In my mother’s generation, women didn’t have miscarriages. And they didn’t have stillbirths. Babies were simply born, or they weren’t.
Except of course that isn’t true. Women did experience pregnancy loss, it just wasn’t talked about. Stillborn babies were born and never mentioned again. Miscarriages were dealt with discreetly in a doctor’s surgery. There were no magazine articles or support groups. Pregnancy loss was something that women suffered in silence, and solitude.
Today, thank goodness, much of the taboo has been lifted. For any of us who have experienced pregnancy loss, there are thousands of stories to read. In parenting magazines, pregnancy magazines, women’s mags and dedicated online forums, mothers-to-be share their tales of miscarriage and still-birth, of neonatal death and fertility challenges.
However, one can only see what remains of a taboo when someone breaks it. And the writer Ariel Levy did just that this week with her astonishingly powerful description of late-term miscarriage in an essay in the New Yorker.
It isn’t just the beauty of her words that shatters one of the enduring taboos on pregnancy loss. It is the fact that her piece was run in a literary publication, known for its serious reportage, as opposed to a dedicated pregnancy/parenting site. And her essay departs from the usual paradigm of the miscarriage tale, in which the pregnancy itself is the story in its entirety.
Ariel Levy’s pregnancy is described within a wider context: her lifelong love of writing and travelling, and her journey to Mongolia whilst five months pregnant with her first child. She establishes herself in the essay as a woman first - a traveler and a journalist and a daughter and partner – before embarking upon the story of her pregnancy. Even the pregnancy becomes a travel metaphor of sorts – a journey into the unknown, set against her travel to an unknown country. And this is significant. It is significant because this makes her story relatable to anyone who reads it, not just women who have experienced miscarriage themselves.
Ariel also breaks another taboo – the idea of women experiencing ambivalence before getting pregnant in the first place. We mothers aren’t supposed to be ambivalent about having babies. We are supposed to know from childhood that we want to reproduce, and begin pursuing our dream before our biological clock begins ticking. Ariel waited until she was 38 years old, and is thrilled when she easily falls pregnant for the first time.
Most poignantly to me, though, is Ariel’s description of the guilt she feels after she loses her baby. We all feel guilt when a baby dies, whether it is through miscarriage or stillbirth, through neonatal death or SIDS. We blame ourselves, because we should have protected our child. We could have done something more, something different, we should have seen, we should have known. The doctors tell us otherwise, our friends tell us otherwise, our logic and reason tell us otherwise, but this is how we feel.
Her guilt resonates with me. It breaks my heart.
Still, as wrenching as the piece is, it ends in gratitude. Because, as much as Ariel grieves the loss of her child, she is grateful for the time she spent with him. Even though her son was born at nineteen weeks, he was born alive, and lived for a short period of time. And, as she writes,
“.. the ten or twenty minutes I was somebody’s mother were black magic. There is no adventure I would trade them for; there is no place I would rather have seen.”
She talks about the hurt, and the loss, but, she finishes, “Most of the time it seems sort of O.K.”
This is such an important lesson for us all to learn. There is grief and loss, there is pain and heartbreak. But even from pain can come gratitude. Even from loss can come love.
Most importantly, however, is that Ariel has further broadened the discussion about pregnancy loss. She has taken it out of the specialist parenting forums and into the public arena. And for me, and my mother’s generation, and for women everywhere, this can only be a positive step.
Chat to other women on the Essential Baby forums about miscarriage.