I find out I’m pregnant on Valentine’s day, the day before I turn 44. I’m up early, trying to finish a draft of my fourth novel, which is, ironically, about motherhood and femme identity. I’ve never had a baby, but I’ve been contemplating motherhood for years.
But this morning, I’m having a feeling. The odds of getting knocked up without medical intervention are close to zero at my age. But my breasts have never felt heavier and I just feel … different. I pee into a measuring cup, unwrap a test stick, dunk it in. I set a timer on my phone for two minutes and wonder if I’m delusional. When the timer sounds, the test reads YES in 1980s calculator font, and I exclaim-laugh so loud I scare my cats, who jump off the bed puffy-tailed and gather around my feet.
From the ages of 30 to 43, I was in two back-to-back monogamous relationships. My ex-girlfriend didn’t want kids. My ex-boyfriend already had them and couldn’t imagine having more. I’d always wanted to be a mother, but never enough to leave those relationships. But it felt like more of a passive decision than an active choice. I procrastinate a lot. One time I procrastinated for ten whole years. Now I just … don’t have a baby, I used to joke. Since I turned 40 and admitted the clock just ran out, I’ve been trying to make peace with a childless life. I say things like, It’s enough for me to have the body of a woman who’s given birth to several children.
And then I date a cis guy for the first time in 20 years, and I’m pregnant. Holding the test in my hand, it feels like fate, a magical intervention. It was an accident, and a chance. One last chance.
I have a long conversation with my friend Kaleb, who has always wanted to be a parent but, like me, never found the right partner to do it with. We sit in the dim light of a West End Toronto café and decide to co-parent together as a platonic queer/trans family. When I am six and a half weeks pregnant, he comes with me to my first ultrasound. The heartbeat sounds strong.
After the appointment, Kaleb and I go out for dumplings and talk about how we want to raise our kid. We text the ultrasound photo to our close friends and family. We prepare to move in together in the fall before the birth. I’m ecstatic. I am finally past the question — “should I or shouldn’t I?” — that I spent years asking.
Before getting pregnant, I worried pregnancy would feel like a hijacking, a horror movie of forced embodiment, anxiety, and nausea. But instead I feel like Superwoman, strong and grounded, ready to walk into battle. The hormones make me feel high, and my usual anxiety decreases. Even as February turns to March and the city begins to lock down around me, the pregnancy makes me feel purposeful and excited for the future. I know that at 44, my pregnancy is considered high-risk, but I have this unshakable optimism, an intuition that I’m going to be okay.
The pregnancy app tells me the embryo is the size of a lentil, an orange seed, a blueberry, an olive. We nickname the pregnancy Lentil. I know I need to be inside, to rest, and eat well for Lentil. Pregnancy gives me a job to do, and most of the time I can focus on that instead of the chaos going on outside.
It’s only every once in a while I think, what if I miscarry during the worst of the pandemic? I live alone. My friends are all locked down. What if the ERs are overrun?
By early April, I’m almost 11 weeks pregnant. My doctor and midwife have started to have medical appointments over video. Kaleb has left town to stay at a cottage. We text each other baby-name ideas, photos of ridiculous baby clothes. My jeans get snug and I order maternity clothes.
Then I start spotting. Just a bit. Could be normal, according to the pregnancy guide. But it might not be. I call my midwife, who suggests a viability ultrasound to be sure.
I sit in the clinic waiting room, wearing a mask and sitting far from everyone else. It’s fine, sometimes people spot and they have healthy babies, I text my friend.
My hands shake while I hand the receptionist my health card and then slather it in sanitizer when she returns it to me. The radiologist doesn’t wear a mask and doesn’t seem concerned about our proximity, which makes me extra-nervous. She tries to hear the heartbeat using the over-the-belly ultrasound. She makes no noise. For once in my life, I do not crack jokes.
I turn my head to the window, stare out at the beige tapestry of skyscrapers over a restless and empty Toronto, thinking just stay with me, Lentil. The radiologist goes quiet, then says she has to try the transvaginal method. This happened the previous time, as well, so I’m still hopeful. But the procedure goes on much longer than before, and there’s no smile from her, no pointing to the screen while I grin and laugh. As the minutes tick by, I know from the radiologist’s face that there is no heartbeat. I ask her to call the midwife right away. It’s a Friday afternoon, and I cannot stand to wait all weekend.
My best friend, Will, drove to the clinic behind me and stayed in his car during the appointment. Afterward, he stands six feet away on the sidewalk and asks what he can do. I want a hug but I’m too afraid. I cry all the way home as he follows behind me in his car, both of us listening to the prime minister addressing the country on the radio, urging us all to stay home.
I park the car outside my house and call the midwife. She tells me the ultrasound showed that the embryo stopped being viable at eight and a half weeks. I place my head on the steering wheel and sob. The midwife says I could take a pill that would speed things along, have a D&C in the hospital, or allow it to proceed naturally. Given all that’s going on, I want as little interaction with the outside world as possible and agree to let it proceed naturally. She tells me what I might expect: The spotting will get heavier like a terrible period, and there will be cramping. She says to call her whenever I have concerns.
Inside my apartment, I wash my hands, take my clothes off at the door and put them in a hot-water wash, spray my keys and wallet with rubbing alcohol and then shower, weeping. As I stand under the hot shower, I think — was it because I took showers too hot? Was it the coffee I refused to give up entirely? The stress of the pandemic? The Ativan I took before I knew I was pregnant, the swordfish I ate at a friend’s birthday dinner?
Will sits on my front porch, and we speak on our phones through the window as I towel-dry my hair. You shouldn’t be alone, he says. No one is supposed to visit, according to the guidelines for social distancing. Other than the ultrasound lab, I haven’t been anywhere for three weeks. Eventually, I agree to let him come inside. He stays for three nights.
Will sits on the couch next to me and we watch some TV and eat dinner I can barely taste. As soon as evening hits, it starts. I read in my pregnancy books that it would probably be like a heavy period, which is what the midwife said. But it’s nothing like that at all.
The pain of cramping is unbearable, akin to what I’d imagined actual labor would feel like. When I wake up on the first morning and get out of bed, a cascade of blood falls to the floor. Twice, I almost pass out, and Will seems very far away as he presses ice cubes to my wrists. We call the midwife, who is endlessly patient and kind. She tells Will to take my pulse and if it goes over a certain number, to go to the ER.
My memories of the next three days are foglike. Friends drop off pads, Tylenol, cooked meals, a packet of gloves and masks in case we have to go to the hospital. In any other time, they would have come inside and offered hugs. I feel like Will and I are on a raft, struggling to make it to shore. I’m soothed by his calm voice, assuring me things are going to be okay. Eventually, on the fourth day, the cramping and bleeding finally lessen and I start to feel myself again. That’s not to say there aren’t setbacks: diaper commercials, friends announcing pregnancies online, the errant specks of blood on the bathroom floor and walls that I missed while cleaning.
If this were any other spring, I’d go out for distraction, drive to the beach, meet friends for coffee. Instead, I’ve cried to my therapist over Zoom, talked to friends on Skype, binged TV, slowly begun to tell friends and family. For two months, I adjusted my vision for the future to include a baby: what our life might look like together. Now, like so many others, I’m alone in my apartment, readjusting my vision of the future.
Zoe Whittall is a novelist and TV writer from Toronto. Her fourth novel, The Spectacular, is forthcoming in 2021 with Penguin Random House (U.S.) and Harpercollins (Canada). She wants to thank the midwife team at Kensington Midwives for their support.