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CNF Essay
2820 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014


by Stephanie Paulsell

When we married, my husband and I couldn’t have said whether we wanted to have a baby or not. We wanted to be together, wanted to finish school, wanted to travel. A baby? We couldn’t imagine it. We were young, and marriage, for us, meant freedom: our own apartment, eating on the couch, sleeping in each other’s arms.

Four or five years into our marriage, though, the desire for a child began to grow in me, its own kind of pregnancy. My husband was reluctant. One of seven children, he liked our life the way it was. Our quiet home, our mobility: he cherished these things.

Gently, over years, we made our negotiations. We met in the middle, between his strenuous requirements—“not until we both have tenure”—and my complete lack of them—“let’s just throw away the birth control and see what happens”—to find ourselves agreeing that we should not try to have a baby until we had lived for a year in Italy. Somehow, that became the measure of what we wanted to accomplish before our family grew. We would live in Italy for a year; we would taste our freedom to the full.

My husband heroically won a fellowship to accomplish this, and off we went. We found a tiny apartment tucked away behind the cathedral in the center of Perugia, a town in Umbria Henry James once called “the little city of infinite views.” We were two hours north of Rome, two hours south of Florence, perched on a hill across a wide plain from Assisi. We were right where we had dreamed of being.

In our wanderings through churches and museums that year, I found myself attracted to images of the annunciation, the scene in which the angel Gabriel tells Mary she will have a baby.

I sought out annunciations wherever we went, collecting postcards of my favorites. I loved Botticelli’s, in which Mary holds out an arm as if to keep the angel and his news at bay. I loved Leonardo’s, in which Mary looks up from her book to listen to the angel, but marks her place with her finger as if she intends to go back to reading once he has delivered his news and flown away. I loved Filippo Lippi’s, in which Mary and the angel incline their heads towards one another so tenderly they could be lovers. I loved Sassoferrato’s in Perugia’s own church of St. Peter, in which God, his torso resting on a cloud, floats over the scene, an orb in his outstretched hand.

But most of all, I loved Fra Angelico’s fresco of the annunciation at the monastery of San Marco in Florence. I had seen pictures of it, but nothing prepared me for the fresco painted onto a wall at the top of a staircase, illuminated by a hidden source of light. The angel’s wings seem to tremble. A blush blooms on his cheek. And Mary, her hands crossed over her chest, is enormous. If she were to rise from her stool, she would tower over Gabriel, a goddess. If coming up out of the darkness of the stairwell into the light of this intimate encounter doesn’t bring you to your knees, an inscription at the bottom reminds you to join Gabriel in an Ave Maria, to bend as if bearing the weight of wings on your back.

We returned home at the end of that year with dissertations nearly done and a collection of postcards of art works, famous and obscure. A postcard of Fra Angelico’s annunciation, however, was not enough. That we brought home on posters rolled in a tube, one for us and one for our goddaughter, who had been born while we were away.

We framed our copy and hung it above our couch. Gabriel and Mary greeted one another endlessly, a memento of our days of freedom. We were busy becoming acquainted with days of constraint, marked by the agonies of the job market, heavy teaching loads, mortgage applications.

Finally, nine years into our marriage, our year in Italy behind us, with one untenured job and one fellowship between us, we tried to get pregnant. Six weeks later, that modern instrument of annunciation, the home pregnancy test, told us we were going to have a baby. I was thrilled, and my husband found that he was happy, too.

It was autumn when we learned we were pregnant and so the first trimester of our pregnancy stretched into the season of Advent, the four weeks of preparation for Christmas. My husband was teaching at a Roman Catholic theological school at the time, and we attended the school’s annual Advent vespers. The hymns were all about waiting for babies, for birth, for life. “Love the rose is on the way,” we sang. “Love the star is on the way.” We made up new verses for our little one: love the bear is on the way. Love the bean, love the goose. Our baby was on the way.

We spent Christmas with my husband’s family in upstate New York, driving our Nissan from Chicago. I sat on my mother-in-law’s couch with a lap desk propped on the bump of my belly and wrote my good news on Christmas cards.

The day after Christmas, we rose early, packed the car, and struck out for Chicago, hoping to make it back in one day. In a rest room on the Ohio Turnpike, I found streaks of blood in my underwear, dark and rusty. In an instant, I decided not to believe what I saw, thinking if I refused to acknowledge it, it wouldn’t be so. I pulled up my pants, flushed the toilet, and walked purposefully out of the bathroom, ready to resume the trip home.

