3 books accompanied me through ectopic pregnancy
(Image: books of Becoming, Lean In and Eat, Pray, Love)
When I was told it was highly likely that I was experiencing a miscarriage, I was devastated. My emotions were raw and almost felt like they had their own life, that I could not interfere or control. They were escalating at their own pace, I could do nothing but to feel it rushing through my whole body as they bursted out.
I felt heavy, numb, pain, sorrow and despair all at once. One moment, I thought I was ok, then the next moment, tears would stream down on my face. I wanted to be ok with the possibility of losing my first ever baby, I wanted to surrender to what was already happening, but I was not able to reason with my emotions. At that moment, I was taken over and they took charge.
That experience reminded me of the concept of the ‘collective female pain body’ from the book ‘Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle. When I first read about it, I understood it intellectually. I, as a female, inherited a piece of the shared female pain body that has accumulated through thousands of years of exploitation, oppression, slavery, rape, trafficking, child birth and child loss. It is within my very genes. The book mentioned how the ‘collective female pain body’ is often triggered around the time of having a period, when the hormone changes, often resulting in irrational mood swings. That used to be my only point of reference for ‘collective female pain body’, the period pain that every woman goes through. That all changed once I started to experience child loss.
“The Goddess or Divine Mother has two aspects: She gives life, and she takes life.”
Eckhart says in the book. It struck me when I read it again. Yes, Mother Nature created me and it could also take my unborn baby away. And yes, there is magic and beauty in creation itself, that was carried within my body. There is also power and nature in the very same part of my body that can take a life away.
A few days after I started bleeding, I was told that I wasn’t having a miscarriage, but an ectopic pregnancy, and I was recommended a treatment called expectant management. Ectopic pregnancy is a type of miscarriage, where the embryo implanted itself outside of the uterus and has no chance to survive. But the difference is that it could be life-threatening.
I was told to do a blood test every 48 hours so that the medical team could closely monitor my hormone levels. The hope was to wait and pray that my body could resolve it naturally within weeks. In the process of the ‘wait and watch’, there is always a risk of my fallopian tube getting ruptured, causing severe internal bleeding. In this scenario, I would need emergency surgery to remove my tube to save my life (You can also read my blog about the lessons I learnt through the experience here).
Andy and I were in shock, and I was completely absorbed by fear and anxiety. At that moment of deep sorrow and desperation, I craved for female energy, the collective female comfort, courage and wisdom. I started to reach out and turn to female authors’ books. I went to my book shelf and allowed my intuition to pick the books she wanted to read and connect with. The first one I picked was Michelle Obama’s Becoming.
Becoming - Michelle Obama
I first read the book last year and it’s THE book I took with me during our one-month honeymoon in Peru last April. I loved her authenticity and truthfulness.
It’s funny that we couldn’t be more different from the outside: I was born in China, she was born in the US; I have beautiful yellow skin, she has stunning black skin; I am a single child, she has a big-brother that I always dreamed of; I am short and petite, she is tall and curvy; I grew up relocating every few years due to my dad’s work, she grew up in the same house till she became independent financially; I was born in a middle-class family where education was a norm, she was born in a working-class family where education was the only way out; I experienced subtle discriminations growing up, she lived everyday in a world where “failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result” due to the systematic injustice; I am a normal woman living a normal life, she used to be the First Lady of the most powerful country in the world.
Despite all of the differences, I connected with her. She was like an older sister. I could relate to all her self-doubts, struggles, confusions, break-downs, resentment, anger, sorrow, joy and sadness. And how she survived and thrived from all the situations was truly inspiring. I was not surprised that this book became my first port of call to seek company for me to face the uncertain and confusing situation I was in.
Like Michelle, I grew up believing in the code of effort/reward. The more effort you put in, the more reward you would get. During my expectant management, there was no medication, no surgery, but to only closely monitor the condition. To wait and to watch. I was frustrated knowing that there was nothing I (or the medical team) could do to speed up the progress or to guarantee the risk of tube rupture was gone. My whole philosophy around effort/reward was shaken.
Then I read this when Michelle lost her best friend Suzanne to cancer at the age of 26:
”I’m not sure that I ever believed that life was fair, but I had always thought that you could work your way out of just about any problem. Suzanne’s cancer was the first real challenge to that notion, a sabotage to my ideals”.
