October 15 is pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day. Tonight at 7 p.m., people all over the world are lighting a candle for babies lost. For years, I’ve wanted to do something publicly for this day, but until recently we weren’t really “out” about our miscarriages, and I’ve never really known what I wanted to do, exactly. What could I say that hasn’t been said already? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it isn’t necessarily the awareness of pregnancy loss that’s the issue; it’s the lack of understanding. Long before our first loss, I knew miscarriage existed. I’d even known people who had been through it. But while I’d always offered my condolences, I never fully grasped the magnitude of what that person was going through until I experienced it firsthand.
And while I know everyone’s experience is unique, here are 13 things I’ve come to learn about miscarriage that I would have never thought about before. (This is the first time I’ve ever posted anything from my blog to Facebook. If you’re visiting from there, consider this your TMI warning. It’s about to get personal.)
- It’s so common. One in four, to be specific. Think about that for a second. Picture all your friends’ kids. For every three children here today, there’s one who never came to be. One who never existed to the rest of the world, but whose parents are forever changed because of those six weeks, or eight weeks, or 13 weeks – or even just that one day when two pink lines held so much promise, before the world came crashing down.
- It’s often a well-kept secret. Maybe you don’t think you know anyone who’s been through it. But you probably do (see #1). With our first loss, not even our parents knew until after the fact. Everyone knows you’re supposed to wait until 12 weeks to announce your pregnancy – because you don’t want to have to un-announce if it all goes south. But what no one tells you is how lonely it is to go through alone. You’d never be expected to silently grieve the loss of any other loved one, yet all over the world today, grieving parents are quietly putting on a brave face while inside their hearts are breaking. I recently read a fantastic article about how smiling Facebook pictures don’t always tell the real story. The reality is, you never know who around you may be suffering in silence.
- The physical act of miscarrying is horrific. It’s not just “a little bit of blood.” It’s a terrifying amount of blood. Probably more blood than you’ve ever seen in your life. It’s real contractions and actually birthing a tiny baby. I opted to have a D&C with my first loss because weeks after my baby had died, my body still hadn’t realized it, and I couldn’t handle waiting around for such a traumatic experience to begin. With my second loss I didn’t have a choice because of how far along I was. But a D&C isn’t a walk in the park, either. It’s surgery, under general anesthesia, and comes with its own complications and recovery. Oh, and fun fact – it’s the same procedure as an abortion and if you get a pro-life nurse like I did who can’t keep her disdain to herself, you may be treated like a pariah until she realizes your baby is already dead, and then she suddenly has all the compassion in the world for you. Yeah, that happened.
- It’s hard on the dad too. Most of the information you’ll find about miscarriage focuses on the mother. Understandably so. We’re the ones who physically carry the baby, so we’re the ones who typically bond hard and fast. And we’re the ones who must endure the pain of physically losing the baby. But it was his baby too. I can only imagine how helpless it must feel to watch the love of your life crumble emotionally and suffer physically — all while trying to be strong for her and dealing with your own grief. In the 13 years D and I have been together, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen him cry. But the death of a child – even one you’ve never met – will break even the strongest of men. Even though our second pregnancy was flawless and resulted in our beautiful son, D told me afterward he essentially held his breath for nine months. And when we started talking about trying for a sibling for T, he was very hesitant to agree to try again because he was so traumatized from before. He said he thought he could be happy with one child simply because he couldn’t watch me go through that again.
- You’re stronger than you know. Unfortunately, we did go through it again, in the early second trimester this time, when we thought we were out of the woods. I won’t lie. It was awful. But
we survivedwe are surviving. I remember after our first loss, thinking I would simply die if we had to go through that again. But I didn’t die. It hurt like hell, but the world kept turning. Theo still needed his mom and dad. The house and yard still needed to be kept up. Work still had to be done. I have a very understanding boss who knew what had happened and she told me to take all the time I needed, but honestly what I needed was to not sit around with time to think. After two days to physically recover from the surgery, I was back at work. I put on a brave face and pretended nothing had happened. Studies show the physical act of smiling can make you happier. Perhaps acting strong makes you stronger.
- You play Pain Olympics. I posted about this a while back. The fact that no one talks about miscarriage can sometimes make you doubt the validity of your grief. Why are you so broken up over a baby you never met? You look at people who have had stillborn babies, or lost children through tragic accidents or illness, and you wonder if your loss even “counts.” Surely their pain must be greater than yours. Do you even deserve to grieve? Likewise, I’ve had friends downplay their losses around me because theirs were “only” 5 or 6 weeks. For what it’s worth, I think I had a harder time with my first loss at eight weeks than I did with my 13-week loss. So length of gestation doesn’t necessarily correlate to level of grief. Grief is grief and loss is loss. It does no good to compare your pain to someone else’s.
