Every Christmas, when I get out our boxes of decorations, I find the box containing our family’s five stockings. Because there are only four of us in the family and we have no pets, you can be forgiven for wondering why I have an extra stocking.
But that fifth stocking belongs to our family, too.
After I had my first son, I went garage-sale crazy. Although I am not much of a shopper, I’ve always enjoyed the scavenger hunt feel of going to garage sales. With a new baby, I had a reason to stop at every yard sale I could find. I watched out for everything – clothes in the next sizes up (for both the baby and me ), clean toys, winter boots and snow pants with some wear left in them, and yes, Christmas decorations, including stockings.
I didn’t really need to stock up on stockings. I had one, and so did my husband, and my son got one from his Grandma on his first Christmas. So when I found the little blue fleece stocking with a snowman and the embroidered phrase “Let it snow!”, I didn’t really need it. I was pre-emptively stocking up on stockings.
I started having children much too late. There’s no other way to say it. Both for reasons within and outside of my control, I was 36 when my eldest son was born, and therefore already well-ensconced in what obstetricians so charmingly refer to as Advanced Maternal Age. (When they really want to twist the knife, they refer to you as a geriatric pregnancy or elderly primagravida.) By the time my son was one year and I was rounding my way into my late thirties, it occurred to me that I wanted a lot more babies.
This was a shocking revelation, to say the least, because I had never been a stereotypical “baby person.” I had never really smiled at babies I didn’t know or demanded to hold the new babies of relatives. Even four months into new parenthood, still recovering from my c-section and wincing when my son kicked my tender midsection while he nursed, I figured, no way, no how, could I ever do that again.
But somewhere in the middle of the feeding and the bathing and the worrying when he had a cold, I became aware that I was enjoying taking care of him. I didn’t mind the night feedings, during which he nursed like a champ and I watched the full run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I’d never had the time to do before.
Of course, it wasn’t all warm contentment and syrupy love. I remember clearly waking up my husband some nights because the baby wouldn’t go back to sleep after nursing. But overall, I was living the introvert’s dream of never leaving the house while simultaneously being in the constant company of someone I loved.
Who wouldn’t seek to replicate such a good time, all the more fulfilling and joyful because it was such a complete surprise? So there I was, 37-edging-ever-nearer-to-38, desperate to have another baby, and buying superfluous stockings in a fit of hopeful mania.
After six months of trying, it seemed like my dream was coming true. I was a couple days late. I excitedly bought a pregnancy test. It was positive. It was springtime, and I was growing a new baby. I called and made my first appointment with my obstetrician, at what would be eight weeks’ gestation.
In the weeks leading up to the appointment, I tried to push away vague uneasiness. With the exception of a few meals, after which my stomach felt unsettled, I hadn’t been having nearly as much morning sickness as I had during my first pregnancy. I tried not to worry about it, figuring all pregnancies were different. Perhaps it meant I would be having a girl!
When it came time to go to the doctor, the nurse didn’t bat an eyelash when I told her I’d been feeling great, much better than I’d felt in my prior pregnancy. We chatted away blithely, checked my height, weight, blood pressure, and pulse, and then she took me for my routine ultrasound before I even saw the doctor.
I could tell from the way the radiology technician paused before she turned from her screen to my face that something wasn’t right. There was no happy detailing of the size of the embryo. She said she wanted to get the doctor before we talked further.
The doctor entered, and after a few pleasantries and a quiet, concentrated look at the image, a few manipulations of the wand to explore the images more fully, he confirmed the news I was by now fairly sure I would be receiving. The embryo had already stopped developing. I wasn’t showing any of the outward signs yet, but I would soon miscarry the baby.
The rest of the appointment was a blur. I tried not to cry and largely failed and was only dimly aware that I chose the option of waiting to see if the miscarriage would occur “naturally.” As I left, I asked if there was a different way to exit the office rather than through the waiting room, ostensibly because “I didn’t want to upset anyone” (I was by now a blubbering mess), but mostly because I didn’t feel I could bear to look at other still obviously-pregnant women.
