I just had the quite bizarre experience of getting pregnant. Bizarre because for the last two and a half years, I’ve had the Paraguard IUD – as effective as tying your tubes, they tell me. Then one day my period doesn’t come. My breasts are swollen, my back aches, and I have the crazy thought that this feels like pregnancy. Something is definitely wrong, at least. So I head to CVS to get a home pregnancy test, just to rule it out. We have plans for brunch with friends, so I slip into the bathroom to get the test out of the way while my boyfriend puts away groceries. And then I stare at it. For a really long time. Because that is most definitely a plus sign.
Hmm. That’s odd. Of course I’d only bought one test, so after a moment of staring, we hurry down the street for more. Another, and then another, and this time the digital ones that say “Pregnant” or “Not Pregnant” clear as day. Every one has the same confusing answer. “Pregnant.”
On the drive to the urgent care center, I remember all the mornings in the past month I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, staring at my protruding stomach and half-heartedly thinking: It’s like I’m pregnant. How did I know? My boyfriend drives, one hand resting firmly and supportively on my knee. We joke nervously to distract us from the shock.
In the exam room, the nurse is young and friendly. She admits she’s nervous for me, clearly shaken by the news that IUDs are not a guarantee. I laugh with her to try to make her more comfortable, that makes two of us. We wait and wait for confirmation that our lives are, in fact, upside-down, while a Nickelodeon sitcom plays in the background. Finally an old male doctor comes in and tells me the same thing as the CVS family planning aisle. I’m pregnant.
It still isn’t clear what I should do about the tiny piece of metal inside me. It seems dangerous now. For so long it was a faithful friend, but now it’s a foreign object lodged next to embryonic cells inside of me — I can’t believe that’s good for anyone. But the urgent care doctor just says call my doctor and take some prenatal vitamins. And no one else picks up the phone on a Sunday. My IUD is still there, and I’m pregnant.
Safely at home with the reality, the full weight of what is happening finally settles in. I lie down on the bed and am overwhelmed by sobbing, full-bodied I can’ts. I curl into my boyfriend, alternately gasping and apologizing, as over and over I insist I cannot do this. I am not ready. He soothes me with his own admission: You don’t have to. I’m not either. We cling to each other until exhaustion pulls us into sleep.
First thing Monday, I make my calls. I get an urgent appointment Wednesday with a highly recommended ob-gyn who promises to get that meddlesome piece of metal out of me — turns out I’m probably fine, but no use pushing it longer than we have to. While I’ve got her on the line, there are more words I never thought I’d say. Do you have any recommendations for abortion providers? She gives me a list over the phone, and I start to make the calls.
I’m struck by how few really are abortion providers. Out of a list of seven recommended doctors, none of the ones who answer their phones actually offer pregnancy termination. Only two family planning clinics in the area provide the service. I go with Planned Parenthood. I spend so much of my time defending them and giving money monthly, it seems only right to maintain my loyalty in my moment of need. Plus, they can fit me in Saturday morning for an in-clinic procedure. A quick call to my insurance confirms that the federal plan covers 100% of pregnancy, but no elective abortion. I have a hard time appreciating their ideological consistency.
When I put down the phone I’m hit with a wave of relief. This all seems much more manageable now. Something went wrong, but now there are steps to fix it. Yes, I’m pregnant, but it’s a temporary state. I can see the day on the calendar when it won’t be true anymore. I just have to make it through the week. We’ve got a solution, it’s the solution we want, and now we just have to wait until we can act. Wednesday, then Saturday, then freedom.
But that still leaves a week of being pregnant. Time to learn all the practical ways my body prepares to make another. I find myself holding my stomach as I walk, either by instinct or imitation, not quite sensing life inside me, but acutely aware of something different. I never knew pregnancy came with cramps — it makes sense when I stop to think. There’s no explicit morning sickness, but I have no interest in eating either. I avoid caffeine and alcohol, just in case, and also because the thought turns my stomach. I tire easily and walk more slowly — and just six weeks in, I already feel way too big. As I go about my workday, I find the physical experience unsettling me in conversations with coworkers, even when my mental haze recedes. A wave of nausea or sudden loss of appetite reminds me in the middle of a meeting that I know something no one else knows: there’s another person growing in this room.
Wednesday I beg off work with a cryptic urgent doctor’s appointment, and my boyfriend and I head for to the ob-gyn. Yet again, I terrify the young women doing my blood work and taking my weight. My presence, pregnant with an IUD, shakes their faith. The nurse practitioner, friendly, competent, communicative, says she’s seen about than five cases like this in her career — at least I’m not the only one. Maybe you should stay away from Vegas. I disagree. With this kind of luck, we should have gone for Mega Millions. Since the Planned Parenthood appointment is already lined up, she kindly forgoes the pregnancy spiel. Just a speculum and a quick cough, and the IUD is out. My boyfriend, ever the supportive partner, is by my side to see the tiny copper T we’ve relied on for two-plus years. I can’t believe something that small worked as long as it did. God, I’m glad he’s here.
He’s right next to me too during the ultrasound, watching the dark circle in my uterus on the screen. There it is, says the technician. You’re about six weeks. I expected the visualization to have more impact. It’s just a black circle; it doesn’t make it seem any more real. What the hell are you? You aren’t a person yet. Someone once told me that before modern medicine, you weren’t considered pregnant until it showed. The time between a missed period and a belly was just “abnormal menstruation.” You weren’t not pregnant, but you weren’t yet pregnant either. That’s exactly how it feels. I can clearly tell that it will be something, but it doesn’t feel like it yet.