And that was exactly how I felt. In front of loss and reality, I felt powerless.
Then I came to her own journey of pregnancy, where she had difficulties of conceiving and had suffered from a miscarriage. She said:
“A miscarriage is a lonely, painful, and demoralising almost on a cellular level. When you have one, you will likely mistake it for a personal failure, which it is not. Or a tragedy, which, regardless of how utterly devastating it feels in the moment, it also is not. What nobody tells you is that miscarriage happens all the time, to more women than you’d ever guess, given the relative silence around it.”
”What I’d been through was no more than a normal biological hiccup, a fertilised egg that, for what was probably a very good reason, had needed to bail out.”
I don’t vividly remember she had a miscarriage from reading the book for the first time. So when I came to this section, reading her experience, I felt tremendous comfort, especially when I was going through my own miscarriage. She made me feel that I was not alone. She knew how I felt, and many other women knew too. I was one of them, and one of the collective female community. Even though it didn’t reduce the pain from the loss, there was grace and power in knowing and being part of a whole. It gave me enough courage and strength to face another day of unknowingness, with a bit of composure and dignity.
Gradually, I gave up resisting. I still didn’t like what was happening in me, but for most of the time, I’d stopped fighting it. I surrendered and accepted what was, and shifted my attention from what it might be, to the here and now. That’s how I started to appreciate “grief and resilience live together”. You build up the resilience muscle every time you survive from a loss, a trauma or a grief. The pain doesn’t get easier, but rather, you hold the knowing that the pain is not everything and it will pass, with time.
Now that I’ve come out of treatment in one piece. Looking back, I couldn’t help but to admire the intelligence of my own body. She knew the embryo would not survive and recognised it could be a threat to my life. She had made a decision to resolve it naturally, even before I knew what was going on. It was also a little amusing to think that I was so devastated about my bleeding, the possibility of losing my first baby. While in fact, my body was doing her magic to try and save my fallopian tube and my life.
Michelle ended the book by saying:
”It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become”.
It was this that motivated me to write and share my experience, which now has become a blog here. It was also her book that gave me a glimpse into a life being a black woman in modern America. It made me aware and really listen to my black fellow beings, their stories, their struggles that I could have never imagined not being black myself.
Lean In - Sheryl Sandberg
The second book I picked was Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. I got this book back in 2013 when it was first published. Back then, I just started my career for a couple of years, still trying to find my place and voice in this world. I was young, ambitious, but also naive and confused. The book really made me examine the assumed roles expected from a woman, and inspired me to wonder how I could break myself free from all the biases and make a difference towards a more gender-equal society.
Gender inequality was not new to me. I was born and grew up in a mixed Korean and Chinese culture, where it was rooted deeply to believe that men are more valuable than women. Men carry down the family surname and women will belong to the husband’s family once they get married. My dad is the only one who doesn’t have a son among his 8 siblings and that could be seen as a shameful thing for his generation, no matter how ridiculous it sounds now.
From a young age, I felt an invisible responsibility and drive to work extra hard, just to prove a point: I am as good as other people’s sons, if not better. I wanted to make my dad proud, I wanted to tell him that, your only daughter will excel and will do better in life than all your nephews. I wanted him not to have any regrets of not having a son. I wanted him to think that he did ok to bring up a daughter who can live, work, travel independently and explore the world in a way that none of his nephews have ever done. Of course it was my ego talking, but I also realise that was my - the younger me's way of fighting gender-inequality.
Since I moved to the UK, I slowly noticed gender inequality had a slightly different form and presented different challenges. Just like what Sheryl mentioned in her book:
“Career progression often depends upon taking risks and advocating for oneself - traits that girls are discouraged from exhibiting”.
“Men can comfortably claim credit for what they do as long as they don’t veer into arrogance. For women, taking credit comes at a real social and professional cost.”
Sheryl discussed many subtle yet real discriminations, both in how society moulds and expects girls to act differently from a young age, to how company cultures are built to favour men’s traits. She also discussed what women could do to help advance and create more female leaders, by (if they prefer) remaining in the game - by leaning in.
