Thursday, November 27, 2003

Miscarriage of Justice: How Losing a Baby Feels Like Real Rip-off

Miscarriage of Justice: How Losing a Baby Feels Like Real Rip-off
Laura Moulton

(A version of this article originally appeared on in April 2003)

I got pregnant on my 32nd birthday, after a clue in the scavenger hunt my husband Ben created for me led me to the bedroom, ("Go undercover," it said. I found a bottle of massage lotion under the bedspread). We met up there, and celebrated. A month later I peed on a stick and it was certain. How amazing to be pregnant. My breasts swelled up and were marvelous to behold. I ate up folic acid tablets and prenatal vitamins like I sensed an embargo around the corner, crunched dark leafy greens and made complete proteins my religion. A waitress at a vegan cafe showed me how to get my navel ring out. I felt vaguely queasy and more tired than usual, but life was grand. Everyone wanted to know: was I getting enough sleep? Enough iron? Was I having especially vivid dreams yet? It was a delicious club to have joined and I was ready to grow a baby.

Then I had a miscarriage at 11 weeks, and was thrust quite abruptly into a different club. There weren't any "How To" guides this round, nothing like "Your Miraculous Miscarriage," or "Miscarriage: A-Z." This is how it happened: On a Wednesday night, I noticed a faint, rust-colored bit of blood on a tissue. I tried not to freak out, but that's a joke. I phoned the midwife on call, and searched the Internet for information. Learned there's such a thing as "old blood." Everything is getting all set in there, shifting around a little, getting comfortable. So it makes sense to send a little old stuff out. Out with the old, in with the new, and so on. Plenty of women spotted through their whole pregnancy and delivered a perfect baby. But that was small comfort and I held my breath for about 12 hours, (taught my classes in the morning, came home and took a nap (calm, calm, don't panic), went to an orientation for a community college job, and then finally admitted to myself that I was having cramps. I went to a fluorescent-lit student bathroom strewn with toilet paper and cigarette butts, (please don't let me miscarry in this place) and discovered I was bleeding. In the car home, heading east on I-84, I doubled over the steering wheel and I raged and wept. As the night wore on, I had legendarily strong cramps, climbed in and out of the bathtub, cried my guts out, sent my husband to fetch a mason jar, into which I deposited something like a red gelatinous hockey puck and also a small creature that had neither head nor discernible tail and looked like a string of turkey gizzards. I was pregnant and then I wasn't. Presto.

Miscarriages are really awful and gruesome, and words fail, which is perhaps why they're not talked about in any kind of mainstream way. People don't know what to offer up by way of comfort, and perhaps women who've had the experience have trouble articulating it. I certainly did, in the beginning. In an old Webster's dictionary, I found miscarriage listed simply as "abortion." What a strange word miscarriage is. There are different ways to parse it up: to mis-carry something would seem to mean handling it carelessly or dropping it. Or there was to miss carrying something, which I did keenly. In my darkest, I scanned the dictionary for other words: mischance, miserable, misery, misfortune, mishap, mislay, misplace (as in, I've misplaced my fetus, can you give me a hand?), mislead, (as in, It seems my body mislead me from about week 7 on). Ben said miscarriage sounded like a term from the 1800s. Like some Elizabethan misfortune that happened to depressed wives in dark, empty houses. Not something that happened to women on a regular basis. Whatever the case, I found that as common as miscarriage supposedly is, there is not much out there, save a handful of support groups, books published by small presses, and some online chatting about it.

There's an element to miscarriage that is fascinating from a biological point of view, (if one has hindsight in their favor and is not still standing in a bathtub having one). The body is an efficient machine, and, recognizing bum material, boots it out. I read that most miscarriages resulted because there was information missing somewhere, so that at some point, the fetus stopped growing and eventually was expelled. Think of it as a novel that's missing the last 50 pages. It's impossible to continue, given what's missing. In my case, it took some time for my body to figure out that the thing inside me wasn't growing anymore. What a strange thing that my body produced the hormones that kept me convinced I was pregnant for up to 6 weeks beyond the time I was actually was. My husband suggested that having a miscarriage seemed not unlike an alien invasion. One day my personality began to change, my body was different, and then after three months, suddenly it was over. It was bloody like a scene from Aliens and afterward, the alien thing was gone and just like the movies, everyone was exhausted and empty. I even felt like groaning, "Kill me," like Sigourney Weaver did.

