Ariel Levy shares her experience:
On five or six occasions, I ran into mothers who had heard what had happened, and they took one look at me and burst into tears. (Once, this happened with a man.) Within a week, the apartment we were supposed to move into with the baby fell through. Within three, my marriage had shattered. I started lactating. I continued bleeding. I cried ferociously and without warning—in bed, in the middle of meetings, sitting on the subway. It seemed to me that grief was leaking out of me from every orifice.
I could not keep the story of what had happened in Mongolia inside my mouth. I went to buy clothes that would fit my big body but that didn’t have bands of stretchy maternity elastic to accommodate a baby who wasn’t there. I heard myself tell a horrified saleswoman, “I don’t know what size I am, because I just had a baby. He died, but the good news is, now I’m fat.” Well-meaning women would tell me, “I had a miscarriage, too,” and I would reply, with unnerving intensity, “He was alive.” I had given birth, however briefly, to another human being, and it seemed crucial that people understand this. Often, after I told them, I tried to get them to look at the picture of the baby on my phone.
A reader writes:
Thank you for pointing me to Ariel Levy’s account of her baby’s stillbirth. But as I read it, I think it’s important to say it’s a stillbirth, not a miscarriage … a minor change in language, but it better expresses the pain and grief she experience. To say this is not to trivialize miscarriage – which is incredibly painful, and a loss often ignored – but to pick up on the details of her experience. Actually, it’s not even a stillbirth, as the baby was briefly alive. But we don’t have words for that experience. And maybe that matters.
My wife and I have four wonderful kids, but I can still see the image in my mind from the doctor’s office of the blank ultrasound screen where a very small baby used to be.
A reader writes:
I appreciate your reader’s insistence that we delineate between miscarriage and stillborn in the case of Ariel Levy’s article. My wife and I lost two beautiful girls at 22 weeks, born alive, lived for a few hours in their new daddy’s arms before dying. We’ve also suffered a traditional miscarriage, so I can attest the two are a different form of misery. But what happened to my girls (and Ariel’s boy) was not a miscarriage nor a stillbirth. Ariel had a baby, no doubt a beautiful little boy, and she will always be a mother even if that was her only pregnancy. She didn’t say in the article, but I imagine she has a birth certificate evidencing the fact, just like we do.
For what it’s worth, we now have an awesome 8-month-old boy roaming around the house. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if the girls survived – would I have ever met my son? He was an extra frozen embryo, so he likely would’ve been discarded at the embryo stage if the girls lived. We have one more frozen embryo still, and I can’t bring myself to think about discarding it, even though my wife and I don’t care to go through another pregnancy. We pay about $1,000 per year in embryo storage so we don’t have to face the inevitable.
Interesting thread. As mentioned in the Six Feet Under you posted, there is no word for a parent who has lost a child … but parents who lose a child others have met can expect friends and family to gather – at a wake, a funeral, or sitting shiva – to offer sympathy and support. There is no comparable process for those who lose an invisible child to miscarriage or stillbirth.
My husband and I had two miscarriages, one late enough that I was already showing. Just brutal, especially since many of our friends were starting their families at the same time. A very helpful book for anyone facing this tragedy is Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, by Pauline Boss. My husband and I went on to adopt our beautiful daughter, and 19 months later, I gave birth to our son. Both kids are now grown, have found love with wonderful partners, and are launched in gratifying careers. The ultimate happy ending!
More readers tell their emotional stories:
I had no idea how common miscarriages are until my wife had one at 7 weeks.
Of course I was ignorant of this, but the plain truth is that few people discuss that sort of tragedy in normal conversation. When my wife got pregnant, I immediately told almost everyone I knew. A few people told me I was supposed to wait for three months before a general announcement. That seemed impossible at the time, and besides, I thought, I would need this wide group of friends if anything bad happened.
I got a call from my wife as I was preparing our annual Christmas newsletter, announcing her pregnancy to my extend family. We spent the night in the emergency room. The worst part was the disconnection of the clinicians from one another. My wife told the triage nurse that she was 7 weeks pregnant. When they ran tests for her HCG levels (the hormones that a pregnant woman produces, increasing in production as the pregnancy develops), they showed a level that she would have had at 3 weeks. Unfortunately, the doctor came in and announced this to us with a smiling face, and said “Good news! You’re three weeks pregnant!” My wife is a nurse in reproductive health, and she knew immediately that something was wrong. We spent the rest of the night going through futile tests. My wife got to experience the joys of a transvaginal ultrasound that showed nothing. She cried in pain, and I sat and watched the screen, hoping that my untrained eye was missing the fetus.
For the next several days I choked on tears. Finally, after a weekend, I felt like I had to go into my office and tell every one of the 25 people there, including some guys I hardly knew, that my wife had lost the child. I had a few great conversations with people who had similar experiences. But most of it was awkward, stunned silence, with me faking a smile and a “thanks, we’re doing fine.”
Our therapy was an previously planned trip to New York over New Years’ Eve. At the Peoples’ Improv Theatre, they asked the audience to shout out “the worst Christmas present you got this year,” in order to start their skit. My wife and I immediately shouted “miscarriage!” and they were off and running. Watching a 10-minute improv piece with those talented young comics, so close to our tragedy, kept things light and allowed us a brief moment to laugh.
The laughs stopped soon. We had a high deductible insurance plan that ended on the calendar year. The whole ordeal – appointments falling on both sides of the year – ended up costing us nearly $7,000. My wife ended up checking into the hospital on suicide watch the following summer. The grieving process didn’t fully end until May of this year, when our dreams came true. My wife gave birth to a beautiful, healthy little girl who is the light of our lives.
