The Twenty-Week Wait

It’s called the two-week wait—2ww in online parlance—that purgatorial stretch of time between ovulation and finding out whether you are pregnant. There is a good chance that you will be insufferable during this time. Fortunately, once you’ve driven away your mate and your friends, the internet will be there to absorb your neuroses and feed them right back to you a hundred-fold.

Just Google TTC (trying to conceive) and you’ll find pages and pages of forums that offer a communal space in which to obsess over possible signs of pregnancy while trying for a BFP (big fat positive). Written in a language composed almost entirely of acronyms and emoticons, the communiqués can make you feel a little less alone, or at least allow you to kill a few hours, during your own wretched wait. Though I’ve never posted anything myself, I have spent a not insignificant amount of time trolling the threads and feeding on tales of abdominal twinges / mood swings / sore boobs that turned out to be harbingers of apregnant-smiley

While a BFP is obviously a step in the right direction, experience has taught me that, on the victory spectrum, getting the plus sign or double line on the pee stick is kind of like making it past the first level of Ms. Pac-Man. You won’t be joysticking your initials onto the high-scorer list anytime soon. There are many more mazes to navigate, pellets to chomp, and hungry goblins to elude. Not a perfect metaphor, perhaps, but let’s just go with it.

Now, a new wait begins. Most OB’s don’t want to see you until you are at least eight weeks pregnant, so you’ll be cooling your heels until then. In the meantime, you can keep yourself occupied by reading up on first-trimester miscarriage statistics (scarier than a Stephen King novel!) and nursing yourself through withdrawal from wine, sushi, and nitrates.

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the OB visit. Now you’re ready to advance to a new level of torture: prenatal testing. I am truly grateful for modern-day obstetrical care, and for the fact that dying in childbirth is no longer a likely scenario (in the western world, at least). But with medical advances come a host of new things to worry about, like the nightmarish lineup of potential defects and chromosomal abnormalities for which you will be screened over the course of your next few OB visits. Expect to lie awake at night wondering how any healthy babies manage to be born, ever.


And heaven forfend you are 35 or older. If that is the case, then your geriatric ass is in for a treat. (I’m not just being droll here; pregnancies in women 35 and older are actually called “geriatric pregnancies.”) You’ll be required to meet with a genetic counselor, who will explain that a woman of your age has an approximately one-in-four chance of giving birth to a hairy lump of eyeballs. This person will encourage you to consider yet more testing, both forms of which involve “invasive” procedures; i.e., A: having a giant needle plunged through your abdomen and directly into your uterus, or B: having a giant needle stuck straight up your hoo-ha. He or she will explain that, while these tests offer more definitive results, they do carry just a teensy risk of miscarriage.

(Even though I was thirty-four at the time of my first pregnancy, I still got slapped with the geriatric pregnancy label because I would be thirty-five by the time the baby was born. Which seemed a little nitpicky to me, but whatever.)

Once you make it to the second trimester, you relax. Your risk of miscarriage takes a nosedive, and though you still may be puking your guts out daily, you’re feeling victorious. You probably share the news. Why not? All of the tests came back clear. Soon you find you can no longer button your jeans, your morning sickness has magically disappeared, and—hold the phone—you can feel the baby fluttering around in there. You’ve got this pregnancy in the bag. You are actually looking forward to your next big test: the twenty-week ultrasound, aka the anatomy scan. This is not yet another scary screening to worry about; this is all about finally learning the sex of the baby.

My husband and I practically skipped into the OB’s office for my twenty-week ultrasound. We cracked jokes as the doctor squirted jelly on my stomach and started sliding the wand around. The baby’s image wavered in and out of view, and I held my breath and waited to hear the doctor say what I knew with certainty to be true: “It’s a girl!” But instead what he said was, “There’s definitely an abnormality here.”

We left the office not knowing the baby’s sex. We couldn’t bear to find out, because the baby wasn’t going to survive. Its body and chest cavity were swollen with fluid, a condition that was, in the doctor’s words, “not compatible with life.”

I won’t get into all the sad particulars here. The Cliffs Notes version is this: My husband and I eventually learned that we both carry the trait for a genetic disorder that has a twenty-five percent risk of fatality, either in the womb or shortly after birth. Who knew? None of the tests had hinted at anything amiss, and even if we’d opted for one of those invasive procedures, they wouldn’t have told us anything either.

For me, a naturally anxiety-prone and pessimistic person, the unexpected loss of our baby served to confirm all of my worst fears. But eventually, and in spite of how cranky it made me when people said it, that tired old adage worked its magic, and I found that I was, in fact, stronger for it. I know that I am actually quite lucky to be able to say that, at the positively ancient age of thirty-eight, this is the worst thing that has happened to me—so far, at least.

A year and six months after saying goodbye to baby number one (who was in fact, we later learned, a girl), we welcomed a healthy baby boy—the result of in vitro fertilization and genetic testing. Two years and three months after that and here I am, eighteen weeks pregnant with what will hopefully be our son’s little brother. I say ‘hopefully’ not with respect to the baby’s gender—thanks to all that genetic testing, we already know that he is a boy—but because I won’t really be able to believe in the likelihood of his safe arrival until my twenty-week ultrasound, when the doctor shows me his little silhouette floating on the screen and tells me that everything looks great.

I tell this story not to exacerbate the worries of already anxious mothers-to-be, but to share what for me was a very painful and intimate illustration of the fact that very little in life is under our control, and that there is no magic moment—in pregnancy or in any other part of life—when you can definitively say, I’m safe. I’ve made it. Nothing bad can happen now.

Learning to accept, and eventually set aside, the trials and worries of pregnancy is like basic training for the overwhelming anxiety that comes with actually being a parent. Because, holy shit, it gets so much worse. Like making it past the 2ww, giving birth to a healthy child is really just the beginning. But what can you do except embrace it all, push onward, and keep chomping the pellets?

You can also find this story on Medium by clicking below:
Michelle Vellucci Vames

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