Silence & Stigma (#210)

Trigger warning for miscarriage.

I spent decades in abject terror of an accidental pregnancy. When my husband convinced me it was time to try for a baby, it was jarring to have my mindset spin 180 degrees and think, “Oh, shit – what if I can’t get pregnant? And then what happens if I can’t stay pregnant?”

Despite having a mom who aspired to be a fertility goddess, I knew the statistics.

One out of every three pregnancies ends in a miscarriage.

Almost every woman I know has had a miscarriage.

Some are practical and resigned, like my Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister. She told me about the fetus dying and having to remove it via a D&C. When I expressed sympathy, she said, “It’s okay. The fetus just wasn’t viable. It’s common.” Dr. Sis, though, had both medical training and a most fecund family history to help console her. She was still in her early 30s, with plenty of time for another pregnancy before age 35, when the risk of birth defects increase exponentially.

For the women who are older, or the ones with fertility issues, miscarriages are devastating. One of my relatives by marriage took years to get pregnant. When she miscarried during her first pregnancy (in her mid-thirties), she and her husband had to put on their happy faces every time they saw their pregnant couple-friends. They soldiered through months of congratulations to parents who had infants the same age their miscarried child would have been.

They were admirably tough. I suspect I would have been sick or had a surprising number of “work emergencies” that coincided with baby showers and christenings.

Most heartbreaking of all was my friend M. M married Frenchie two months after my wedding. Baby prep commenced within the year. By the time Andy and I were thinking about kids, M had miscarried five times.

Five goddamned times, each more painful than the last. Her sorrow was exacerbated by enduring loss in a nearly solitary bubble of shame.

People don’t talk about miscarriages. Maybe it has to do with our puritanical American culture, where a glimpse of a bare breast is grounds for a national hissy fit. Bodies are taboo, especially women’s bodies, with their messy monthly bleeding and breast milk.

Wanna know what’s mindfuckingly hypocritical in America? Conservatives freaking out over public breastfeeding while legislating mandatory vaginal ultrasounds before allowing abortions: “Don’t you dare show us your boobs but we’re allowed to stick this wand up your vagina.”

Maybe we don’t talk about miscarriages because of our national obsession with triumph. We celebrate every American Success story and ignore our national tragedies such as poverty, homelessness, and drug addiction. (Also lead in drinking water.)

If a woman isn’t successful at getting pregnant, she’s expected to keep her misery to herself. Which is ludicrous, considering the 33% fetal failure rate. Everyone – including men – should be as aware of the odds as Dr. Sis. Maybe then women would feel more support and less shame.

Like most women, M kept her miscarriages a secret. If she knew something was wrong, she left work quietly. Then she sat in the obstetrician’s office, crying behind her sunglasses while looking at all the happily rotund, still pregnant women.

She only talked to me and her husband about the agony.

M created a secret garden in her backyard, buying a little decorative fairy after every miscarriage. “It’s how I think of them,” she told me. “With wings. One even looks like me.” In the winter, M brought the fairies inside.

When M first told me about the fairies, I cried. So did Frenchie. He begged her to give up on a baby, saying it was too much for anyone to endure.

But M is a fighter. She didn’t give up. She found a reproductive immunologist who specialized in recurrent pregnancy loss. And she discovered that, unfortunately, her immune system was just as much of a fighter as she was. M had an above average number of “Natural Killer” cells – and those NK cells were killing the fetuses.

M also had a common gene mutation that can cause deadly clots in the placenta or umbilical cord. Physicians refer to the gene by the name of the enzyme it creates: methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, or MTHFR.

Women affected by the gene generally – and bitterly — refer to it as “that motherfucker.” Once they know they carry the gene, however, pregnant women can be treated with blood thinners such as Lovenox.

M found that hopeful. She also learned of a recent treatment using intravenous immunoglobulin that looked like a promising method of regulating her NK cells.

After M had done this research, she attended family reunion. M’s immediate family is unusual, since her father’s second marriage — to M’s mother — occurred when he was seventy. She had septuagenarian sisters at the reunion. When M shared some of her genetic discoveries with her middle-aged niece, her niece said, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense! Your older sister had at least a dozen miscarriages before getting pregnant. And I had at least five miscarriages.”

M said, “Wait, what?! I had no idea! How come I didn’t know? That information would have been useful five pregnancies ago!”

Her niece shrugged. “You know we just don’t talk about those things.”

M went home and wept in her garden for all her “might-have-been” babies – and all the other mothers with NK cells, motherfucking genes, and silent relatives.

Since that day, M no longer hides the stories of her miscarriages. If the subject of pregnancies or fertility comes up, she tells people about her struggles.

Maybe the end of the silence will mean the end of the stigma.

Maybe it will mean more information for pregnant women.

And fewer fairies.

Four of M’s fairies.

Published by

Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

53 thoughts on “Silence & Stigma (#210)”

  1. I want to give GJDS and M big hugs, and my cousin M and my friends D and S and all the other people whose miscarriages I never heard about.

  2. Very sad. My nephew’s wife had at least 3 miscarriages (maybe more) before carrying to full term. It wasn’t hidden but there is this thing. No one knows what to say. They had private burials (one was full term). Fortunately they went on to have three healthy kids and I don’t know how they did that. All their kids are in their upper 20s-30s and only the son has kids. When I was young several of my friends had miscarriages. It’s not all the unusual although no one knows about them.

    1. I think that’s the well-intentioned part of the silence — people don’t want to intrude or say the wrong thing. Yet when someone’s child or pet dies, we offer comfort, space, and a chance for them to talk about their loss if they want to. Sure, we feel helpless, but we acknowledge their right to grieve. Often women who miscarry carry on and no one knows. Women are even encouraged not to tell anyone they are pregnant until the second trimester, because they might miscarry and then they have to tell everyone about their loss. Which might save them from awkward, painful questions, but also keeps them isolated in their sorrow.

      1. A woman worked for me. She was in the second trimester and a routine exam showed the baby’s heart wasn’t beating. It was dead. She had gone to the appointment from work and came back to work because her husband and her carpool. He refused to take her home. I really didn’t know what to do but I made her leave. We did all hug her and allow her to cry. So sad.

          1. The odd thing is that he wasn’t normally an asshole. She was around 5th month and obviously he hadn’t bonded yet. She had to have a procedure to get it out that was scheduled later in the week. Fast forward a year later (give or take) they had healthy twin boys.

  3. Wahhh the faeries thing made me tear up! Oh Autumn, that’s so sad! Poor M!! She sounds so tough, and I’m glad in the end she was able to open up more about it. This post sends a great message to readers–and me–that we shouldn’t be so taboo about the tragedy of pregnancy. Like you said, our society always focuses on the angelic image of a woman holding her newborn in the hospital, while the pain and suffering that women have to go through to get to that point (and even after birth) is completely ignored.

    I hope M is doing better and was able to find success with pregnancy later on…

    And jesus, don’t get me started on conservatives and the female body. I can’t believe congress still think it can tell the modern woman what to do. Ugh.

    1. I know, I know — I think the younger generation (at least the non-religious fundamentalists part) is a lot more open about the female body than mine was. It would, of course, help if comprehensive sex education and biology were taught early in elementary school, along with pregnancy risks, etc. We need less conservatives everywhere, especially on school boards.

      1. Exactly! Europe (especially northern Europe) has proper sex ed in their schools and, not coincidentally, lower rates of teen pregnancy. I really hope America can liberalize even just a little bit in the next few decades.

  4. My mother had several miscarriages before me (she had me with 42!). She never kept it a secret and told me about it when I was young. Fastforward to these times when we checked about the mothers passport etc (dont know how else to call it, it has all information and check-ups aboout the becoming mother) she had still hers and there I could see about some info about my “siblings”.
    I know a couple here in my hometown who basically have everything such as good education, great work and they inhertited way too much money but the thing they want the most are children and it doesnt work out at all. They have been trying for 5 years and had several miscarriages during that time. Again here they don’t keep it a secret at all, come to think about it I know for some reason about too many miscarriages in my surroundings but as you said they are very common when looking at the statistics. The whole process must be heartbreaking and I cant even start to imagine how something like that must feel.

      1. I cant really say about that as I have never been to the States! But what I can gather from the news, blogs and other media I must agree that it could be a reason. Just thinking about public breastfeeding, geezus what are some people thinking in the USA? It is completly natural and is just normal here. On the other hand advertisements cant show enough skin and no one says something…

        1. I know, we are all messed up! We can show all the violence in the world and all the sexiness in the world, but a breastfeeding mom?! For shame.

          It has quite a bit to do with a) the Puritan settlers, and b) the other waves of religious zealots that Europe sent here. Thanks a lot! 😉

    1. In the end, there were 6 fairies…but two healthy, full-term babies. After a ton of shots and a lot of scares.

      Doesn’t happen for everyone, though. Especially if you don’t have health insurance, money, and connections. 🙁

  5. Both myself and a close friend are going through all this now. She’s had a few miscarriages but I haven’t yet, though I know it’s pretty much a given I’ll have at least one. I’ll have to remember the fairy idea as a rememberance.

    About all I can think to do is stock up on Emily McDowell empathy cards (she even has some for infertility) and hope for the best.

  6. My youngest daughter has one treasured child, a son, but she went through years of trouble before that happened. First she couldn’t get pregnant; then she had to have surgery for endometriosis and something else; then she and her husband went through two courses of IVF–which, besides being painful and unpleasant, is a series of disappointments. The miscarriages blended in with the failures to fertilize and attach. She tends to suffer in silence, so I don’t know how many people she told.

    I can’t think of any of my friends my age who had a miscarriage. First, I may not remember. Second, they may have kept it secret. Third, we had our children in our early 20s, so we may have been less likely to have miscarriages. Two of the troubles with keeping our problems secret is that we lose the opportunity to support each other and we expect our lives to be smooth sailing because we don’t see the problems other people have.

    1. Oh, that is well put, Nicki — we do lose the opportunity to be part of a supportive community when our people suffer in silence. And you’re right, we lose perspective, too. On of the American expats in China wrote on FB that the majority of Chinese women miscarrying think that it’s uncommon, and it only happens to them, and then their female relatives berate them and say they brought it on themselves by eating or drinking the wrong thing, or using a computer, etc. Maddening.

  7. Persons with MTHFR gene mutations also can’t convert folate, which impacts the ability to respond to certain antidepressants and can cause depression. Which is really shitty, considering that miscarriages also lead to and cause depression. Talk about a potential vicious cycle…

  8. I am almost embarrassed to say that I got my baby without miscarriages and when baby donor and I weren’t consciously trying, ( Baby Russian roulette was going on…) but I do feel pretty badly at the injustice that people who want children sometimes can’t have them 🙁

      1. Good news is that you are sure of yourself. There are plenty of people who aren’t honest with themselves, and they and those that surround them suffer. I think baby donor thought he wanted a family, but he didn’t understand what it meant; thus he blew his chance of having a family with me and our son… he is a workaholic and a schoolaholic through and through. I always wanted a child, but didn’t have much experience in understanding what it entailed. I love my son and am blessed for having him in my life, just that it was a completely different experience than I imagined it.

        1. Yeah, no matter what you think you are prepared for when it comes to children, life is going to throw you a curve ball. Andy and I are all alone, without family support. Unless I was damned sure he really wanted a kid and was gonna help every step of the way, there was no way I was having a kid. Some women have deep emotional reserves of love and patience to call on when raising a child. (And teachers, too!) I do not. And a lot of men like the idea of a child and think they will have a playmate to do what they want, then get mad about losing sleep or having the change diapers instead of playing video games.

          1. Haha, sounds like my dad. ( live with my parents) I don’t think he expected for me and my sister and my son to be such hard work. He probably thought companion like the men you mention. What most men aren’t aware is that it’s hard work reaching the playmate stage…it’s constant feeding, putting to sleep, trying to guess what baby wants, worrying, changing endless diapers, putting up with toddler independence and stubborness, then at toddler stage its potty training or else listening to how by a certain age baby should be potty trained ( grandma. Baby donors mother is not involved at all…)

            1. Exactly. Because men are not always expected to help out with younger siblings — or sometimes do domestic chores at all — many have no idea what childrearing entails. Of course, this is also true of many spoiled women I’ve met, too.

  9. From reading the comments, it is great to hear that M got a happy ending. Personally I don’t know anyone who has had a miscarriage. Maybe they have had, and they have just never said anything. Here in Australia, I do think we have some way to go when it comes to being open about the topic, likewise with breastfeeding.

