The Open Secret of Miscarriage
By Michelle Tea
Not that there is any good time for a miscarriage, but I do think that learning that the embryo in your uterus has stopped developing on the day before your wedding is an especially harsh toke. In the doctor’s office, with two grandmothers-to-be wringing their nervous, grandmotherly hands, the Doppler skated across my belly on a gob of lube, unable to detect a heartbeat. The would-be grandmothers were in town for the wedding, and it was a no-brainer to bring them along to our appointment with our obstetrician; how excited they would be to see what we’d so recently seen – an amorphous, living blob, its heartbeat flickering inside it like a bulb. But now their faces were drawn, anxious. They tended toward the worst-case scenarios; both Scorpios, both in occupations where they see worst-case scenarios play out on the daily, one being a nurse and the other a social worker. But I wasn’t concerned. We’d only just gotten an ultrasound at the fertility clinic that had orchestrated the transfer of one of my wife’s healthy, 33-year-old eggs into my healthy, 42-year-old uterus. We’d seen that heartbeat, strobing like a lighthouse beacon that cut through our own fears. After years of trying we were finally pregnant, and our kid-to-be would be present at our wedding. My first trimester stomach would be visible beneath the gown I’d chosen especially for its ability to be altered into an empire-waisted, maternity wedding dress.
When the doctor ushered us into a room down the hall for a scan with a better Doppler machine, I still wasn’t worried, though she was. My philosophy is: chances are, the worst won’t happen. Never mind that life has sometimes proved otherwise; it mainly has proven true. Usually, the worst doesn’t happen. But that morning, it did.
“I’m sorry,” said the woman working the Doppler, her face thin and her hair frizzed.
“It’s okay,” I said numbly, not wanting my situation to make her feel bad.
“I’ll go talk to your mothers,” our doctor said, while the woman wiped the Doppler goo from my belly. When we arrived back in the office, their faces were tighter and sadder than ever.
Let me tell you right now that I dislike emotions very much. If I must experience them I prefer to do it in a dark room where nobody sees me. I hated crying there in the room in front of the doctor, but not only could I not help it, I figured I should let it out while I could. The rest of the day was packed with pre-wedding mani-pedis and a rehearsal dinner. Weddings are nothing if not elaborate performances, and miscarrying or not, the show must go on.
I understood, as my phone began to ring with calls I wouldn’t answer, why women choose not to share their pregnancies till they were out of the woods. It felt excruciatingly vulnerable.
I left the doctor’s office but was condemned to hang around the hospital, waiting to be seen for additional ultrasounds. The first thing I did was get a coffee. For months I hadn’t drunk the stuff, my normal three-to-five-cup-a-day habit abandoned cold turkey. Though the science around it was murky, there was a study that had linked coffee consumption to miscarriage, so I’d jettisoned the stuff along with all the other delicacies I was forbidden while pregnant – the soft cheeses, the sliced turkey, the sushi and oysters. What had it even mattered? Regardless of all the pains I took to each day consume something from the “best food for pregnancy” lists I found on the Internet, somewhere around the eighth week of pregnancy, not long after we’d seen that encouraging heartbeat, the embryo had stopped developing. We’d never know why.
With my half-caff warm in my hand and sending jitters through my caffeine-deprived system, I began texting. I sent a text to everyone I had told I was pregnant, of which there were many. I knew the protective tradition of not sharing pregnancy news until you were past the miscarriage minefield of the first trimester, but I didn’t think keeping it a secret was an option for me. I was too public about my attempts to get pregnant; all of our friends, not to mention acquaintances and outright strangers, knew we were trying to get pregnant. Lots of friends knew that we’d recently had an egg transfer, which meant we either were or weren’t solidly pregnant. It seemed silly to be cagey about it, especially when the in vitro fertilization hormones had me bloated enough to pass for a lady in her second trimester. And so we had shared the good news, and so now I would share the bad.
I understood, as my phone began to ring with calls I wouldn’t answer, why women choose not to share their pregnancies till they were out of the woods. It felt excruciatingly vulnerable to be the object of such an outpouring of love and sympathy. There was something so attractive about toughing out this loss silently, alone with my wife, huddled under blankets eating takeout. I don’t think it’s a healthy urge, but it’s a real one. Instead, I fielded texts from all the people who loved us, who shared their shock and sadness. At each expression of sorrow, I felt my own acutely, like a stab. On the phone with my sister, I broke down.
“I feel like our wedding will be a sad thing now,” I hiccupped. “Everyone will be feeling bad for us. It’s going to feel horrible.”
“Everyone loves you,” my sister consoled me. “Everyone is so happy for you and Dashiell, and wants to love and celebrate you. You’ll see.”
Astoundingly, the wedding was joyful. The dizzying motion of it all – the dinner the night before, our tear-jerking vows, the hordes of friends, the family brunch the following morning – served to distract us from our loss. For better or worse, there wasn’t a lot of time to sit around and cry. After the D and C – an abortion, basically – which removed the stagnant embryo from my body, we were off on our honeymoon. On a Caribbean island staring out at the fuzzy green atolls rising from the turquoise water, all of our baby drama – the years of trying, the recent failing – seemed blissfully far away.
The messages and emails from other women who’ve suffered miscarriages are still coming in, months later. It’s shocking how common they are, how many friends had experienced them, too. The culture of secrecy around it, while understandable, doesn’t really serve women in any way.
It wasn’t until it was all over and we were back in foggy, chilly San Francisco that I came back into my body and mourned what I’d been through. I was at a yoga class, of all places. I’m a sporadic yoga dabbler, always meaning to get a better practice yet never really committing. This means that yoga is always a bit of a challenge because I never quite know what I’m doing, but I manage to pull it off well enough. Not that night. That night, my body – with all its extra weight and alien bulk from the months of hormones and weeks of pregnancy – strained and stumbled to hold any pose harder than child’s pose, where you lie panting with your face planted on the floor. I had zero balance, and even less stamina. After struggling to keep up I finally broke down and slumped onto my mat, into the forgiving child’s pose, hearing everyone around me swivel and lunge as they followed the asanas effortlessly. I began to cry into my mat. My poor body, I thought. It had been through so much! It had been pumped full of chemicals to get prepped for our high-tech conception, and for a couple months it had carried life, shifting and morphing, aching my joints and bleeding my gums, keeping me queasy with a horribly supersonic sense of smell. Then there was the D and C, painless yet grisly, both physically and emotionally exhausting. Now here I was, back in my body in this yoga class, unable to keep up. But what I do like about yoga is how it allows you to participate wherever you are in your body. And tonight, this is where I was. I kept my forehead to the floor, and cried.
The messages and emails from other women who’ve suffered miscarriages are still coming in, months later. It’s shocking how common they are, how many friends had experienced them, too. The culture of secrecy around it, while understandable, doesn’t really serve women in any way. If there were more openness, perhaps women would understand how truly common miscarriages are, and the experience would be rendered slightly less shocking and tragic. The statistics – that one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage – is as abstract as all statistics are. But to have one out of four moms you know send you an email saying yes, that happened to me, is something else entirely. And not just the information, but also the comfort such notes provided wound up being pretty precious, my issues with vulnerability be damned.
The upside of this, if I must wrangle one, is that women are much more likely to have a full-term pregnancy after a miscarriage. Maybe it’s because your uterus has essentially been rototilled, providing fresh soil for the next seed. Perhaps it’s because you’ve gotten your one-in-four miscarriage out of the way, so now the stats are on your side. Either way, it’s back to the drawing board for me and my wife. And knowing that so many women survived this setback and went on to pop out amazing, healthy kids makes it a lot easier.