could shift the future to his favor.

And what devastating wishes these were. And so selfish.

In wishing for it all to "disappear," as he often put it, he focused only on the situation is he perceived it. Because at no point would it just disappear for me. A miscarriage would require medical attention, and that would be just the beginning of a grieving process I can't even begin to imagine.

When, I wonder, would he have approved a deadline for the loss? Before 12 weeks? Before viability at 27? Making it past 12 or 27 weeks isn't a guarantee. Actually taking a baby home from the hospital is not a guarantee.

I've seen how my friends and family and community have grieved these losses. It's not simple. It doesn't just disappear. I don't know if he thought in that moment about the gravity of what he wished for, about how we would be affected by miscarriage, by stillbirth, by a sudden and unexpected death in the hospital or at home. He was thinking out loud, processing his feelings, not thinking about the consequences or even the person he was sharing these thoughts with - the pregnant and scared girl who had wanted this experience so badly, but never like this, and never with him.

I was tough and strong, because I had to be, and I let him express his feelings even though they hurt me so incredibly. I just encouraged him to keep going to therapy, hoping the professional help could reach him in a way that he found meaningful. And it did: the prayers for an ending eventually ceased, and once he could see and feel the baby growing and moving, he even started to get excited.

The months following the birth of our son were a whirlwind: vacations to visit family and show off the baby, back to work for him, interviews for me, and finally, a job offer in hand that led to an out-of-state move. Shortly after we arrived in South Carolina, we realized how difficult and expensive it would be for him to obtain health insurance on his own, so a few weeks after arriving, we headed to the county courthouse, paid our $50, and got married on a Tuesday morning.

The "proposal" had been more functional than romantic, and ended with the phrase "so, what's it going to be?" verbatim. He talked about Karl Marx, about assets and tax brackets, and admittedly, I don't remember all of it. Still recovering from childbirth, adjusting to nursing at all hours of the night still, and transitioning to my new position at work, I was exhausted and overwhelmed and depressed. And - I knew what he was getting at in the conversation, and wanted to do whatever I could to mentally remove myself from that place. I can remember certain experiences from my life with excruciating detail, but this was one that I wanted to forget even before it finished unfolding.

The marriage was doomed from the start, mainly because we were marrying for the wrong reasons, but also, don't forget that barely a year earlier, I'd been ready to walk out the door on someone who so clearly did not love or respect me. At the time though, I thought I was doing what was right for him and for the little family we'd created. The first year of the marriage, everyone told me, is the hardest - so many adjustments, so much to adapt to once the honeymoon phase was over. We were less lucky in that there was no honeymoon phase, that we were thrust into the new title without any of the excitement or joy. Our first year of marriage was also our first year of parenting, our first year in the south, our first year with new job responsibilities. A person facing even one of those things would struggle to feel like he or she had it all together some days; to have all of it felt like running a race with a perpetually extending finish line. Even on the best days, we were exhausted.

I thought about asking for a separation at several points in that first year, but did not verbalize it until our first wedding anniversary. A few days earlier, standing in the greeting card aisle at Target, I realized none of the anniversary cards had the exact sentiment I needed. "Thank you for always being there," "you are the soulmate I've searched my life for," "your love carries me through our greatest challenges" ... everything felt inauthentic. So instead, I handed him a letter, saying that we needed to either see therapists or separate, because I could not keep pretending that things were okay as-is. We both cried, we both made promises, and we both kept doing what we had been doing, because again, it's hard to overcome that exhaustion. When it takes so much effort to simply get by, it's hard to imagine finding the resources to do anything beyond the essential. We were equally guilty of this, not just one partner or the other.

I was working full-time at the University, and he stayed home with our son, a situation that was not ideal but gave him an opportunity to reset after working overnights for so long and also to think about what different career path he would like to pursue. The time he promised to fill with housework and career research was mainly spent on social media, and the conversations with other women started up again. I felt so profoundly betrayed - if he didn't want to be with me, why did he say he would? Why did he marry me? I was barely sleeping, spending time at the office every single day, all to take care of everyone, and this was what I received in return.

The last straw for me came on March 10, 2015, and I'll never ever forget this moment. It was the middle of the night, and I woke up to find him on top of me, holding me down. Half-asleep, I asked what he was doing, and he whisper-growled, "I'm going to fuck you." Part sleepy and part shocked, I consented - or at least didn't refuse. As had been the situation for the last few years, it lasted less than fifteen seconds, then he dismounted and retreated to the bathroom, then crawled back in bed, turning his back to me to fall asleep. I laid there staring at the ceiling, in disbelief of what had happened but also calculating as quickly as I could to see if we would remember that night nine months later.

In the morning, our alarms went off, and he rolled back over to face me. "Did we..." and he trailed off, adding insult to injury - it was not only meaningless, but not memorable. "Yes," I said, knowing exactly what his next question would be. "Are you going to get pregnant again?" And I responded that I didn't know, but the window of possibility was certainly open.

And once again, there we were.

"If you get pregnant again, I'm going to kill myself."

No concern about how I would manage another pregnancy when I was struggling to recover still from the first. No concern about how I would manage the sleeplessness again, since nursing gave him what he thought was a valid excuse for staying asleep whenever our son cried in the middle of the night. No concern or apology for his wife, whom he had essentially assaulted only a few hours earlier. Just selfishness, just like it always had been.

I did some research, made some calls, spoke with the lawyer, and on March 19, I told him definitively: I want a divorce. He cried, again. Not as blindsided as the first time, but still upset. This time, though, I kept my composure calm and relatively unattached. I did not yet know if I was pregnant or not, but I didn't quite care. I could not endure nine more months like my first experience had been - I could not go through that again with him.

A few days later, my period begin, to my terrific relief. He wasn't there when I found out - not because he'd moved out, but because he'd taken a vacation to explore the area while he still lived here. Faced with the idea of taking care of his son without another adult there to help, he instead retreated back to his comfort zone, back to the life he'd felt robbed of when the first pregnancy test showed positive. Interesting that the man who stayed in order to prove that he was not a deadbeat later turned out to be, in fact, perhaps worse after all. It's easy to walk away from something you aren't familiar with - but to hold your newborn son, to feed him and care for him and love him, to watch him grow and change, and then walk away ... that's heartless in a way I cannot fathom.

He left a few months later, and now, a year and nearly a half further still, we are less than 24 hours away from our divorce. It's been a long process, and exhausting one, but also an incredibly fulfilling experience. I've realized a bit more of my strength, I've been faced with incredible challenges and come out no worse for the wear. I've continued to nurture and care for the little person I swore to protect way back when he was smaller than a fingernail. And I have thrived. The most challenging and exhausting days are still better than many days when we were married - at the very least, I go to bed exhausted yet grateful that no one is here threatening to take his own life and hiding infidelities while I run myself ragged trying to keep a roof over everyone's head and food and everyone stomach.

A colleague at work called me into her office the other day to share a story about a bad date she'd been on, and she pulled me in with the line "You hate men, I'm sure you'll appreciate this story." I hope that's not the vibe I'm giving off, because it's certainly not true. One man hurt me in ways I hope to never, ever hurt again. That man betrayed me, he deceived me, he abandoned the child we created together. I am angry, for sure. But I don't hate him, let alone his entire gender. I hate that he devastated my self-esteem and destroyed my trust in people, and this will take a very long time to recover from - over a year into the separation process, I feel like I'm really only scratching the surface so far. But I don't hate men. I know so many people in terrific relationships, so many marriages that seem strong and built to last. And I know (or at least I intensely strongly hope) that I will love again someday, that I too can have that kind of respectful and loving relationship.

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