The Geography Closest In

In her new book, Miranda Ward explores the unique place of almost-motherhood — an uncertain landscape characterized by waiting, wanting, hoping, and not-knowing.

Miranda Ward | Adrift | Weidenfeld & Nicolson | January 2021 | 15 minutes (4,339 words)

The bald conclusiveness of a positive pregnancy test draws a clear line between yes/no, this/that, knowing/not-­knowing. For a moment at least it clarifies everything, or distils it, into a single and irrefutable piece of knowledge. This certainty, when it comes to the body, is rare (later a doctor will tell me: if everything in medicine were as reliable as a pregnancy test, my job would be a lot easier), so I hold on to that piece of knowledge, which is proof of my own productivity, for as long as I can.

But doubt, worry, have a way of threading their way through even the solidest conviction. Threat is everywhere: a light fever, an undercooked egg. Indeed the more I read the more I realise how fragile a pregnancy is, how it isn’t as simple as a positive test and a baby nine months later, which is something I suppose I always knew in the abstract but never had any real frame of reference for before. I was aware that some of my friends and acquaintances, for example, had had miscarriages, but I had not until now really understood what it meant, in both practical and emotional terms, to have to hold an awareness of this terrible possibility always alongside a hope, a longing, for it not to happen to you. Most of what I know about pregnancy, in fact, comes from fiction, from books, films, TV: the way certain signifiers – wooziness, weakness, nausea – are used to suggest a pregnancy before it is confirmed; the way, once it is confirmed, a woman must somehow both alter her behaviour drastically and hardly at all, vomiting copiously into a bin at work seconds before giving a presentation just as if nothing is amiss, but studiously avoiding, suddenly, a whole litany of food and drink; most of all the way a baby is almost always the inevitable result of a pregnancy. The plain fact of it – that at least one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, perhaps more, since sometimes a woman might miscarry before she even knows she’s pregnant – had somehow eluded me, or else I had somehow failed to think of it in tangible terms.

What does that statistic actually mean, practically speaking? It means that nothing is a given. It means that there are people – a lot of people – for whom the result of a pregnancy is not a baby. It means that even the purest elation is often shaded, especially in the early weeks, when miscarriage is most likely, with fear.

I develop a set of superstitions for protection; certain shirts for luck, certain routes home from the library or the grocery store, certain songs skipped or repeated. An aping at control. And for a while everything is normal, in the sense that nothing is normal, in the sense that I feel slightly ill, weary, a little as if I am not myself. My overriding emotion is happiness, but there is also a part of me that feels as if I have become separated somehow from my body, as if it is acting of its own accord, and the thinking part of me is just along for the ride. There are psychological adjustments to make – I have to play the phrase I’m pregnant over and over to myself to believe it; I have to think about what is good for me not in terms of my body only, but also in terms of the invisible body-­to­-be inside me. There are physical symptoms, too, though they are mild (another thing I didn’t realise: that while some pregnant women are indeed debilitated by illness or weariness, not everyone is). I am never actually sick, though I am dogged by a whisper of nausea that asserts itself at odd times and leads me to keep a pack of digest­ives on my bedside table. I can feel a largeness, a tenderness, to my breasts, and although I know it’s far too early for the pregnancy itself to show I feel fuller somehow, heavier than I was before I knew, as if the knowledge itself has some weight or substance to it.

This is not an unpleasant feeling – because it is a novelty, and because the pregnancy is so unequivocally desired – but it is hard to escape a sense of uneasiness, too. I find myself tracing familiar routes around Oxford, where I’ve lived for years, ever since I moved to the UK after university; I know the roads well, and yet I feel every encounter between feet and pavement to be different now, because I am differently bodied. What I have is a sense, visceral and unignor­able, that my body no longer belongs wholly to me – and in a way it doesn’t. As I walk I feel not exactly a ‘we’, but a blooming plurality, an ‘I and…’, perhaps, the assertion of a possibility taking physical form. Where once I occupied my mind during walks with long, elaborate daydreams, there now seems to be no room for anything other than the immediacy of experience and the planning and execution of the tasks of my own daily life. I take to listening to radio shows and podcasts, tuning out my external surroundings and internal circumstances, focusing on the minute details of, say, a true crime story, losing myself in the voice of the presenter.

