Motherhood Lost

Should Pregnant Women Be Warned More of Miscarriage?
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 21 2003 12:07 PM

Motherhood Lost

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Dear Dahlia,

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No, I couldn't have written this dialogue if I wasn't pregnant—not now or any time soon, anyway. Like you I spent months as an ovulation-obsessed wreck, mired in the self-absorbed muck that turns other people's good news into reason for tears. I know some women find it difficult when their husbands aren't as affected by a miscarriage as they are, but I was hugely grateful that mine remained his optimistic, even-keeled self. If we'd both been panicked by the passage of each unsuccessful month, our family would have gone into a tailspin.

My mantra for holding myself together—for trying to regain the illusion of control—was to set a time limit for all of this desperate trying. If I didn't get pregnant again within a year, I told myself, or if I had two more miscarriages, I was going to think hard about stopping. I imagine that's the opposite of what a lot of women find comforting, and I'm sure that having one biological child made the idea of forgoing a second one easier, or even possible, to contemplate. But I thought a lot about two older women I know who went through hell to have their own babies and ended up adopting wonderful kids, and I decided that I wasn't going to spend years measuring my self-worth by the stick in a pregnancy test kit. I wanted to remember that being a mother is about the many years of raising a child, not the nine months of feeling it grow inside you.

Reading Layne's book while in not-pregnant limbo might have been unbearable, but reading it now also verged on masochism. There are women in the book who embroider tiny footprints onto blankets, make shrines out of never-worn baby clothes, and photograph their stillborn children. All of that heartbreak makes for tough reading—I couldn't help prodding my belly to coax a yes-I'm-still-here kick. These women's stories uncover what modern obstetrics buries: Pregnancy can go wrong at any time. Without giving data about how the statistics have changed over time, Layne notes that tens of thousands of late-term and at-birth losses still happen every year. After I woke my husband at 3 a.m. once to talk about tangled umbilical cords, he banned Motherhood Lost as bedtime reading. 

Still, I think the book's focus on birth disasters is a contribution. When I got pregnant again last summer, I tried for a few days to pretend that this time, I wouldn't fall in love with the baby until I knew we were in it for the long haul. Ha. I couldn't slog through nausea and exhaustion and take vitamins and stop drinking wine and coffee while fooling myself into believing that I'd be just fine if the whole thing fell apart again. I wonder how you felt? I decided that being pregnant meant keeping two colliding realities in my heart and mind from week 1 to week 40: My baby needs me to take care of him and to anticipate his birth. My baby may not be born.

I'm convinced that glossing over that possibility is a bad idea. My first son was born with a serious case of pneumonia; within minutes a team of residents whisked him off to the Newborn Intensive Care Unit, put him under an oxygen mask, and strapped down his arms and legs so he wouldn't pull out his IV line. The neonatologist on duty told us that he might die. Nothing could have made that experience OK other than Eli's recovery, brought about by a week of antibiotics. But the utter lack of discussion of sick newborns or the NICU in the pregnancy books I'd read and the childbirth classes I'd taken made me feel like we'd entered some freakish and shameful parallel universe. Layne catalogues the pregnancy books that either shunt all mention of miscarriage and stillbirth into a brief afterthought chapter or euphemistically refer to them as "unpleasant possibilities." Am I missing something, or is the one-note insistence on happy, healthy births wrongheaded?

Like you, I'm not into drawings of angel babies or poems about flowers and butterflies. But the chat rooms are full of them, I think, because of the cultural and ritual vacuum you identified. I'll confess to you that in the days after I miscarried, I worried over what had happened to my babies' souls—even though I couldn't tell you exactly what I think souls are. A good friend who miscarried twice told me that after a time, she took comfort in thinking about her unborn babies. Maybe they're benevolent beings who are out there somewhere, she said, tied to us if only in memory.

Yours,
Emily

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