She told a story about when she hosted a meeting for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at Facebook. She invited 15 executives from across Silicon Valley for breakfast and a discussion about the economy. The invited guests, mostly men, grabbed plates and food and sat down at the large conference table. Secretary’s team, all women, took their food last and sat in chairs off to the side of the room. Sheryl tried to wave them over, but they demurred and remained in their seats. That story left a strong impression on me. I did not see the missed opportunity by not ‘sitting at the table’ until I read this. It also pushed me to ‘sit at the table’, no matter how uncomfortable it might feel.
A year after reading the book for the first time, I joined a voluntary group to raise funds for The Prince’s Trust. As a team, we were encouraged to create small business ventures and donate the proceeds to the charity.
One day, I got to the meeting room early after my day’s work. I sat at the side of the long table waiting for others to arrive. The seats were slowly filled up and the meeting room was full of energy with members catching up excitedly. I couldn’t help but to notice that the majority of the team were men, and the few women who joined were sitting at the corner of the room, away from the table. I could not believe the scenario Sheryl mentioned in her book was unfolding exactly in the same way in front of me! I tried to invite them over to the table, but they gently refused.
I understand the fear and unease just too well. A year before the meeting, I was sitting at another kick-off meeting with 23 volunteers, from all walks of life, to create a TEDx event in London. That time, I was the leader, the organiser, who selected all these 23 individuals to join my team to make this happen. I was very uncomfortable sitting at the top of the table, to be the focal point of the meeting, to be in charge and to be seen. Though I didn’t understand or know how to articulate my feelings then, reading the book, I recognised what she wrote below:
“In order to protect ourselves from being disliked, we question our abilities and downplay our achievements, especially in the presence of others. We put ourselves down before others can.”
I wanted to be liked, as a result, I played small and did not want to be seen, so that I won’t be judged or ridiculed. I worked to build and protect my false identity and knew sometimes, I didn’t tell my whole truth.
Luckily, I had a male mentor and friend, who was sitting next to me. I whispered to him nervously, I said:”I don’t feel comfortable sitting here”. He whispered back:” You better get used to it then”. And yes, that became what it meant to me to be a female leader: to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. That’s why when I read what Sheryl said about ‘a battle from within’, I couldn’t agree more - I was living the battle. She said:
“In addition to facing institutional obstacles, women face a battle from within.”
“In order to continue to grow and challenge myself, I have to believe in my own abilities. I still face situations that I fear are beyond my capabilities. I still have days when I feel like a fraud. And I still sometimes find myself spoken over and discounted while men sitting next to me are not. But now I know how to take a deep breath and keep my hand up. I have learned to sit at the table.”
7 years have passed since I read the book for the first time. I have also changed as a person. I’m less career-oriented, less ambitious about professional accomplishments, less of an achiever. Rather, I became more interested in creating my own business venture, became more content, more grateful and more focused on the here and now. I do not have ambition to become a corporate female leader anymore, but I do aspire to be a female leader in my other areas of life. And the internalised fear is still relevant to me, as ever, only to be transferred into different forms in my new endeavours. She said:
”Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter”.
However, It is up to me, to us to move a baby step forward regardless of the fear. Maybe the small steps will initiate a huge change, multiplied by time. Maybe, just maybe, my future daughter’s generation will be different, where the world and society are built and run with both Yin and Yang wisdom, balanced energy and considered approach.
Eat Prayer Love - Elizabeth Gilbert
The third book I went for was Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. This is probably the very first English book I ever read for fun. I still remember that day when I was waiting for my friend at Covent Garden in London, I wandered into a travel shop and somehow picked up this book, back in 2012. I wasn’t much of a reader back then, not for English books anyway. I had been in the UK for 2 years up to that point. Though I had no problem talking to people in English, I didn’t have a wide enough vocabulary for me to read an English book effortlessly. There could easily be a couple of dozens of words that I didn’t know in one page! But somehow, despite all the words I didn’t know, I was absorbed by the book. When my friend found me at the corner of the shop, I was already on page 30! I was overjoyed by the discovery and knew immediately that I had to get this book.
I haven’t read the book again till now and almost forgot the ins and outs of the story. The familiarity of the book gave me the assurance that it’ll be a good reading experience, and the freshness of the book gave me the excitement, just like it first did for me 8 years ago. What I did not expect was how much more I took out of the book, reading it for the second time, after having gained 8 more years of life experience.