    In the comments it is interesting to read how you say some women have deep reserves of love to raise a child. I’ve heard some say that that feeling only comes about when you actually have a child, biologically or otherwise. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know if that is true for all women, and men too. We all have different genes and the psychology of attraction applies differently to each of us.

    1. Oh, sure, I think you have to factor in how much deeper some people’s reserves become when it is their child. But I think it’s like self-care or alone time — some people need more time to themselves, to recharge their batteries. Everyone has a reservoir, everyone gets depleted — the trick is to be conscious of your own limitations, both physical and mental.
      However, if you push yourself too hard physically, you usually only injure yourself. If you take on more than you can handle regarding the mentally/ emotionally taxing job of childrearing, your children will suffer, too.

      And that’s why I admire women who buck societal pressures and say, “Nope, not for me,” or limit the number of children they have. They’re actually factoring in their impact on themselves, a potential child, the environment, and society as a whole. I wish more women — and men — would do that.

      Or at least borrow a baby for the weekend.

      1. I too admire those who stand up and say ‘Not for me’ or choosing to have a certain number of kids or adopting or even speaking out about miscarriage as a fact of life and not something one should blame on themselves. They stand up to society calling them selfish when in reality, each of us have to take care of ourselves first before we can take care of others – which is common sense really.

          1. Just last night I was watching a YouTube video that said once the oxygen masks drop, you have around 18 seconds to put it on before you feel like imploding. If you have a fidgety dependent, getting the masks on in time can be a challenge so that will be a time to dig in deep.

  10. What I find interesting is how badly couples (or one or the other) want a biological child. Adoption is a last resort if it’s on the table at all. I try to think about how it must feel – to want your own, to be curious what it would look like, to have the experience of carrying a child. It’s amazing what couples endure. I know several in Thailand that have gone the fertility route and that’s why we have a boon of twins in Thailand.

    Another friend of mine had her child in her mid-30s (much to the warning of Thai doctors), although she is French Canadian. Then she adopted her second one.

    Another family I’ve known for awhile have a whole gaggle of adopted kids from: India, the Philippines, a couple from blood relative’s (I taught one of them), and I marvel at their big-heartedness.

    There is a big stigma against adopting kids in Thailand because of the ‘karma’ bullshit.

    I hope I don’t sound down on ppl who want their own kids, it’s just what I’ve seen/heard what women endure (practically killing themselves) to carry their own, I don’t know, I don’t get it when there are so many children in the world who need a home. Of course, the adoption process is insane…

    I guess I’m weird. I used to want kids, but I think I did because that’s normal. And now the thought just makes my skin crawl. Hahahhaaha. Oh, god, I better shut up now.

    1. Maybe you have to love yourself more than I do to want a mini-you! There’s a certain level of arrogance to think, “Oh, yeah, what this world needs is more of ME!” Andy definitely did, while I would have liked to adopt. Like you, I think a lot about the kids that need homes and the earth not needing more kids.

      But you’re also right about the level of curiosity — what would my kid look like? What traits would be dominant? For me, that evolves into, “What if the kid turns into a serial killer?”

      I think more people ought to examine the whole kid issue before having them. Like you, the thought might make their skin crawl. And as you say, pregnancy is not worth enduring unless you really, really want one. For 18 years.

      1. Hahahaha, “What if the kid turns into a serial killer?” OMG. I didn’t go dark. But damn it, I suppose you need to put all your cards on the table and see what might happen.

        And the world needs more ME – genius. I think I’ll casually drop that into conversations with new parents. Bwahahahhaa. *evil laughter*

  11. So glad to hear M had her dream come true! And equally glad that Andy has convinced you. No worries, your kids will not be mini YOU, but with adorable mix-race features and fun characters (unless it skips a generation). The dogs need new friends, the orange crops are plenty, Andy will feed them (and teach them math), You’ll spoil them with great deserts, fun stories and pink hats, and if you send them off to college in a purple state, this country may be great again.
    Best of luck!

  12. I think with blogging and the internet generally though these things are now very discussable and it’s perhaps the older more stoic generation who keep schtum. I think there is positives from both methods.

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