A few days ago, I received a challenge. It’s that Facebook meme where people post six or eight or eleven things you probably don’t know about them. My friend Erin gave me the number 7. Now if you know me–and if you’re reading my blog it’s quite likely that you do–you know that dashing off seven funny stories about myself should be something I can do in my sleep (Stage 1 sleep anyway). But I couldn’t come up with a list that I wanted to share. At first I thought it was just the impossibility of topping Erin’s story about having a wardrobe malfunction while jello wrestling, but there was a better reason. When I scanned my brain for things people don’t know about me, I couldn’t bring myself to skip the thing that almost nobody knows about me: in August of 2009, I had a miscarriage.
Clearly, I was not going to announce this as part of a Facebook status that also recounted the time I went camping in upstate New York and wound up evading the sheriff of Sullivan County in a car chase. But any list of public revelations that didn’t include my most meaningful one felt like a lie. And I don’t like to lie. I actually don’t find my miscarriage hard to discuss. I tell people often enough. The issue is that I told hardly anyone at the time, and so in effect I must admit to lying by omission for four years.
A family friend who had had a mastectomy once said that after her surgery she was constantly approached by strangers whose first words to her were, “I heard you had a mastectomy. I had one too,” so that she came to feel as though no one actually had two breasts. I’ve had an analogous experience around miscarriage. With one exception, I have no regrets about telling anyone. Nearly everyone’s reactions were appropriate. The ones who understood best stepped up with emails or phone calls to tell me how sorry they were and how they were available to talk at all hours; one especially perceptive friend sent a care package with hot cocoa mix, crossword puzzles, and P.G. Wodehouse. Interestingly, the most common response I encountered was people telling me that either they or their partners had had miscarriages too–including people I was close to, and who had never told me before. I mean very close. Friends of decades. Family. Close family. In the midst of my grief I still found time to boggle at the sheer scope of the silence. If I hadn’t told them about my own loss, I would never have learned of theirs.
I didn’t tell everyone right away because what I did right away was mostly nothing. I had my D&C four days before the start of my second year of med school. I said, hey, I’ll throw myself into work. The work will heal me. Yeah…not so much. I came pretty close to failing out of med school that semester. Instead of taking a ten-minute bus ride to the library to study with my friends, I stayed home on the couch, telling myself I was working from home. I was bleeding. I was tired. I was crying all the time. In retrospect it’s fairly obvious I checked off a meaningful number of DSM criteria for a major depression, but it didn’t feel that way at the time.
A few months later, by which time I was in much better mental health (I was lucky that it didn’t take longer or get worse than it did), I found myself in our local feminist bookstore because a friend needed a place to pee. I was aimlessly browsing when I saw a title: About What Was Lost. It was an anthology of pieces by women who had lost pregnancies, and in a few cases had lost their children. It is a very good anthology, and I recommend it. All the essays are good, and a few are unforgettable. Reading it was good for me. But on finishing it, I felt it was incomplete. The subtitle is Twenty Writers on Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope. And indeed, all of these stories ended with healing and with hope. As a result there was a certain sameness to them.
First, the innocent pregnant woman. She always wanted children or she never wanted children or she still didn’t want children or she already had a child. Then she is pregnant. She underestimates the prevalence of miscarriage. In fairness, everyone’s loss is unique. Then the grief. And then the denouement: she gives birth to a healthy child, or she adopts a child, or she decides against having children. Her grief is made beautiful as the story resolves.
It’s not that I think these stories are untrue. I just question whether they are representative. I suppose it’s a bit like the trouble with writing about addiction. People who are in the depths of their disease have a hard time crafting publishable prose, so most first-hand accounts are written by people in recovery. Last week when I read Ariel Levy’s fierce account of giving birth to a son who lived for twenty minutes, I thought, “Yes. I have been waiting for this.” The raggedness of her story’s end felt like a truth I could recognize.
As a medical student I had been well aware that roughly one in five early pregnancies end in miscarriage. I had seen two patients diagnosed with miscarriage over the course of my own short pregnancy. The miscarriage didn’t teach me about hope. I hadn’t reached the age of 29 without experiencing loss; the miscarriage didn’t teach me about grief.
There are some experiences, including some incredibly painful and important ones, that don’t teach you a damn thing, because they are just bad luck. You can’t learn from random chance (unless of course you are under the illusion that the law of averages doesn’t apply to you because you are special; I had not been for quite some time). This is the truth of some losses: they just are. They debit your happiness and your ability to live, and return to you absolutely nothing.
So now you know something you probably didn’t know about me. I won’t assume we have learned anything in the exchange. But if you want to tell me about what you lost, you can.