5 Reasons We Need To Talk About Miscarriage, Because A Culture Of Silence Isn't Good Enough
This week, the editor-in-chief of Refinery29 chose to open up and talk publicly about her experience of five — yes, five — miscarriages in her attempts to conceive a child. Christene Barberich wrote about the real feelings that accompany repeated failed pregnancies: shame, embarrassment, an overwhelming sense of failure, the feeling that she had let everybody down. After her first miscarriage, "I had to sheepishly un-tell all the people I’d been sharing the news [of my pregnancy] with," she writes, and the responses — shock, horror, even visceral avoidance — colored her unhappiness even further. And they, more than anything, demonstrate just why we need to talk about miscarriage. Now.
Miscarriage, as part of the media narrative, is generally only revealed after the successful conception and/or birth of a child. The latest incarnation of this, of course, is Mark Zuckerberg's wife Priscilla Chan, and their announcement of her pregnancy early this year — with the accompanying note that it had taken three miscarriages to get here. It was a revealing, very human essay, but it fits into a certain pattern: the bad luck is over, the terror has retreated, it's safe to talk about it now that there's a healthy baby within reach. Beyonce only revealed her miscarriage after Blue Ivy was born; Mariah Carey did the same after twins Monroe and Morrocan came into the world.
We're far more superstitious about miscarriage, far more self-persecuting, far more prone to keep it a shameful secret, than virtually any other aspect of parental experience. And that, frankly, is dangerous. Here are five reasons to talk about miscarriage openly.
1. It May Be The Last Personal Taboo
Miscarriage is so rarely talked about that many of us may not even know what it involves, other than the loss of a pregnancy. It's actually restricted to a fairly narrow window within — the first 20 weeks. (After that, it's known as a stillbirth.) The most usual miscarriage we know about is the one where all the tissues of conception — the embryo and anything else that's developed to support it — leave the body through the birth canal. But there are others, where only part of the pregnancy is ejected, for instance, or when it's caused by infection. We're good at talking about basically anything intimate, from STDs to anal to IVF — so why is this the last taboo?
It shows up in media — but it's actually a recognized TV trope that inconvenient pregnancies are "resolved" by miscarriage. The problem with this — like when Amanda Seyfried's character had to go through the pregnancy/miscarriage drama storyline on Big Love — is that it's often seen as the end of a storyline, a punctuation mark that's dismissed as soon as possible and neatly ignored afterwards. It's popped up on places like ER, Grey's Anatomy, and other soaps, but one of the shows to try and tackle the honest emotional fallout, interestingly enough, was Sex & The City, which gave Charlotte (Kristin Davis) a miscarriage in the context of several pregnancy difficulties.
Here's the kicker, though: every time a show makes this "brave" step, every time a woman talks openly about miscarriages, the press blows up. It's still seen as a radical breaking of barriers — because the wall of silence comes down again after each new instance. And that's because, on a fundamental level, it scares us.
2. It's Far More Common Than You Probably Think
Miscarriage and stillbirth are elements of my family's fertility history. My mother's mother gave birth to a stillborn boy; one aunt had so many miscarriages in her pursuit of a child that I genuinely cannot remember the right number. (It was more than five, and I certainly am not going to call her up to check. Her only son is now a teenager.) We didn't talk about it, and carried around the weird idea that our bloodline had a kink in it, that we carried an odd curse. The statistics, however, indicate that we're very much not alone.
Tommy's, a non-profit focussing on stillbirth, miscarriage, and premature birth, puts the number of miscarriages at 15 to 20 percent of recognized pregnancies. That's one in five. It's an estimate, but it's still a seriously powerful one — and the charity further points out that 85 percent of these miscarriages take place before the twelfth week of pregnancy. Hence why many people wait until after the end of the first trimester to announce a pregnancy; the chances of loss go down after that.
But the point needs to be made — a huge amount of pregnancies aren't going to make it, and it's cruel to make so many women suffer in silence.
3. Parents Can Believe It's Somehow Their Fault
Here's the big thing about miscarriages: many of them are caused by the body determining that the baby has chromosomal problems that won't let it grow, and spontaneously aborting it. There is absolutely nothing — zero — that parents can do about it. But many of them, understandably, feel crushingly responsible for it, and take it as a personal failure. Did they do something wrong?
Chances are that they didn't. Among the seven most common causes of miscarriage, including uterine problems, the immune system rejecting "foreign" sperm, thyroid disorders, and infections, lifestyle does take its place — but that means drug use, smoking, or more than two drinks a day while pregnant. Not, say, failing to eat enough green vegetables, or wanting it enough.
Chan and Zuckerberg put the experience of personal responsibility pretty clearly in their Facebook post about their three miscarriages. "Most people don’t discuss miscarriages because you worry your problems will distance you or reflect upon you — as if you’re defective or did something to cause this. So you struggle on your own.” If we talked more widely about this, the illusion of "defective" pregnancy, the "fault," would be more easily dismissed. But the silence just compounds feelings of misplaced misery.
4. It's A Culture Of Silence Based On "Bad Luck"
Miscarriage leaves us helpless. It's one of the last parts of modern life that can be seen as an act of God: sudden, unable to be stopped, and irreversible once it's done. And it also carries huge, unconscious connotations of bad luck, of contagion: a miscarrying couple may find themselves shunned because other conceiving couples simply can't bear to be around them, for fear — irrationally — of sharing their fate. Don't talk about it, or it might happen to you.
Pregnancy is one of the most superstition-ridden parts of modern life, most of which are aimed at banishing ill fortune for the mother and child. So isolation from a couple that incarnates that bad luck makes a kind of primitive sense — but it's very damaging.
It's also seen as weirdly too intimate, too miserable and horrid, to be shared honestly. The power of positive thinking has such a serious role in how we talk about modern conception that "dwelling on" miscarriage is almost seen as actively fermenting misery. You may have another kid! Why dwell and make other people unhappy? Get onto it! Let's face it: we're squeamish.
5. Fertility Struggles Influence Parenting Choices
Miscarriage shapes things. It can color who you are, what happens in your relationship, and what kind of parent you ultimately become. It's foolish and irrational to dismiss it as a silent thing to be dwelt upon only in times of negativity.
A 1990 study showed that, if parents experienced struggles with infertility before having a child, they were far more likely to be very critical of their own parenting, rating it as "overprotective/child-centered and/or abusive/neglectful". However, it also seems that they rated their marriages as much happier once they managed to conceive successfully.
But there's another side to that critical self-consciousness: deliberate, very considered parenting. People who'd gone through a variety of IVF procedures (indicating a struggle to conceive) were, according to a 2003 study, less stressed overall, which the authors thought was due to the fact they'd tried so hard for a child and that they were planning everything scrupulously. Putting miscarriages out into the cold is ignoring a very big factor in how people eventually treat their children, and what kind of parents they evolve into. Ignoring that is stupid.
So let's make discussion of miscarriage a normal thing. Keeping it as a whispers-in-the-sidelines, Her-Secret-Tragedy-headline issue is not preserving privacy, healing pain, or helping sufferers. It's just compounding feelings of guilt, isolation, and helplessness — and letting people air their experience more openly can only help to dismiss ignorance and shed light where it's badly needed.