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Life after miscarriage: stigma, silence, and support

In her memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama writes, “[if] I were to start a file on things nobody tells you about until you’re right in the thick of them, I might begin with miscarriages. A miscarriage is lonely, painful, and demoralizing almost on a cellular level. When you have one, you will likely mistake it for a personal failure, which it is not.”

Here are some important facts about miscarriage: About 10-25% of all clinically recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. (That's a huge number, so if your reaction is "Why don't we hear about this more?," we feel you.) Most take place in early pregnancy, before 12 weeks. Chemical pregnancies are pregnancies that end shortly after implantation (in many cases, because you don't even know you're pregnant).

Ectopic pregnancies (also called tubal pregnancies) develop outside the uterus, usually in the fallopian tubes. Symptoms of ectopic pregnancies may occur between 4 and 12 weeks. Late term miscarriages, also called second-trimester or mid-trimester losses, happen between weeks 14 and 24.

But while miscarriage is common, it’s often a private experience. Many people wait until the end of first trimester to share any news of pregnancy. Some wait because, in the case that a pregnancy is lost, there’s no pressure to update family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and social media pages with something that can be so personally painful. Others report staying quiet for fear of being treated unfavorably in the workplace. Let's be clear: you don't have to tell everyone (or anyone) about your pregnancy or your miscarriage. It's completely up to you whether or not you decide to keep this to yourself.

The silence around early pregnancy can mean lack of support with pregnancy loss. It can feel very isolating, in the absence of others to stand up and say, “I see you,” or “I went through this, too.” There may be internalized feelings of shame or self blame, like something went wrong on an individual level, rather than feeling like part of a shared experience among many.

Sarah, Brenda, Rachel, and Gabrielle opened up about their experiences with pregnancy loss. They shared what supported them most, what felt unhelpful, how their miscarriage affected their work life, and more.

How did you think about the decision to share (or not share) news of early pregnancy?

Sarah:
“My miscarriage happened during my first pregnancy, at around 12 weeks. We had followed the general custom (or stigma) of not sharing with anyone until the end of the first trimester. On the one hand, this did mean we had some privacy when the pregnancy ended. On the other hand, it meant that no one knew what was going on with us or why I was such a mess. It meant that to get support, I had to be the one to reach out...and I wasn't always able to do so.”

Rachel:
“Before my pregnancy loss, I didn't know how common it was. No one else in my life had spoken with me about losing a pregnancy–I'm sure due in part to stigma–so, initially I felt very alone. I felt like this terrible tragic thing was happening to me and had never happened to anyone else.”

Gabrielle:
“We made a conscious decision to tell close family and friends immediately when we found out we were pregnant. So, everyone knew at the time when we miscarried, which was good and bad. We had been celebrating, so it was depressing, but it was also wonderful because we really needed the support.”

Brenda:
“There is so much silence around pregnancy, pregnancy loss, and infertility.”

How did miscarriage affect your work life?

Rachel:
“I would say the most difficult thing was that I made the decision not to share my pregnancy loss at work (for many reasons). The result of that choice was that I had to suffer many of the painful physical side effects (bleeding, cramping, recovering from a D and C) in silence while at work with no one knowing, and I was also dealing with the emotional impacts alone at work as well. In retrospect, I don't blame myself for this choice, but were it to happen again I think it would be worth the potential discomfort of having the conversation with my boss or co-workers if it meant that I would be extended some kindness and understanding while going through a difficult experience.”

Gabrielle:
“I was in the process of finding a new job, and I felt an overwhelming amount of pressure to keep my pregnancy secret while I was doing that. I was buying new clothes to hide my growing belly during my interviews. Both my miscarriage and pregnancy made me feel that in general our society doesn’t welcome that conversation in the workplace. People make assumptions about your work output and commitment to the job. Even if you have a miscarriage and then share that with colleagues, they then label you as a ‘young woman of childbearing age’ which assumes your priorities are outside of work."

“Even post pregnancy, I just experienced this last month where I had a previous colleague reach out to me on LinkedIn. He asked how I was, and I mentioned to him (as he is a father of four children) that I just had my first child. He said congrats and then abruptly ended the conversation. He then immediately posted about recruiting for an executive role that would have been perfectly aligned with my skill set. Knowing him, he was going to see if I was interested, but once I told him I just had a baby he assumed I wouldn’t be. He didn’t even offer me the opportunity to discuss it.”