I am now 34, the same age when Elizabeth did her one year trip of Eat, Pray and Love. I have been through heartbreaks and am now happily married, I could really appreciate her life struggles and relationship issues. I have been studying philosophy, practising yoga and meditation in the last few years, and could immediately connect with her spiritual journey. So much so, that I wondered what I took out of the book reading it for the first time 8 years ago, when I was just a curious young lady.
For that wonder, I had some clues. I have a habit of reading with a highlighter, to mark the words I don’t know (occasionally I’d find the word in a dictionary and write down its meaning next to the word in the book) and also highlight those paragraphs that touch me deeply. The younger me used a pink highlighter 8 years ago, this time round, I am using a green highlighter. I smiled each time when I came to the highlighted texts by the younger me, or knew a word that the younger me marked in pink as new vocabulary. It was as if I was having a book club conversation with the younger me, through the notes left on the book.
Not long into the book, I was drawn into the story. Liz was going through a very difficult time. As much as she tried to follow the normal route to become what she was ‘supposed to’ become - a mom, her whole body and emotions were rejecting it. She was not happy in her marriage and was equally not able to imagine leaving the marriage. She felt depressed, confused and trapped. Though I did not experience what she was going through, reading her struggles while I was going through my own, made me able to access her pain. And in a weird way, her pain gave me permission to acknowledge my own pain and that’s perhaps the first step of healing.
During her travels, Liz asked for advice from the old Bali medicine man Ketut, about how to balance her longings for the worldly pleasures and spiritual devotions. That has been a question I asked myself since I was a teenager, when I was first exposed to the concept of ‘engaged’ and ‘withdrawal’ as two approaches to life.
In ancient Chinese history, many wise men chose to live a solitary life and not to ‘bend their body for some rice’ (a direct translation from poet Tao Yuanming’s poem in Jin Dynasty, meaning not to exchange one’s dignity for worldly fortunes or recognitions, written in 405AD). They cultivated moral integrity and have left many famous literatures we still study today. I was always inspired by that ideal but equally was not willing to withdraw from the worldly life completely. It was my inner conflict. I thought it had to be one way or the other, otherwise, none of the approaches would be pure or sincere.
I loved the advice the medicine man Ketut gave Liz. He drew a graph and said:
“You must keep your feet grounded so firmly on the earth that it’s like you have four legs, instead of two. That way, you can stay in the world. But you must stop looking at the world through your head. You must look through your heart, instead. That way, you will know God.”
Stay grounded, stop engaging the mind and look through the heart. Yes, that is the way. The way to live a fulfilling life and the way to cope with my own fears and struggles.
Another sentence that hit me was when Liz discussed ‘Bel far niente’ with her Italian language exchange partner. ‘Bel far niente’ means ‘the beauty of doing nothing’ in Italian. I was culturally taught to be an ‘achiever’ growing up; I had to stay active, I had to be ‘achieving’ something. Doing nothing didn’t make me feel relaxed, it made me feel guilty. And now when there was nothing I could do to help with the progress in my treatment, I was forced to do nothing, and that was my only option. Liz said:
“The beauty of doing nothing is the goal of all your work, the final accomplishment for which you are most highly congratulated. The more exquisitely and delightfully, you can do nothing, the higher your life’s achievement. You don’t necessarily need to be rich in order to experience this, either”.
That’s when I realised, though sometimes I might be physically doing nothing, mentally and emotionally I was all over the place. I could be easily absorbed and consumed by my thoughts, emotions, worries and imagination. Doing nothing actually takes effort. It was not easy to leave behind my thoughts ‘I hope I can get through this in one piece...’, ‘ What if I lose my left fallopian tube?’. It takes on-going awareness and constant practice of letting go. It’s like a game you play with your own thoughts, which always try to catch you off guard. With its best intention, the mind is not necessarily doing the best thing. Or perhaps, it’s the mind that has created a disaster out of an ordinary life event.
And that’s not something new to me. After all, the description of Yoga provided by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is precisely: ”chitta vritti nirodha”, the restriction of the movement of the mind. The whole purpose of Yoga was to access that stillness within - the art of doing nothing. Liz quoted a monk in her book:
“The resting place of the mind is the heart. The only thing the mind hears all day is clanging bells and noise and argument, and all it wants is quietude. The only place the mind will ever find peace is inside the silence of the heart. That’s where you need to go”
And that’s the same message the old Bali medicine man said to her: stay grounded, stop engaging the mind and look through the heart.