* * *

Geographers write about the inseparability of the body from our experience of place: we sense places, are bodily present in them, see them, hear them, smell them, move within them. How else do we know a favourite room or city or mountain trail? The body, as Tim Edensor writes, is the means through which we experience and feel the world.

To which he adds: bodies are not only written upon but also write their own feelings upon a space in a process of continual remaking.

What I am struck by in the delicate earliest weeks of pregnancy is that I am being both made and unmade; rewritten. The pregnancy is largely unspoken of: we have told our doctor, and our parents, which perhaps lends it a weight in the world that it wouldn’t yet have had we not told anyone, but day to day I move through the hours without anyone but us knowing, because the pregnancy is still invisible. When I stand in front of the mirror I see nothing different, but nothing the same, either. When I go to the swimming pool, as I do most mornings, an almost religious habit, the place of it has shifted, though the change is microscopic, under the surface. On a quiet morning I watch the play of sunlight on the bottom of the pool and I am in a foreign country. In the changing room, pulling off my wet suit after a shower, I am self­-conscious for the first time – can they tell? But I want them to tell, even though there’s no way they possibly could, even though when I think of it I have the sense not so much of the world tilting on its axis but of the axis itself having drifted elsewhere. I smile knowingly at a visibly pregnant woman undressing and she looks away, uncomprehending or embarrassed or both. I am the foreign country, or else I have lost the map of this place. Walking home, along the same roads I have always taken, the green of the trees fading into yellow, I feel somehow both lonely and plural.

* * *

And then.

One morning, a few weeks after that first definitive, positive test, I wake up and feel my old self again – that is to say, not ill, not weary, not plural or novel – and that evening I experience some mild pain, a quick gush of blood which soon slows to an ambiguous but ominous trickle, and a sense of doom. I am not sure what the appropriate reaction is: denial? Despair? I cannot summon the energy to cook or even to eat dinner; although it is still early I retire to bed, lying on top of the duvet, curled into a question mark. Alexander lies down next to me, his body settling around mine. He tells me the things I both want and don’t want to hear: that it’s OK, that we don’t know for sure that anything’s wrong yet, that he loves me. He’s meant to be playing football in twenty minutes. Do you want me to stay? he says. I’ll stay with you. No, I say vehemently, as if this is in fact an uncharitable suggestion, you should go, you should play, what can you do at this point, what can I do? Nothing. Even after he’s pulled his socks over his shinpads, laced up his boots, he hesitates at the door: are you sure you don’t want me to stay? I don’t want you to stay, I say emphatically. If I were being honest – with him, with myself – I’d say exactly the opposite: stay, please. Instead I lie back and stare at the wall for an hour until he gets home and we go to sleep.

The next morning I call my GP, who arranges an emergency scan for me at the hospital. The soonest the scan can be done is in two days, so in the interim period I carry on as usual: I go to meetings, answer emails, run errands. It’s not as hard to do this as I would have imagined it would be, and after all, what choice do I have? But it’s also indicative of the ongoingness that will characterise much of the next two months.

I cannot summon the energy to cook or even to eat dinner; although it is still early I retire to bed, lying on top of the duvet, curled into a question mark.

I would have imagined, too, that a miscarriage was a definite thing – yes/no, this/that, knowing/not­-knowing – a neatly shaped happening with a beginning, a middle, a definitive end, each closely following the other. Women say, ‘I had a miscar­riage’, and until now I have always heard their experience as being something contained, even while brutally uncontrollable: all those stories of blood-­drenched bathroom floors, of unimag­inable agony, of horror and shock, of sadness and then resolution (often in the form of a baby arriving a year or two on, as if some consolation must always be offered): what I understand now, of course, is that these stories are told retrospectively, packaged in the way that all stories, to some extent, must be. But when I phone the doctor I’m unsure, grammatically speaking, how to phrase my concern: do I say to him that I have had a miscarriage, that I’m having one, that I’m worried I might have one in the future? The idea of the miscarriage in progress perplexes the part of me that imagined that this is a thing that can only happen privately, violently, suddenly, because it is a thing that is happening without much noise at all, and meanwhile here I am transcribing an interview, here I am meeting with a freelance client, wearing a new skirt I bought yesterday from the charity shop, here I am buying groceries and planning dinner, with nothing but a question mark inside me.

Alexander and I take a taxi to the hospital for the scan; it’s early morning and the driver is playing loud Pakistani pop, which is somehow soothing, and drowns out my own thoughts. In the waiting room Alexander scrolls restlessly through his phone. A little plastic radio on a cabinet in the corner of the room is pumping out cheerful tunes punctuated by cheerful radio host banter. I take my book from my handbag and lay it on my knees, open at my marked place. Knausgaard, A Death in the Family. In his younger-­self narrative, the author’s father has just died, while in his current­-self narrative, his partner is heavily pregnant, lumbering around, practically bursting with new life. But I cannot read on. I become fixated on a single paragraph, a description of a piece of artwork, which strikes me as incomprehensible. I read it over and over again until my name is called.

The scan reveals an embryo with no heartbeat. I lie on the bed, naked from the waist down, a blue plastic sheet draped over my legs. Alexander holds my hand while the ultrasound technician swirls a wand around inside me, talking us through the image of my uterus on the screen. It is illegible to me – darkness, light, hazy shapes – but to her the meaning is crystal clear. I’m so sorry it’s not the news you were hoping for, she says. She gives me a wad of tissue to wipe myself with before leaving the room to let me get dressed. She leads us back to the waiting room, which is fuller now, no one making eye contact, the radio still humming; a doctor will see you soon, she says, to talk to you about what happens next. ‘Soon’ is an ambiguous word, and time becomes difficult to perceive; we are there for what feels like both an eternity and an instant. I take my book out again, stare again at that same page; Alexander unlocks his phone, moves his finger across the screen in a kind of robotic motion.

What I am struck by in the delicate earliest weeks of pregnancy is that I am being both made and unmade; rewritten.

Sometimes these things resolve naturally, the doctor says when we are finally called in to see her; sometimes intervention becomes necessary, or desirable. She schedules me for another scan the following week, so we can monitor whether there’s been any change: in other words, whether the products of conception, as the embryo is now known, have been partially or even wholly expelled. After the scan, she says, we can decide how to proceed; you don’t need to make any decisions now. Good, I think, though I’m a little hazy on exactly what kind of decision I might be called upon to make; she has described the various forms of intervention but I can’t quite situate them in relation to my own body, my own products of conception.

She is very young, the doctor, soft-­spoken, apologetic. She says to call if anything changes before my next appointment, if I have any concerns. She gives me a business card, circles a phone number that’s operational 24/7. To minimise the risk of infection, she adds, seemingly as an afterthought, you shouldn’t take baths or swim.

No swimming. Of course. But I am thrown by the thought of this: the removal of the most obvious physical coping mechanism I have for dealing with what is essentially an entirely uncontrollable physical situation. I realise I’ve said this out loud without really meaning to. A silence falls, either respectful or uncomfortable.

I’m a swimmer too, the doctor says suddenly, as I’m standing to leave, abandoning, briefly, her professional distance. I’d hate not to be able to do it.

After the appointment we walk to a Starbucks near the hospital. It’s dark and anonymous inside, and smells of sweet pastries and wee. I order a latte, two shots, why not, and we sit at a counter at the window, watching buses trundle by. It’s mid­-morning and the place is full of new mothers and their prams, though occasionally someone in scrubs or a suit hurries in and then out again. Alexander texts his boss to say he won’t be coming in to work today. Not just the day but the month, the year, stretches out before us, suddenly open. What will we do with it? What can we do? The coffee is too hot, tasteless, the milk burned, but I suck it down in a rush, turning the inside of my mouth furry. Before all this, the test, the pregnancy, the ungrowing embryo, we were planning a wedding; we had set the date, hired a venue, made arrangements with the registrar. We should have cancelled everything – my due date was too close to the wedding date – but we never did; too superstitious, or preoccupied, or both. Now, of course, I say, devastated, amused, we won’t need to change the date. We can simply pick up where we left off. I feel myself begin to rewrite the map again, to slip in and out of familiarity with myself and my surroundings. There’s a simplicity to it all, underneath the ambiguity, the anguish, that makes me almost giddy: for what is this but a reversion to my natural state, a return to old routines?

A thought – terrible, comforting – hits me square in the face then, that there’s relief to be felt. The awful thing, the dreaded thing, has happened, and I need no longer fear it. I hate myself for feeling this but can’t let go of it, either, because I think it’s a way forward, a way out, a small tremble of light.

* * *

The second scan is no more or less enlightening than the first: there is still an embryo, there is still no heartbeat. No change, in other words: an unwanted stillness.

The doctor gives me a leaflet, which outlines in clinical language the three ways of managing a miscarriage when preg­nancy tissue remains in the womb: expectant, medical, surgical. The first is the wait-­and-­see approach, taken on the assumption that the tissue will pass naturally out of the womb with time. The second involves taking a course of medication to stimulate the passing of the tissue out of the womb: a potentially painful, lengthy, and often messy process, not always entirely effective, sometimes necessitating the third approach anyhow, which involves surgical removal of the tissue.

I still don’t know how to decide what to do, so I put it off: if nothing’s happened in a few weeks I’ll opt for some kind of intervention. I want above all to trust my body to do whatever needs doing, but already it’s betrayed me once, so what do I know?

Still no swimming, obviously, the doctor says sadly. Other­wise, proceed as normal.

As normal. Nothing is normal, I start to think – but then again, in a kind of terrible way, everything is normal again, isn’t it?

* * *

The present­-tenseness of the event, the miscarriage, which is not so much an event as a continual unfolding of uncharted territory, a vast grey area, makes it virtually impossible to talk about in any way that makes sense of what is actually happening. I don’t know what to tell people because the language I have is not elastic enough to encompass something which is past, present and future all at once. So I do what the doctor suggests: I proceed more or less as normal, going to meetings, going to the supermarket, scrolling mindlessly through Twitter, doing the laundry, eating, sleeping, working. I let myself lose track of time. At one point, in a notebook, next to a to-­do list, I write: The calendar is a kind of enemy, reminding me of the facts of things, the time it is actively taking to go through this process of miscarriage. I take to walking – long, slow strolls at the very edge of dusk, through parks and quiet suburban neighbourhoods that smell of woodsmoke and exhaust fumes. I feel my muscles going slack, and an irrational fear grows daily: what will my body become while I can’t swim?

My fear is really a form of vanity. I know that with each day or week that passes without a swim my body will start to look subtly different. I’ll lose, am losing, the public indicators of my fitness – the muscle, the shape of my arms and legs, the things that say to other people that I’m disciplined, that my body is under control. And I don’t want them to see what I know: that nothing is under control, that this body is not working properly, that athletically, reproductively, it is not doing at all what it’s supposed to do.

Mostly, though, if we’re honest, it’s the changes in our bodies that are in control of us, not the other way round.

Words come to me on my walks, as they used to on my swims. Some of them are obvious. Why is this happening to me? I think selfishly, inevitably, as I climb the hill to the park on a soft bed of wet leaves, fresh-­fallen after a night of howling wind. But other things, too, drifting like the smoke and the fumes. Disobedience. Betrayal. Softening, slackening, slowing. Undisciplined. Back at home, in my notebook, I write: I guess I feel disconnected from a part of myself. Not that I’m not still the same person or can’t be again, but that for a while I and some other part of me are not quite coinciding. I’m talking about the swimming, not the miscarriage, or at least ostensibly I am. I have a deep sense of geographical dissonance, like a dream of a familiar place in which the location of everything is slightly wrong, so that you round the corner and suddenly come upon a street that should be miles away, or discover that all along there has been an extra room in your house.

One Sunday afternoon, sitting in a booth at my local pub, I see a woman I used to see most weekday mornings at the pool; she always wore a bright pink cap, a navy swimsuit. She’s about my age, sitting with a friend, eating lunch. Perhaps it’s her local too, I think, for the first time realising, stupid as it sounds, that these people I’ve been brushing up against at the pool are people with lives outside that context, just like me.

Occasionally I log on to Facebook and check the page for the triathlon club I belong to. I look through the list of times from a recent 400-­metre time trial, spotting familiar names, noting the improvements, and wonder how much I, too, could have improved by now. For a moment I’m gripped by something which feels a little like jealousy but isn’t quite – desire, perhaps, something almost carnal. But then the desire, or whatever it is, fades: I’m here now, and maybe, if I can admit it to myself, I’m actually a little relieved that I’m not sweating away in a pool, that I don’t have to worry about how fast or smoothly I can cut through the water, how hungry I’ll be later, how tired.

* * *

The poles of the earth have wandered, the journalist John McPhee once wrote: even that which seems most permanent and solid is, in its own way, shifting. It’s true literally – think for example of the tectonic plates, the movement of the continents, which still, on average, drift a few centimetres a year apart, about the rate at which our fingernails grow, as the geographer Doreen Massey frames it, a reminder that the body is never in stasis either. In other words the whole world is a continual work in progress; the present is not some kind of achieved terminus, Massey writes. To underline this idea, she describes the slow movement of what she calls the ‘migrant rocks’ that came, over the course of millions of years, to form Skiddaw in the Lake District. Solid and eternal as it seems, she says, the mountain is not timeless. Like she and her sister, staying in a hotel in Keswick, it’s just passing through. It was once elsewhere. It will be elsewhere again someday.

It’s easy to lose your footing here, to feel that nothing is solid, but I’ve always found something comforting about this idea that place is essentially unfixed. The rigidity of permanence would be too much to bear, surely: who wants to be stuck in the same place forever? Who can know and love anywhere and not see that a point on a map is one thing, a living, breathing place quite another?

It’s a concept that scales well – if the world is a work in progress, then so too is a city or a street or a swimming pool. So too is the body, which is, after all, as the poet Adrienne Rich puts it, the geography closest in; it’s the first place, the place we must make peace with – subject, like all places, to the pressures of time, of external rhythms and events, changing from moment to moment, year to year, getting older, bigger, smaller, more or less capable of performing certain tasks, more or less like it was at the beginning.

There’s a simplicity to it all, underneath the ambiguity, the anguish, that makes me almost giddy: for what is this but a reversion to my natural state, a return to old routines?

Sometimes we’re in control of that change, or we think we are. Exercise in particular gives us the illusion of power over our own physical futures. Take your recommended thirty minutes of activity a day and stave off all kinds of bodily evil. Lose a bit of weight, add a bit of muscle, establish a routine, live forever, or longer, anyway. The geographer John Bale wrote of exercise as a literal form of recreation: through time, repeated action, the body is re-­created so that it works better. It incorporates knowledge, becomes stronger, fitter. Progress. Maybe next week, or the week after, I’ll be faster than I was last week. All it takes is discipline, resolve, another few thousand metres racked up. Most of all denial: of the body that wants, of the possibility of vulnerability or limitation. A few years ago, I remember, I became obsessed with watching Olympic swimming races; I trawled YouTube, read interviews with the athletes, fascinated by all their talk of sacrifice and discipline. And isn’t this why I watched in the first place? To see what happens when we write certain kinds of want out of our body, and one singular, possessive, demanding want into it: to be the best, the fastest, the one standing on the highest platform of the podium?

Mostly, though, if we’re honest, it’s the changes in our bodies that are in control of us, not the other way round. The fact of the matter is that not that long ago, my body was capable of run­ning 13.1 miles, of swimming 3,000 metres without complaint; not that long ago, my body was actually hosting another body, or the beginnings of one.

And now everything is different, and everything will be different again someday, and different again, and different again.

This excerpt has been lightly adapted for publication on Longreads.

* * *

Miranda Ward is a freelance writer, editor, and lecturer. Her memoir Adrift: Fieldnotes from Almost-Motherhood is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK. She grew up on a cattle ranch in California and now lives in Oxford.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands