In this week’s #FeministFriday post, I talk about something that maybe we need to talk about more: miscarriage.
Like most humans of a certain age with a facebook account, I have borne witness to the public pregnancies of many women. While the amount they are comfortable with sharing varies wildly — I have, at times, been at least a little surprised at the stages of undress I have found myself privy to — one thing remains fairly constant. Very few, if any, are publicly pregnant before the second trimester. It’s as though the first trimester doesn’t exist, and women magically become three months pregnant.
The first trimester doesn’t publicly exist.
It’s not the same for everyone, but for many it’s due to the simple facts of miscarriage. That is to say (a) it’s startlingly common, and (b) it’s so very often viewed as a failure on the part of the mother.
But a lot of people don’t know about (a) because of (b) — even though (b) is completely wrong.
The numbers aren’t terribly well understood, but they’re high. According to one report, “overall, U.S. women are currently expected to average 2.0 live births, 0.7 induced abortions, and 0.5 miscarriages and stillbirths (fetal losses), or 3.2 pregnancies each over their lifetimes.” These are, of course, averages. You can’t have half a miscarriage any more than you can have seven tenths of an abortion. But that means that there are enough miscarriages around per woman that, in essence, one in every two will have one over a lifetime if you averaged them out. In another place, the NIH states that “around half of all fertilized eggs die and are lost (aborted) spontaneously [i.e. miscarried], usually before the woman knows she is pregnant. Among women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is about 15-20%.” Add in the complication of the words “among women who know they are pregnant” and you get a changing landscape: one study showed that rates of miscarriage were going up, but by an amount attributable to the fact that it’s easier to know if you’re pregnant earlier than it used to be.
The fact is that regardless of whether it’s 20% of all pregnancies (of women who know they’re pregnant), or 50% of all women over a lifetime, miscarriage is very, very common.
So why don’t we talk about it more?
According to Ruth Bender Atik, the national director of the Miscarriage Association, in a 2010 Guardian article, it might be about emotional discomfort: “People aren’t comfortable with [miscarriage], whether it is the loss, the sadness, the vulnerability, the disappointment, the self-blame. Equally it is difficult on those you are telling. Many women who suffer a miscarriage have not told many people anyway, so after the miscarriage, when they are feeling desperate, they are having to ‘tell’ and ‘untell’ in a way. It’s a tough one.” According to Kate Merry in a Vice article from last year on her own miscarriage, it may also have a lot to do with how we define femininity: “It was a huge relief, knowing that the nightmare I knew was happening had finally happened, but I also felt completely stripped of my femaleness. It was a very odd, alien feeling.”
There seem to be very few actual studies on cultural attitudes toward miscarriage. This one, “Motherhood Lost” by Linda Layne, published in the journal Women & Health, is thankfully quite detailed, though it takes an exploratory anthropological approach. Part of the problem, according to Layne, is with the difficulties in knowing how to categorize the experience: whether it’s the fact of miscarriage as the interruption of a process that’s permanently left incomplete; the challenges associated with one’s identity being “stuck halfway” to motherhood; the impossibility of attributing “meaning” to the event; or the ever-shifting definitions of when life begins (and thus, also, what constitutes death); all of this leaves the mother in an ill-defined (and uncomfortable) liminal space. As one woman quoted in the article puts it, “there is a Limbo, but it’s not for the stillborn babies. It’s for their parents.”
But I think its also important not to minimize the cultural pressures that help to define motherhood in America. Just take a look at the cottage industry of telling women they’re bad mothers. From “judgy parenting” to calling child protective services on parents for letting their kids walk home alone, America passes judgement on parents (and potential parents) in some of the most insane and seemingly compulsive ways. To think those judgements wouldn’t be internalized by expectant mothers would be nuts.
But we need to talk about it. We need to talk about miscarriage because it’s normal. We need to talk about it because it’s real, and present, and common, and very, very importantly not the woman’s fault. Or ANYONE’S fault.
Miscarriages happen. They happen to a stunningly large number of women. They’re a natural part of human reproduction. But the way things stand, most people don’t even know that.
So, America, we need to talk about miscarriage.
And that means we might need to stop pretending that the first trimester doesn’t exist.
My partner and I don’t yet have any children, though we hope one day to have some. But we’re resolved in this: if she’s pregnant, she’ll be pregnant in the first trimester. And if she stops being that way, you’ll know.
Richard Ford Burley is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s writing about remix culture and the processes that generate texts in the Middle Ages and on the internet. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, and feminism (and miscarriage) here at This Week In Tomorrow.