All photos copyrighted by Bodega Bliss
On January 24, 2010, Courtney Cheng started a blog to document her pregnancy to friends and family members who lived across the country. The first post on the nascent blog, which she titled Bodega Bliss after the idyllic Northern California hamlet where she had met, married her husband and settled down in, was called “Just What the Internet Needs” and announced her new hobby: she would be a mommy blogger. The post was self-deprecating and full of the usual sentiments a mother-to-be would feel: hope, fear, excitement and joy.
“I’m feeling all kinds of emotions. A little scared for how much our life is going to change, excited to go on this journey only given to women, I’m even looking forward to watching my body change (I say this now still looking exactly the same way I did a month ago). And I’m hoping you’ll be there with me during the whole thing.”
Cheng, then 29, posted a photo of herself and her “bump” at 6 weeks, a positive pregnancy test and a list of her symptoms. (Tears after hearing Tegan and Sarah’s “Where Does the Good Go?” and feeling tired.) There were a few tussles with her insurance coverage: she was denied basic health services because of an abnormal pap smear she had received 6 years ago. Then her husband, Tim Cheng, posted his own whimsical take on the thrill both parents-to-be were experiencing on February 7, 2010:
“My gal is pregnant and loves random names like Sophielillla Jackson and such. No not really, my favorite name so far is Finn. We are stoked. We have a walk-in closet that Court thinks might do as a room for the kid. That’s great, we will stick the child in there with the jackets, it will be warm. I like how she’s always giving updates on what is developing inside. She’s doing yoga which is great, I’m proud of Mommy. We’ll keep you updated on when Sooophillilla or Napoleon is born. Or plain Jim.”
This innocent and carefree post was followed by an excruciating untitled one seven days later, on Valentine’s Day of all things. This haunting entry, untitled as if the subject matter was too awful to deserve to be named, describes in terrible and honest detail the physical and mental anguish Courtney felt as she miscarried her first child:
“When I had woke up that morning I had my hands on my belly and had mentioned to Tim that I could feel my pulse in my uterus. I thought it was just the blood going to my baby helping it grow, but I realize now that’s not why the blood was rushing there. Tim was here with me when I passed
the tissue our baby. I can’t tell you what that felt like. In between my shaking and sobs, I wanted it all to be a nightmare. This wasn’t how I was supposed to be having our baby, this wasn’t supposed to be happening.”
The next few months of her blog, Courtney alternated between apologizing to her readers that she was so sad and promising them she would feel better and describing how the loss effected her in stark outlines:
Even when I’m covering up the sad like today, I still just want to be pregnant. I want to be having that baby that I’m not having any more and is buried beneath a tree. It’s just not fair.
Courtney had not expected her optimistically named blog to turn into something else altogether: a diary of what it was like to go through a miscarriage. There was a little good news sprinkled in those first six months of writing: Courtney had finally gotten full-fledged health benefits through her employer, a non-profit agency. She had been forced to go to a clinic populated mostly with meth addicts because of her lack of benefits before, so she was hopeful about seeing a real OB-GYN in a real practice.
On July 21, Courtney told her readers a shocking secret: she had been pregnant but hadn’t told anyone because she was afraid. Unfortunately, her fears were proved correct:
Without going into specifics, the baby most likely died somewhere around 6 1/2 weeks. I did see a heartbeat at one point, but it didn’t calm my fears of what ultimately turned out to be true. They did a D & C as soon as we found out; I was 9 weeks, 4 days.
If the first miscarriage had burst the bubble of Bodega Bliss Courtney the newlywed had felt, the second one was scary and disturbing on another level: something might be wrong with her body. She pressed her OB-GYN for testing and answers. The costs of the testing were not cheap and as a middle-class couple, those tests were an expense they were at a disadvantage to pay:
“One of the 12 vials of blood they’re testing has the description of “MTHFR” on the estimated price list for the tests. HA! And in case you were wondering what that MTHFR costs, it’s $390.00. Out of $2,721.75 for all of them. MTHFR!”
In addition, the D & C Courtney never wanted to have cost $15,628.16, and she was responsible for paying 25% of that fee.
The financial expense and personal tragedy were weighing heavily on Courtney at this point. She was constantly seeing pregnant women at the local grocery store. One small ray of hope: her OBGYN had found that the MTHFR test had come back positive, and while she was not a fertility expert and Courtney and her husband were without the funds to see a fertility expert, she said she would check with one and find out what this positive result meant.