How to take care of yourself after miscarriage

While miscarriage is common, each person’s experience is unique. For those who were trying very hard to start a family, it can mean losing a family member they had hopes, dreams and intense love for. Loss of an unwanted pregnancy can come with mixed emotions, sometimes including a sense of relief. Some people have told their whole support system, whereas others are navigating pregnancy loss privately. Some experience pregnancy loss repeatedly, some choose not to try again, and others go on to have healthy pregnancies to follow. The process of becoming pregnant in the first place may have been extremely financially expensive and emotionally taxing.

This is all to say that there is no wrong way to feel. And how you choose to take care of yourself and seek support will be extremely personal and specific. The following list options and considerations are just ideas to help shape the action you may or may not wish to take.

The healing power of social support

Sometimes it’s hard to know what you need, or what would be most helpful. But you might have moments when you realize, “you know what? I don’t want people to send sympathy cards. I want one good friend to sit and cry with, who won’t try to make me feel better,” or, “I don’t want to talk about it anymore, I just want someone to distract me,” or, “the hardest thing right now is cooking. I don’t need flowers...I need people to send food.” Communication is key. People will often want to help, but won’t know how. So, they’ll say or do whatever they think might be best. But giving them direction can help them to support you in the ways that you need.

Rachel:
“The two most helpful things for me were going to therapy, and talking to other women about it! Not necessarily just women who had also experienced pregnancy loss (though I did find it comforting to connect with women who had a similar experience) but sharing my experience with supportive friends and family helped me to feel validated and heard. I also think that sharing my story allowed me to feel like I was playing some small part in changing the narrative around pregnancy loss–that it's not something shameful to be kept secret, but that it is an extremely common, normal part of many women's pregnancy journeys.”

Gabrielle:
“You start to question, ‘Did we make the right choices? Did we hike too much? Did I eat something I shouldn’t have?’ I felt like I got food poisoning the last day of our trip. ‘Maybe somehow I hurt the baby?’ You really start questioning yourself. You need your friends, family, and partner to reassure you that there’s nothing you could have done.”

Sarah:
“A group of very dear female and genderqueer friends took me to the beach on the due date, which was a really hard day for me. They just listened as I told the whole story of the pregnancy start to finish, and cried a bunch. It was super helpful and healing and supportive. Other than that, it helped to just have people who understood how real and hard this was for me. And people who saw that I had become depressed and encouraged me to get professional short term grief support, so so helpful. And my graduate school for giving me some academic accommodations, bless them, like longer deadlines. People who shared their own stories in a supportive way were helpful. People who listened.”

Connecting with others who get it

Brenda:
“I had so many people reach out to me, both strangers and folks I haven’t seen in years from high school and college who had been through similar experiences but had never shared before. I think sharing and finding solidarity was part of the healing process.”

Gabrielle:

“Once I got pregnant again, I did start telling a couple of other people at work that I had a miscarriage previously, and it was amazing how many people had similar experiences. People came out of the woodwork with their stories. One woman on my team told me, “You know my three adult children you met? I also had four miscarriages.” The picture I saw of her was, wow, you so easily had three kids. The real story is that she had a miscarriage before and after each one of those kids."

“Also, one of my really good friends from work and I had a discussion a couple of years ago that there shouldn’t be a stigma about sharing the news of pregnancy during the first trimester because of the fear of miscarriage. She later told me that because of this conversation, the day she found out she was pregnant she told me. She then had a miscarriage, so she shared that with me as well. Then about six months later she found out she was pregnant again and two weeks after that I found out I was, too. We were so excited to go through our pregnancies together. Then a month later, she found out she miscarried and five days later, so did I. She was going through all of this at the same time as me. We were ‘in the shit’ together. Having her truly understand and experience the miscarriage and subsequent D&C, and all the physical and emotional symptoms that come with it, was so critical for me getting through this."

“Even Michelle Obama’s Becoming was helpful–just getting the word out there that this does happen, and that you often have no idea at the time. I have a friend who told her mom that she miscarried, and her mom was like, ‘me too.’ That’s something she never knew about her mother until that moment.”

