An essay by Jamie Odeneal

Quinn and I were tagging along on Norm’s work trip to San Diego when I found out I was pregnant for the second time. When Norm and I had tried for our first baby, I’d stopped taking the pill and conceived roughly two weeks later, resulting in our daughter, Quinn. The efficiency of our efforts the first time around greatly satisfied my inner control freak. This time, I wasn’t at all surprised to find that things had progressed along the exact same timeline. I had expected no different.

Because of the timing of my cycle, I’d including in my packing list for the trip a box of three sticks on which to pee. The first two mornings in San Diego produced disappointing results, but then on the third day, I finally spotted the faintest of pink lines in the test window. Squinting at the test in the bathroom of our hotel room, I called to Norm, “Good job, honey! You knocked me up again!”

Norm hurried into the bathroom with Quinn chasing after him. He strained to see the line while she grabbed at his legs repeating, “Pick up! Pick up!”

“I don’t know,” he sighed and laid the test on the counter before lifting Quinn up to our level. “That barely looks like a line to me. Maybe you should just test again when we get home.”  Even though the weak evidence didn’t convince Norm, I was thrilled. My pregnancy with Quinn also began with the faintest whisper of a line. I’d continued to test over the next few days, throwing god knows how much money at the First Response manufacturers. Each time the line grew darker, my belief that I was indeed carrying a baby, or at least a promising ball of cells, grew more certain.

That morning in our room at the Hyatt, I knew it was just a matter of days before the test showed an unmistakable positive result. Also, I had to think it was more than lingering air sickness that was causing the nausea I’d had since arrived in San Diego. Surely, a sibling for Quinn, and almost certainly the final addition to our family, was on his or her way.

That day, while Norm attended his conference, I rented a car and drove with Quinn up to Long Beach to visit my friend Madeline and her two kids. I hadn’t told her we were going to start “trying” and I was beyond anxious to spill the beans, to share with somebody what was going on in my uterus. Our drive on Route 5 took us through terrain as different from Virginia as any I’d seen, with its plunging valleys with little vegetation other than the occasional palm tree or patch of brush. The southern California landscape was unfamiliar to this east coast girl, but I felt a tingle of déjà vu when we passed exits for towns like La Jolla, Del Mar, San Juan Capistrano, Laguna Beach, familiar to me from movies and television.

I passed the ninety-minute drive fantasizing about telling our families. I remembered well enough from the first time around that there were few things I’d enjoyed as much as telling people I was pregnant. How long would we wait?  Certainly longer than last time, which was practically before the test stick dried. Maybe we’d get Quinn a “future big sister” t-shirt she could sport the next time she saw her grandparents. I glanced at the rearview mirror occasionally to check on my little girl, the person who’d made a mother out of me, and wondered how having a sibling would affect her. She was slumbering in the rented car seat, blissfully oblivious as to how her life was about to change.

I was even more convinced of my condition each time I munched on the giant lemon poppy seed muffin I’d brought along on the ride. The muffin had looked so appealing at the hotel Starbucks that morning, but now it just tasted like buttered sawdust. When I tried washing it down with sips from my water bottle, it just seemed to expand the taste in my mouth rather than wash it away. This strange aversion to a seemingly benign food was definitely familiar.

When we pulled up at Madeline’s apartment building in Long Beach, I could barely wait to tell her the happy news. I decided that after I used the bathroom, which was becoming increasingly more necessary with every mile I drove, I would spend a few minutes exchanging polite pleasantries, taking a tour of her new place, remarking on the cuteness of her kids, making sure Quinn was comfortable and entertained in her new surroundings, and then I’d make my big announcement.

Madeline rushed out to meet us, and we hugged and made the appropriate comments about how wonderfully grown up and beautiful each other’s children were. Then we headed upstairs to her apartment, each of us with a toddler slung on our hips.

“Stay here with Madeline while Mommy goes potty, okay?” I said to Quinn when we were inside. Quinn toddled off towards Madeline’s little girl, Frankie Mae, and they went to work on the big box of Legos. 

There in the bathroom just a few seconds later, I discovered that I was unequivocally not pregnant. Staring at the unmistakable evidence, certainly more than mere spotting, I felt confused, a little dizzy, profoundly disappointed, and strangely, a little ashamed. I had let myself feel the excitement of another pregnancy, arrogantly assuming it was a done deal. The immediacy of our conception efforts the first time around had led me to smugly believe it would be just as easy the second time. Now I was dealing with the aftermath of what I supposed was a “chemical pregnancy”-essentially a very early miscarriage.

