Seven years ago, I had a miscarriage. Somewhere between eight and 10 weeks into the pregnancy, I started spotting. I knew that light bleeding wasn't always a bad sign during early pregnancy, but I did know that it could signal a miscarriage. I felt nervous. I think I cried a little.
I was out of state for my nephew’s baptism, but when I returned a couple days later, the ultrasound at my doctor’s office confirmed there was no heartbeat. I don’t remember my emotional reaction. I got in a cab and went to work. A half hour after finding out my unborn baby had died, I was editing magazine copy. A few days later, I went for my D&C. I told colleagues I was having “a medical procedure.”
I didn’t feel numb. I just didn’t feel much of anything. The worst part was answering questions from family members asking if I was OK…because I was OK, and this fact in itself made me feel guilty.
I felt weird for not crying more. I felt evil for not being more upset, particularly knowing that other women struggle to get pregnant in the first place. How dare I not be more affected by what had happened to me, if only to honor these other women’s experiences?
I hadn’t really thought much about the whole thing in years, until I got an email from the intimates company Knix, about the launch of their #FacesofFertility campaign to mark Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, today, October 15. As the memory of my miscarriage resurfaced, so did the guilt. When I read or hear about other women’s miscarriage experiences, it’s predominantly stories of emotional wreckage. You rarely hear about this other side of the reaction coin—the indifference I’d felt.
Am I the only one who’s felt this way? Am I an anomaly? Am I actually evil? No. Women’s feelings toward miscarriage are extremely varied, psychologist Rayna Markin, Ph.D., associate professor in counseling at Villanova University, tells SELF. Sometimes the grief is immediate and profound. Other times, it doesn’t surface for weeks, months, or years. Many times, it comes in and out, like a wave.
Although general openness about miscarriage has increased over the past few years, Markin, who specializes in counseling related to infertility and pregnancy loss, believes there remains a certain taboo in talking about it. Because of this, “we really don’t know [how others deal with it] because we have nothing to compare it to,” Markin says. “You wonder, ‘Is this a normal reaction? Is this not something people have?’ In that way it can be really isolating.”
She also explains that a woman’s reaction after a miscarriage can be related to how attached she felt to the baby. “Often times, women can, not purposely, but can distance themselves from the baby when they anticipate a loss, as a way of protecting themselves,” she says. “We see that a lot when women are pregnant after miscarriage, that during [the new] pregnancy, it can be hard for the woman to bond with the baby because she’s worried about losing that baby.”
But why would I not feel attached? I wanted that baby, and I hadn’t had a previous miscarriage. Perhaps it was because I already had one child? My son was 3 years old at the time. I do think I would have been much more distressed had this been my first pregnancy; I’m sure I’d have blamed my body for “malfunctioning” and feared I was incapable of carrying a child to term.
Could this be the reason for my blah-ness, I ask Markin? Do women who have kids typically feel less distraught about a miscarriage? “In my clinical experience, I wouldn’t say one is worse than the other,” she answers. “But when you don’t have children already, many women worry, ‘will I ever be able to have a child’?”
I did go on to get pregnant again, a year after the miscarriage. I had another boy, who is now 5.
In dredging up these feelings about my miscarriage, a new thought, a new version of guilt, emerged: If I had birthed that baby, the one I miscarried, I likely wouldn’t have my youngest son—my precocious, sweet-toothed, dancing little soul.
I can’t imagine what my life would be like without him. I remember telling my husband shortly after his birth that I felt he had really completed our family. Now, even thinking about the baby I miscarried feels like a betrayal to my son.
“There can be this fear that, as a parent, you’re replacing one baby with another,” Markin says. “I think it’s more helpful to think of subsequent children after loss as siblings to that baby that was lost rather than as a replacement. That allows you, as a parent, to love one child while also grieving another.”
But, at the time, I wasn’t grieving the other child, I think to myself, still unclear as to why I felt like I did seven years ago.
The reason starts to unfold as I’m on the phone with David Diamond, Ph.D., associate professor in the clinical Psy.D. program at Alliant International University and co-founder of the Center for Reproductive Psychology in San Diego. He asks if responding with restrained emotions—as I did after the miscarriage—is a “characteristic style” for me. Hardly. I am the queen of strong emotions. This reaction was, in fact, completely uncharacteristic.
He begins to explain the concept of a “lifelong reproductive story,” one that we all have. “You start to think consciously or unconsciously early in life about whether you’ll have kids or not, what your life will be like, and sometimes that’s not at the forefront of your mind, but the seeds get sewn early on,” he says. Each part of your reproductive story gives context to the other parts.