A major problem for Courtney is that so little is really known about the condition she was most likely suffering from: Recurrent Pregnancy Loss (RPL). According to Reproductive Biology Associates, the definition of RPL “is two to three consecutive spontaneous abortions (miscarriages) before 20 weeks gestation. Sporadic Abortion: A single pregnancy loss is a common event occurring in 10-20% of all human pregnancies. Approximately 1-5% pregnant women have a diagnosis of RPL (40,000 – 200,000 U.S. couples/year).”
Another problem with RPL is what might happen next: “49% of women with two consecutive losses and no live-born children will have a loss in their next pregnancy, whereas 29% of women with two losses and at least one live-born child will have a loss in their next pregnancy.”
All was not hopeless, though: “Approximately 70% of couples experiencing RPL will have a liveborn child without medical therapy. Most of these patients will be under 35 years old.”
Courtney was only 30 years old. If she rolled the dice, she had a pretty good chance luck would be on her side. But the two losses in less than a year were weighing heavily on her.
“But some days are still really bad, the kind where all I want to do is curl up into a ball and let the tears fall. I want to cry for the unfairness of it all, for the social awkwardness and for being forced to give up my babies. I guess it could be the weather; this rain makes it easy to want to stay in bed and not face the world, to hide from anything or anyone out there that would remind me of what I lost. Maybe it’s why I don’t seem to want to go out any more. I’ve been perfectly content staying in every weekend for months now.”
Her blog was now what she would have never imagined it would be: a blog about recurrent miscarriage. But she was finding solace from the writing of others, like Kate Inglis from Sweet/Salty. And she met women in her area through blog exchanges. Her blog picked up a steady following of readers who were drawn to her excellent, spare writing and her story: her ordinary yet extraordinary experience with loss. Those readers were either going through ALI pain of their own or recovering from ALI trauma in the past. And she put into words what many of them couldn’t say or wouldn’t say.
She began Eastern medicine treatment, which was also expensive, but less expensive than the thousands of dollars she would have to pay for fertility treatments and consultations. She took folic acid, multivitamins, ate healthfully, exercised, didn’t drink.
Finally in May she found out she was pregnant for a fourth time. (She had also had a “chemical pregnancy” earlier.) She shared the news selectively and did not post about it. In fact, her readers didn’t find out about it until June 29th in a post chillingly called “Four”.
Four. I’ve lost four babies. That number is daunting. That number changes everything. At three, there was still a chance, my percentages were still pretty great. But four? At four they’re not so good. At four I have to start thinking that this might not happen for us. At four I have to start imagining alternatives – alternatives I never wanted to face.
To read Courtney’s blog from start to now is to understand, in words cherry-picked from a uniquely understanding heart, how the human spirit can endure so much in the quest for its heart’s desire. And how, sometimes, the heart just can’t take any more misery and tragedy. Sometimes, the orchestra music doesn’t swell, the happy ending we’ve grown to expect and want and desire, from Hollywood, from friends on Facebook, from classic literature thousands of years old don’t arrive. Our own endings get delayed somehow, or sometimes they arrive in a different form. Sometimes they don’t arrive at all. This period of suffering we in the ALI community go through changes us, probably forever. Loss is a tribal tattoo written secretly across the souls of those who undergo it. Most of us are quiet, but we will see in another’s eyes a signal of that tattoo we each carry.
The difference is, Courtney lays that tattoo bare for everyone to see, whether they are in the tribe or not.
Courtney’s story is in the middle: she’s in fact still paying the medical bills from her last D & C in June and more tests a reproductive endocrinologist did in August. The large community of bloggers who have rallied around her want more than anything for her Hollywood ending to arrive. But Courtney, with her unique voice and wisdom, says this:
If I really think about it, though, I do know one hope for 2012: find some freaking happiness. And not in the form of a baby. In the form of I’m-going-to-sleep-now-because-I-can’t-wait-to-wake-up-to-my-life kind of way….not the I-don’t-want-to-go-to-sleep-because-that-means-I-have-to-wake-up-again way of the past. Because that way is getting old. That way is so 2011.
And if Courtney’s words don’t reflect the triumph of the human soul, I don’t know what does.
UPDATE: I am thrilled to report that in October of 2012, Courtney Cheng gave birth to a healthy, beautiful baby girl.