A miscarriage is a natural and common event. All told, probably more women have lost a child from this world than haven’t. Most don’t mention it, and they go on from day to day as if it hadn’t happened, and so people imagine that woman in this situation never really knew or loved what she had.
But ask her sometime: How old would your child be now? And she’ll know.
—Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams
My son would be turning 20 this month. He was due on December 15, 1996. But in June of 1996, when I was entering the second week of my second trimester, I had a miscarriage — in medical terms, a spontaneous abortion — while preparing to deliver a paper at a prestigious women’s history conference a thousand miles from home.
The grief I felt over my miscarriage was accompanied by a sense that there was no space for my pain. You’ll find plenty of “congratulations, you’re expecting!” or “you have a new bundle of joy” cards at the local stationery store. But condolence cards for pregnancy loss are hard to find.
That’s probably because miscarriage is not a loss that people feel comfortable commenting upon. Ours is a culture that has no ritual for acknowledging the loss of a pregnancy. When I spoke at a Unitarian church about my miscarriage during a Mother’s Day service, word got back to me that many women appreciated my honesty. A large number of men, however, did not understand why I felt a need to talk about it, and certainly not on Mother’s Day.
Last week, the state of Texas enacted regulations that would make miscarriage even more traumatic for women. The rules require that all fetal remains — whether the result of miscarriage, abortion, or stillbirth — receive burial or cremation.
Texas is not alone in trying to mandate fetal burial. South Carolina, Mississippi, and Ohio have been trying to pass similar laws, and Indiana recently had its fetal burial law blocked by a court — much to the dismay of Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
I am horrified by the Texas regulations and others like it. The regulations are framed as a way to show “respect for the sanctity of life,” as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott put it in an email to supporters.
In reality they take agency away from women who’ve had an abortion or miscarriage, forcing them to treat these events as the equivalent to the death of a family member.
Miscarriage is a common event. Mine occurred late enough in my pregnancy that I thought I had gotten past the danger period and it was therefore safe for me to start dreaming about my growing child. But most miscarriages occur in the first trimester. A woman who loses a pregnancy at seven or eight weeks may not want to dwell on the loss. If she wants to be pregnant again, she has to be willing to take the risk that she could lose another pregnancy. Being forced to treat each miscarriage as a major loss isn’t compassionate.
Every woman who’s had an abortion or miscarriage processes it differently. The Texas regulations leave no room for that.
What it’s like to have a miscarriage
I flew to Chapel Hill at the beginning of June 1996. I was delivering a paper as part of a panel at the Berkshire Women’s History Conference. The first morning of the conference, I picked at my breakfast in the dormitory cafeteria. My hands trembled, and I felt a wave of anxiety pass over me. Something felt wrong. I tried to convince myself that I was just nervous about meeting the famous historians who were scheduled to be at the first session. But my back and groin hurt. I went into the public bathroom and sat down on the toilet. Something passed out of me. It wasn’t bloody; it looked like a phlegmy globule that an old man would spit on the sidewalk.
I went out to the information desk and told someone that I wasn’t sure but I thought I was having a miscarriage. The young woman called 911 and insisted I lie down on one of the lounge couches.
As firefighters wearing heavy boots and waterproof pants klomped across the floor, their presence made me feel silly. When one of them asked me what was going on, I explained to him that I had passed something that I thought was about “the size of a golf ball.” He asked me how far along I was. When I told him 13 weeks, he said that he didn’t think that could be a miscarriage since the fetus should have been bigger than that. I felt even more stupid, but happy. I couldn’t be having a miscarriage — the male firefighter had just told me I wasn’t.
The EMTs transported me to the UNC hospital. I felt ready to climb off the gurney and go home, convinced that I was wasting everyone’s time. I asked the nurse if I could go to the bathroom while I was waiting for the OB-GYN resident, but in the stall, my crimson stained underpants caused panic to wash back through me. I cried as I told the male resident that I was bleeding, but he reassured me that bleeding didn’t mean I was going to lose the pregnancy. He passed an ultrasound wand over my belly, and there was my baby.