My wife is lucky in many ways. Some women have major complications and are unable to conceive after. We didn’t have to suffer through a stillbirth, or watch our child die in front of us. The stories that we heard afterward, and the support we received, were instrumental in our healing. I don’t know if that means people need to talk about it more, or what. But thanks for giving your readers the opportunity to learn from each other.
When I was in my early 20s (not very long ago), my mom casually let slip that somewhere in the five-year process it took for my parents to have me (their first child), there was also a painful miscarriage. My mom went on to have a second child, though it took another five-plus years, so I never thought of her issues as anything more than general but prima facie surmountable fertility issues.
When she mentioned the miscarriage, I was so shocked that I never pressed her for more information, and I don’t know how to go about doing it now. Or if I even have any right to bring up an incident so painful that it is never brought up in my family. And we have a large, gregarious extended family, a close-knit ethnic clan that seems to delight in shitting all over waspy proscriptions like “no politics or religion at the dinner table.” We openly discuss and mock people’s drug habits, sexual partners (not in a homophobic way; family members are happy to point out plenty of non-bigoted reasons to dislike others). Name an issue and it has been served up next to the brisket.
But never the miscarriage. Reading your thread brought that moment of discovery back to me, with all the same confusing emotions. You might hear this on a regular basis, but this is one of the few areas of my life that I can say this: I’ve never shared this discovery with anybody. Truthfully, I don’t think I ever digested how I’ve reconsidered my parents as real humans with their own private wells of sadness. Learning something so emotionally shattering so late in life was like walking downstairs one morning in my childhood home to find a new room that had always existed just beyond my peripheral vision, with a shadow pantomime projecting onto the wall a life that had been playing out alongside mine and could be felt by those who knew it was there but would disappear just as quickly with a flick of the light switch.
Yet here I am sharing it with you. This thread, like so many other reader threads, has been clarifying. And to borrow from a much less depressing feature, I’m grateful for the view from other people’s windows in lieu of my own inability to talk about this with my parents. Maybe one day. In the meantime, thank you.
Many more readers are writing in:
Thanks for your series of posts on miscarriage. I’ve had four miscarriages and have no living children. In clinical terms, I am a “habitual aborter” – it actually says that on my chart! It’s my worst habit and I would quite like to break it.
One of the most baffling parts of miscarriage is the enforced silence around the loss and grief. As you are no doubt discovering, once you write or speak the word miscarriage, people emerge from the woodwork. It seems like everyone has either had one, or has a sister, friend, or mother who has had one. When I had my fourth miscarriage this February, I knew I couldn’t just go back to work again and pretend like everything was normal, as I had for the first three. So, I wrote an email very clearly explaining to my colleagues what I was going through and asking for their understanding. In an instant, I became the person to go to talk about miscarriage. I had a series of coffee dates and after work drinks during which I heard horror stories in hushed tones about babies born in toilets on Christmas Eve, gushing blood before scheduled lectures and during meetings, bosses who demanded a return to work while miscarriage was ongoing, and altogether too many stories of my colleagues’ husbands or mothers who were eager for a quick recovery from the grief over what wasn’t a “real baby anyway”.
It was like I was the un-elected president of a new secret society – the Spontaneous Aborters Club. Seemingly all of my female colleagues had miscarried. It felt so good to finally be talking about it, to be matter of fact about it. The understanding we have as a culture is that miscarriage is not spoken of, which explains the rule that we don’t tell anyone we are expecting until at least 12 weeks. When you crack open this vault to let a bit of light in, stories of darkness come pouring out.
As an aside, I have wondered if our modern reluctance to acknowledge miscarriage has something to do with our struggles over how to think about abortion. I used to worry that if I admitted that my embryo or fetus was a baby that I would have to admit that the embryos and fetuses of women who chose abortion were just as “real”. I’ve come to realize, however, this is actually the crux of what it means to be pro-choice. My husband and I want these babies and so their brief existence and their passing is tangible to me. They are babies because I feel their loss so deeply. I would never deny someone the choice of whether or not to form this most human of attachments.
I have had three miscarriages and I have had three beautiful healthy children, so I have experienced both the amazing highs and hellish lows of pregnancy. What I discovered through my experiences is that many people just don’t think at all before they let words come out of their mouths. Yes, you could suggest that they mean well, but that doesn’t make up for the stupid and hurtful things they say.
The first miscarriage was also our first pregnancy and we waited until eight weeks to tell our families. Within a week I was having a D&C to remove whatever was left of my pregnancy because my body even failed me when it came to miscarrying. Whilst waiting for the procedure to begin, a nurse told me it could have been a still birth, which is worse. Though I agree, it wasn’t in any way a comfort to me to consider that my degree of loss could have been higher. Some friends and family members wanted to know what had caused the miscarriage and helpfully suggested things to do or avoid next time. Yes, what we definitely needed to cope with our loss was for people to suggest how we had caused the miscarriage. Believe me when I say that every woman who has had a miscarriage wonders if it was her fault somehow. And the best was my sister-in-law telling me that she knew exactly how I felt because her health issues prevented her from having any more children than the two she already had. Yes, losing a child and not knowing if you will ever be able to have a child at all is the same as not being able to have a third.
Comfort came from those who did actually know how we felt because they had experienced a miscarriage – and often more than one, like us. Miscarriage is a lot more common than one might think and yet still is almost a taboo subject. For a time I felt like the tainted one. Friends who were getting pregnant for the first time didn’t want me around because I was living proof of what can go wrong. And I never got to experience a pregnancy without fear because every one that ended with a healthy baby was preceded by one that ended with tears.
It has been more than ten years since the last miscarriage and my youngest just turned 9. You would think that I would be over the losses by now and for the most part I am. But sometimes you are reminded such as when you fill out medical forms and it asks how many pregnancies and live births you have had.
Thank you for this thread, because sometimes all you need to help healing is knowing that you aren’t the only one.
My wife and I have been trying to get pregnant for years and, after multiple rounds of fertility treatment that failed, we were just about ready to give up. Then, in the break between treatments this year, we found out that she had gotten pregnant (the old-fashioned way). We were elated and started planning immediately for the new arrival.
However, after the first scan we were told that there was no baby present (at 7 weeks) and that she had had a miscarriage. This was not a huge surprise given the amount of bleeding that had happened in the few days before the scan, but it was still devastating – even more so because we had told no one and although we could provide some support for each other, we were both in a dark place.
The next week, there was a follow-up scan to see whether a procedure would be needed to remove the products of conception. The nurse turned to my wife and said “and there’s the baby’s heartbeat”. The baby was missed on the first scan. You can imagine how we felt.
Our stress levels have been enormous for the last few months, but as the pregnancy has progressed (showing now with little kicks daily) we have slowly started to relax – that is until I read the New Yorker article and your updates of miscarriage stories. I have warned my wife to stay away from your blog until the baby is born and I am FREAKING OUT. I obviously feel terrible for those women, and the statistical likelihood of something like that happening this late in pregnancy is low, but at this point I won’t be happy until I’m holding my baby in my arms.
(Photo by Flickr user romana klee)
Gracy Olmstead has been following our thread:
When the Dish picked up [Ariel Levy’s story of miscarriage, readers] responded with an outpouring of comments describing the grief and pain of miscarriage. This bursting forth has opened a door, shedding new light on a previously unseen grief. Melissa Lafsky Wall explained the reaction Monday in her piece “Giving Voice to the Silent Sorrow”:
The grieving that follows a miscarriage is similar to other types of loss, but different too. You’re mourning a life that could have been, the decades of lost possibility. In a weepy attempt to explain it to my husband, I said the following: It’s like a close member of your family just died and you had a major medical problem all at the same time. And you’re not supposed to tell anyone.
I never heard of the “silent sorrow” until a few months later. Learning that a phrase existed for women who’ve miscarried made me even sadder. Its presence means that there are untold armies of women marching grimly through life, carrying their silent sorrow like a wound patched up with duct tape, and no one even knows what they’re suffering. Pain will always accompany losing a pregnancy. But silence — that part is optional.
Olmstead goes on to share the story of a mother she interviewed who lost three children to miscarriage.
(Photo from Wiki: “Babies’ graves on Karlsruhe main cemetery. In the foreground a common burial field for miscarried children, in the background graves of children who were stillborn or have died soon after their birth.”)
The popular and personal thread continues:
My wife and I had been married for about six months before we found out we were expecting. We were so thrilled that we immediately told family, friends, and announced it on social media. We started reading as much information as we could and I started looking online for baby clothes with my favorite sports teams’ logos on them. I was already a proud father. We are religious, and the night we found out I put my hands on my wife’s stomach and we prayed that our baby would be healthy and we’d be good parents.
Five weeks later my wife started bleeding, and the next day she miscarried in the bathroom of our apartment. Later the doctor told us it was too early to have even been a baby and we must have just seen the egg sac, but I’ll never forget my wife’s hysterical screaming and sobbing as we saw what looked to us like a tiny baby-shaped thing. I somehow made it to our couch and broke down sobbing because it hit me that I would never teach our child how to play basketball.
A couple hours later we drove in shock to a nearby park and buried our future plans and hopes in the woods. I said a few words through my tears, never expecting I’d have to bury my own child before it was even a child.
This thread took me back to a dark day nearly 30 years ago. I remember so clearly sitting on my living room sofa with an extra-big maxi pad on, while the remains of what would have been my first child lumpily left my body. Then I went on to have two children and, while I grieved the one I lost, I can’t imagine having any other children than the ones I have. I know intellectually that I would have loved that one as much as I love these two adults who have been a part of my life all these years, but my emotions won’t follow my brain there. I just feel as though these particular people were the ones given to me to love. This sounds ridiculous, I know, but I feel as though I would have grieved not knowing them.
About seven years ago my wife woke me with a piercing scream. I ran into the bathroom to find her holding a pregnancy test and crying tears of joy. The child we had been trying for years to conceive was finally coming. Those were some happy months – possibly the happiest in my entire life. That happiness ended in a pediatric cardiologist’s office as my wife and I sat together, holding hands, listening to the doctor explain how our son had a major heart defect that he would not survive. Just one of those things. Nobody’s fault. It just happens and no one knows why.
Abortion was an option on the table, but one we quickly discarded. Our son was too wanted, too loved. We decided to give him what life we could.
The time leading up to his birth is a painful blur. My memories of my wife’s labor is a series of disjointed, painful images. My son’s life stands in sharp contrast to all of that. I remember every moment, every breath he took, how it felt to hold him, the way the world shifted when he died in my arms. The next day we went to the mortuary, gave him a teddy bear and my childhood blanket, watched the flames consume his mortal shell, then finally took him home.
I still can’t drive by the crematorium without crying.
The grief nearly destroyed our marriage, but we survived and now have two other children. Our four-year-old son knows he had a brother and likes to talk to him – which both breaks and warms my heart. Our 18-month-old daughter owes her life to her oldest brother, as it was his condition that convinced a doctor to run the test which discovered her heart defect before it had a chance to do any damage. I like to think my son sacrificed his life to give my daughter a chance to live hers, which helps with the pain somewhat.
We were also fortunate in that we heard of the services of Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep before my oldest son was born. We have a complete picture record of every moment of his life thanks to a photographer who met the darkest moment of our lives with grace, dignity and overwhelming compassion. We are finally at a point in our grief where we can have pictures of all of our children on the walls and I am profoundly grateful that we have something we can show our other children and say “this is your brother”.
Still, I would give everything I have to hold my first-born in my arms one more time.
I expect you’ll get an outpouring of stories on the topic of miscarriage and stillbirth. It’s a painful experience and one that is often easier to talk about anonymously. I had just read Ariel Levy’s article, barely held back tears all the way through, then after a short walk to clear my head opened up your site and there it was again. Ms. Levy’s account was heartbreaking for me to read since I’ve endured three miscarriages of my own. None were anywhere near this level of drama, but I could still relate and my heart is heavy for her and her child.
Since mine were early miscarriages, sometimes it feels like they don’t count. I had no ultrasound photos, never heard a heartbeat, didn’t even take a photo of my positive tests. No one besides my husband and my doctor knew I was pregnant or even considering it. I lived with a huge weight for three years. (And, even if you do want to share, it’s a little hard to just bring up in conversation.)
When I got pregnant again, for a fourth time, I was terrified. I did not truly believe I would carry this child full term until all of a sudden I held him in my arms. It was only after the birth of my son that I’ve been able to more freely talk about my experiences, because I feel like I’m safely on the other side. Other side of what? I don’t know. A terrible rite of passage maybe.
Those “babies” (mushy bunch of cells, really) were as real to me though as my lively 17-month-old son is now. I was briefly a mother, and then suddenly I wasn’t. (Then again, and again.) I think about them often, though less than I used to (the mind of a working mom of a toddler is full enough). What I wonder the most is who they might have been. Would one of them have been just like my son, but three years older? Would they have had his eyes, his voice, his belly laugh? Or, if the first one had worked out would we have stopped then – in which case, perhaps I would never have met my son?
Gradually the pain has faded and changed into … something else. A deepening perhaps. Motherhood has been a revelation to me. I feel like a hazy curtain has been pulled back and I’ve been tugged across an invisible line, for better or worse and there’s no turning back. Experiencing those losses is part of that journey and I am actually thankful now for having gone through them. Would I feel the same if I didn’t have my son today? If I was still without a child? I can’t say.
Since you’re a poetry guy, I would like to pass along one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems:
The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
More readers join the intimate thread:
I had two miscarriages before we tried IVF. The first one occurred on the same day I got a positive on the home pregnancy test. Both were physically quite painful and emotionally draining. My third miscarriage was my daughter’s twin. They were IVF babies, so I was being monitored via ultrasound through the first trimester. I lost the twin around nine weeks. I saw on them both during the ultrasound, my daughter blinking brightly and the sibling a dark silent mass.
I remember exactly the due dates of what would have been my first and second child’s births, and I am very aware that had they lived, I would not have had my awesome mini-me daughter. Every year on her birthday, I remember that there should be two cakes for two children. But now, as then, I am supposed to simply be grateful for her alone. I could have lost them both after all. Count your blessings and all of that.
I haven’t told my daughter she had a twin. Perhaps when she is older. I have mixed feelings about sharing this grief with her. Why should she grieve for someone who was never more than a possibility? Of course that begs the question – why do I?
This thread has meant a lot to me. I will not tell you another miscarriage story, but I would like to share something that might help your readers. After my first miscarriage, what helped me most was giving my lost baby a name. It didn’t occur to me until a week after I was in the hospital to do so, but it made such a difference in my recovery. I did the same with my second miscarriage. Although I am politically pro-choice, I am also an observant Catholic and I think of myself as having five children (two in Heaven). Just that decision to acknowledge what I had lost as real, a person to be named, made the pain easier to bear.
My first child – a daughter, Lola – was stillborn on Christmas Day, 2008. It was completely unexpected. We went to the hospital as scheduled, planning to bring home our healthy child. Instead, we brought home a box containing a photograph of a dead baby and a pamphlet about grief. It sent me down a spiral of rage and despair. The tiniest little setback was debilitating for a while. I’d fly into a rage at not being able to find my keys in the morning. Many nights I’d wind up on the floor in my closet, exhausted at having spent the night shouting in anger and frustration because we hadn’t cooked the rice properly or something equally trivial. I hope that it’s the hardest thing I’ll ever have to go through.
All of it – her death, my rage, the sadness that utterly consumed us for a while – was something I was totally unprepared for. The masculine side of grief wasn’t something we understood at all and it took us several years to get past it. We have a beautiful two-year-old boy now who is like a healing balm. We’re just scarred now, no longer wounded.
I want to let your readers know about HAND, an amazing organization that helped us. They are nothing short of amazing, providing space and counseling for us to heal. Imagine what it would be like to “hold grief support group meetings for parents who have experienced the death of their baby through miscarriage, stillbirth, interruption of a wanted pregnancy after prenatal diagnosis, or death in the first year of life,” week in and week out. Friends and family often can’t really understand what you’re going through after something like that happens to you, and groups like this can provide space to come to terms with grief and despair. I’m an atheist, but I know that Chris Lehr, who runs the program, is a saint.
Thanks for shining light on this dark place.
I know you must have been slammed with responses to your miscarriage thread. I’m so glad it came up. I want to respond with my own experience to the woman who commented on the insensitive comments that people make when they find out about a miscarriage. She said, “For a time I felt like the tainted one. Friends who were getting pregnant for the first time didn’t want me around because I was living proof of what can go wrong.” For me, it wasn’t about taint at all. I still wanted to share with my friend, and give her as much support as I could. For me, it was about feeling guilty at accidentally making someone’s grief worse simply by being in the same room.
A friend and I got pregnant around the same time, myself a month ahead. It was a complete surprise to her. She could not have been happier. She announced her pregnancy well before she was even eight weeks along, absolutely glowing – much happier than I was, since I had aggressive morning sickness that didn’t seem to touch her. She gushed to me about how our babies would bond us closer together.
You can guess the rest.
She lost hers at 10 weeks and was absolutely devastated. I did my best to say I was sorry, and to continue communicating with her, but I can’t describe to you the look on her face the first time she saw me after her miscarriage, with my pregnancy clearly showing. Our other friends there were clearly a comfort to her. I was not. I felt like my pregnancy – the visibility of it, the reality of it – were a knife in her. It clearly upset her greatly, and just as clearly she was trying not to let it, or at least not to let it show. I tried to avoid platitudes, tried to pick up the tone she seemed to want while her grief was still fresh, as I would for any grieving friend – but it seemed to me that the best thing I could do was to step back and not act as a reminder every time she saw me.
I don’t blame her for her reaction. She was trying to be happy for me while dealing with massive grief. My sister-in-law’s reaction (having gone through several miscarriages herself) was nearly identical when I told my brother I was pregnant – happy for me, but sad, with an immediate new emotional distancing from me. I don’t know what the answers are – if there was even anything I could have done better to make it easier. Grief is always tricky, since everyone experiences it differently. But what exactly can be said to a grieving family, except, “I’m sorry”?
I’m not sure that my miscarriage story fits the thread because although I certainly empathize with all the people who have written, my miscarriage experience was a little different. My husband and I had been trying for two and a half years to get pregnant. We tried most everything and finally discovered that he had a problem. The doctor prescribed some medication for him and a couple of months later, I thought I was pregnant.
We had no time to take it in because all of a sudden, I miscarried. My husband took me off to the emergency room and the young resident was so nice. When I started to cry, he reassured me that just because I had had one miscarriage, the odds of having another were no different – if I remember correctly, 1 in 15 or so. I smiled through my tears and said, “I’m not crying because I miscarried. I’m crying because I know now that I can get pregnant!” He looked a little surprised but smiled back and took me off to have a DNC.
Two months later I got pregnant with our first child, a daughter whom we both celebrated and are so pleased that she is in our life. She was followed by our son, who after a few trials and tribulations, we feel exactly the same way about. There are times when I wonder what that other child would have been like, but would I trade either of my children for that unknown one? Absolutely not.
More readers share their stories:
My wife and I have suffered 2-5 miscarriages, depending on how you count them (the second time she miscarried quadruplets). We were not using in vitro fertilization, so the chances of us conceiving quadruplets is somewhere around 1/800,000. With the first miscarriage, I think we took some (small) comfort in discovering how often they occur – that the traumatic event we were living was not some special misfortune that God had reserved for only us. But the bizarre macabre nature of seeing four lifeless embryos on the screen afforded no such comfort. I remember my wife’s words on the car ride home after we scheduled the D&C: “I feel like a walking tomb.”
I want to thank you for posting these stories. They aren’t stories people like to recount but they are so common and they touch those involved so deeply. The fact that this community has emerged on the blog of a gay man with no children is profoundly touching. The human capacity to empathize and share in the joys and sorrows of others is celebrated on the Dish, and it’s why I’m a subscriber.
Reading this thread is hard. Not only because I have had a two miscarriages, but also because of my family history. In the years after my older sibling’s birth and mine (four years), my mother had six miscarriages. As a result, her OB put her on a “artificial” estrogen, or DES, to help her carry full term. I was on the tail end of her using the drug. As a result, I have several abnormalities of my reproductive organs and have had several small tumors removed from my cervix. I was told at 19 that I would never be able to conceive or carry to term a normal pregnancy.
I had resigned myself to being childless. My birth control choice was more for prevention of disease rather than pregnancy. When I met the wonderful man I married, I told him that I probably could never have children and we discussed adoption. Six months after becoming engaged, I missed two periods (not unusual because of my abnormalities; my cycle is very irregular), but then I started bleeding heavily at work. Because I worked in a hospital I went to the ER where they did a blood test that showed I was pregnant.
Over three days, I alternately cried, prayed and bled. My future husband flew back from a business trip early to be with me and we both grieved. My mother gently reminded me that miracles occur on a regular basis and that I was proof of that. Fast forward a year and half later, and a skiing accident landed me in the ER again. I was asked if I could be pregnant and I smiled at my husband and said yes (another missed period, but not unusual), so they did a blood test before they would x-ray my ankle. I joked with my husband that we could give the “positive” test results to the parents for Christmas. And we did, because I was indeed pregnant.
They called the perinatologist on staff and made me an appointment for the next day. Because of my medical history, I was very much a high-risk pregnancy. Because my hormone levels are so weird (because of the DES exposure), we could only estimate the date of conception and how long until safe delivery. I had ultrasounds that guesstimated I was about 12 weeks pregnant. I was put on immediate maternity leave and monitored on a biweekly basis. I delivered a healthy baby boy six months later via c-section. (Because of previous surgeries, my cervix never dilated at all despite 12 hours of labor and pitocin).
When my son was two, I “felt pregnant” again and blood tests confirmed it. For about four months, things went smoothly then terrible cramps, bleeding, etc. It didn’t feel like labor but rather more like a rolling sensation through my pelvis. After about six hours, the tiny little girl slid out of my body.
I wept copiously and so did my husband. Despite the fact that she never drew a breath, our family priest offered to baptize her. We had no service but that and had her remains cremated and sealed into a small walnut box that will go with us when we die.
Two years later, again I “felt pregnant” and had a blood test. Negative. But I still didn’t have a period. Weeks later my son had a nightmare and he climbed into bed with us. He poked me and told me that my stomach was kicking him. My husband looked at me, jumped out of bed and sped to the nearest gas station. He bought a EPT test and told me that the attendant looked at him in wonder (3 am, frazzled man in jeans and t-shirt). I peed on the stick and then waited … positive.
I called my OB the next day and told them; they got me in that day. We took a blood test, two different ultrasounds and saw the tiny little boy kicking and cried. I was six months along and delivered that lively little boy three months and ten days later via c-section. During that c-section the doctor saw why I didn’t lose this little boy; I had a large tumor growing from my cervix into my uterus. It prevented me from losing that pregnancy. I had to have a hysterectomy, because the frozen section showed a particularly aggressive type of cervical cancer cells.
My younger son has some secondary DES-related problems, and both boys are at a higher risk for testicular and other cancers. There is not a lot of research out there on the effects of the fourth generation, but in some ways, despite the problems, both my husband and parents are grateful to DES, otherwise I would not be here. I still have periodic tests and I have to be more vigilant than the ordinary woman, but I will always grieve for the soul of my little Kristina Katherine and the unknown child that I lost.
I’m a subscriber, and long-time reader, but have never written in before. I’ll be honest with you: although I read the quoted piece you posted initially, I can’t bring myself to click the link and read the full thread, because I know it is he articulation of my greatest fear.
A little over two years ago (my wife remembers the dates and due dates; I’ve blocked them out), my wife and I had a miscarriage. It was about a week or so after a positive pregnancy test. Since it was our first time being pregnant, we approached the pregnancy like I imagine most first-time parents do: unrestrained glee. It happened to be the week before Fathers’ Day and she got me a Fathers’ Day card. We went out to a nice restaurant to celebrate.
When she started bleeding, we went in for an ultrasound. I should tell you at this point that I’m a lapsed Catholic/agnostic who hasn’t been to church in years. When we went in for the ultrasound, I found myself praying as we looked at the monitor, straining to see signs of life and hoping that things were ok, in spite of what we’d seen to that point. There was nothing there. Since it was so early, we hadn’t told anyone about the pregnancy, but we told family and close friends what happened.
Months later, we found out that we were pregnant again. Again, we told no one. This time, we had an ultrasound at six weeks and saw a heartbeat. Seeing that on the monitor was like nothing else that had happened in my life. To know that I would be a father meant everything to me. We decided we wouldn’t do a fancy celebratory dinner – just in case – so we did something casual. Although my wife was reluctant, I convinced her that we should start enjoying the fact that we were pregnant – we’d seen a heartbeat! – and should look at baby items, which we did. We started to think about how best to tell our families (Christmas ornaments? Ultrasound pictures? Something more creative?).
About three weeks later, we went in for another ultrasound. We were still nervous, but, again, we’d seen a heartbeat. When the ultrasound tech came in, she started the procedure and kept moving around the probe, not saying anything along the lines that expectant parents want to hear. She said she would need to get the doctor to look at the image. At that point, I remember looking at that somewhat confused, but somehow already haunting image, and asking God to be with us – asking Him if he were there, could he please make sure they pointed the ultrasound wand at the heartbeat we knew was already there, so that we could go on with our lives and figure out how best to tell our families we were pregnant.
When the doctor came in, he told us we’d had another miscarriage. The embryo was dead. I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. It was hard to breathe. Another round of sobbing telephone calls to our family to tell them the news, along with another awkward rollout to our close friends.
My email’s long enough, so I won’t bore you with the details, but my wife and I have been seeing a fertility specialist for the better part of a year, and are now pregnant again. We’ve had a roller coaster ride of blood tests the last few weeks (everything looks normal, congratulations!; your blood work indicates a likely miscarriage, you should be prepared). Today we had a second ultrasound at seven weeks. The first showed a very early heartbeat. We were both sick to our stomachs with worry in the days leading up to the ultrasound. Again, despite my lapsed faith and our history, I found myself saying continuous Hail Marys through tears at the doctor’s office today while we waited for the image. We saw another heartbeat.
A reader writes:
One of your readers noted the link between experiencing miscarriage and being pro-choice. I want to add another thought to that. I had two early miscarriages and one child who almost died at birth. I obviously don’t speak for all women, but for me, the grief I felt at losing my pregnancies in the first trimester was nothing – and I mean NOTHING – compared to the fear and grief I felt when my daughter lay dead in my arms at birth, before she was revived. It seems to me that losing a pregnancy at two months is different from losing it at seven months is different from losing a born child. The experience of loss changes as that life progresses inside you, and to me that reveals the simplistic thinking behind the idea that an embryo or fetus is no different than a born child.
A PhD in genetics writes:
I don’t mean to minimize the sadness people feel when they lose a pregnancy, but there’s an important issue here that is being ignored in your thread: for the vast majority of early miscarriages, what the couple lost was not, and never could have been, a “baby”. For some reason, maybe because the human genome is full of repetitive junk that mis-pairs easily, the rate of spontaneous abortions (i.e., miscarriages) due to chromosomal abnormalities is quite high. When something is very wrong with the genetic makeup of the embryo, it doesn’t develop properly and the body rejects it, as it should. It is not the case that if, somehow, that fetus could have stayed in the uterus, a healthy baby would have been born. I wish there was more education about this; I think people would have an easier time accepting this outcome if they understood.
I have been reading this thread with great interest and, like another thread you have published, it is “so personal.” I lost my first, very wanted and very planned pregnancy to miscarriage. I had an ultrasound at eight weeks and my husband and I saw the heartbeat. We were assured that our chances of miscarriage were very slim at that point. Nevertheless, unbeknownst to me, the baby died within days. It wasn’t until I was nearly twelve weeks pregnant and had told all of my friends and family that I started to bleed. An ultrasound revealed that I had had a “missed miscarriage,” one where the body fails to detect fetal demise. The idea of waiting for my body to figure out what had happened was far too painful to bear. I had a D&C the next day. It was truly the saddest period of my entire life thus far. I was deeply depressed. I was quite certain I would never carry a baby to term.
Fast forward four months and I was pregnant again with what would be my first child. One of your readers said of her three early miscarriages: “Those ‘babies’ (mushy bunch of cells, really) were as real to me though as my lively 17-month-old son is now.” My own experience of miscarriage was the opposite. My child (and her younger sister who followed) is a person I know. She has a personality and opinions. Losing her or her sister would destroy me forever. In contrast, I think of my miscarriage only when someone I know is pregnant or when I read a thread like this. I never wonder what that child would have been like. I was never mourning the death of that baby; I was always mourning the demise of that pregnancy at a time when I so desperately wanted to have a child. Carrying a pregnancy to term was all the closure I needed.
I also can’t help but wonder if the early pregnancy tests available now create unnecessary grief. I learned of my pregnancies before I even would have missed my period. Knowing you are pregnant, even for a few days or a few weeks, is impossible to unknow. Losing that pregnancy probably would not have been a known miscarriage for our mothers or our grandmothers. While infertility is its own misery, it is probably of a different kind than repeated miscarriages.
Long-time reader, first-time writer. Your thread on miscarriage has been fascinating and heartbreaking to read, and I wanted to share a bit of my experience and perspective. When my son was 2.5, we decided to try for another baby. I got pregnant quickly, but at the 7-week ultrasound, we discovered that the embryo had not developed at all – a “blighted ovum.” The pregnancy test was positive, but there had never been an embryo or fetus. However, this still requires waiting for the body to miscarry naturally (which can take up to several more weeks), or a D&C. We scheduled the D&C.
On the day of the D&C, we went to the office for the procedure. It was affiliated with a hospital, but was a special maternity office. They rushed me in pretty quickly once I arrived. I like to think they were being conscious of women in the process of miscarrying sitting in the waiting room with very obviously pregnant women, new moms, and newborns, but maybe I was just lucky.
I asked the physician why I had been referred to her for the D&C, and why my regular OB/GYN didn’t do it. She paused, as if trying to figure out the best way to answer me, and then said, “Well, this procedure is basically the same as an abortion. And many OB/GYNs are not trained to do this, because of political issues around abortion – many medical schools don’t provide training in abortion, and so women are referred to the few doctors who can perform the procedure.”
I’ve been active around issues of reproductive health and rights for years – volunteered with Planned Parenthood, attended rallies and marches for choice, I have a master’s degree in public health – so I’m not unfamiliar with the politics and debate around abortion. And I knew that it was the case that many physicians were not trained in abortion procedures and that there is a shortage of qualified physicians to perform abortions in many areas of the country. But I’ve been fortunate – not only did I live in New York at the time, where the politics around reproductive choice are decidedly more liberal than in most other areas of the country – but I’ve also been lucky enough to not experience any of these restrictions, etc., first hand.
And then, as a few days and weeks passed after the D&C procedure, and some of my emotions and feelings about the experience settled a bit, I started getting – angry? Confused? It was crazy to me that at a time when a woman and her family needs comfort, familiarity, support, that it would be necessary to refer her to a brand new physician at a brand new facility for the D&C procedure, based solely on the politics around abortion. Regardless of one’s feelings about abortion, the D&C is a legal medical procedure, done for many reasons, many of which have nothing to do with the choice to remain pregnant or have a child – and the fact that there are OB/GYNs who are not qualified to perform it because of ideological objections to one circumstance in which the procedure is performed (i.e. elective abortion) is INSANE – detrimental to women’s health, detrimental to women’s autonomy, and (maybe least worrisome, but still a problem) logistically ridiculous.
Anyway, please keep sharing others’ stories. One of the most memorable things about my experience was that as I shared it with a select few friends and family members, nearly every woman had a “me too” story. It helped me immensely to feel I wasn’t alone in the experience, but also amazed that so many women I’d felt close to had never shared this particular part of themselves. Silent suffering, indeed.
Another big round of personal emails:
I have closely read each and every miscarriage post, out curiosity and compassion. I am a single 30-year-old male who is now absolutely paranoid about the possibility of not being able to have kids one day, which I very much want to (more than I want to get married, but that’s another story). One of your recent posts mentioned guilt on the mother’s part – I would imagine the mind can be awfully cruel and somehow blame oneself for a miscarriage. But it raised another question: is the viability of an embryo totally dependent on the mother’s health? Or does the father’s sperm count/quality play any role? It feels like it would be best for couples not to know who is to “blame” in these situations.
It looks like chromosomal abnormalities from either partner can cause miscarriage, as well as damaged sperm. Another reader:
I was reading this post at work today when my 7-week-pregnant wife called to tell me she started bleeding and is being sent to the emergency room. Now I am writing while we wait for an ultrasound and hoping for the best. If thing go badly, these series of post will have been helpful in dealing with the grief, knowing we are not alone. Thank you.
He follows up:
After a four-hour stay in the ER, it turned out that the bleeding was caused by a fairly common occurrence of the egg sack pulling a piece of the uterus lining away during the implantation process. It usually heals on its own and everything is fine, but sometimes it keeps pulling away and eventually detaches leaving the the fetus cut off from the uterus. We’re ok for now, but have to keep watching.
After 40 years of marriage and three healthy children, this still stands as the single most loving thing my husband ever did for me:
he forced the hospital to give him the fetus so he could bury it under a tree in our yard. We had brought the tiny one-inch body into the hospital with us, wrapped in toilet paper, to show what had happened suddenly at home. What followed was an emergency D&C and an overnight stay for me, and he went home with our two year old daughter. That’s that, I thought. Nothing is in my control. But when he picked me up in the morning, he related his having had second thoughts upon getting home and his subsequent big loud angry argument with staff in the hospital hallway over whether it belonged to him or to them. He had won.
