Why Didn't Anyone Tell Me About Pregnancy Limbo?

by Kari Ponce de Leon
Originally Published: 
first trimester
Halfpoint / Shutterstock

I knew something was up when Sister Act 2 made me cry. I don’t cry, especially not when I’m on my treadmill. Sure, it’s a nice story and I’m a sucker for gospel, but come on.

In the days following the crying episode, I felt really tired. No, I mean really, really, really tired. My arms and legs felt like they were tied to bricks and occasionally my eyes would close involuntarily and refuse to reopen. Must be hormones, I told myself. My cycle was due to begin any day. Wait, it should have started on Tuesday, I realized. It was Friday. Uh oh.

No way I was pregnant. My husband and I had been trying to conceive for just a couple of weeks. I was only four days late. It was too early. It was my natural cycle. According to the all-knowing internet, when a woman goes off the pill, she sometimes won’t ovulate for a few months, or she’ll skip a period. That had to be it. I was just skipping a period. I was not pregnant. Why are pregnancy symptoms and PMS symptoms exactly the same? I was not pregnant.

By Saturday night I had convinced myself that I probably had the flu. My muscles ached, and I felt almost feverish. But I also had other, more suspicious, symptoms: overwhelming fatigue, short bouts of mild nausea, intense dizziness. Turning to Dr. Google once again, I discovered these are classic signs of early pregnancy. Uh oh.

“I feel really weird,” I told my husband that night, as I lay sprawled on the couch, too tired to move anything but my eyes. “I think we should get a pregnancy test.”

“You’re not pregnant,” he said. “It’s too soon.”

“But I feel reeeeeeeeally weird.”

“It’s too soon,” he said.

“Yeah, you’re right,” I said. It was too soon.

I dropped it, and that night I slept hard for nine hours. In the morning, I felt almost normal again.

That day I needed to go to the store anyway, so I decided to pick up a pregnancy test at the same time. I even toyed with the idea of buying a bottle of wine for when the pregnancy test resulted negative, as it certainly would. I wasn’t buying the wine to celebrate, rather to take advantage of that short window of time in which you’re allowed to drink when you’re trying to conceive, i.e., after the pregnancy test comes back negative, but before you have sex again.

When I got home, I snuck upstairs and took the test without telling my husband. I was a little embarrassed. We had decided that I was just skipping a period.

The test result was vague. A line appeared—the line that means you’re pregnant—but it was extremely light.

“Um,” I came down the stairs, test in hand.

He looked up from the Chargers game he was watching.

“Um,” I said again.

He looked back at the television.

“Um, so I took a pregnancy test…”

That got his attention.

“…but I can’t tell if it’s positive or negative.” I showed him the test.

After we studied it together for several minutes in good light, we decided I should take another one. I had bought a three-pack. Smart. I took another test, and this time the line was slightly darker. But it was still pretty light.

“What’s it supposed to look like if you’re not pregnant?” my husband asked.

“There’s not supposed to be anything at all in the circle. See?” I showed him the instructions.

He was skeptical. “You want to take Pacino for a walk with me?” he asked.

“Sure. Aren’t you freaking out?” I was standing next to the couch holding two positive pregnancy tests, freaking out. He was not freaking out. I kind of wished he would.

A few minutes into the walk, we decided that we would test the tests: My husband would take the last one in the three-pack to see what it would look like for someone who definitely was not pregnant. Genius.

I was anxious to get home, but Pacino is an English Bulldog, and consequently, the slowest dog in the world. He did not care that I was slowly going insane.

My husband, probably in an effort to avoid taking a pregnancy test himself, asked, “Isn’t there some home test or something you can do to find out if you’re pregnant?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s when you don’t get your period, and you feel like crap.”

Check, and check.