“I think you have a 90 percent chance of carrying this baby to term,” the resident told me. “I’m going to release you. Go back to the dorm room. Put your feet up. You’ll be fine.”
The conference staff sent a car to pick me up and I apologized nonstop for causing so much drama. I didn’t want to go back to my room and put my feet up. The historian whose work I wanted to model my work on was speaking at one o’clock, and I figured I could just as easily go to the talk and sit there.
The jam-packed room buzzed with voices. I nabbed one of the last chairs, one of those old-fashioned wooden desks with a chair attached to it. I squeezed myself behind the desk, put my bag next to me.
When I was a kid, our pregnant dog skittered away from the first puppy that dropped out of her body in a burst of fluid. I saw that white dog in my mind as an enormous whooosh passed through my body. I clamped my legs together, grabbed my bag, and hobbled out of the room. I heard someone “tsk-tsk” at the rudeness of my exit, and I wanted to apologize, but I was scared that I was going to pee all over myself and all over the hardwood floors.
I waddled into the women’s room. No one was in there, but multiple mirrors magnified the white tiles, making it look like a sterile operating room. I went into a stall. I hurt. So much. My back hurt. My pelvis hurt.
Something passed through me. Something big, like a softball. I felt it get stuck for just a second, then I heard it plop as it hit the water.
I didn’t want to look. I couldn’t look. If I looked, my life was going to end. I stopped thinking. I flushed the toilet without looking behind me. I pulled up my pants. I washed my hands. Fluid poured down my legs. I could feel the back of my dress dampening. I couldn’t look. If I didn’t look, this wasn’t happening. I walked down a long, long staircase and walked the hallway until I found the conference organizers’ room. A woman stood behind a table. “Excuse me,” I said in a normal conversational tone. “I seem to be hemorrhaging. I think I need some help.”
When the EMTs pulled up, it was the same two young men who had attended me that morning.
“Oh, God,” I said. “I think I lost my baby.”
When he asked me where I had been when it happened, I tasted the darkness of shame. “Oh God. I think I flushed my baby down the toilet.” Who was that person who had done that? Who was she? How could I have done that?
In the ambulance, I told the EMT that I wasn’t sure I had had a miscarriage. That perhaps, just like this morning, I had passed some mucus. Even though my dress was soaked with blood and amniotic fluid, I continued to talk to him about the possibilities that we were going to get to the hospital and the doctor was going to tell me once again that the baby was fine.
A different doctor came into the exam room. The OB-GYN resident, the one who had told me I was going to have a healthy baby, wasn’t there. “We have the fetus,” the new doctor said to me.
“Excuse me,” I said. “You mean I did have a miscarriage?”
He said yes. I told him he couldn’t have the fetus — I had flushed it down the toilet. It turned out the second EMT had retrieved it.
“You are going to get through this,” the doctor said. “My wife and I lost a baby six weeks ago. I know how much this hurts. But you’re going to be okay.”
That was his first kindness. His second kindness came when he performed the ultrasound. “I am going to turn the screen away from you,” he said. “I know that you saw your baby this morning, and I don’t want you to see that it’s not there anymore.” Small kindnesses, but they meant so much in the moments in which they were offered.
It turned out that not everything had been expelled. I needed a dilation and curettage to remove the remaining bits of my pregnancy that hadn’t been expelled when the fetus was. And it was a good thing that I went to the hospital. Without the emergency dilation and curettage that I had, I might have developed the kind of infection that used to kill women back in the days when childbed fever was prevalent.
The doctor asked me if I wanted an autopsy performed on the fetus. He said that most of the time, the pathologist would not be able to determine a cause for the miscarriage, but that any information that was gathered might become part of the body of research on spontaneous abortion. I agreed to it. I knew that the fetus was beyond pain. At this point, it was a piece of me that had come loose. Nothing could happen to that fetus under the scalpel of a pathologist that was going to hurt it. It — I decided it was a “he” — was dead. If, however, any information could be gained by examining the fetus, then I wanted my loss to have some possibility of meaning something. They would send me a pathology report later.
