Motherhood Lost

Is Pregnancy the Only Recovery?
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 20 2003 2:40 PM

Motherhood Lost

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Dear Emily,

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The impulse I'm fighting is to commend you on your "bravery" in writing so personally about your loss—maybe because it would make me feel brave, too, rather than merely exposed. Which goes to Layne's central point about miscarriage as something secret and shameful, something two magazine editors don't discuss in public. One of the most poignant moments in Motherhood Lost is Layne's description of forcing herself to give a speech at a conference as one of her seven miscarriages was actually in progress, just "so my personal loss would not be compounded by a professional loss." It never occurred to me until I read this that my act of filing a story a year ago last December—the same day an ultrasound revealed that my pregnancy was over, and in the hours before a harrowing D and C—was similarly an attempt to show my colleagues and myself that my professional life would not be compromised by a dead baby in my womb.

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

Yes, Layne is right to point out the Catch-22 in which feminists are caught by "dehumanizing" babies before viability. But the universality of the taboo on discussing miscarriage—the fact that our grandmothers and great aunts never discussed theirs either—suggests that the shame surrounding pregnancy loss predates feminist politics. I think one of Layne's great insights is that we all falter around miscarriage because society has no "cultural scripts" for dealing with it. There are no rituals, no expectations, no Hallmark cards for miscarriage—as there are in abundance for illness, death, or the loss of a pet. For a lack of such scripts, women who miscarry endure most of it in silence and solitude. "My Own Private Elba," I called it, as I lay in bed after my D and C, wondering why I was being doubly punished: first by the death of this baby we already loved so desperately, then by all the people working so hard to erase all traces of it. I think I agree with you that one needn't "go through this to get it." But I also suspect that, with a handful of shining exceptions, the people who best knew how to be with us through all this had gone through it. They had the scripts, or wrote new ones. They were the ones who drove for miles and showed up at the door. They were the ones who called and listened, instead of providing the universally cheerless comfort that this is "just Mother Nature's way of rooting out the defective babies." Like you, that line offered me no solace. It just meant Mother Nature was a bitch.

I miscarried at 12 weeks last winter, just after we'd announced the news to anything with a pulse on this planet. Like you, I couldn't help blaming myself. If the authors of What To Expect When You're Expecting inculcate any single conviction in the newly pregnant, it's that if you eat your 2,000 servings of grains and lentils and spinach each day, stuff like this wouldn't happen. I think ours is a generation of women who are uniquely captive to the illusion of control: If you study for the test, you do well. If you take the Kaplan class, you get into the good schools. If you drink your V-8, the baby will be fine. When it's not fine, you have two choices: Blame yourself, or lean hard on your spiritual life. One of the things I wanted to ask you about was whether all the rhetoric and poems and drawings of angel babies in Layne's book was alienating to you? So many of the pregnancy-loss chat rooms (virtually the only public forum for coping with miscarriage) are filled with women whose grief is expressed though images, symbols, and beliefs that I found quite foreign in the days after my own loss.

After the miscarriage I spent seven months in that "liminal" space described by Layne as not-motherhood. I was nearly debilitated by the No. 1 symptom of life after miscarriage: blinding jealousy of anyone pregnant, recently delivered, or who appeared to be ovulating. (Don't ask how I could tell who was ovulating. Miscarriage-related insanity is a terrifying thing.) A friend who'd miscarried warned me candidly that you really never are quite OK until you get pregnant again, and, at least in my case, she was right. Which probably answers your question about whether my sense of self was assaulted. My sense of self was flattened. I became unrecognizable to me.

As I write to you, my No. 2 baby is doing that garbage-can lid scene from Stomp against my rib cage. And I can't help but wonder: Could you and I have read this book at all—could we have written even one line of this dialogue, if we hadn't managed to become pregnant again?

Yours,
Dahlia

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