Rachel:
“At first I felt a lot of guilt and anger (why had no one prepared me/talked to me about this? Did I do something to cause this?) which I know was due in large part to the way women have been socialized to not talk about the upsetting/difficult parts of their pregnancy journey. Even the term ‘miscarriage’ implies that the woman herself did something wrong, which is almost never the case! It took me about six months to realize that many of the negative feelings I was directing towards myself were really the result of the stigma and silence around pregnancy loss. So one of the things I found most helpful was to actually start talking to other women about my experience.”

You can also read about others’ experiences online, like this Autostraddle piece by Kristin Russo, Brenda Hernandez’s Boricua Feminist article about her journey with an ectopic pregnancy, and Dese'Rae L. Stage’s moving contributions to Romper (as part of Romper’s Trying series.)

Caring for your body

Miscarriage can be a very painful or uncomfortable experience. Whether or not there’s physical intensity to your experience, caring for your body can be one way to support yourself during and after miscarriage.

Gabrielle:
“For me it was not just the emotional trauma of it; it was also the physical trauma. A week after my D&C, we went out to dinner with friends and just the bumps in the road on the way there were so painful. I was tearing up and feeling really awful.”

Brenda:
“I didn’t realize that although the pregnancy is gone, it takes a while for your body to realize it's no longer pregnant. Having to walk around feeling pregnant was an additional level of awful I had not considered."

“I’m a yoga teacher and started a workshop for people who had experienced reproductive loss and infertility when I first started my infertility journey. I found yoga and meditation to be such a savior through it all and wanted to offer the same to others.”

If you’d like to get moving, you can set an accessible plan, like going for a walk around the block, or meeting a friend for coffee. You can also care for your body as it navigates change with a bath, therapeutic massage, gentle yoga, or a swim. Of course all movement depends on how you’re feeling physically–you can always check with your provider to see if an activity might be right for you.

Setting boundaries

For some people, it can feel right to take a bit of time and space for healing. Creating a healthy boundary for yourself can be part of that experience. You can communicate to a colleague that you need time, space, and latitude with work deadlines and hours. You can cancel plans that don’t feel right at the moment. You can give yourself latitude around responding to people (even if they are messages of support).

And to be clear, you have every right to ask for space at work or in friendships without providing an “explanation.” If it feels helpful for you to talk about you’re going through, or you think they might be able to offer support in a way that meets your needs, sharing might feel right for you.

Not everyone can take a break; many people continue to work, have other children they’re parenting, or are required to continue their role in another capacity. If that’s the case, carving out time for yourself even amongst those obligations is crucial.

You may also find yourself wanting to set boundaries with well-meaning friends whose words fall flat.

Brenda:
“One thing I regret is not taking more time from work to heal and grieve. Because I know it is so common, I felt like I needed to get back to ‘normal’ too soon, and that was difficult.”

“Also, it was difficult when folks, who meant to be supportive, were saying things like, ‘it will happen,’ ‘at least it was early on,’ or ‘at least you can get pregnant.’”

Sarah:
“Some people tried to tell me I would be pregnant again in no time and forget all about this...with no sense of what it meant for us to get pregnant in the first place or that, even now with a gorgeous healthy child, I still feel this loss."

“When I shared my news, some people’s first question about how far along I was, as if that was going to determine how much it mattered."

“And some assured me that it was very common, and therefore no big deal.”

You have every right to take space from people who are making you feel worse. Even if those people are wonderful, caring people who you want in your life. If you feel comfortable sharing, you can give them feedback. Or, you can just take the space that feels right for you.

Finally, give yourself permission to take a break from social media if it’s feeling harmful to see photos of the highlight reel of everyone else’s life. You don’t owe anyone an update. Just because you posted about pregnancy doesn’t mean you’re obligated to update about pregnancy loss. If posting feels like it might help you access support, or feels right for you it could be helpful.

Whatever you’re feeling after miscarriage, know that you’re not alone. And when it comes to how you take care of yourself, the choice is yours.

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Ryann Summers

Ryann Summers is an Oakland-based writer and prenatal yoga teacher. Her work focuses on mental health, trauma healing, and women's reproductive health. Follow her at www.medium.com/@ryannsummers.

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