When I was pregnant with my first child, my coworkers kept tabs on me to make sure I wasn’t lifting boxes they deemed too heavy. At a movie theater, an older woman encouraged me to skip ahead of her in line for the bathroom. And once on the subway, a stranger reprimanded the entire car for not giving me a seat. All this is to say that I experienced an almost unanimous sense of charity, protection, and respect as a mother with child.
That is, until I suffered a miscarriage.
In January 2012, at the twelve-week ultrasound for my second child, I learned that the baby—who had seemed perfectly healthy a few weeks before—had no heartbeat.
At my obstetrician’s office the following day, I waited an hour and twenty minutes for my appointment, after which the doctor offered neither an apology for the wait nor a gesture of sympathy for the miscarriage.
The next day, after undergoing a dilation and curettage procedure to remove what my body had not yet naturally expelled from my uterus, a nurse told me not to worry about what had happened to my child’s body. “It just looks like a bunch of tissue,” she told me.
That tissue had made me a mother for the second time. And now, somehow, it didn’t. I realized that in some people’s eyes I wasn’t a mother anymore.
And yet the feelings of loss I experienced were very real. I cried every day. I had trouble sleeping at night. I began to knit almost compulsively. I had an insatiable desire to create something, as if it would make up for what I had lost.
When people asked me how many children I had, I didn’t know what to say. Did the child I’d lost count?
Along with most other women I’ve encountered who have suffered one or more miscarriages, I’ve found that there too often lurks a societal misconception that losing a child before birth is a lesser-than kind of grief.
I’ve noticed a discrepancy when it comes to our culture’s view of celebrating an expected child and mourning its unexpected death. Peruse your local card store, and you will see cards celebrating the “mommy-to-be” or congratulating parents on their “one on the way.” At what point does that woman become a mother? During labor? At the moment of delivery? Only if her child survives birth? When a child dies before being born or shortly after, does a mommy-to-be become a mommy-who-never-was?
To this day, I feel a pang of grief each time I hear the name I gave my child, Ethan, called out across the playground. When I open the first Harry Potter novel, I feel my insides tighten at the chapter titled “The Boy Who Lived.” Whenever I hear of others’ miscarriages, I experience a wave of sadness all over again.
From my perspective, I am still that child’s mother; I always will be. The pain doesn’t go away. It is real, and it counts.
MAKING A CHANGE
In the three years since losing Ethan, I am grateful to have had two other healthy children. I also started a growing miscarriage support group. Time and again, we talk about how painful it is to have people misunderstand or belittle our losses.
For us, part of our healing involves changing the way we speak. We simply refer to a pregnant woman as a mother, not as a mother-to-be. Instead of calling what is growing in her uterus a fetus or an embryo, we call it a child, a son, or a daughter. Instead of talking about the birth as the day on which the baby “arrives,” we talk about the time when we will meet the new baby.
So many women I’ve met have had the false impression that their feelings of grief post-miscarriage were over the top or too serious for such a loss. They felt that they were not supposed to be as sad as they were. And yet, I think most people would agree that the pain of a parent losing a child is great suffering. Why should it be any different when we didn’t get to meet our children face-to-face or watch them draw a breath?
I think that if society offers a little more sensitivity and makes these seemingly minor yet powerful changes in speech, the door will open for more women to feel comfortable talking about their miscarriages. It is only together and through those conversations that we can grow in compassion, understanding, and healing.