Having a Miscarriage Is Not Just Cramps, Blood, and Sadness. Here’s What It’s Really Like.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Jan. 24 2014 8:08 AM

Losing the Baby

My week of gestational limbo.

Young woman looking over shoulder at camera
A miscarriage isn't always a quick event. It can last for weeks.

Photo by Laurence Mouton/Thinkstock

Last month, I decorated a Christmas tree, baked holiday cookies, and wrapped dozens of presents. All the while, I was having a miscarriage.

On TV and in the movies, a miscarriage involves an unsuspecting mother-to-be suddenly clutching her gut, discovering some worrisome blood, and rushing to the hospital. A few hours later she lies wanly in bed while her loved ones whisper that she has “lost the baby.” Parenting websites explain the causes of miscarriage and encourage you to be optimistic about your future chances of conception. They tell you it’s OK to grieve. But like the TV shows that cut quickly from the sudden cramping to the sad, hushed aftermath, they don't tell you anything about what a miscarriage is actually like.

Let me tell you about my miscarriage.

Advertisement

When my pregnancy should have been about nine weeks along, my husband and I headed into the doctor's office for my first ultrasound. It was a Tuesday, Christmas Eve. We were looking forward to seeing an amorphous gray blob on the screen and trying earnestly to see in it our future baby boy or girl; we were eager to hear a heartbeat. But the image that popped up on the monitor was far less encouraging: a dense black patch containing no tiny pulsating heart, no cryptic but exhilarating gray squiggles.

Here’s the primary thing they never tell you about miscarriage: When used by medical professionals, the word refers to the entirety of a nonviable early pregnancy, a period that can span weeks. It starts when cell division in the embryo grinds quietly to a halt; the blood and the passing of tissue that we think of as “a miscarriage” are but the final phase. It is a lingering process. For a full week I was in a sort of gestational limbo, feeling neither pregnant nor truly unpregnant.

This ambiguity left me painfully confused about the most mundane of situations. Hours after the ultrasound disappointment, my sister was ordering sushi for our family and I nearly cried when she asked what I wanted. There was no longer any real need to restrict myself to cucumber rolls and spider maki, but a spicy tuna roll—raw and potentially mercury-laced—just felt inappropriate, callous. Before Christmas dinner the next night I actually did shed tears trying to decide whether a glass of sauvignon blanc would help me relax or, after more than a month of temperance, simply throw my situation into painful relief.

Confusion was just one emotion. There has been the sadness, of course, like a mineshaft boring down behind my ribcage. There have been understandable, if unfounded, pinpricks of guilt as I wonder whether I could have done something differently to stop this from happening. These feelings are well covered by the baby blogs.

There have also, however, been unexpected and pervasive feeling of foolishness, the sense that I was being stupidly naive whenever I daydreamed about my future child. It is almost embarrassing to remember the light-hearted conversations about baby names, the nursery decoration ideas I saved on a secret Pinterest board called “Baby Rooms.” It seems that when I told my best friend, “I’m pregnant!” I already wasn't, not really, and I feel ridiculous and slightly ashamed whenever I think of that cheerful declaration.

At the same time, however, I can't help but wonder if I have grieved enough. On pregnancy websites and discussion boards, I read stories of women who cried for days and mourned for months after their miscarriages. That has not been me. I have cried and might again (a rack of onesies in Target the other day pushed some emotional buttons), but I confess it didn't take me long to begin healing. It took less than a week to start re-adjusting my expectations for the coming months so that they no longer included watching my belly slowly swell and feeling the kick of new life. Today, my lost pregnancy is a bittersweet might-have-been, not a gaping hole.

Occasionally, I even feel a bit relieved, though I know I’m not supposed to admit such a thing. My husband and I dearly wanted this almost-child, but we also worried whether we were ready, financially and emotionally, to expand our family. So, threaded through the heavy curtain of our mourning are a few silver threads of comfort. At least we no longer have to plan an expensive move. At least we’ll have less debt by the next pregnancy.

Among this whole assortment of emotions, however, the most burning feeling was anticipation. I found myself eagerly awaiting the one thing most pregnant women fear: the pain and the blood. I did not get the quick cut to post-miscarriage grieving. I started bleeding ever so slightly on a Thursday, two days after we received the crushing news. From that point on, I made every trip to the bathroom with a vigilant eye, assessing whether there was more blood this time than the last time. Every appointment I put in my calendar for the following week had a mental asterisk next to it: *as long as I am not curled up in bed, wracked with cramps.

Still, I wanted the worst to come. I wanted out of the confounding state of neither-nor, out of knowing the end was inevitable but still carrying within me some genetic fragment of my previous dreams. I wanted something physical and visible to give shape to the formless fog of unhappiness around me, something I could point to and say, “That. That is why, sometimes, out of the blue my hand starts shaking a little and why the tears pop up at the strangest of times.”

On Sunday, the slow trickle of blood escalated into the painful cramping and heavy bleeding that finally ushered the nonviable tissue from my body. I laid on the couch and watched football and crime dramas while my husband fetched pizza and made me hot chocolate. I was quiet and somber, but I did not cry. Over the following days, the bleeding ebbed, though it did not disappear completely for nearly a week. My body was still wrapping things up, putting the final touches on my brief brush with pregnancy.

Exactly one week after that first, sad ultrasound, I called the doctor's office to update her, as instructed, on the progress of my miscarriage. When my doctor was unavailable, the receptionist tried to determine where to route my call.

“Are you pregnant?” she asked.

“No,” I answered. “I am not.”

Sarah Shemkus is a Massachusetts-based writer and a frequent contributor to the Boston Globe, the Guardian, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

An Iranian Woman Was Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist. Can Activists Save Her?

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now.

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

The U.S. Has a New Problem in Syria: The Moderate Rebels Feel Like We’ve Betrayed Them

We Need to Talk: A Terrible Name for a Good Sports Show by and About Women

Trending News Channel
Oct. 1 2014 1:25 PM Japanese Cheerleader Robots Balance and Roll Around on Balls
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 1 2014 1:04 PM An Architectural Crusade Against the Tyranny of Straight Lines
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 2:08 PM We Need to Talk: Terrible Name, Good Show
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 3:02 PM The Best Show of the Summer Is Getting a Second Season
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 3:01 PM Netizen Report: Hong Kong Protests Trigger Surveillance and Social Media Censorship
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 2:36 PM Climate Science Is Settled Enough The Wall Street Journal’s fresh face of climate inaction.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.