So I tell him about another part of my story, the birth of my first son. As soon as he was born—after 62 hours of labor followed by an induction—10 doctors rushed in. I never got to hold him. He was whisked away, and later, my husband told me our baby’s body was gray, and he thought that he was dead. Our baby stayed in the NICU for two weeks, covered with EEG electrodes to monitor the seizures he was having. “Why are you crying? He’s very, very handsome,” the technician said to me as I stood over his NICU bassinet, tears rolling down my cheeks.
Despite an uncomplicated pregnancy, my baby had had an in utero stroke, which they could pinpoint only to the four days before birth or during birth. He had bilateral brain damage, they said. He might have cerebral palsy, they said. He might never walk, they said. They didn’t really know what would happen—we’d just have to wait and see.
I didn’t even know babies could have strokes, but mine did. (According to the Children’s Hemiplegia and Stroke Association, 1 in 2,800 babies have what’s called a “perinatal stroke.”) I left the hospital with an empty car seat.
I swung into a serious postpartum depression. For the first four days, I lay on the couch, nauseous, unable to get up and go visit him in the NICU. People sent food, flowers, kind notes, and Dr. Pepper (which I drank by the vat-load then). For the next three years, we visited a neurologist every few months, who assessed our son’s development. “He’s lifting his head when he’s supposed to,” I’d say. “Does that mean everything is going to be ok?” “Now he’s walking—that proves something, right?” The answer was always the same: It’s a good sign, but we wouldn’t really know until the next visit. When we stopped seeing the neurologist, he told us, “I’d be surprised if there are no effects as a result of his birth experience.”
That baby is now 9 years old. He has pure blue eyes, a sprinkling of freckles, and the sweetest demeanor—literally never a bad word for anyone. You would never know what he went through by looking at him or talking to him. He’s an orange belt in karate who can also whoop your ass at Mario Kart and recite every evolution that Pokemons go through, with a sophisticated sense of humor and a fierce defense of his little brother. He does have some learning delays, so he attends a special ed class for reading and math, works with a tutor, and receives OT services at school. Occasionally he’ll get a physical tick, where he repeatedly moves his arm or his head in one direction, but they typically disappear within a month.
Doctors who see him for routine medical appointments, when told of his birth history, call him a miracle. I do believe he is a miracle. And I feared, in those first couple years after his birth, that if I got pregnant again, the same thing would happen…only this time we wouldn’t get another miracle.
I never connected what happened to my first son with my miscarriage response, but Diamond, co-author of Unsung Lullabies: Understanding and Coping With Infertility, sees the link immediately. “Nobody thinks they’re going to have a child with an in utero stroke,” he explains. “You perhaps approach the next pregnancy with that experience, that bad things can happen.”
Even though our son is thriving now, “still, it’s not the way you thought your child-bearing life was going to turn out. So there’s the loss of that sense of how you think it’s supposed to be. Having been through something like that, you might understandably want to have your emotions somewhat in check as you go through this next thing,” Diamond continues. “If you went through a lot when that was going on—it must have been horrible at the time—there’s accumulated trauma.” (My eyes well up.) “That’s one part of your reproductive story. When we look at your whole story, that first part is what we call a reproductive trauma.”
So the guilt I felt…and still feel—first, for not reacting passionately to the miscarriage, then in thinking about what the miscarriage meant in relation to my youngest son—is actually not that surprising of a reaction.
“Things mean different things to different people. And the meaning of things changes after a while,” Diamond says. “Later you have these other feelings, ‘well, if I had had that child, I wouldn’t have this child.’ It’s helpful to let people know that guilt and shame and other reactions are not abnormal in any way.”
There I have it…clarity. It feels strange.
And it’s sent me into an emotional tailspin. My husband and I talk about whether it’s OK to share this story about our first son so publicly—will other kids use it one day to taunt him? But we come to the conclusion that it’s nothing to be ashamed about, and that what it actually shows is his incredible ability to keep trying even when things are tougher for him; that the elasticity of the human brain is real; that doctors don’t always know how things will turn out; and that, for other parents who might be dealing with something similar, there is always hope. As a former boss wrote to me right after my first son’s birth, the most important thing for your child is that he’s happy, which both of our sons are.
If you've had a miscarriage or fertility issues—whether you want to speak about it or not—you should know that you are not alone. Knix's campaign aims to help end the stigma. From now through the end of October, the company will donate $ 1 to Resolve.org in the US and FertilityMatters.ca in Canada for every Instagram post tagged #FacesofFertility. The company has also partnered with Inkbox on two temporary tattoos, for sale on knix.com, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the above charities. One—created by illustrator Mary Purdie, who herself has experienced five miscarriages—shows a plant growing from a cloud with a raindrop, which Purdie says depicts both her grief and sadness but also her strength and personal growth.