Amanda Henry on the Road to Motherhood

A woman with child

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The time a person spends carrying their child during a pregnancy is only a brief time compared to the time they'll spend being a mother, but it's a time that can be long and aching, confusing and tiring, exciting and terrifying. For some, it ends in lasting joy; for others, abrupt grief. As Amanda Henry shares in her story, both experiences of motherhood shape who you are and what impact you have on the world around you. 

The day I started high school in a new town, I was wearing an unusual accessory: a big red Rudolph-esque cold sore on my upper lip. There's nothing like the suggestion of a contagious disease to win friends and influence people. 

Now, had my classmates been bold enough to ask? I could have explained that I always get disfiguring facial blisters at such inopportune moments. It's a great antidote to vanity. Someday I plan to gather those precious recollections into a chapter for my hypothetical self-help book, should a market ever develop for depressing tales of self-improvement through humiliation. Other entries in this gloomy tome will include "Why Being Bad At Sports Isn't So Bad," and "Infertility — A Future Parent's Best Friend."

Can you see Oprah getting on board? 

I don't mean to sound glib because I have yet to find much humor in the experience of wanting children and not being able to conceive. Or, as in my case, waiting for many years and then finally, unexpectedly expecting — at Christmas no less — only to discover at the first ultrasound that it's a strange kind of phantom pregnancy in which the process begins, but a baby never develops inside your expanding womb. It's a terrible thing to look for that flickering blob of life, the one you've spied floating in black and white on your friend's refrigerators, and see only an empty screen. 

But maybe it was worse the way I lost my second pregnancy — suddenly, almost a year to the day later. No one really expects to be in a pair of plane crashes or shark attacks or house fires. Surviving one is supposed to provide cosmic immunity. 

There are so many shards of memory I could share with you. The words, the waiting rooms, maladroit attempts at comfort. "Here, hold my baby." 

As my Catholic mind searched for meaning in it all, the best I could come up with was empathy. A nice sounding word that is as unpleasant in the acquisition as the so-called "gift" of humility. 

But at least I can now say to others, "I hear you. I have been to that place, or at least a neighboring town." It's a sentiment that meant a great deal to me when so many had the grace to share their own sorrows. 

There was another wrinkle to this unpregnant pause. One day, I found myself staring at two pink lines again. I had been sure it was a dread disease, and after sweating out the weeks until the doctor's appointment in a conflagration of dread, cynicism and secret hope, it turned out to be a real baby. Little heart, thumping away. 

As much as I felt entitled to the good news this time around, the sense of disbelief was familiar. To lose a baby is too much to grasp. To have a baby is just as unfathomable. On some level, the miscarriages registered as my fault. Whether by an error of biology or age, karma or jogging. Yet for the pregnancy, I couldn't take credit. It was a mystifying bit of serendipity, outside my conscious control. There's something liberating about not being in charge. I was very calm during my pregnancy, though, not because I didn't believe anything bad could happen. On the contrary, I knew that it might, but there was nothing I could do. Dread is not a suit of armor, and anxiety never softens the blow. 

The day after my big, loud, scowling baby girl was born — at Christmas, of course — her pediatrician diagnosed a slight heart murmur. It may have been the hormones talking, but I just looked at his scribbled ballpoint sketch and thought "Could be. But did you see the jujitsu she used on those nurses who tried to give her an EKG? I think she's going to be okay." 

Like all parents, I'm still haunted by wisps of fear for my Bonnie little daughter, yet I try to take the days as they come instead of as they might possibly be in some horribly gothic alternate future. That will be the coda to my chapter on parenting. Don't even pretend to be ready for the worst. The stress will give you cold sores.