Even though my miscarriage technically occurred away from a hospital, under the current Texas regulations, I would still need to let my fetus’s remains be buried or cremated — because I had to have the dilation and curettage procedure.
I think about what would have happened if I’d been told that I had to let my fetus be buried or cremated. I was allowed the option of arranging for burial, but I declined. The decision to have the fetus autopsied instead felt like the right thing to do for me. I believe science can improve our lives, and I wanted to believe that some clue found in the autopsy might help another woman avoid a miscarriage in the future. I knew this was a bit of magical thinking, but it brought me greater comfort than burial would have — especially a state-mandated burial.
“If I start feeling this, I’m going to break into a million pieces”
My husband flew down from New York and flew with me back home. A close friend had watched our daughter overnight. She greeted me with a hug, and started to tell me how sorry she was. “Please don’t,” I said. “If I start feeling this, I’m going to break into a million pieces.”
Flowers arrived from my department and my husband’s work and from another friend. My parents were devastated, and I found myself comforting my father on the phone as he cried. Other than that, though, the phone was silent. It was as if nothing had happened. I called my male adviser on Monday to report to him about the conference, and told him about the miscarriage. I mentioned to him that I was worried that when my grief “caught up with me” that it would affect my ability to get my dissertation work done.
“I can’t imagine that you’ll grieve for too long,” he said, in a clumsy effort to comfort me. “After all, it’s not like you lost a real child.”
While his comment sounded cruel, at least it was an acknowledgment of my loss.
When I took my daughter to soccer practice a few days after getting home, I heard a few “I’m sorrys,” but it didn’t feel as if anyone wanted to talk to me. I don’t think it was malicious. I felt their ambivalence. I found myself quickly trying to intellectualize my loss by turning it into a feminist issue that I could analyze.
After all, I was pro-choice, and nothing had changed my mind about a woman’s right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term. Were people perhaps feeling that because I was a feminist, I wasn’t going to be grieving a pregnancy loss? Were they afraid of saying the wrong thing, somehow thinking that they would offend me if they talked about my loss? And what about me? Had this changed how I felt about abortion?
I had asked myself the same thing after I had given birth to my first daughter, and the answer remained the same. My first pregnancy had been difficult. I had spent 10 weeks on bed rest, and then 30 hours in labor. Pregnancy still killed women, even in America. Pregnancy had to be a choice. This interrupted pregnancy hadn’t changed any of those feelings.
Thinking about the miscarriage rationally seemed to reconnect me to my feelings. Now I wanted to talk about it, but my husband told me he was “done” grieving. “I don’t want to think about it anymore,” he told me. “You didn’t want to talk about it when it happened, so I cried by myself. Now I’m done. I don’t want to be sad anymore.”
When I lost my pregnancy, it wasn’t the physical body of the fetus that I mourned
I can’t speak for all women. I can only speak for myself. But when I lost my pregnancy, it wasn’t the physical body of the fetus that I mourned. I didn’t touch that corpse. I never felt it. In a deliberate decision that I’m convinced my rational mind made even as I was going into shock, I did not look at what my body had expelled. I didn’t want my memories of my loss to be about the quasi-modal body of a 13-week fetus. I was mourning the hope of a child who I was going to love and raise. I was mourning a projection of a child.
Gov. Abbott says that he wants to promote a respect for life, but with the law, he has shown that he has no respect for the human lives that belong to women. To assume that one has to bury a fetus to respect it shows the limitations of his compassion. Those who insist on burying fetuses turn them into fetish objects instead of recognizing them for the lost hopes and dreams they represent.
Lorraine Berry's work appears at such outlets as the Guardian, Raw Story, LitHub, and Talking Writing, where she is a contributing editor. She and her partner run amberSands Creative. Find her on Twitter @BerryFLW.