I stumbled out the back door, made it to my car and home, where my husband and son waited, playing in the living room and turning their bright eyes on me as I came in. I smiled at my son through my tears and then burst out, to my husband, “There’s not going to be any Peanut.”
We had called our first son Tadpole while he was in the womb. We’d been calling this baby Peanut.
I am not a girl to sign up for medications or medical procedures that are not absolutely required, but walking around the following week, waiting to miscarry and referring to myself in my head as Death, Destroyer of Worlds, was exhausting enough. If it had continued much longer, I might have sought alternatives to the natural wait-and-see method.
I tried to concentrate on caring for my toddler. I tried to concentrate on my freelance work. I never said it out loud, but every now and then, I would allow myself to dream that the doctor had made a mistake. Every day without blood made that weird conviction a little stronger. So it was with both profound relief and crushing sadness that I finally woke up one bright June morning with blood in my underwear.
When the bleeding kicked in in earnest with painful cramping, I was also relieved that my husband, by complete lucky accident, also had the day off from work. I hadn’t thought it would be necessary for him to stay home and watch our son, but as the day progressed, it became increasingly clear that we were very lucky that he was home. They played outside, in one of the earliest and hottest summers we’d ever had, while I went to my bedroom and laid down and cried and then periodically rushed to the bathroom to change pads. I couldn’t quite believe yet that it was really happening.
Later in the afternoon, when events were not quite as dramatic, I picked up the book on my nightstand – a biography of Shirley Jackson, author of the infamous short story “The Lottery,” titled Private Demons – and ate a full-size Hershey bar. Why the hell not? I read and ate and bled, and somewhere in the middle of all of that, I had a moment when I stopped everything and just sat. I thought of my Peanut and thanked him, or her, for being with me for just a little while. I thanked her, or him, for going through this with me because I couldn’t have faced it by myself.
Which brings us, in a roundabout sort of way, to this tiny blue stocking that I unpack every Christmas season. I don’t say anything about it to my husband or either of my two sons (after my miscarriage, I was lucky enough to have a second little boy at the ripe old age of 39). But each season, I quietly put that stocking in the drawer of my nightstand. I put a Hershey bar in it, and at the end of the holiday season, around the time of the festival of Epiphany, I go to my room and I read a book and I eat my Hershey bar and I thank Peanut all over again for being with me. His due date was to have been January 8.
Every year, I think, why don’t I enact this odd little ritual in June, around the date that I miscarried? I never really had an answer for that. This year, finally, I think I do. I don’t want to celebrate my baby’s passing from this world. What I want to celebrate is birth.
I want to celebrate the fulfillment of possibility. Because that is what Peanut represented to me: the possibility of new life. The possibility of a new person and personality to get to know. The possibility, even, of being efficient enough to have still more children. Because in addition to losing the baby, the miscarriage made me feel like I was losing one of my possible futures – a future with more children in it.
As I told a friend at the time, not only did feeling like Death, Destroyer of Worlds, bother me, I was also bothered because miscarrying at 38 means that you are quickly running out of months in which to recover, try again, perhaps luck out and have another baby, and then try to recover in time again to do it all over again. I think my exact quote was “This begins to put the kibosh on having a third kid.” I know. How greedy can you get?
I still wish I could have a lot more babies. But now, at 42, I am too old and too scared to try for any more. I am a risk-averse person married to a risk-averse person, and I live in the modern age, so I know entirely too much about what can go wrong, and the many, many statistics that are not in my favor.
I also know that I have been luckier than I had any real right to expect. I have two sons whose company I enjoy endlessly and a husband who says he could have been happy with no children or more children, but who is obviously and entirely thrilled with the two that we have. All of my boys worry and interest me because I don’t understand them at all. All three sadden and thrill me because I understand them completely.
And somewhere in the middle was the baby who was all joy, all possibility, who was and always will be all mine.
Merry Christmas, Peanut, and happy birthday.