About two months before our first baby died, I announced to the internet I was pregnant with her. I had no idea she’d die when I posted what I’ll reluctantly refer to as a “bumpie” on Facebook — meticulously art-directed in my living room; wearing a soft gray-and-white striped maternity shirt, my favorite; cradling a four-month belly that seemed almost to glow in the morning sun. It’s hard to look at this photo now, at the satisfied smile of the woman posing for it, the woman taking it. She exudes calm and bliss, and in about eight weeks, she’s going to have to print a retraction.
When I got pregnant, I wanted to proclaim my admittance to the elite, happy club I saw forming across my feeds. A bumpie, whether posted in sincerity or self-deprecation, sends a message: I Am Loved and I Am Fertile. It’s as benignly narcissistic as anything we share to our friends and followers, along the same lines as I Am on a Fabulous Vacation or Check Out How Photogenic My Dog Is. I’d been shaping a narrative of myself on the internet for about a decade by that point; I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which I would not share this monumental, happiest thing.
Still, my husband and I waited to announce on social media until well past the requisite 13 weeks, when the chance of miscarriage drops. We knew — or thought we knew — that bad things can happen at any time; the previous summer, our friends had lost their first pregnancy well into the second trimester.
When our daughter appeared healthy in her 19-week scan, we finally felt “safe.” It’s a word that comes up a lot in discussing the revelation of a pregnancy — When is it safe to announce? or, We were waiting until it was safe — and it implies a finish line triumphantly crossed. I posted the picture in April 2015 (“Oh hey,” reads the faux-nonchalant caption, “… we’re pretty pleased about [this] whole thing”), and almost felt like we were safe because we announced. As if the bumpie itself contained some fertility magic, each like received only adding to its power.
But what you can’t see in the bumpie — what, due to extraordinary bad luck, the ultrasound techs didn’t see in either of my early scans — is the bit of tissue in our daughter’s heart that never hardened into muscle, the rare genetic defect that made her life outside the womb unviable. By the time my doctor spotted it, late in May when I was 27 weeks pregnant, I’d sought crib recommendations from internet strangers, tweeted breezily about a potential friendship between my daughter and the newborn Princess Charlotte, Instagrammed the foods I’d craved and eaten. I was a normal pregnant woman on the internet, in other words, until suddenly I was something else entirely.
My grief was, as grief is, unbearable. It was a nightmare to lose that dreamed-of child; to give birth to all three pounds of her and never hear her cry; to not know whether I could safely get pregnant again. Our doctors analyzed our daughter’s DNA, searching for the mutation that had warped her heart; they sent my husband and me for echocardiograms, tested our blood, to see if we had it, too. If one of us did, we were told that any future pregnancy would have a 50 percent chance of ending the same dreadful way. I spent that summer in a haze, eyelids perpetually heavy from having woken up crying, fielding inscrutable calls from our genetic counselor. Every big-eyed, brown-haired baby girl in my path a fresh stab through the heart.
Beyond the misery, I was mortified. We had to notify everyone we’d told, to drop the calamity into a few dozen inboxes and hundreds of News Feeds. I felt as if pregnancy had been a simple task I’d failed extravagantly to complete. My doctors assured me I’d done nothing wrong, but sorrow drove me temporarily insane. What had I done? Were other people wondering the same thing? Did they think I’d drank, smoked, eaten oysters? Or did they think, as I sometimes irrationally feared, that I’d jinxed myself by sharing the pregnancy on social media in the first place? I’d been so eager to post the bumpie — was that because of my joy or my very contemporary narcissism? Overnight the self I presented online had transformed from I Am Loved and I Am Fertile to I Am Excruciatingly Depressed. It was hard not to feel like I deserved it, like I’d never actually belonged in that elite, happy club of pregnant women on the internet.
In the end, we were lucky. We found out in November, about six months after our daughter died, that the mutation in her DNA had been a fluke, not inherited from us. There was a less than one percent chance of it recurring. By the end of the year I was pregnant. I knew even before I took the test I wouldn’t tell the internet. I couldn’t bear to announce another loss. So we waited one scan, then two, then three. We told our families, and some friends, and then we waited.
On the internet, I tweeted about books and Magic Mike XXL; I posted selfies from the shoulders up. In real life, our second daughter bloomed, her heart meticulously studied from every angle over nine months and at last determined normal. People I’ve known for decades never knew, but strangers on sidewalks rubbed my belly for good luck. As far as the former were concerned, I was not pregnant, and the latter had no inkling of what my medical records called my “poor reproductive history.” They saw me as I appeared — a pregnant woman in the wild — and asked the obligatory questions: Did I have a name picked out, how was I feeling, was this my first? And because the truth was too complicated to convey to supermarket clerks (yes, for years now; physically okay but an emotional ticking time bomb; kind of, but not really), I gave them the answers they expected. I pretended to exist in a world where babies are always born alive and healthy, where pregnant women have no reason not to feel cheerful.
It was a lie, but one that made us all feel good. No one gets pregnant to make others feel good, but that’s often the effect of performing pregnancy. We feel good when we’re invited to witness the bumpies, the countdowns, the planning, the accessorizing. Maybe we just get a thrill from the chubby baby legs on the horizon, or maybe it’s something more insidious than that — the opportunity to observe whether our ideas about what womanhood should look like are being met. We have to contend, too, with the fact that beyond the performance, pregnancy can be painful, unwanted, uncomfortable, unhappy, and sometimes (more often than we acknowledge) doomed.
Until it ended, my first pregnancy had been a time where I felt more attractive, more feminine, more important than I ever had before. “You’re carrying the future,” an elderly man at a bus stop told me solemnly after I’d just started to show, and I believed him. When that baby died, it felt like it negated all the happy moments that came before. The performance — the sense I had of being a glamorous celebrity within my own life — felt pathetic then, like a practical joke I had played on myself. By opting out of announcing my second, I could limit my audience, and lose my perception of how well I played the part of pregnant woman.
I found joy, too, in keeping the anticipation private. My third trimester, last summer, was like a meditation — calm and kind of boring; quiet hours of planning, wondering, and worrying; long walks around my neighborhood; washing and folding tiny clothes; bouncing on a yoga ball in front of the Olympics during the afternoons just before my due date. The happy club on social media still beckoned, and I found myself hotly jealous of women who posted bumpies without fear. But absent the frame of social media, I could define my pregnancy on my own terms: less a series of milestones to mark and moments to share than a sunny, surreal blur. It was glamorous and mundane, and it belonged only to the three of us.
I don’t begrudge the social-media pregnancy. If anything, I take the bumpie more seriously now. I watch, and wait, and hope for the woman who posted it. Maybe she’ll triumphantly cross her finish line, or maybe she’ll need the people who witnessed her pregnancy at the beginning to rally around her at its end. We crossed the finish line last August, when a big-eyed, brown-haired baby girl was laid crying on my chest. We named her Tessa. For a little over 12 hours, I managed to do nothing but stare at her, paralyzed by exhaustion and the most harrowing love. When the 12 hours were up, I chose my favorite picture of her from the hundreds we’d taken, and posted it on Facebook.