I needed to ask Madeline for some feminine product of some sort. I suppose I could have just lied and told her that Aunt Flo had made her appearance a bit earlier than expected, but I needed to tell her, to tell somebody, what had just happened. I sat paralyzed on her toilet listening to the animated sounds of Quinn and Frankie Mae playing in the living room.

A few minutes later, I came out of the bathroom and sunk to the floor next to Quinn and pulled her onto my lap.

“So,” I began telling Madeline, “I was pregnant for a couple of days, I think, but apparently that’s all over now.” I could feel my lips quivering, a sign that my body was betraying me for the second time that day. I am not a public crier, not even among friends.

Madeline, in her wonderful snarky way, responded with, “Oh Jesus, did you just have a miscarriage in my toilet?”  And then she went on to tell me that I didn’t want a September baby anyway because I’d be right on the borderline with school enrollment dates. Throughout our debriefing about what had just happened, she never got emotional about it with me, and I was grateful for that. What I needed was humor, not pity. I didn’t want to cry. In fact, I didn’t even feel like a chemical pregnancy, as opposed to a much later miscarriage, granted me the right to cry. I knew full well it could be a lot worse.

Madeline and I didn’t dwell on the subject for too long, and within thirty minutes, we’d moved on to talking about our kids, gossiping about people we knew, and criticizing other people’s parenting techniques-all of our favorite topics of conversation.

Quinn and I left Long beach just before sundown. Once Madeline and I had said our goodbyes, and I was back in the rental car, it occurred to me that I had spent large chunks of the day not even thinking about my brief pregnancy gone wrong. I don’t get to see Madeline that often, and we had too much to catch up on to linger over unpleasantness that, in the scheme of things, didn’t mean very much. But now that I was leaving Madeline’s humor and companionship behind, I felt blue again.

Quinn fell asleep just a few minutes after hitting the road, which was fine by me because I was in the mood to think and drive in silence. The sun set and we drove past those familiar-sounding towns again, this time in the reverse order:  Laguna Beach, San Juan Capistrano, Del Mar, La Jolla. The deep valleys of southern California felt even more disorienting in the dark, without the context of the surrounding landscape. All I could see was the ribbon of car lights plunging and climbing in front of me, and I fought the urge to slam on the breaks to keep from falling. I was also quite suddenly starving.

I returned to my lemon poppy seed muffin, now slightly stale on the seat next to me. I mindlessly nibbled at it, thinking about how I’d tell Norm what had happened when we got back to the hotel. I wondered if he’d be disappointed, or if, unlike me, he’d been able to temper his enthusiasm, waiting to see more convincing evidence. After a few bites I realized that, despite its slightly stale texture, the muffin tasted markedly better than it had that morning, more like an actual baked good instead of just buttered sawdust. It amazed me how quickly my body and my appetite were returning to normal. I wondered if my mind and heart would follow suit.

Quinn was starting to wake up by the time I spotted the lights of San Diego. In typical Quinn fashion, she launched into her spirited commentary on everything she saw the minute she regained consciousness.

“Lights! Cars! San-dee-go! Mommy drivin’!” she shouted in no particular order from the back seat. I listened to my beautiful, chatty, wonderfully precocious Quinn and felt ashamed of my disappointment. Looking at her, how could I have ventured into the realm of self-pity for even a moment? So this pregnancy had been a chemical one, some sort of chemical reaction gone wrong, a failed science experiment. I had not lost a child, but merely the hope of one, and not forever. We’d try again.

I considered how perfectly our first experiment had turned out. My daughter Quinn was the result of exactly the right chemistry, a biological miracle I could not take for granted. Even if I never had another successful pregnancy again, I couldn’t be ungrateful. When Quinn entered our lives, we became a family of three, a perfectly balanced equation. I almost couldn’t ask for more.

 I pulled off at the exit and headed downtown. I couldn’t wait to see Norm, but not to have him commiserate with me. My hour and a half of brooding was enough. Since we already had the car, maybe the three of us would drive into Old Town for some Mexican food. After the day’s events, I thought I’d treat myself to a large plateful of something spicy, some fiery dish that almost certainly would’ve given me heartburn the day before. I thought I might even order one of those giant margaritas roughly the size of my own head. I might even raise my glass, with both hands if necessary, and toast to our luck, to our family, to chemistry.


Jamie Odeneal, a mother of two, lives and writes in Arlington, Virginia. Her essays on pregnancy and motherhood have appeared in The Washington Post, Mothering, and Fit Pregnancy. She is currently working on her first young adult novel.

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