From another woman who experienced miscarriage:
I was devastated. I’d already picked a name for the baby, it already had a nickname with my co-workers, and it had all seemed so right. The 24 hours I had to wait until I could have the D&C seemed like an eternity. After reading one of the stories you posted, I am grateful that I did not have to go to a strange doctor to have the procedure done. Given how common D&Cs are for reasons totally unrelated to abortion – later in life, I had several simply to treat excessive menstrual bleeding – I’m stunned by the notion that OB-GYNs are not being taught to perform this procedure as a matter of course.
As overwhelming as my grief felt those first few months after the loss, as real as that “dream baby” seemed to me, my experience only increased my fervent support of reproductive freedom. Only once I had been pregnant did I truly understand the countless changes that occur to a woman’s body even at the earliest stages of pregnancy. Only once I knew my pregnancy was doomed did I know how intolerable it could be to “wait for nature to take its course.”
Contrary to one of your readers who was reassured when she was rushed past all the pregnant ladies for her post-miscarriage D&C, I quite a different situation. After arriving at the hospital for a D&C, not only wasn’t I shuffled away from the pregnant ladies, but to wait for my procedure I was put in a double room with a young woman in active labor!
I spent the first five minutes silently cursing the hospital and feeling deeply sorry for myself, but then I started noticing that the young woman was definitely not having an easy time of it. She was quite young, certainly not out of her teens, and all alone. Clearly no one had coached or mentored her on what to expect because she was handling her contractions all wrong, and in doing so making everything a lot harder on herself than it needed to be.
I spent the next hour doing my best to teach the young mom to be what I could remember of the Lamaze method (thanks Elizabeth Bing!). Slowly, she learned to work with the contractions, to focus, and to calm herself. When the nurse came to get me, she expressed regret that I’d had to be placed there in that room. I told her, and believe to this day, that it was one of the best things that ever happened to me – not only did the experience take me right out of my own misery, but I was able to pay forward what I was taught, helping a stranger make the most she could of a tense, scary and painful situation.
First, to echo many, thanks for airing the stories of miscarriage. These are stories that for all kinds of reasons need to be heard and aired to better understand the varied realities and experiences of women and men who go through miscarriage.
My personal experience aligns with a few of your readers – a missed miscarriage followed by a D&C – though my grief was slight because I had two children already and knew the statistics that as many as 1 in 3 pregnancies actually end in miscarriage. I think the lack of information around reproduction, and the ability to know you are pregnant only three weeks after conception, have combined to cause far too much grief. Our culture fears discussing conception and reproduction because it is so intertwined with the myopic politics of abortion, but that leaves the average woman without the knowledge your PhD reader has.
Lastly, the statistics – up to 1 in 3 pregnancies end in miscarriage – and being a practicing Catholic make me wonder at the apparent wastefulness of miscarriage. The platitudes about not knowing God’s plan or God only giving you what you can handle don’t seem quite enough. Is the obsession with life beginning at conception, and the silent suffering around the common experience of miscarriage, just one more example of the Church’s (and much of our culture’s) refusal to really know and understand women and their biology? What would the Church’s teaching on life look like if it were informed by these stories, and the biological realities of one of the most complicated/least understood things the female human body does? How might that teaching then be pastoral instead of dogmatic and actually minister to women and their bodies in the world?
A reader writes:
I thought the thread was dead, but apparently not. I’m glad, because I want to share my story. I started this email almost three weeks ago with my adopted five-day-old son on my lap, but then I saved it in my drafts folder thinking that I couldn’t write about my miscarriages or the adoption. Now that the 15-day waiting period has ended and our son can no longer be taken back by his birth mother, I’m ready to talk about my experience.
I read the New Yorker miscarriage piece with horror a few weeks ago because we were anxiously awaiting the birth of our baby. The birth mother is a healthy young woman, and I was pretty sure the baby would turn out OK. What I wasn’t so sure about was whether or not she would change her mind and close the door on our dream.
My husband and I experienced our first miscarriage in fall of 2004. My last, the twelfth, occurred in January 2012. We stopped trying to conceive because my doctor said that my advanced maternal age and my clotting disorder would kill me if I somehow managed to stay pregnant and deliver the child. Words cannot adequately describe the part of my psyche that has been damaged by these losses. I did not understand the depth of the wound until a few days into motherhood when I suddenly realized that I am perfectly, gloriously happy being a parent. Even the worst of motherhood – the sleepless nights, the endless round of needs to meet, the mountains of laundry, the silly bickering with an equally tired spouse – have little impact as I look at my newborn son’s face.
Our birth mother chose us as the parents for her unborn child on our 11th wedding anniversary, and though I try not to read too much into portents and signs, I can’t help but think that something special happened that day. Our long years of suffering and waiting were not erased, but they were eased. A therapist once told me that someday I would wrap my miscarriages up into the birth story of my firstborn, and for a long time, I clung to that idea. But I am finding that the truth is more complicated and subtle. Those lost pregnancies are still with me every moment. They remind me of the gift that is my child, and they keep me focused on parenting with joy and compassion. And, so, even if I could forget the misery that is miscarriage, I wouldn’t. The miscarriages have strengthened me immeasurably.
As a final note, I used to sort of despise the Sunday churchy content, but now I’ve begun to look forward to it. I find the break from worldly, political matters is a nice way to spend my day of rest. Getting into a contemplative headspace is useful to me, and I hope at some point you’ll include some of the spiritual work in the subscribers-only portion of the site – maybe a particularly good interview or some other philosophical piece.
A long essay on Pope Francis is in the works.
(Thumbnail image: Fetus Dream by Jason Eppink)