Motherhood Lost

A Lot of Hush
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 20 2003 11:29 AM

Motherhood Lost

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Dear Dahlia,

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I didn't have fun reading Motherhood Lost. Actually, the book is excruciating. The author, Linda L. Layne, is a feminist anthropologist who examines miscarriage and stillbirth by studying the support groups that help women cope with their grief.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon
Dahlia Lithwick is a senior editor at Slate; Emily Bazelon does the same at Legal Affairs. Both are extremely pregnant.

Pregnancy loss is a smart choice of subject for an anthropologist; as Layne observes, it's still a taboo topic. Drop "when I miscarried last spring" into a casual conversation and it sinks like a stone. The awkward hush that surrounds the subject—and often adds to women's grief—is one of Layne's themes. Which is why, despite the pain that infuses every page, I found her book oddly healing to read.

I miscarried last spring, when I lost a pregnancy at 14 weeks, two years after giving birth to a healthy baby. And though at the time I had no way of knowing I'd get pregnant again quickly, I'm eight months along as I write to you. This seems important to say because I found the most harrowing voices in Layne's book to be those of the women who had miscarried repeatedly or lost a baby at or near full term. I'm not them. Still, when Layne writes of her own seven miscarriages, "I experienced these losses as an assault on my sense of self," I think that in some small way, I know what she's talking about. Did you feel something like that, too?

Some women who miscarry find out from cramping or bleeding; others say they feel a psychological connection snap. I thought everything was fine until my midwife couldn't detect a fetal heartbeat at a routine checkup and sent me for an ultrasound. I couldn't see the screen from where I lay, so I watched the technician while my husband gripped my ankle. I knew from her expression before she said a word. I asked to see the baby—I'm pretty sure I used that word, since to me that's what it was. The technician said gently that, well, there were two. In the space of a breath I'd gone from buoyantly carrying the beginnings of one child to heavily bearing the endings of twins.

Mis-carry: The word itself creeps with guilty error, as if you've carelessly dropped something you were meant to hold. Layne is very good on how the experience undoes one's sense of control. Pregnancy comes with a list of dos and don'ts, and doctors and the women's health movement like to emphasize the responsibility we have for our bodies. So, when you miscarry, it's hard not to feel like you did something wrong. I couldn't quite believe my midwife when she said it wasn't my fault. I kept replaying what I'd said a week or two earlier when a friend asked me whether I might be carrying twins. "God, I hope not," I'd said, daunted enough by the challenge of caring for one new child. "What if they knew?" I whispered to my husband. "What if they felt like I didn't want them?" I know, I know, it's crazy. But it still troubles me.

When people tried to comfort me with some version of "It's all for the best," I wanted to scream. I knew that most miscarriages involve a chromosomal defect, but the statistics weren't me. I didn't want to hear that my babies were better off not having been born.

That said, talking to people has been the best tonic for me. I had spread the news that I was pregnant after passing the supposed 12-week safety line, so I didn't have the option of keeping my loss to myself. That turned out to be a blessing. Other women who'd miscarried—friends, a former professor, my sister-in-law, my boss's wife—helped me take my grief seriously. As I unraveled—there was a long time when I didn't think about anything else—I held on to the idea that I was joining a sad but wise tribe. The women in Layne's book find similar comfort in SHARE and UNITE, the national support groups she studied.

Still, I don't mean to suggest that you have to go through this to get it. When the father of one of my son's friends ran across the street one morning to give me a hug, I felt like he understood exactly how I felt, even though (or because) his wife had just given birth to their second healthy child.

Which makes me wonder why the common assumption is still that it's better, or in better taste, to grieve for the loss of a pregnancy in private. I wonder if the politics of reproduction have made feminists lose sight of what should be just as important a concern—the effect a miscarriage has on many women's psyches. Pro-choice women have trained themselves to think that life begins at viability; when we miscarry, we're disturbed to find ourselves mourning a child rather than a mass of developing cells. Layne observes that feminists are generally much more comfortable celebrating happy outcomes than they are grieving for a lost fetus, for fear of acknowledging its personhood. Between 20 percent and 25 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, three percent of them after 16 weeks. That's a lot of awkward hush. Shouldn't we be talking openly about this much more often, so that we're better prepared for the grief when it hits us?

Yours,
Emily

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