Sam here. Mother of three, doula, divorcee, wife to a woman, caretaker of too many dogs. I’m guest posting today on behalf of all of us who have lost pregnancies or babies. We’re a ragged sorority, but I’m proud of us. We’ve loved deeply and we’ve endured trauma we never imagined we would. As a doula, I always prepare women that better or for worse, no amount of pain can actually kill them. If you’re part of the sorority, you know that’s true. So, pour some wine or grab some chocolate because like Sister Sledge said, ‘we are family and I need all my sisters with me’.
When I was pregnant for the first time, I did not wait the obligatory 12 weeks before telling our friends and family. I thought that if I lost the pregnancy, I would want my support system to know and be able to be there for me. I didn’t want to have to grieve alone. But when I lost that baby, I could not handle all the sad and pitying faces people made at me, even other women who had experienced the same thing. I couldn’t reconcile all the things that I was feeling with the platitudes that people were lending me. I wished that I hadn’t told anyone in the first place. When I got pregnant for the second time, I didn’t make an announcement. I thought that if I lost this pregnancy too, I didn’t want a whole public show of it. But I miscarried that baby in an airplane bathroom flying home from Guatemala so it turned out to be a real show after all.
So why are we damned if we do and damned if we don’t? Why is there still such a stigma around pregnancy and infant loss? WHY (*shakes her fist at the sky*) is it so taboo when it is so, so common? Why do men SURELY not know what to say, but even women who have been there before us still don’t know what to say (or not to say)? In an effort to help this double edged sword, here are some things we, the collective 20% who have experienced this kind of loss, wish everyone knew.
1. The stigma is rooted in sexism. There is this assumption about the perceived flaws and failures of women’s bodies that does not exist around men’s bodies. And it’s not the person, it’s the body. Women’s bodies have been used as weaponry since humans have existed. They can be blamed for everything from original sin to the fall of empires to tempting the poor Brock Turners of the world and forcing them to do tiny bits of jail time. Our bodies are expected to work miracles for men and for society at large, but they’re also held responsible for circumstances often beyond our control. We pity women’s bodies when they can’t carry out the job they were biologically designed to do. I have to imagine that if men’s bodies “failed” in this way, it would not be such a taboo subject. We would talk about it, we would respect it, and women collectively would support them. Can we flip this thinking?
2. All grief, about any kind of loss, is valid. I carried my first two pregnancies to 8 and 10 weeks gestation, respectively. Both of those experiences were traumatic and made me feel sadness in the core of my being I had never felt before and have not felt since. As a doula, I’ve watched women lose late-term pregnancies and lose their babies after birth. All of these bring deep grief, in very different ways. We need to stop comparing. Women, I’m talking to you. Your pain is not more or less than anyone else’s pain. I hate that we’re afraid to talk to or comfort one another because “her situation is so much worse than mine was” or “I don’t want to console her after what I’ve been through”. And here is a tough one, folks: abortion, although it is a choice, IS a loss and deserves to be grieved. Be the sisterhood you hope to see in the world. Hold your judgment and your comparisons.
3. Platitudes are the opposite of helpful. I cannot stress this enough. Here are just a handful I’ve heard:
- You’re so young, you have so much time
- Everything happens for a reason
- Heaven needed another angel (barf)
- At least you already have a child
- At least you know you can GET pregnant
- It was your body’s way of getting rid of an unhealthy pregnancy
Platitudes are things people say when they don’t know WHAT to say, but they feel uncomfortable sitting in someone else’s pain, so they try to make it better with a rote response. This is not actually ever helpful. Validation is helpful. Holding space is helpful. Gifts and phone calls with no expectation of return communication, are helpful.
4. Those babies will always be part of our families. We loved them. We loved them even if we panicked when we saw that positive pregnancy test. We loved them if we carried them for 5 weeks or 20 weeks or 40 weeks. We loved them if we chose adoption or abortion (yes, those decisions are forms of love). Not only do we love and remember these babies, they literally change us forever by changing our very cells.
“During pregnancy, the placenta allows a small transfer of cells between mother and fetus — a phenomenon called microchimerism. Each of us is born with our mother’s genetically distinct cells inside us, and our mothers end up taking in cells of ours.” -The Boston Globe.
We could not “get over” it if we tried. These fetal cells have been found by researchers in virtually every organ of a mother’s body, including the brain and heart. Every pregnancy permanently changes a woman’s identity. We will never not be that baby’s parent. Speak the baby’s name if there was a name. This will not contribute to a parent’s sadness, I assure you they are already sad. It will make them feel their sadness is valid and that their baby’s life mattered.
5. We need you to acknowledge our loss, but we do not need your pity. Save the sad face. Be brave and walk through our pain for a moment with us. Give a meaningful gift (a birthstone for baby’s birth month, a photo book of sonograms or belly pictures, something engraved with the baby’s name), remember the day of the loss and acknowledge it yearly, create a ceremony or remembrance of some kind. Do not hug us and stick out your bottom lip. We can feel the difference between pity and support.
We have got to normalize this experience of loss and the conversation around it. We have what it takes to break the stigma. There is so much to be said for the collective strength of women. We have the ability to draw upon the fortitude and vulnerability exhibited by all the women who have come before us. Think about it. Every woman is born with all the eggs she’ll ever ovulate. This means when your mother was a fetus inside HER mother’s womb, you were inside that fetus as an egg. This means some amount, however minuscule, of your grandmother’s cells are in you today. THAT is collective strength. Women are interconnected. Join the circle. Let the circle be unbroken.
Sam’s headshot was taken by the lovely, Siobhan Fisher of Siobhan Fisher Photography.