Miscarriages are so common. Some sources say one in every 6 women. The fact that they are so common makes it difficult to find very much information about why it happened. After all, it takes having two or three miscarriages to get the attention of doctors, and only then do they recommend tests to try and determine what's going wrong. In my case, I brought my rough draft of a fetus in to the midwives, they sent it to pathology, and I waited anxiously for the results. I think I imagined they'd be able to provide me with at least a few definitive details. Things like what the fetus had developed so far, the age when it stopped growing, and the reason it stopped. But I got a phone call from a chipper nurse who said, "Just wanted to let you know that your specimen was (insert drum roll) fetal tissue." Ah, the relief. I mean, I'd feared it was a part of my lower intestine coming out, or a batch of baby kittens. I don't mean to sound bitter. It's just that I wanted to know two things: Why it had happened to me and that it would never happen again. Neither of these comforts were available, save knowing that I'm young, I can try again, and there are plenty of women who have a miscarriage and go on to have perfectly healthy babies. In lieu of a satisfactory explanation from the lab report, we had to imagine our own. Ben suggested perhaps the baby had been called to be a Brahman holy cow in India. I thought that perhaps it had put its ear to my side and listened to news on the radio, heard the words terror and war on terror entirely too much, whereupon it had decided against a hostile country, opting instead to be born to French parents living in the countryside, or to a blind masseuse living at a temple in Bangkok.

Here's an imaginary excerpt from the book I wish I'd found when I was having a miscarriage. Let's call it, "What to Expect When You're Having a Miscarriage": A miscarriage means disruption. A hiccup and then cessation of a small lifeline. It means being stuck with dried figs and strange high-protein, high-iron pregnancy snacks that you would never ordinarily eat, the sight of which inspires weeping. If you've got excited friends and family, it means you've already received maternity hand-me-downs and cool baby clothes from Goodwill. It means also that you will have to buy menstrual pads for the first time since you were fourteen. And it means a trip back to the same waiting room you'd visited while pregnant, same cheerful receptionists, same beautiful big bellies attached to pregnant women reading magazines, waiting for their appointments. Meanwhile, you're carrying yours in a mason jar, in a brown paper bag. It means feeling psychotic, since you are at once filled with the hugeness of what you've lost, and riding out mood swings, courtesy of the surge of hormones running for the exit. You might have thoughts like, The last time I wore this skirt, I was going to have a baby. Your friend who has a perfect three-month-old, and is devastated for you, will ask if she should bring the baby when she visits. You'll make a wry comment that you promise not to choke him.

The plus side of miscarriage is that you can go to bed and nobody asks you when you're getting up. You can read Tintin comics and stare out the window for hours. Now you can eat cans of tuna without fear of poisoning your unborn with mercury. You can polish off a bottle of wine by yourself. You can get as many x-rays as you want and change the cat litter whenever you feel like it. And hey, now you don't have to worry about the potential effects of biological warfare on your vulnerable little newborn.
You will be amazed at yourself, at how open and guileless you were when pregnant, how you charted the baby's progress, marveled at the miracles, (today it had a spine, by next week its neurological workings would be finished). There was nothing in your experience to tell you to slow up, to be cautious, to guard your heart against over-expanding..."

But as I write this, I'm finding I don't want to write a guide on how to miscarry gracefully. I didn't want to read about it while I was pregnant, and I assume that women will avoid this article unless they are nursing a common grief, or know someone who is. I don't blame them. When I was pregnant, I steered away from any dark topics associated with pregnancy and birth, and focused only on all the things that could go right. I'm afraid that's this tendency to shy away, to avert the eyes, is the very thing that makes for a shortage of good writing on the topic, when women need it the most.

The whole experience has been a learning process and even if I feel less bold now, I am likewise not gun-shy at the prospect of trying again. One unexpected outcome is that instead of being left with a keen sense of what I've lost, I have a better idea of what I have. Here's what I mean: The night I thought I might miscarry but wasn't sure, I sat on the couch crying and I caught sight of a photo on the wall. It's a picture I took in Guatemala of a little girl dressed in colorful woven clothes, with her baby sister strapped to her back. I'd played with them when I lived in their town, Patzicia, a tiny village of cinderblock houses with dirt floors. As I studied the picture I thought for the first time of their mother, and realized that she would have given birth to them under pretty incredible circumstances, with no clean place to lie down, no hospital if there were complications, and suddenly my dilemma seemed pretty paltry. I had hot water for a bath if I suffered cramps. I had friends and family on hand, bearing hot soup and bouquets of flowers. As painful as my singular experience was, I felt, even as it was happening, that I was joining a veritable chorus line of others, a family of women who'd suffered much greater loss than I had.

I can feel myself trying to compose a nice, tidy conclusion, one that details what I've learned and how I'm a better person for it, (think Chicken Soup for the Miscarriage Soul ), But there are no neat endings. My pregnancy was a work-in-progress, suddenly interrupted. Miscarriage is unraveling, a coming undone, and though there is a point where things are finished from a biological perspective, there's no telling when the rest of the process ends, or if it ever does. If conceiving a child is a leap of faith, so too are the months that follow. Things can go wrong, but there is also a good chance that they'll go splendidly. In the end, we are left with little choice but to bless the one that got away, wish it safe passage to its next life, and forgive it for leaving us. Then we take a deep breath and start again.

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