Letting go

I got unexpectedly pregnant during my PhD. Twice.

And we did use contraception. We took precautions and after the first time we were positive that switching to the copper IUD would be a good option to prevent another pregnancy. Unfortunately, it was not. And not the first pregnancy made me feel heartbroken, but the second one definitely did. But before I share this story, I think I need to elaborate on the first pregnancy first.

After a difficult relationship I met someone. We had a connection from the start, and I felt so happy since the day we met. He laughed, I felt loved and supported and I felt like the future would be bright again. We decided that we would like to be together and we both felt so happy.

However, after one and a half month I noticed that my period was one day late. And my period was never late. I stopped taking the pill as birth control two years before that, after taking it from when I was 13 years old. I felt much better without it, but consequently, I needed to take other precautions if I didn’t want to get pregnant. As I could feel my ovulation and it was always om the same day, we used condoms. But when I was a day late, I started freaking out.

I bought a test and there it was… A positive test. I hold it in my hands, and I felt so bad. The first thing I could think of was my PhD. How on earth am I going to explain this to my promotion team? They will be so disappointed. As I was only together with my boyfriend for one and a half month, I decided to see if I could calculate when I got pregnant and made an appointment with my GP. After talking to my GP we figured out the chance of getting pregnant would be close to zero, as I was away during my fertile window. However, there was a positive test, which was confirmed by measuring HCG levels in my blood. So somehow, even though I was not in my fertile window, I still got pregnant.

I felt terrible because I know how much people are trying to conceive and here I was, pregnant, without wanting to. We talked about the options and I felt like it was best to have an abortion, which I felt terrible about. I felt like I was in an impossible position, but I had to make a choice, nevertheless. In the end it all made sense, because I was so tired the last few weeks and my I had a specific lower pain in my abdomen every day since getting pregnant.

I thought I had a miscarriage at 6 weeks, but the midwife did an ultrasound and everything was okay. I again thought about my options but I made an appointment with the clinic and the abortion was scheduled. Unfortunately, it didn’t went as smoothly as hoped. The abortion went well, however, I was in a massive pain afterwards and I didn’t recover as expected.

I never experienced so much pain in my life and they didn’t take my complaints seriously. My boyfriend was worried as I was getting a fever, I was screaming out of pain and they didn’t want to help me to go to the bathroom. I couldn’t do it so my boyfriend had to help me. I felt so ashamed. They were not prepared for such a case and I stayed at the clinic for hours and when everyone left and after my boyfriend complained several times, they decided that it would be best to check my uterus again, to see if something went wrong.

However, the anesthetist left already and since I already had anesthesia the first time, they couldn’t give me anything now. I had to undergo another curettement, but now without anesthesia. I never had so much pain in my life, they even turned up the volume of the radio so my boyfriend couldn’t hear me scream. Which of course didn’t help. I received two shots of morphine and luckily, an hour later I could go home. It really was the worst experience in my life.

After the recovery, I was super scared to get pregnant again. We talked about the possibilities and as I didn’t trust my own body anymore we thought it would be a good idea for me to get a copper IUD next to using condoms. I was scared to get pregnant every month and two months later, I felt like I was definitely pregnant again. I was 99.9% sure. I went to the GP and I got blood drawn. I wasn’t pregnant, even though I got the same symptoms as the last time. I was tired, I had a lot of cramps and my breasts were sore. We tested the HCG levels twice, and both were negative. However we scheduled the copper IUD insertion a month later, as it would be best to get it placed during your period. So that is exactly what happened. I got the copper IUD and I was told that it would be normal that my period would change a little. It could be a few days later, the blood flow could be heavier and I should expect that after three months or so, my natural cycle would be back again.

So a month after getting the copper IUD, I was again a day late. I waited three more days and did a test, because I was getting scared. It was negative. I contacted the GP and the clinic and they told me it can happen that your period is a few days late and that if I tested twice and it was negative, it should be fine. I was welcome to do an ultrasound, just for my own peace of mind. So that’s what I did. The IUD was visible and no pregnancy was observed. However, I had a lot of cramps and I was told that that is normal when you just have an IUD.

It would all be fine. I was again tired, but I didn’t have all the symptoms, so I trusted the option of the professionals. However, the second month, my period still was not there. And I gained a little weight. I wasn’t sure whether I was bloated or if I stared noticing something. I started to have second doubts and one moment I decided to again buy several pregnancy tests and I immediately used two. However, what I did not expect to see is that I tested positively. Twice. And the lines were super bright, even brighter compared to the control lines. I immediately stared crying. How could this happen? I took all the precautions and both the GP and the clinic told me not to worry. I wasn’t ready to go to the clinic again. Because I wasn’t sure of what to do this time, I talked to several experts online and visited the midwife, just to see what was going on and where my copper IUD was.

I scheduled an appointment and I was horrified. I was pregnant again.. But not only pregnant, I could already see hands, feet and it looked like a baby already. I was shocked and couldn’t say a word. I started crying. It turned out I was already 12 weeks pregnant and I had no idea. The copper IUD was still there. The midwife told me that she would support me in every decision I would make but that we could not remove the copper IUD anymore because it could result in an early miscarriage. If I wanted to continue with this pregnancy, the copper IUD would still be there and we just had to see how it would go. It could result in premature delivery but there would also be a chance that it would not cause any problem.

From that moment on I talked to my boyfriend and we felt horrible. Afterwards my boyfriend did notice I had more mood swings and I was more emotional than before. However, we went through a difficult time because I felt like my hormones were all over the place and I was still traumatized from the first visit to the clinic. Besides, I had no idea how I would combine a baby with the PhD. I felt like the worst PhD student ever. My projects were not going as planned and I was delayed in the everything. The worst thing that could happen, happened. I got pregnant again and I was sure that this would be the last thing my promotion team would like to hear.

Financially, but also no one around to help if necessary. I also didn’t want to raise a baby alone. I just felt like that would be impossible. How do you combine a PhD AND a baby, especially when you are a single parent? I decided that it would be best to schedule another abortion, even though my hormones made it really difficult to make the decision.

Objectively I could think of so many reasons not to go through with this pregnancy but due to the hormones I felt like I had to let go of a human being. Because that was what it felt like, a human being. How could I make a decision, how could I decide for this human being? I had doubts but I scheduled the appointment. I said to myself that I could always change my mind. And even before I got to the clinic, I had doubts. This time we chose a different location of the clinic, because I had filed an official complaint after my experience. I felt like it would be best to choose another location, so there would maybe be different personnel.

Unfortunately, I had the same nurse handling my case as last time and I told her what happened. They said they were sorry and they informed the doctor, so they were aware that they had to double check whether the procedure was done well. In the end, I went in and the IV was a problem. The nurses had to try three times and I was laying there, with my legs open and they couldn’t find a vein. The same thing happened last time, however, they did manage to find a vein after a few attempts. I was lying there for 15 minutes before I could get the anesthesia.

It brought back a lot of memories and I couldn’t help myself but crying. Luckily, the procedure went well and the doctor told me that the copper IUD probably moved a bit which enabled the pregnancy. As discussed, they would immediately place another copper IUD and they scheduled two appointments the upcoming months to see if the copper IUD was still in place properly. They told me that the chances of getting pregnant again was small, but that it is possible. After the procedure, I had a lot more pain compared to other women again and the nurses again treated me badly. They told me I didn’t want to recover, that I had to get up and move and that I had to man up.

I felt horrible, as I was dizzy and didn’t feel good. I really tried to man up and even though it took longer than the recovery of other women, I tried to get dressed and get out of the clinic. Due to corona my boyfriend couldn’t pick me up and had to wait outside. However, you had to walk to the second floor before you reached the clinic and I couldn’t walk properly. When I closed the door I called my boyfriend crying because I couldn’t walk properly and I didn’t manage to get down the stairs. My boyfriend carried my downstairs and helped in the car and took care of the antibiotics I had to take. We drove back all the way home and the only thing I could do was crying. My boyfriend was a great support before, during and after the abortion but I felt like I couldn’t share my story with anyone.

I was afraid of the opinion of others and I felt so bad for the people that are trying to conceive but do not manage. The first few days afterwards I felt horrible. I could still see my belly showing, but there was nothing there anymore. I really felt I had to grieve and let go of a person. Even though I was only pregnant for 12 weeks and 6 days in total and a lot of people would say it is not an actual baby yet, it really did feel like a baby. A baby of both me and my boyfriend. It felt like a person.

Objectively I knew it was the right decision, but my feelings were all over the place. Although the first abortion was a lot harder physically, this time it was way more difficult. Mentally. I took a toll on my mental health. I started seeing a therapist and together we worked on the grieve and the guilt. I felt like I committed a murder and that I should have known. I felt like I should blame myself for not noticing sooner and the influence it had on my PhD.

I couldn’t take about it to my promotion team, but I did feel like I was failing, in everything. At home, at work and life. Now looking back, it would maybe be better if I did tell everyone, but at that moment I just couldn’t. I felt alone, misunderstood and was afraid of being judged. Because how can you get pregnant if you take all the precautions? Then it must be your own fault, right? It would mean that you were not careful enough and that you were the one to blame.

It took months before I could let go of the grieve and got over the procedures in general. It was a difficult 6 months and I hope to never experience such thing in my life. I wish people would share unexpected pregnancies more often and that I didn’t feel so alone. So with sharing my story, I hope that if someone goes through an unexpected pregnancy, they don’t feel alone, guilty or ashamed. It is not your fault, these things can happen and what choice you make, all is well. It is your life, your decisions and it is okay if you have to grieve afterwards. It is okay if you feel like an early pregnancy is already a baby, even though your boyfriend or partner may not feel the same. Because hormones are hormones and it can be difficult. You will get through this, but try to talk to someone. A close friend, a relative, a therapist.. It doesn’t matter, but you are not alone and it is okay.

Up to date, I still have difficulties with seeing pregnancy announcements and ultrasounds of 12 weeks of pregnancy. Sometimes I am even jealous of the happiness of the expecting couple. I hope, one day, I will be happy too, when I find out that I am pregnant.

by Lisa


1 Comment

  1. Nick Warburton
    March 13, 2024 / 10:26 am

    Hi Anna

    My name is Nick Warburton and I am a freelance journalist who writes for Materials World magazine: https://www.iom3.org/resources/publications/materials-world.html

    I’ve been asked by Rupal, the editor, to write a piece that covers mental health/wellbeing support for postdoctoral/postgraduate researchers in STEM subjects. The feature will tie-in with Materials World’s May issue which lands in time for mental health week.

    As her brief notes, there are many reports around the specific issues related to being an early-career academic researcher which includes long/unsociable hours/the culture, but also often silo working environments and how best to protect an individual’s wellbeing.

    Rupal also wants to look at what universities can do to help. One focus is on the role of supervisors of these researchers. This is an area that she’d like me to explore, in particular what training they receive and how they balance their own demands on work/life.

    She would also like me to speak to some universities that are running wellbeing initiatives for this target group. She initially had Zoe Ayres on the contact list but she’s currently on maternity leave and thoroughly recommended you as someone I should interview.

    I will share the draft with you before I submit it so you can make any comments and don’t need to send it to Rupal until mid-April.

    However, I’d like to set up an interview, if possible, before the end of March, and was wondering if you would be happy to be involved? Would it be possible to see if this is possible please and whether we could do either a Teams or Zoom interview please?

    I look forward to hearing from you soon,

    Yours sincerely,

    Nick Warburton

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