I had to take a personal day yesterday. Finally hobbling across the November 1st deadline, I was crashing, collapsing in on myself. A few weeks ago, my wife Stacy and I received some very difficult news: we’d lost our pregnancy, one which had been two long years in the making.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. We’d just returned from a friend’s wedding, and I was plunging into a frenzy of fretful student meetings, SOS (Save Our Senior!) calls, and in-person presentations. My job at this time of year is to help others contain their stress; there simply isn’t time for my own. Best face forward.
I knew very well, though, that I was in desperate need of time to mourn the loss. What startled me yesterday was how much of the emotional undercurrent was anger.
Reaching back down, I recalled the silent explosion of three weeks ago when the ultrasound turned up complete stillness. That little pulse, that blip of light, of dawning consciousness had gone. The shell remained: dead tissues marked out in grainy greyscale splotches. There was no longer air in that room.
At the time, all I knew was that I had to contain the situation. It was Stacy’s worst imaginings come true; she was really the one on the front line here. I had to give all the care I could, but underneath it was clawing at me. I had opened myself up to this tiny being, acknowledged it as part of our family's future, begun my relationship—my fatherhood—with it.
Of course I’d understood that anything could still happen. At that point, we were only eight weeks in, and our first ultrasound had been two weeks earlier. We were reassured that the heartbeat was a good sign. It meant that this little peanut was strong. It had reached a certain level of stability, they said. Of course I knew the risk of opening myself up, of the vulnerability that I had exposed. That's what parenthood is all about, I told myself—making this emotional investment into this being outside of yourself that you have no control over. At best, you have some influence if the kid is inclined to listen while growing up. The stakes only go up from there.
Easy to say to yourself. Near impossible to understand on any substantive level without an experience to lodge it right there in your guts. It was okay—I needed to choose optimism. For all the heartache and the struggle over the past couple years, we needed that hope. The dream had to live and breathe and grow.
And then the explosion in the stillness, the dream shattered, and three weeks of fighting off the terrible October heat and the demands of work, and tending to my devastated partner in between. Sooner or later my time would have to come.
I knew it would be ugly. Feeling back into that moment, there was nothing but that image on the screen of that shell left behind. I felt betrayed, utter abandonment. How could you leave us? It was like the heat of those days had been bottled up and was now pouring out in hot tears and raging sobs. We were left stretched to our limits, financially, emotionally, and energetically.
For all the ugliness of that resentment, it felt good to release it. The anger slowly dissolved, and I was left with something underneath it: sadness. Not for us, but for that little being.
He never grew bigger than the size of a pinky fingernail. (We later found out from genetic testing that he would have been a he.) He tried. He made it further than any of his predecessors. But he couldn't, for some reason or other, and he had to go, back to wherever it is he came from.
For well over two years, I've struggled with the question am I ready to become a father? Eleven weeks ago, at the moment that I witnessed that tiny pulsing light on the screen for the very first time, I asked myself that question for the very last time. The answer abruptly became very clear and very real, with all of the usual anxiety-fueled static about money and time and my personal aspirations dropping low into the background.
Would a father left without a child still be a father? I am not qualified to answer that. My only response to that question is that the answer above still stands. And so I was called to act as a father would.
I said my goodbyes, and I sent him off wherever he is headed with all the gentle love I could summon.
Hats off to every parent out there. Because that's the gig: you do what you need to do to provide for those in your care, and then you send them off with your blessing. That emotional investment, that sense of vulnerability that comes through giving yourself to nurture another autonomous being only takes on more weight over time…and then family dynamics make the whole picture infinitely more complex. You make decisions in your kids' best interests when they're too young and immature to know otherwise, but there comes a point when they're going to make their own choices regardless of their age or maturity.
You have to hope that you've been the best influence you could possibly be, and you can put out a prayer to the forces that be for protection, but at the end of the day, there's only one right way to do your job: to send your child out into the world with a whole life’s worth of love and encouragement. The strength it requires is staggering because it’s a choice to give more than you believe you even have to give, made before you can think twice about whether it’s even possible.
Reach for it, however, really stretch for it—that’s all you can do. The journey of parenthood, at its heart, is a test of faith—not only in something greater than oneself, but also something greater within.