But then I saw my husband waiting for me in the lobby. He was standing there, hands in his pockets, still believing he was going to be a father. So I walked back into the bathroom, locked myself in a stall, and looked again. No denying it. Blood.

We were hours from Chicago. We reclined the passenger seat back as far as it would go, and I tried to lay as still and quiet as I could. My husband drove in and out of the snowstorms that blew in from the lakes.

When we got home, the midwife told us there was a 50-50 chance that everything was OK. Try to relax, she said, try to sleep. Maybe you’re in the 50 percent for whom this means nothing. We’ll get you an ultrasound first thing in the morning. Curled around me in the dark, my husband could tell that my body had already changed. In his kindness, he kept that knowledge to himself.

The next morning, we walked across our frozen neighborhood, still in its cocoon of holiday quiet, to the hospital. As I lay on the examining table during the ultrasound, the gum-chewing technician asked me, “Who told you you were pregnant?”

Instantly I was flooded with shame. Who was I to think I could make a baby out of my unremarkable body? Had I made it up? Had I grown my belly out of the sheer force of my imagination and unrestrained appetite? Had I made myself nauseous through wishing?

After making an appointment to have a D and C, my husband and I walked back home. In the middle of an empty street, my husband covered his face with the huge paws of his snow-shoveling gloves and howled. We had been married nearly ten years, and I had never heard such a sound come out of him. It was then I realized that our old life was over. We had become parents, whether we wanted to be or not.

We couldn’t stand to be in our apartment, so in the afternoon we drove downtown to see a movie. The movie was awful, and, coming home, we blew out a tire on Michigan Avenue. We stood in the street, whipped by the wind, until a tow truck came to pick us up. The driver grumbled at having to drive us home to the south side. When he disparaged our neighborhood, I gathered up all the anger and disappointment of the day and let it fly. “Your girlfriend,” the driver said to my husband, “doesn’t like me much.”

The D and C confirmed we had indeed been pregnant. The baby had died in the tenth week, while my body, not wanting to let go, had held onto it for four weeks more. The “products of conception” were few: a little sac, not much else. It did feel that we’d “lost” the baby, misplaced it somehow. Somebody told me that the fetus might have been absorbed by my body. That was comforting, the thought that the baby was still inside me, traveling through my bloodstream, moving with the beat of my heart.

After the delicious sleep of the first trimester, I found myself an insomniac again. So as not to wake my husband, I would creep out to the couch in the middle of the night, sit underneath Fra Angelico’s annunciation, and weep. Gabriel and Mary’s expressions did not change, but they were grave, and I was grateful for that. I cried and cried under that painting, cried and cried and cried. I was so afraid my moment had passed. I’d waited too long. I’d never get pregnant again.

There’s been some progress in recent years about how best to respond to a woman grieving a miscarriage, especially in religious communities. Most ministers know now not to say that this is God’s will or nature’s way of weeding out the bad seeds. They know not to seek explanations in a glass of wine, a plate of shellfish, an aspirin, a litter box. They know not to diminish the loss by pointing out that a tiny fetus is not a baby. And they know not to show up like the angel Gabriel, wings trembling, assuring the woman that she’ll have another baby one day. Such assurance would deny the real loss a miscarriage is; it would rush a woman through her grief and into making plans. It would also mean making a promise the minister could not keep.

In my case, though, it was all I wanted to hear, that I would be pregnant again and soon. Surrounded as I am by sensitive, and often pastorally trained, family and friends, I practically had to beg to hear this. They were so kind, so present to my grief, so real. They were sad with me. They made no false promises.

Finally, walking one day through Midway Airport with my friend, Kay, a minister, I grabbed her arm and asked, “Do you think I’ll ever get pregnant again?” She stopped, looked at me, considered her answer, and then, breaking every rule of pastoral care and counseling, said with a confidence I’ll never forget, “Yes. I do. I know you’ll get pregnant again.”

I can hardly say what that meant to me. If she had sprouted wings and told me she had a message straight from God, I would not have been more convinced, more soothed, more sure that she was right.

The midwives told us we could start trying again to conceive after my first full period. But I thought, why try too early? Maybe the uterine lining won’t be built back up after only one month (I was obsessed with the state of my uterine lining), maybe there won’t be enough of a lining to shelter an egg. We waited three months, and then started trying again.

I searched constantly for signs I was pregnant. In my first pregnancy, I had woken up one morning with breasts so sore I could hardly stand to put my clothes on. Now I took every opportunity to check my breasts for soreness. In classrooms or conference rooms or restaurants, I would cross my arms casually over my chest and give each breast a surreptitious nudge with my thumb. In the privacy of bathrooms and the dark of movie theaters, I could hardly keep my hands off myself.

One night, unable to sleep, I lay on the couch beneath Mary and Gabriel and studied them for a while. There was the inscription demanding an Ave. “Ave, Maria,” I thought. There was the blushing angel. There was Mary, her face attentive and still. There they were, silently bending towards each other, their hands crossed over their chests.

Mary’s hand. How could I not have noticed this before? Mary’s right hand curved up towards her breast. I imagined her pressing her breast experimentally, a finger at a time, trying to feel if the angel’s news was true.

Soon, I did wake up with breasts so sore I didn’t need to squeeze them to feel it. And then the nausea began, every morning, the moment my feet touched the floor. I’d read that women who threw up every day in their first trimester were less likely to miscarry, so I threw up extravagantly, operatically, holding nothing back.

I both longed for and dreaded the first ultrasound. As I lay on the examining table waiting for the technician, I asked my husband, “If there’s no baby in there, will you run away with me?” “I will,” he said, his face lighting up. We talked about what we would do, how we would leave our jobs and this cold, gray city and go west, to the desert, to the mountains. We’d live simply, we’d write, we’d work on a ranch. It started to sound attractive, but then the technician came in and we saw our baby floating inside of me, tethering us to our lives.

By the time Advent arrived, I was no longer fearful of losing the baby.” Love the guest is on the way,” we sang, and we thought of our first baby, the guest who never arrived. Our new baby was due on January 13, but I had a secret wish that the baby would be born on December 26, the day I miscarried. I refused to travel, believing the baby might come.

Early Christmas morning, I woke in the night, my nightgown soaked. It’s finally happened, I thought. I’m completely incontinent. But soon liquid began gushing out of me in a way I didn’t recognize. It took me half an hour to realize my water had broken.

Even though we had been instructed to contact the midwife-on-call immediately if this happened, I couldn’t bring myself to call her at three in the morning on Christmas. I waited until the more decent hour of six and then called. Are you in labor, she asked. No, I said. Then send your husband out for a bottle of castor oil, she replied, and let’s get your labor going.

The castor oil emptied my bowels, but it didn’t bring on contractions. Twenty-four hours after my water broke, my husband and I drove through our neighborhood, wrapped once more in the stillness of the holidays, to the hospital.

The midwife met us there and sat with us as a nurse started the pitocin drip and wrapped a belt around me that would monitor the baby’s heart-beat. Suddenly—bang, bang, bang, bang—our baby’s heartbeat filled the room, amplified. It was the soundtrack of the evening, my husband said, sweet music.

At one point an intern came to check on me. “You’re not in nearly enough pain!” she scolded and cranked up the pitocin a few more notches. From there, things got very difficult. Finally, after a night and a morning of labor and two and a half hours of pushing, our baby slipped out into the world. I was crazy with relief and kept asking, what day is it? What day is it? “It’s the twenty-sixth of December,” the midwife said. “Your baby’s birthday is December 26.”

“It’s exactly a year since I lost my baby! It’s the same day!” I marveled. The midwife smiled, a little confused, it seemed to me, about why I was talking about a dead baby when a live one was about to be put into my arms.

I just couldn’t get over it, though, and I kept talking about it, telling every nurse who entered the room. My husband held our daughter, and they drank each other in through their eyes. I remained on my back with my legs apart as the midwife delivered the placenta and then began stitching me up where my skin had torn.

At the change of shifts, a new nurse came in, wearing reindeer antlers attached with springs to a hairband. They bobbed gently above her head as she came towards me. “You have a Christmas baby,” she said, smiling.

“My baby,” I told her, “was born exactly one year from my miscarriage. One year to the very day.”

“See?” she said, antlers trembling. “You got your baby back.”


—Previously appeared in The Literary Review (Winter 2007); reprinted by permissions of author and publisher


SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Stephanie Paulsell

teaches at Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice (Jossey-Bass, 2002) and, with Harvey Cox, Lamentations and the Song of Songs (WJK, 2012). Her essays appear regularly in The Christian Century.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury