Mom Talk: My High-Risk Pregnancies with a Half Uterus
Written by Laura Lane
Photography by Photographed by Nic Rad
Today’s Mom Talk author has become a familiar and welcome face on the site over the past year. You might recall Brooklyn-based mom Laura Lane wrote a poignant letter to her 1-year-old son, Rilo, about living through a pandemic. Just a few months before that, we profiled the writer, comedian, and podcaster in one of our signature “Mother Stories” features, which showcased her unique and colorful home. It was in that story that Laura first shared how her rare genetic condition of having a half uterus (called a unicornuate uterus) has impacted her journey to motherhood, which many readers (some of them fellow “unicorn moms”) related to instantly. Now Laura is back once again, taking us more in depth on her rare condition—and all of the emotions that come with it—as she prepares to welcome a second miracle son.
During my 20-week anatomy scan for my unborn son, I lay on the cold, barely cushioned table in my doctor’s office, as the ultrasound device smoothed the goopy lubricant across my stomach. The fluorescent lights were dimmed low.
“And here are his kidneys,” said the technician, pointing to the screen.
“Does he have both?” I asked. “He has all of his organs?”
“Yep,” she said. “Here’s the right and here’s the left.”
I asked for an ultrasound printout of the kidney photo. She lifted an eyebrow, shrugged, and then printed it out. She’d likely gotten odder requests before.
Here I was able to find out how complete my second son’s internal system was while he was still in my womb, while it took me three decades to find out that mine was not. I was born with one kidney, one fallopian tube, and half of a uterus (technically called a unicornuate uterus, a very mystical-sounding name for a rare genetic condition). There’s no explanation for it, other than that my body decided to not properly form some of my organs in the womb. At the time, it wasn’t something you could see on the 80s ultrasound devices, and with no reason to look otherwise, I didn’t find out until I was 31 and about to try having a child.
It was a strange journey to discover the news. Pain from a urinary tract infection led to a doctor sending me out for an ultrasound to check for kidney stones, which led to the discovery that while I didn’t have kidney stones, I was completely missing my right kidney. Another doctor suspected the half uterus, since the organ forms in two halves that are supposed to join together. When a kidney doesn’t form, it can be sort of like a domino effect. This led to a series of very not fun tests that confirmed the news: I was not born with all of my organs.
“What we don’t want is you miscarrying at five months,” said the fertility doctor we met with to go over the test results. I felt the air tangle in my chest when he explained that staying pregnant would be difficult. I nodded, as if to signal I was processing the news calmly. He encouraged us to start trying as soon as possible.
I went home and Googled the term “unicornuate uterus” and read the following in a case study: “The reproductive performance of women with unicornuate uterus is poor, with a live birth rate of only 29.2%, prematurity rate of 44%.”
Verywell Family, the pregnancy resource site run by board-certified physicians wrote simply: “The odds of a full-term delivery of a healthy baby are roughly 50 percent.”
No better odds than the flip of a coin.
My insides flooded with dread. Even if I was able to get pregnant, miscarriage and going into premature labor were significant risks. Blood flow to the uterus was a concern and there was the terrifying risk of stillbirth. I’d need constant monitoring to check on the growth of the baby to make sure the tiny space wasn’t restricting the development. I’d also need to make sure my cervix wasn’t shortening (a sign of premature labor). Most unicornuate uterus pregnancies end in a caesarean delivery because the baby doesn’t have enough room to turn around and is in a breech position with their feet first. I was shocked with the realization that after 30 years, I didn’t know my body as much as I thought I did.
I’d been hit with the maternal instinct to care for another creature in my early 20s, but since neither myself or my boyfriend (now husband) were ready, we adopted our dog. I confessed bluntly to my husband that the thought of never getting pregnant made me feel like I might suffocate and die. He looked at me with sad eyes and said: “What about me?” as if our lives together weren’t enough. I tried to explain how I loved our vibrant and very full lives with all of its spontaneity, adventure, and companionship. But this was something unexplainable: a visceral desire to be a mother. It had always felt inevitable and now that it seemed like something was potentially being taken away from me that I assumed was certain, I felt terrified.
In other ways it was a gift that I didn’t find out earlier. Many doctors recommend avoiding contact sports or potentially dangerous activities like skiing if you only have one kidney. The idea is that since you don’t have a backup, you should protect it. I thought back to many of my childhood injuries: tumbling off my skateboard on a steep hill and slamming into the pavement covered in blood, getting carried down the slopes by medics after a bad fall off a jump I had no business trying to attempt while snowboarding, bruises from falls during soccer, and broken fingers from playing football with the boys. Would I have avoided every one of those risky—yet meaningful and exhilarating—experiences, because I’d been told my body was fragile?
And how would the knowledge of knowing my fertility was this big unknown have affected my personal life decisions? Would I have put less focus on my career and more focus on starting a family earlier? I’d spent the last decade extremely career driven and fulfilled by various passions. I’d been a journalist and editor at multiple magazines, a columnist and poker show host for ESPN, and now I was an author, podcaster, and comedy writer. When I found out the news, my first book had just been optioned for television and I was in the middle of co-writing the pilot for a TV network. I wondered how different my life might look had I tried to have children much younger.
I spent hours scrolling through the message boards of women with my condition. There were stories of success sprinkled in there of women carrying healthy babies full term, but they were rare. Most of the stories were filled with tremendous pain and trauma. Women trying for seven years with multiple miscarriages. Women giving birth to a live baby too early for it to survive. Women whose babies were in the ICU for months. Story after story. I hoped it was because the women who had success didn’t need to return to the message boards for support, that only the ones who needed camaraderie came there. While surrogacy or adoption certainly crossed my mind when I wondered if I should avoid the chance of putting myself and my family through some potential tragic story, no other options were without their own complications or ethical dilemmas.
Suddenly, everything around me became a sign. There were babies and bumps everywhere I looked. Moms with strollers. Moms with baby carriers. Moms on Instagram. Moms-to-be attending prenatal yoga at the studio in my building. “It’s been 9 months since the renovation started,” I’d overhear at the park. And then there was the restaurant on my block called Egg. One day, on the chalkboard sign in front of the restaurant, they had drawn the outline of a giant solo egg that looked eerily like the display on a digital fertility monitor to indicate when someone was not ovulating. There were triggers everywhere I looked.
I decided to approach “getting pregnant” like I would any other goal: with extreme dedication and open-mindedness. I followed specific diets, drank matcha, ate Brazilian nuts, sipped turmeric, munched on pineapple cores and blueberries, religiously took various supplements, got poked with acupuncture needles, ommed in yoga, meditated at home, carried crystals in my purse, and slept next to a special fertility good luck charm a friend had picked up at a Tibetan temple. My motto was, if it can’t hurt, I’ll try it.
We tried for six months and then there it was: a positive pregnancy test. After half a year of my life punctuated by two-week waits and monitoring cycles, I was with child.
“I’m pregnant!” I blurted out when my husband returned from a walk with our dog. “Now I just need to stay pregnant.”
My doctor’s voice echoed in my head: What we don’t want is you miscarrying at five months.
Part of me wanted to tell everyone I knew since it was all I could think about. I hated the taboo of waiting three months, because it stigmatized miscarriages. But I couldn’t help but feel nervous given the uncertainty of my condition. I told our parents and a few friends and instead, I basked in the joy of telling strangers.
“I need new clean beauty products and makeup that have no toxins because I’m pregnant!” I announced to a makeup store employee.
“Any poses I shouldn’t do in my first trimester?” I whispered to my yoga instructor. “It’s early so I’m not telling anyone, but I’m pregnant.”
My parents were overjoyed.
“I’m going to start brainstorming what I want the baby to call me,” my mom said. “Grammy or Grams or maybe Bubie!”
“I’m gonna go with Obi-Wan,” my dad said. “Maybe just Obi.”
“Of course you chose something from Star Wars,” my mom said.
One of the pregnancy apps I had downloaded said the baby was the size of a lentil but at just six weeks pregnant I was convinced I had a bump. “You’re probably just bloated,” the internet explained.
My husband and I browsed through a baby name book. “How about the name Casper?” I asked him. “But for a girl.”
“That’s the name of a mattress company,” he said.
“No,” I replied. “If anything, it’s the name of a friendly ghost. Who knows if that mattress company will even be around by the time the baby can write their name.”
Casper was a no.
I started talking and journaling to the baby about things I wanted to teach them from the profound, like finding purpose, to the mundane, like how to get soap out of your eyes (don’t rub).
But we would never meet this baby. When we went to check for the heartbeat, there was none.
“I’m worried,” the doctor first said, while staring at the monitor. I could tell he already knew what he needed to tell me, but this was his way of easing us into the bad news.
“So when will I miscarry!” I said in a voice that came out so upbeat, it surprised even me. I was trying to overcompensate my instant grief by accidentally sounding cheerful. It came out like I was asking someone what ride we should go on next at an amusement park.
As soon as the doctor left the room, my eyes welled, my body went limp. The doctor suggested we come back in a week to check for the heartbeat again, just in case our dates were off. This happened twice more. We’d come back again and there’d be no heartbeat. Those days between appointments were the slowest days of my life. I went through the motions of a normal person but felt like the shell of a human. I spent my days staring at the clock, trying to visualize a heartbeat and holding my belly as if I were able to feel a heartbeat through my skin or create one into existence. “Hang in there. I already love you,” I whispered. It was a strange thing to come out of my mouth. Was it the idea of motherhood I was actually in love with or could I really love this person I’d never met? The reason didn’t matter, because I could feel the silhouette of love and overwhelming loss.
I got a D&C procedure to remove the pregnancy when I was just under two months pregnant. I didn’t want to wait for the miscarriage to happen on its own, because I couldn’t bear being pregnant with a baby who wasn’t alive any longer than I needed to. I woke up from the anesthesia and immediately started wailing: “It’s so sad, it’s so sad.” The patient next to me was getting her eggs frozen and the first noise I heard was her laughing and telling a nurse, “I feel amazing! I wish I had some of that stuff before bed time. Can you put that shit in pill form for me?” The nurse didn’t laugh. Perhaps bottling up Propofol wasn’t funny to her or she’d heard that joke before.
My husband and I had been dealing with our grief very differently. While he had been more matter-of-fact after the first appointment, I had felt the need to maintain some sense of optimism, as if I could positive-think my way into creating a heartbeat between appointments. I found his pragmatism infuriating. But when we got home, when there was nothing more to hope for, it was just us together with our collective sadness. My husband brought me flowers and lunch and Saltines and made mulled wine. That night he held me tight and whispered, “We’ll try again.”
The procedure allowed the doctors to test for chromosomal abnormalities, which there were. I was supposed to be happy about this. This meant that my strange body could get still pregnant and that my missing insides were not the cause of the miscarriage. In some abstract way, the results released some self-inflicted blame I couldn’t help but subconsciously feel, but it didn’t remove the sadness. The test also revealed that the baby had been a girl. I cried, I journaled, and I wrote poems to my baby girl that would never be.
And then, just four months later, but what felt like forever in my state of profound heartache, we were back in the doctor’s office, with another positive pregnancy test. It all felt like déjà vu: The saltwater smell of the ferry ride, the sluggish elevator to the 5th floor, the anxious faces of other hopeful parents around the waiting room.
Finally, we were called into the room. The doctor inserted the ultrasound device (what nobody tells pregnant women is that early on in pregnancy the ultrasounds are not like in the movies. They don’t go on your belly, they are inserted and look like a dildo).
“So here is the yolk sack…” the doctor began to say. I could see what looked like a tiny shrimp on the monitor.
“Is there a heartbeat?” I interjected.
“I don’t see one yet.”
My head slumped back, crunching against the paper lining the exam table like smashed chips.
“Oh wait here it is,” she said
“There’s a heartbeat?” I asked, as tears dripped down my cheeks.
“Yes, it’s right here.”
And then I heard the sound. Thump thump thump. Like horses galloping.
I looked at my husband. His eyes were also wet, and he squeezed my hand.
I am a vessel carrying you. I am strong and able to take care of you, I said to myself.
I scheduled an appointment with the high-risk doctor along with the abundance of recommended tests and ultrasounds I’d need every two weeks. It was far from how I pictured my “natural” pregnancy looking with my imagined midwife and limited tests. That word “natural” has completely lost its meaning.
I had no way of knowing if this baby would stay in my womb as long as he needed to, but the proactive side of me wanted to feel some sense of control, like I was doing something to help a situation I had no control over. This meant that if someone I knew recommended a guru that might help with the pregnancy, I scheduled an appointment.
The homeopath told me:
“Less is more. This is nature. Don’t disturb nature. Nature is not always perfect but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a normal healthy baby and pregnancy. Think positive… And no flu shot and do as little ultrasounds as possible. Leave the baby alone.”
The imagery specialist told me:
“Picture a light and see your hands turning to the light and all of your negative thoughts getting swept into a bag and thrown into the fiery purple sea. We carry pain through generations and if you can cut the cord, generations after you will thank you.”
The craniosacral therapist told me:
“Sing to the baby. Don’t touch your ankles. Get water, rest, and sleep. Eat more cucumber. This baby comes as a gift of love and life and you will approach your pregnancy with life and love and you will succeed.”
The acupuncturist stuck needles in my feet to try to turn my baby and told me:
“You know, I told another client who was about to do IVF to try doggy style and she got pregnant that month, just like you!” (I realized I needed to talk less during sessions.)
My doula gave me cards filled with positive birth mantras and asked me which oil scents I liked best so that she’d know which ones to use at the birth.
The yoga instructor told me to stack as many blocks as I could under my pelvis and put my feet in the air to get my breech baby to turn.
The chiropractor told me to massage my round ligaments.
The therapist told me that my fear of dying in childbirth was normal but irrational.
The Ayurvedic chef sent a recipe for something called groaning cake.
The Uber driver taking me to an appointment told me:
“You know the pump when they have boogers and stuff? Very important you buy.”
The logical part of my brain knew that at least some of this was bullshit. Afterall, I still got my flu shot and kept my doctor-recommended ultrasounds to make sure I wasn’t going into early labor, despite the homeopath’s counsel. But I couldn’t help but feel oddly calmed and comforted by the time the craniosacral therapist told me: “I can feel there is plenty of room in your uterus for the baby to grow”—while she was touching my feet.
I looked up miscarriage and livebirth rate statistics almost daily, even though I knew it was far from productive. I was overly-cautious with everything I ate, the exercises I did, and the cleaning products, hair products, makeup, and skin products I used, down to the soap I’d wash my hands with. It bordered on obsessiveness and is debatable whether it was actually beneficial or caused more anxiety, but it was the only way I was able to operate in the great unknown. I wanted to have no regrets that I hadn’t tried to do everything in my power to keep this baby safe and prevent my worst fear from happening: that my baby would come out before he was ready.
At the same time, I still tried to live my life. I started performing in a new comedy sketch show on stage, took more writing classes, and began pitching a second book to publishers. I went on an anniversary date night with my husband where I vomited a fancy meal on the side of a curb as soon as we walked out of the restaurant. I snorkeled on a babymoon in Hawaii. I did a weekend bonding trip with friends full of games, potluck meals, and something called a flower mandala ceremony, where my friends threw flowers in the center of a circle and spoke about me. It was an amusing activity we’d scheduled last minute that turned out to be a deeply meaningful experience, like being present at my own funeral.
I started to feel better the farther along I got. I read parenting books and pondered hypothetical future conundrums.
“Would you let our baby ride a motorcycle?” I asked my husband.
“He’s a baby, so, no,” he replied.
“What will you do if our baby wants a face tattoo?” I asked.
“Well, he’s an infant so that would be very strange.”
“When he’s older!” I said.
“If he wants a face tattoo, he probably won’t ask us for permission,” said my husband.
It was a good point.
I’d cry the nights I couldn’t feel the baby kick and had one scare at 20 weeks before boarding an airplane when I felt a shooting pain in my abdomen. I ran down the airport corridor dragging my suitcase, hailed a taxi and cried in the fetal position in the back of the car on the way to my doctor’s office, praying—begging—that the baby was okay. I had finally gotten the nerve to announce the pregnancy that morning on social media. The “congrats” had poured in. It felt premature, like being congratulated for graduating college on your first day of freshman year, even though friends were simply following social norms and it wasn’t like I had a better suggestion of what to comment. I had felt confused about my reservations to post anything, but now here I was, the same day I had finally announced the pregnancy, sobbing in the back of a cab on the way to my doctor’s office.
“I just want to make sure he’s alive,” I told the doctor.
She looked at the ultrasound machine.
“The baby is great,” she said. “All I see is some gas.”
I was still bent over in pain at the time. I felt a mix of relief and embarrassment. She explained that air can get lodged in weird places and that people frequently show up at the ER thinking they are having a heart attack, only to find out they need some gas medication. I couldn’t believe I missed a flight because I had gas. But it didn’t matter, the baby was healthy.