Shocker: No line appeared on my husband’s test, not even a light one. We went to the store and bought another two-pack of tests—a different brand so we could be sure we were reading the symbols correctly—and I got two more positives. By now, if this were a commercial for pregnancy tests, my husband and I would have hugged and laughed, and he would have placed his hand lovingly on my belly, and we would have gone out and bought a crib. Actually, if it were a commercial, this would have happened after the first test. But this was real life, so after four positive over-the-counter tests, I scheduled a blood draw for the next day and spent the whole night wide awake, thinking of ways we could arrange the furniture in the second bedroom to make room for a baby.

I took the blood test the next day, and it revealed that I did have hCG in my blood, but at a very low level. My doctor emailed me that I would need an ultrasound to confirm the viability of the pregnancy, but I would have to wait at least eight days for the ultrasound. “Does that mean there is something wrong with the pregnancy?” I asked. He responded with a short note stating that 20 to 30 percent of pregnancies spontaneously terminate in the first trimester. That was it. End of email.

Once again, I turned to the internet. I discovered that a low level of hCG can mean a variety of things, from a completely normal early pregnancy, to the remnants of a spontaneous miscarriage, to an ectopic pregnancy. I learned that a low level of pregnancy hormone doesn’t necessarily mean anything; the important thing is whether or not the level rises appropriately.

So, I’m pregnant? Or, I’m not pregnant? Or, I was pregnant? Or, I need another blood test? Or, what’s going on?

My doctor didn’t offer a follow-up blood draw, so I requested it. Did he really expect me to wait patiently for eight days until I could get an ultrasound to find out if my pregnancy was “viable”? I had to wait three days for the second test, and the result took another day. But a four-day wait is better than eight. Finally, after walking around in a cloud pretending to function for the better part of a workweek, unsure whether I wanted to laugh, cry, sleep, eat or puke, I found out that the hormone level had risen appropriately since the last test. So I’m pregnant! We’re going to have a baby! Oh my God, we’re going to have a baby.

The first thing I did after telling my husband was call my good friend who, after years of trying, had finally become pregnant and given birth to a girl the year before.

“What’s up?” she said.

“Well…” I said. “Something is up.”

“You’re pregnant!”

“Yes!” I screamed. Then I told her about the weeklong saga of emotional torture that I had endured.

“Oh yeah,” she said. “You have to have ultrasounds to see if the baby is growing. Even if they hear a heartbeat with the first ultrasound, you have to wait for the second one to see if the baby grows.”

So, the wait wasn’t over?

“You never know what’s going to happen until you’re through the first trimester, so you shouldn’t tell anyone you’re pregnant until your second trimester. That’s the mistake I made,” she said.

Not tell anyone until the second trimester? That would be at least another two months. My husband had already told his mom, and I was planning to tell my parents that night. I wanted to tell everyone, every stranger I passed on the street.

Many of my friends have kids; my sister has four. So, why didn’t anyone ever tell me about pregnancy limbo? Those first three months when you’re definitely pregnant but you have to pass a series of benchmarks—Is my hCG level rising? Is the baby growing? Am I past my first trimester yet?—before you can get excited. Before you can tell people. Before you can make room in the closets and dressers. Before you can plan maternity leave. Before you can panic about labor.

I felt oddly like I was becoming pregnant by degrees: feeling pregnant, maybe pregnant, probably pregnant, pregnant but guarded. In those first days, how could I love something—someone—who may never become anything more than a tiny bundle of cells in my uterus? But I did, instantly. I have loved that little fertilized egg from the moment I found out it was in me.

Thirteen weeks into my pregnancy, that fertilized egg is now officially a fetus, and I’ve told everyone about it. I am beginning to realize that this is just the start of a lifetime of worry. Can a parent ever really relax about their child’s well-being? We are safely past the first trimester, but what about the next six months? And what about after I give birth? What about the first year of his or her life? What about when my baby starts school? And endures his or her first broken heart? What happens the year after that? And after that?

Maybe pregnancy limbo is biology’s way of preparing parents for a lifetime of worry. I suppose all we can do is love that little fertilized egg, take good care of it, and hope for the best.

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