After Two Pregnancy Losses, I Wrote the Book I Needed to Read
Anna Hogeland on Searching for Narratives to Meet Her in Her Grief
I began writing a novel in the early days of my first pregnancy. Overcome by the physical and emotional intensity of inhabiting a gestating body, I was desperate to render it on the page. The writing, I hoped, would help me surrender to this process my body understood but I did not. I was thrilled to be pregnant, incredibly grateful I was able to quickly conceive with my husband, and yet I felt troubled by odd sensations and acute anxiety; I wondered how anyone could survive such a state for nine months.
I was writing my narrator, a pregnant fiction MFA student like myself, as largely a recipient of the stories of other women who had their own experiences of pregnancy and becoming mothers. The narrator would collect and curate these stories over the arc of her own pregnancy, and mine.
At the 20-week anatomy scan, I learned my baby was not well. He had a congenital heart defect so severe that if I carried him to term, should he live to that point–he was a boy–he would very likely suffocate upon birth, drowning in air, or die shortly thereafter. Pending another ultrasound to confirm the diagnosis in a few days, my husband and I knew we would terminate the pregnancy, choosing for our baby the only option that would protect him from any pain or suffering.
The narrator of my novel now felt like a mockery, this woman who had an uncomplicated pregnancy, whom I’d even dared to give my own name. I’d written a draft of the first chapter by the time I learned of my baby’s diagnosis and started to arrange for the abortion–a confusing and expensive labyrinth, even in a state like California, where I was living. (Writing this essay now, when access to safe abortions everywhere is unacceptably precarious, I am reminded of how fortunate I was in my misfortune, how rare a privilege it is to be able to allow your dying baby to die without feeling a thing.)
But I was still writing, writing more than ever, messy prose that could hardly be called a draft, in a style far looser and more verbose than I’d ever written before. In the first year of my MFA, I’d been a disciple of Amy Hemple and Grace Paley, acutely focused on The Sentence; but now I couldn’t care less about what word would leave the most resonance at the end of a paragraph, or how to write as concisely as possible, using words rich with valences.
My baby was dead, what did that matter? I was no longer writing from my brain, I was writing from my gut, and I wrote with abandon, pages and pages I would never read again.
I became desperate, in the time after losing the baby, to find a book, or any narrative, that could meet me in my grief, and, most crucially, show me how to transcend it. Once the unreadable pages had been written, when I began to feel my brain waking from its trauma-induced slumber, and the milk had dried from my breasts, I understood that I needed to write this novel if only so that I could read it.
I had to write a narrative that would provide me with perspective when the intensity of my pain threatened to blot out all possible futures in which I might feel anything else. In this novel, the narrator, too, had to navigate the mess and shock of loss, scrambling gracelessly to find meaning and hope.I became desperate, in the time after losing the baby, to find a book, or any narrative, that could meet me in my grief, and, most crucially, show me how to transcend it.
I became pregnant again, not long after my baby’s due date, and at seven weeks I miscarried at home, days of cramps and bleeding, bad TV, and hours playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’d graduated from the MFA program by then and moved from California to my home state of Massachusetts. I was working on the novel when I could, while I built my private psychotherapy practice in Roslindale. After this second loss, the unhealed wound had been salted, and the intensity to write the novel only increased when I soon found myself pregnant again.
This third pregnancy lasted through the green agony of the first trimester, surpassing the early miscarriage, then three anatomy scans to assure that my daughter’s heart was not like her brother’s heart. In time, after long days saturated with heartburn and terror and moments of hope, I was in the uncharted third trimester. I made myself buy a few onesies and a car seat from BuyBuyBaby, but I kept the tags on and the receipts in my jewelry box.
I was seven months pregnant in the spring of 2020, when the pandemic was gaining strength in New England. I was writing the novel–more often now while standing with my laptop on the kitchen counter in an attempt to quiet the sciatica–not just so I could read it, but perhaps so that someone else might, too. I still wasn’t sure I was going to have a healthy baby, despite all the reassuring signs from precise technologies and medical professionals, but I knew that I should at least act as though a baby would come by summer. The novel, by then, had to be finished, or it might never be. I hoped it would lose its use to me once the alleged baby had been born.
At 38 weeks, I sent out query letters; I signed with my agent on my due date, and less than 36 hours later, my husband was driving me through winding roads to the hospital, where I would give birth to my daughter, who, at this writing, is one month shy of her second birthday.
I am now a mother without qualification, and I feel, daily, new depths of love and awe and gratitude. And parenting has humbled me beyond measure, especially now, with intermittent and unreliable childcare as my husband and I both work from home. I daydream of spending money we don’t have on a book-lined cabin in the woods. I am bored and overwhelmed and bored and overwhelmed; I am exhausted; I am always crying; I lie on the living room floor as my daughter screams and I think, this will be the death of me.
And there are brief moments, when she is quiet and still, before she wrangles away, when I can feel her four-chambered heart pound fast and strong against my palm, and I remember what I’ve never forgotten.
I’ve come to understand that we don’t live in a death-denying culture–depictions of death are inescapable–but we do live in a grief-denying culture. We have so little language for grief, so few rituals in the western world that allow for it, much less welcome it. Living in grief is living in a dimension that is dark and devoid of joy, at once both recognizable and unworldly. You can leave this place, but you won’t be the same person as you were before you entered.
I’ve found a new approach to my work, in the writing of the novel, The Long Answer, and through visiting the land of grief and since returning to the world of the living. I do care about The Sentence, still, though in a new way: I used to want, above all, for the reader to think the sentences were beautiful–and how brilliant I was for having written such a pleasing formulation. Now, I want the language to allow the reader to be so engrossed in the story, and what the story can tell them about themselves, that the words chosen and the writer writing them hardly enter the reader’s mind at all.
I want for the reader to feel the story in the place in their body from which I wrote it myself; I want to communicate with my unseen readers not brain to brain, but heart to heart, gut to gut, wound to wound.
The Long Answer by Anna Hogeland is available now via Riverhead Books.