- You may find yourself haunted by shadow babies. A “shadow baby” is a baby who was due around the same time as yours. It can be really hard to watch a friend’s pregnancy progress after yours has ended and not be reminded the belly you should have by now. Or to see that baby reach milestones yours never will. No matter how much you care about that person, the sadness – and jealousy, if I’m being completely honest – can trump the happiness you feel for that person. I’ve skipped baby showers. I’ve hidden friends and family whom I love dearly from my Facebook feed – because it just hurts too much. It has nothing to do with how much I care; it’s self-preservation.
- “When are you going to have [more] children?” is a loaded question. I’ve really come to hate this topic of conversation. People ask about others’ reproductive status so nonchalantly all the time. I know they don’t mean anything malicious by it. But anyone who’s ever struggled to get or stay pregnant knows just how much that question hurts, because it’s hard to answer without making the conversation awkward. Most of the time I shrug or give a vague answer, but on bad days I sometimes feel like being brutally honest. I have secret fantasies of making the person asking the question just as uncomfortable as they’ve made me. Maybe I should. A friend recently told me she asked this to someone once and got a very blunt and awkward answer in return. She said in hindsight she was grateful for the experience, because she had never thought about how such a seemingly innocent question might affect someone so deeply.
- You feel a kindred connection to anyone who’s been through it. It’s like a club that no one wants to belong to, but when you find other members, you find solace in the fact that you’re not alone. You know their pain. They know yours. And you both know that no one else really gets it unless they’ve been through it.
- The pain never goes away completely. Sure, it lessens with time. It becomes less acute. You find you’re able to go minutes, then hours, then days, then weeks, then months without crying. But it’s always there. It’s an emotional scar you’ll forever carry with you. I believe the pain is what gives us such compassion for others going through it, though. One of my biggest supporters through our most recent loss has been my mother-in-law (D’s step-mom). Even 40 years later I can hear the pain in her voice when she talks about her three losses, and I know that pain is what’s given her such empathy for what we’ve been through.
- You feel at fault. Anyone who’s been through this knows one of the first things the doctor will tell you is, “there’s nothing you did to cause this.” Probably because they know that’s the first place our minds go as mothers. Was it the wine I drank the night before I found out I was pregnant? Did I exercise too hard? Was I too stressed at work? Should I really have painted the dining room trim? I wore a mask. It’s hard to shut off your brain when you so desperately want answers. And answers – even bad ones – are often easier to swallow than no answers. Because you can’t fix it if you don’t know what caused it. Even if you aren’t worried you actively did anything wrong, it’s hard not to blame your body or feel defective. Why does a 16-year old crack addict get to carry her baby to term, and I’m over here avoiding sushi and deli meat, popping my prenatal vitamins religiously, and my body still can’t carry out this basic evolutionary task?
- It forever changes your views on pregnancy. Having a miscarriage robs you of the joy you should feel while pregnant. It strips you of that naivety and once it’s gone, it’s impossible to get back. It gets a little better once you pass your loss milestone, but you never quite lose that nagging feeling in the back of your mind that something might go wrong; that everything could be taken away from you at any minute. To top it off, it makes you irrationally angry at people who are naive or confident. I still remember (and wrote about) when Kourtney Kardashian announced her second pregnancy at nine weeks and justified the early announcement by saying she “felt confident.” And while I would never wish a loss on my worst enemy, part of me just wants to shake people who think they’re somehow immune to miscarriage. Perhaps what surprised me the most was that not only was I jaded about my own subsequent pregnancies; I’m automatically guarded about anyone’s pregnancy. It’s sad to admit, but when I hear about someone’s pregnancy, my first thought isn’t, She’s having a baby! It’s more like, She *might* have a baby. I hope it works out. I carry the same fear for my friends’ and family members’ pregnancies as I do during my own. I want to protect the ones I love from the heartbreak we’ve experienced.
- If you’re lucky enough to have a live baby, you take nothing for granted. There’s a phenomenon commonly known in the world of pregnancy loss as a “rainbow baby.” It’s a baby born after a loss — i.e., a rainbow after the storm. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t marvel at what a perfect miracle our little rainbow is. Even on his worst days when he’s acting like the quintessential two year-old, I smile (sometimes through gritted teeth!), because I have been given the opportunity to be this little boy’s mom, and there were days I doubted whether I’d ever be a mom. I like to think my losses have made me a better mother and I can only hope I have the privilege someday of getting my second rainbow.