A feminist take on parenting and politics

RSS

Why we must destroy the myth of miscarriage as women's “failure”

Knowing how common miscarriage is – an estimated one in four pregnancies end this way – doesn’t stop you from feeling guilty.

We have to change the way we talk about women's bodies.
Unless we change the way we talk about women's bodies, we won't change the blame that surrounds miscarriage. Photo: Getty

You remember the birthdays of the children you don’t have. My first child was due to be born on 14 March 2007. I worked this out with an online pregnancy calculator and then my GP confirmed it. Since then 14 March has been a date I can’t ever forget.

I’ve always known that babies are rarely born on their due dates. I told myself it would be later, or perhaps slightly earlier. In the end no child was ever born, so the potential child – the one who would have grown from the embryo I miscarried – got to keep that unrealistically precise birthday forever. Today, less than a month from what would have been her seventh birthday, I still wonder what she (I’ve decided she would have been a girl) would have been like.

Knowing how common miscarriage is – an estimated one in four pregnancies end this way – doesn’t stop you from feeling guilty and alone. After all, aren’t other people merely evidence that the majority of pregnancies culminate in live births? Every person you encounter once depended on the body of someone who was able to sustain them. Every human life is a success against which to measure your failure.

You mount a case for the prosecution against your own body. Was it manslaughter? Contributory negligence?  Murder? You shore up the circumstantial evidence – that cup of coffee? The flight you took? Helping to lift up your nephew or elderly relative? There is so much room for error it feels simply impossible for you not to be held responsible. It does not make sense but that is how you feel.

And now, according to research from the University of Copenhagen, up to a quarter of miscarriages may be preventable. What does this mean? As far as the Daily Mail is concerned, it’s another chance to make women feel they could have done things differently. “One in four miscarriages ‘could be prevented with changes to a woman’s lifestyle’,” shouts the headline. That may be true, but only if you consider being over thirty or working night shifts or having to lift heavy objects “lifestyle” choices. And even if you could change these things, together drinking with less alcohol and maintaining a healthy weight (arguably more achievable), you might not be in the lucky “up to a quarter” who are saved. Most of the time we don’t know why miscarriage occurs. We have to live with not knowing, despite that nagging feeling that if only we knew, we might yet persuade our recalcitrant bodies to repent and reform. 

Following my miscarriage, I became obsessed with statistics. What was the likelihood of me getting pregnant again? Miscarrying again? For how long would the odds remain in my favour? Of course, none of the articles I read told me the thing I really wanted to know. Even if your prospects seem reasonable, you can suffer multiple pregnancy losses or never get pregnant again. Even if all goes well, you will never really know why that was. We make pregnancy into a morality tale – good women who “don’t leave it too late” get what they deserve – but the truth is, that no one’s body gives a damn what the Daily Mail or researchers in Copenhagen might think. Your body doesn’t even care what you think. You just have to wait it out. And if you conceive once more? Don’t cough too hard. Don’t run. Don’t eat. Don’t breathe, or rather, do, but know that every move you make might be the one that tortures you should the spark be extinguished. No one will ever be able to prove it was your fault but that doesn’t matter. You will dwell on the past and you will always wonder.  

Miscarriage will not be made easier to cope with without changing the way we talk about pregnancy, bodies and women’s roles. The physical work of gestation and labour remains undervalued, yet in parallel with this the superficial celebration of pregnancy insinuates that those who can give birth are more virtuous, more real and more womanly than those who supposedly “fail”. It is a myth that lets everyone down, including the women who fulfil their supposed potential, but even more so those who choose not to have children, or who simply cannot. The impression is that this is not about your body but about your soul – and that this soul has been found wanting. Thus it remains hard to grieve. How could you deserve to do so, with such a weight upon your shoulders? 

My story ends differently to most. I was offered a reprieve from the shame and sense of incompletion that follows miscarriage. I got pregnant again and my second pregnancy overlapped with what would have been the course of my first. I don’t know why this happened; there’s nothing I did which differentiates me from the millions who suffer pregnancy loss with no such comfort. Nonetheless, I cannot think of my miscarriage with regret – can no longer even consider it a bad thing to have happened – when I know that without it my son would not have come into being. He alone permits me not to blame myself.

But this does not usually happen. What’s more, even if our understanding is slowly improving, the ways in which facts are interpreted and reported needs to be carefully managed. We need to consider what it feels like to suffer a miscarriage, and the way in which guilt and shame, cut loose from any logic, can dominate. I only knew for a short while how lonely the aftermath of miscarriage can make you feel. If you are reading this and have suffered pregnancy losses, I am sorry for not having any answers. The only thing I can say is this: you are not alone and this was not your fault.