With the ultrasound over and IUD out, it’s just killing time until Saturday. Our home becomes a nest of orange juice, comfort TV, and quiet, weighty affection. Friday night we fall asleep relieved and ready to act. Saturday morning I wake up before the alarm, thinking hard. We never talked about the other option, about trying to keep it. We never even talked through the logistics. I suddenly want to do that. I feel overwhelmingly selfish, to be making this choice based on what I want, not what I can handle — we could do this, we could take this on. It seems selfish to defer responsibility based on preference. We could keep it, practically speaking. It might even be good timing, since we do plan on doing this at some point anyway. Our gut reaction was so complete, so visceral — did that make it right?
When my boyfriend wakes up, I carefully lay out this alternate scenario. He listens carefully, calmly. He agrees we could make it work. Do you want to reschedule the appointment?
That stops me cold. I’m still ultimately talking to my boyfriend. We are committed to each other, and we say we will be parents together someday, but we haven’t yet taken that one last step and told the world “This is it.” Who knows when — if — we will take that step. I look at this man, who I know to be kind and sweet and good, who gets so infectiously excited about new plans and dreams, and I know we aren’t there yet. I want to preserve the milestones; I want us to be sure without a faulty copper wire forcing our hand.
No, let’s go. By the time we reach Planned Parenthood, I’m firmly back at certainty. We head in past the single aggressive protester, who seems to think pushing and yelling at us will make us want to take her pamphlet and listen to her crazy. Her invasion of our personal space makes me irrationally angry. It’s all I can do not to engage. But I keep it together and we’re in.
Now that we’re taking real steps again, my mind is clear and calm, and I’ve got plenty of time to consider our waiting room neighbors. There are quite a few young women alone — I say a silent prayer of thanks that I have a partner by my side. There’s a couple who look like high schoolers, affectionate but clearly nervous, just next to the door. A Russian couple barely understands English and pays all in cash, and an older Chinese woman waits patiently for a follow-up after a miscarriage. I look around and am reminded that every woman I know gives money to Planned Parenthood but gets her medical care somewhere else. This clinic serves people with far fewer options than us, for far more than just the abortion services we champion. As I sit there, I feel fiercely proud of Planned Parenthood for providing so much to so many. These people are truly caring for women. My small donations every month feel much bigger in this space, and I want to do more.
The clinic works like clockwork; slow, but well-oiled, with clear steps and constant affirmations. My boyfriend is not allowed in the back; a precaution meant to protect against outside pressure on women’s decisions, I assume. I appreciate the rationale, but every time I leave the waiting room, I wish he could come with me.
First comes a quick blood test to make sure my iron’s up and my blood type isn’t negative. I’ve got yet another technician I get to scare with my IUD story, but by this point I’ve got the joking responses down, complete with strategically placed laughs. Then comes the ultrasound: no, I don’t want to see it, yes, I would like to know if it’s a multiple pregnancy. It’s not, and I’m out of my second “probe” of the week in just a few minutes. On to counseling. Did anyone pressure you into this decision? Are you sure? Do you have any questions? I’m sure. The words are easy, relieving. I’m happy to be moving down the road to a solution.
Finally they call me in to the exam room. The doctor is kind and attentive and very good at distracting me from my nerves. There’s a speculum, and then another and another as they prop open my cervix. The doctor gets me talking about our trip to Peru next month; I share more than I usually would as my head gets lighter and lighter. The doctor puts anesthesia on my cervix and my vision goes almost black with dizziness. Still, I’m awake and talking and the pain is less than I expected. The doctor takes a small hand-pumped suction device with a very thin tube and slides it into me. My insides feel like bellows. I’m nervous about losing consciousness, but the pain remains tolerable — no worse than getting the IUD inserted originally. In three minutes, she’s done. I’m surprised by how low tech it all is and frustrated I couldn’t go to my regular doctor for something this simple, in a comfortable space with my partner by my side. Why such an easy process needs to be done in a special clinic, politicized and alienated from the world, is beyond me.
I’m extremely light-headed, so I lay there talking with the nurse as she holds a bag by my head, just in case, for another 10 minutes. I even get smelling salts. Then I dress, putting a pad in my underwear (I haven’t done this since middle school) and slowly walk to the recovery room. Apple juice and a heating pad are waiting for me — both very necessary. The apple juice calms my stomach while the heating pad wards off a sudden bout of chills. I lay still for about 15 minutes, with a nurse checking my vitals every five, until my pulse is back to normal. Then I take my out-patient packet with condoms and antibiotics, and I’m done.
I shiver uncontrollably on the way to the car. My boyfriend holds me carefully as we walk slowly, looking at me with a mixture of relief and terror. I wish he could have been there for the process; it’s hard to explain to him what I’ve just been through. He seems so worried that it was worse than it was. I’m really cold, but otherwise feeling just fine. At home, I huddle under mounds of blankets curled up against him, watching The West Wing and sipping on juice. He holds me tightly all day, kissing my head tenderly. We fall asleep early, wrapped around each other.
And then it’s Sunday and I’m not pregnant any more. We go out to brunch and meet up with a friend at a coffee shop. Sorry we haven’t been around. I’ve been sick, but I’m better now. My boyfriend works on a paper due that night. I chat about authors and law school. And life goes on.
Photo by Liz Henry licensed under Creative Commons