I shrieked with giddiness when my younger sister Melissa called to tell me that she was pregnant with her second baby. She was due less than three months after I was due with my first.
“Her kids will be seventeen months apart,” I said to my husband when I hung up the phone. “She’s lapping me. I know it wasn’t intentional. But she’s lapping me.”
On the phone, my sister and I screeched about raising close cousins like siblings, sharing maternity clothes, and purchasing another Pack ‘N’ Play for our parents’ house, but I hated to admit what I felt in my gut: While I was happy for my sister, I also resented that her pregnancy would take attention away from my own.
The announcement of Melissa’s first pregnancy had been even more complicated for me. She had learned she was pregnant in the midst of my long, daunting infertility struggle. Her maternity leave overlapped with my medical leave from work, which I was advised to take after my excessive absences due to fertility treatments became disruptive to my students. She had told me she was pregnant over a tearful breakfast at our favorite diner, though neither of us ate much.
The announcement of Melissa’s first pregnancy had been even more complicated for me. She had learned she was pregnant in the midst of my long, daunting infertility struggle.
We spent the final weeks of her first pregnancy together. I would meet her in the morning at the crosstown bus with her favorite Dunkin Donuts munchkins and a kiss to her belly. We wandered the neighborhood and the park, went to lunch or a movie matinee, sprawled on the couch laughing about something our mom had said. When I walked her back toward Manhattan’s east side in the afternoon, I started to miss her before we even hugged goodbye.
When I entered her delivery room after she had given birth, before I saw my new nephew Ben in all his pink newborn perfection, I saw Melissa: cheeks flushed, skin smooth, more radiant than she’d looked at her wedding. “It was a cinch,” she said, smiling and still breathless. I’d never loved her more.
My parents and I returned home from the hospital and poured large drinks at three in the afternoon. We all cried. They were now grandparents. I was now an aunt.
But I was nearly three years older than Melissa. I’d been trying and failing for three years to have a baby, and we weren’t sure at that point if I would ever be able to have one. Benjamin was a name my husband and I had picked for our own child, if we should have a boy. So much felt stolen from me.
When Melissa and I were together, though, it never felt complicated. On our Central Park walks, I had loved watching her waddle as her stomach grew bigger. Then when Ben was born, I loved holding him, inhaling his beautiful infant warmth in November’s chill. We talked about her motherhood and my infertility, her breast pumping and my hormone injections, as we pushed Ben in his stroller. She had no sympathy for anyone’s fertility struggle except mine. I had no love for anyone’s baby except hers. In our isolated bubble during her early days of motherhood, both sleepless but for different reasons, everything felt right in the world as I walked her back toward the park in the fading autumn dusk.
I know Melissa had often tempered excitement about her first pregnancy around me. She never sent me photos of her growing belly or talked about feeling kicks. She never complained about her heartburn or sciatic pain, revelations made only after my own belly popped and heartburn waged war in my esophagus. She never expressed concern over what stroller to buy or which breast pump her insurance would cover.
In an effort to show kindness for my struggle, my little sister didn’t ask her big sister how to navigate this new territory. Whose opinions did she seek? How did she figure all this out without me? The circumstance wasn’t painful merely because she was pregnant and I wasn’t, but also because we’d never in our lives deviated from our normal birth-order roles: I did things first; Melissa followed. My inability to maintain a pregnancy disrupted not only my sense of myself as a woman and as a mother, but as a sister and a daughter, too.
Halfway through my own pregnancy, filled with questions, fears, anxieties, and excitements, I started to feel guilty for all the ways I hadn’t been there for Melissa. When I first felt my baby hiccup in my belly, I immediately wondered when my sister felt that sensation in her first pregnancy, and with whom she shared the news of those little air bubble bursts.
The circumstance wasn’t painful merely because she was pregnant and I wasn’t, but also because we’d never in our lives deviated from our normal birth-order roles: I did things first; Melissa followed.
It would seem that she wouldn’t have to hold back excitement about her second pregnancy. There would be no reason for her to feel upset or guilty or uncomfortable. We would share the experience of pregnancy, of motherhood, the way we had fantasized. And yet…the news of her second pregnancy was almost as difficult for me to accept as her first.
What I may not have recognized in that moment when she announced her second pregnancy, is this: we hadn’t yet had our first baby, but learning that Melissa was pregnant again made me already fearful about whether or not we’d be able to have a second.
Melissa is too kind to ever express if she resented my struggle with infertility and the ways it forced her to temper excitement about her first pregnancy.
“It was an awkward situation,” Melissa acknowledges to me now, “and it was complicated. But Hol, whatever you felt, anger, whatever, I get it, and it’s okay.”
She understands and indulges my emotions, but she has never acknowledged her own. When she cried that morning in the diner when she was first pregnant, I think she truly felt sorry that it was she, and not me, who was pregnant. I think she may be a better person than I am.
On the day my water broke, Melissa planned to come to the hospital once I was ready to deliver. After fourteen hours of stalled labor, we decided on a Caesarian. My only hesitation was that I hadn’t yet seen my sister. I couldn’t go into surgery without seeing my sister. The surgical team was assembled. They were antsy to begin.
“She left work and she’s racing uptown now,” my mom promised. Moments before I was wheeled into the operating room, Melissa burst in. “When I see you next, you’re going to be a mom! I’m going to be an aunt!” she squealed. We hugged as closely and tightly as we could with our large third-trimester bellies between us.
Holly Schechter is an English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. She also serves on the editorial staff of Intima: Journal of Narrative Medicine.
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