There are life-changing moments, and there are life-changing moments. There are the ways you hold those life-changing moments in your memory: that sense of who you were before, and who you’ve been since, and how pivotal that moment was in your life. Over time, you take it as a given: of course that was such a life-changing thing, and of course it’s changed who you were and where your life was headed. Only one day, you wake up and realize that it’s the thing you never talk about, at least not online.
It’s been ten years since my life-changing event. Ten years ago, nearly halfway through my first pregnancy, we lost our son.
This is the thing I don’t talk about, at least not to you or any of my friends or even really with my family. This has become the private grief that my husband and I share. It’s become the thing that shaped so much of who I’ve become, the thing that I think most people forget, especially as the years pass, and especially as I have a vibrant almost-five-year-old rocking my world today.
No, they don’t forget. We just don’t talk about it, and that’s okay. But ten years on, I still think about it every day. I still hit every March and try to pin down exactly when it happened, because ten years on, I can’t quite remember – and that’s okay, because ten years on, it’s not really something that you cry about any more. Not most of the time.
A wise friend told me, back then, that time passing would help. That getting through the milestones like when the baby would have been born, and when the baby would have walked and talked, and when the baby would have started kindergarten – all those things would hurt, but would also help make it better.
(Those were the easy parts, but not so much the parts where you watch your friends start growing families while you sit back and wait a little longer and screw your courage to the sticking place.)
I didn’t come here today to grieve, although maybe I did a little. Mostly, I wanted to write about what happened after, since I was in my third year of graduate school when I lost my son, and only two months away from my comprehensive exams and getting my dissertation prospectus approved.
If you’re not in grad school or academia, that may sound weird, but I don’t care. These are the things we never talk about, but the telling is worth it.
Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood. – Sondheim
The semester I lost my son, I was finishing coursework, preparing for comprehensive exams, finalizing my dissertation prospectus, and TAing an amazing course two times a week.
Of course, I didn’t tell a damn soul at school that I was pregnant.
This was academia. No one told me I shouldn’t say anything, and no one gave me any cause to think that wouldn’t be welcome news, but I knew the stories. I knew the perception of PhD students who had babies and never completed their dissertations, the idea that maybe I’d be “less serious” in people’s minds once I had a kid. The truth is that no one ever told me that – at least not at my institution – but I knew stories. I knew it wasn’t a good idea to ever be on the job market pregnant, and when I did go on the market, that ring was well off my finger, just to be safe.
Now, that looks foolish looking back. It was a silence of my own making, but it was what worked at the time. I only regret that I never told my advisor – not until much later, at least, when I had finished the degree. My only defense for not telling her was that I didn’t know her that well yet, and I was already an ambitious grad student with a plan for finishing in ideally-five-no-more-than-six years and tended to do things as I wanted.
When I lost the baby, the next question seemed to be: “What do I do about my exams?” It would be perfectly natural, after all, to put them off. To spend some time healing and trying to move forward. But I had told no one, not the professor I TA’d for, not a single graduate student in my program – no one knew until it happened.
(By the way, it was easy not to tell: I’d had such severe nausea that I’d lost 15 or 20 pounds, so it wasn’t like you could tell I was pregnant yet, although I’d figured that would happen soon enough.)
When late March happened and I lost the baby, I called in sick to my TA assignment for a couple of days, including time to get away for a weekend with my husband to try to begin the healing and mourning. When I left town that weekend, I told only the director of graduate studies in my department, as it seemed that somebody needed to know so that I wouldn’t get in any trouble.
I don’t think we ever talked about it again. I was determined not to move my exams. I was ready to move forward, and honestly, studying for exams distracted me.
Everyone grieves in their own way, and this was mine: I threw myself into my work, reading, outlining, taking notes, reviewing, revising my prospectus, and making plans for my summer archival work.
I passed my exams – not with any distinction or anything, let me assure you, but I passed them. I got approval for my dissertation. I made plans to move forward the only way I knew how, by immersing myself in hours of archival work and books and moving forward on my dissertation. For me, this was the solution, the goal: I had a single-minded purpose.
I can’t say I’d recommend that, or that I wouldn’t recommend that. I can say I hope it never happens to you, at any point in your life, and that if it does, you find what brings you solace, the path that moves you forward.
In time, I told a few people. My loss is no secret to those who know me in real life, particularly those who knew me before graduate school, or those I became close with in graduate school.
But as time passes, it becomes the thing that you realize you’ve never mentioned on your blog, that you don’t refer to on social media, in part because the telling would be too weird. It’s not a conversation you have with your colleagues at the job you’ve had for seven years, except maybe rarely, and it’s not something you can explain in a way that seems to justify the depths to which this rocked your core.
They know the after, not the before.
And that’s okay. It’s okay to have the things that sit in the silence for so long, the things that matter about you even if no one knows. Because you know, and that is what matters.
Coda: In the telling, I realized it didn’t seem like I had much to tell about how losing a baby in grad school affected my work. It’s the “I worked obsessively for three years” and maybe little more. Still, if you or someone you know experiences a loss – in or out of grad school – I feel your pain, and I’m always happy to talk more.