I had full conversations with my son. I told him what we would be eating that day and goodnight and good morning. I called him my little kangaroo. I felt part of some larger story. I was carrying a child, just like billions of women before me had. I didn’t know if I would be able to, but here I was, in my body with it’s missing parts, and I was carrying a human.
To great relief, I had a relatively easy pregnancy. There were symptoms that weren’t fun toward the end: sciatica, carpal tunnel syndrome, nose bleeds, and swollen feet that required the purchasing of double wide shoes. But every day he was still growing inside me was a gift and every single symptom meant I was still pregnant.
I also somehow managed to stay productive with work despite my endless appointments: I got a second book deal during the pregnancy and was still performing on stage in my show up until six days before the birth. My water broke in the middle of the night at 37 weeks and 3 days. Three days after the marker for preterm. No ICU. I’ll be grateful for the rest of my life.
In the end, I had to have a c-section. I had tried acupuncture, a chiropractor, inversions in yoga, flashlights to guide him, and handstands in the pool to turn him, but there was no room and he was breech. The cord was wrapped three times around his neck, but the doctor whipped it off.
Rilo was 5 pounds, 10 ounces, perfectly healthy and an absolute miracle. The recovery from surgery was rough and I had very bad postpartum anxiety, which felt like adrenaline rushing through my veins at all times as my body dealt with the fluctuating hormones and pain medication from the c-section. But it all passed.
I look at my son every day and I tell him how grateful I am that he is my son and how much I love being his mother. I will never stop being amazed at his existence. I tell him a story about a soul floating amongst the planets and hearing a mother down on earth asking for a baby. That soul chose the mommy, even though she didn’t have as much room in her belly as other mommies. He picked her anyway. The mommy told the soul to stay in her belly until he was healthy and ready to come out. And he did.
I’m definitely one of the fortunate ones with my condition who was able to get pregnant and carry my first son with half a womb. In a way, it’s a testament to how miraculous the female body is and what wonders it is capable of.
Now, I’m pregnant again with my second son. The other week he kicked so low I was sure there would be a leg sticking out. “This is it,” I thought. “I’m going into labor at 24 weeks.” It’s a fear that simmers in the background of my entire pregnancy. When I don’t feel him move for a little bit, my mind can’t help but wander into dark thoughts.
Despite being high risk in a global pandemic, I somehow thought this pregnancy would come with more confidence and less anxiety. But until I am holding this son, breathing in my arms, I know that nothing is guaranteed. My doctor explained that even though I technically carried my baby to early term (full term is considered 39 weeks), he was still three weeks early and it wasn’t guaranteed that this baby would stay in as long. Sometimes the cervix is weakened the second time, he explained. I still need ultrasounds every two weeks and he suggested getting something called a cervical cerclage, where they sew the cervix. But after getting a second opinion, I declined. There’s also the theory that my uterus could have stretched from the last pregnancy and this baby will have slightly more room. I have hope for that theory. As I write this, he is 30 weeks and breech.
This is my third pregnancy. Sometimes I forget when I’m filling out paperwork at a doctor’s office and the form asks how many times I’ve been pregnant. I start to write two. My pen pauses midair, my brows furrow, and I sigh as I cross it out to write three. I am reminded how fragile and unpredictable it is to create life. I look at every human and I want to yell, “You are a miracle, you are a miracle, you are a miracle!”
The flip of a coin.
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I found out I had a unicorniated uterus at the age of 34 when an ovarian cyst burst while I was skiing in Germany. Other than that I would never have known that something was wrong. Doctors also down played fertility issues as they said many people fall pregnant with a unicorniated uterus.
My husband and I put off trying for two years and now at the age 38 and 5 IVF cycles later we are really struggling but hoping there’s that light at the end of the tunnel. Happy to hear positive stories about successful pregnancies with this condition. Calms the nerves down a bit.
Today I was diagnosed with unicorniated uterus. I am 22. Even though I am very young, and I have always wanted to be a mother one day. Hearing today “you uterus is only half of what is normal” break me. Got home, started googling, read about miscarriages, risks of pregnancy, and then I got to the statistics part. I have been a wreck all day and coming across your blog now, reading this post… I got to say thank you for offering me the perspective of the good side, when all goes well even if the odds are against us. I honestly hope I can have the same luck and love as you did. Thank you with all my heart for this post. I really needed it.