“If you are feeling discomfort then you are supposed to meditate upon that discomfort, watching the effect that physical pain has on you. In our real lives, we are constantly hopping around to adjust ourselves around discomfort - physical, emotional and psychological - in order to evade the reality of grief and nuisance."
"Vipassana meditation teaches that grief and nuisance are inevitable in this life, but if you can plant yourself in stillness long enough, you will, in time, experience the truth that everything (both uncomfortable and lovely) does eventually pass.”
When I was frustrated knowing that there was nothing I could do to help with my treatment, out of desperation, I turned to Chakra meditation, with the intention to calm my mind. It started from connecting with my root Chakra, which is located at the base of the spine in the energetic body. When I felt my touch points with the Earth, I became emotional. “When you fall, don’t worry, you only fall back to Mother Earth’s arms.” A philosophy classmate told me this once and that’s exactly what I felt. I felt a sense of support and protection and I also felt guilt for forgetting the connection I always had with Mother Earth. Tears started to accumulate under my eyelids and streamed down from my face.
I felt emotional again when I came to third eye chakra. I felt energy spiralling between my eyebrows and with that, I received an insight that says: regardless what happens to my body, I am still complete as I am. That everything will eventually pass, the good, the bad and the ugly.
“Destiny, I feel, is also a relationship - a play between divine grace and wilful self-effort. Half of it you have no control over; half of it is absolutely in your hands, and your actions will show measurable consequence. Man is neither entirely a puppet of the gods, nor is he entirely the captain of his own destiny; he’s a little of both."
"We gallop through our lives like circus performers balancing on two speeding side-by-side horses - one foot is on the horse called ‘fate’, the other on the horse called ‘free will’. And the question you have to ask every day is - which horse is which? Which horse do I need to stop worrying about because it’s not under my control, and which do I need to steer with concentrated effort?”
“All know that the drop merges into the ocean, but few know that the ocean merges into the drop.” - Sage Kabir
That’s when I found my answer. Though there wasn’t anything I could do to help physically, there was something I could do to calm my mind, to live in the present moment. To be able to let go what had already happened and let go of any fear or desire I had for the future. Just be and live in the here and now. Stop trying to tame the horse that’s controlled by Nature and exert my effort on my part to stay sane. Just rest in the knowing that I am That, the drop in the Ocean, a drop that also has the whole ocean in me.
Liz left India and went to Bali. It’s in Bali, the final destination of the trip, that she met her love of her life, Felip. It was romantic and she was on the journey without knowing how it would turn out. Being badly scarred with her divorce and an ugly breakup, she was scared. With Felip’s pursuit, her response was:”I’m not ready yet”.
I have heard that from a man I adored before and I have also told a man I’m still in love with today (hint, his name is Andy). I know what it means. It’s not always that this person is loving his/her current life so much that he/she is not willing to change it. It could also be that though he/she is drawn for the beautiful possibility, he/she feels more scared, scared that whether he/she is good enough, whether he/she will be hurt and shattered again. To Liz’s “I’m not ready yet”, Felip said:
“Love is always complicated. But still humans must try to love each other, darling. We must get our hearts broken sometimes. This is a good sign, having a broken heart. It means we have tried for something”.
I always feel lucky to have met Andy, because in our relationship, it was him, who was like Felip, had the courage to take the risk of letting the heart be broken again. I will never forget what he said to me when I told him, “I am not ready yet”. He said, ”That’s fine and take your time. I will keep investing in you and I will wait for you. Because you are worth it.” I did not expect that. I was deeply touched, but also struck by his confidence. I said, ”Are you not scared that I might still reject you in the end?”. He replied, ”Yes, I am scared. In fact I’m very scared. And if that happens, I will be very sad. But I will only allow myself to be sad for 10 minutes and I will move on”. Later on, I learnt that is wholehearted living. Love in spite of fear and act in spite of the outcome.
To the end
Thankfully, my body managed to resolve my ectopic pregnancy naturally and I was discharged 4 weeks later. I am grateful for the books, the female authors that have shared their life stories authentically. They have given me immense comfort and connection, during this fearful time. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This experience somehow became a journey of discovery on my own female identity. I never owned it so wholeheartedly and never felt so close to the collective female energy. Maybe I just found a new power within me, power to be a woman.