What Women Really Need After a Miscarriage
Why, oh why, aren’t we talking about our miscarriages? Every October, for Pregnancy Loss Awareness month, articles like this one keep asking us this question, but we must be — these articles are an Ouroboros of talking about miscarriage. And we're talking about it IRL, too. Recently over drinks with two close friends, I blurted, “Oh, yeah, that was the month when I had a miscarriage,” in a conversation about something else entirely. Neither could remember if I had even told them about it when it happened four years ago, and I couldn’t either. Hey, no big deal; 25 percent of pregnancies go that way.
To be fair, this came up after at least a wine bottle’s worth of #MeToo, and the kind of women’s shared trauma reckoning among which my first-trimester loss hardly felt like it ranked. Maybe the severity of the mood freed me to be nonchalant about this lesser tragedy; and the fact that I now have a living child absolved us all of a little sadness. Though it’d be just as easy to say those articles did their job, and here we are making miscarriage into dinner conversation. But let’s be crystal clear: We're still not talking about what we need to talk about when we are, yes, talking about miscarriage.
For example: I doubt I told those same friends, lifelong ones, that I went to an abortion clinic on a Saturday morning while miscarrying, because a D&C procedure is routinely needed to remove a miscarried pregnancy, only some Ob/Gyns don’t want to perform them. I’m not suggesting any woman should turn to another, over dinner or anywhere else, and say: “So wait — how did the fetus get out of your body, though?” What I’m saying is, that’s among the things many of us haven’t considered, much less made meaningful discussion out of. And there are others. This is not just about talking about miscarriage; it's about talking about ourselves, and how we're changed by any of the hard things we go through.
“I think there’s this false sense of, ‘Just try again, it’s gonna be okay, and you’ll get what you want.’ It’s not the point,” says Jessica Zucker, PhD, a psychologist focusing on maternal mental health. “What about the woman herself? How has she changed through these processes — a positive pregnancy test, then going to the doctor and not hearing a heartbeat, then going through a D&C or home-based option — all these small- and sometimes big-T traumas?”
In 2014 Zucker started the #IHadAMiscarriage campaign with a New York Times essay that was felt seismically (see: aforementioned flood of articles, and the Instagram community that has sprung up around her). “With the statistics being what they are, there is no reason women anywhere should feel ashamed or alone or isolated following pregnancy or infant loss. It’s time that we provide women and families with ways to create ritual, or to create rites, so that we feel we are honoring the women that we were previous to the loss, the women we are now, and the babies that we’ve lost.”
Nicole Feddock, 39, has spent three of the last four Augusts losing pregnancies — there was an early miscarriage, a stillborn son who passed away the day before he was due, two more miscarriages — and along with all of that possibility, she has lost the ability to run into acquaintances without seeing sadness spread across their faces to find out she still doesn’t have a baby. And being a hyper-connected advertising director of business development in New York City, her acquaintances are many. “I literally have an audience here waiting for me to get pregnant again,” she says on the phone, as she and her husband are packing up their belongings to leave. The same morning, they had emptied out a storage unit that held baby gifts, unused, which they donated to a family who recently immigrated here with nothing.
Nicole and her husband had named their son Winter, and after his stillbirth they went off on a road trip, using the hashtag #WinterRobertIsLove along the way; people in her network, even those who’d been getting her “on maternity leave” auto-responder understood that she was no longer pregnant, and there was no baby. “When I see people who I haven’t seen in a while, they immediately look at my stomach, because the only thing that’s going to take away people’s uncomfortable feelings of sadness for me is when I get pregnant again,” she says.
Are we talking about the fact that women who’ve been through infant or pregnancy loss are also burdened with everyone else’s sadness for them?
“And the 'people feeling bad for me' feeling — I don’t think it’s going to end until I have a happy ending to my story,” she says, clarifying that a happy ending for her and her husband could be one without a child; they’re still talking next steps. “I just don’t think that’s what those around me want, for their own feelings of guilt,” she says. She tells me that people constantly tell her they have a really good feeling about the next month, or they're sure it's going to happen for her. These platitudes are for no one's benefit but the person saying it; bystanders can easily have that kind of warm optimism no matter what. Nicole’s story makes it clear that the women living it rarely can.
Jessica Zucker agrees that it's a common (and painful) misconception that it's all about some ultimate outcome. “Whether you go on to have another pregnancy or not, you’re still living with the complexity of what you went through. Many continue to grieve, even after having a healthy child, because subsequent babies aren’t replacements and they don’t steal grief, and they don’t ensure joy,” she says. That thing about needing a happy ending: That's not part of the healing process. Survivors (of loss, of so many things) learn a new happy that exists in the place they live now, but they still feel compelled to promise their “audiences” that everything is or shortly will be fine. That’s exactly what I did with my friends, tossing off the “oh yeah miscarriage, whatev, NBD,” while we were all too distracted to look for a second at the sadness of that.
“The culture of silence has indeed shifted. However, what we continue to lack is a kind of apparatus or framework — ways to meaningfully honor or memorialize or ritualize our losses in concrete ways,” Zucker says. So this October, for the awareness month which also happens to be the sixth anniversary of her own loss, she interviewed women about how they’d feel in a culture that truly encouraged this sharing. Then, poet and artist Skin on Sundays adorned the women’s bodies with words inspired by their stories. The video and photos here, launching exclusively on InStyle, show some of this work, as well as the women holding signs to say, in their way, “me, too.” There’s “I had a miscarriage,” “I had a stillbirth,” and “I had a pregnancy loss.” These signs are available for free download on Zucker’s website, part of a ritual created where none existed before.
“I'm talking about the way we honor, for example, the loss of a parent or grandparent,” she says. “We are well-versed in this culturally. We know reflexively what to do for our loved ones, whether that’s sending a card or food, attending a funeral, providing support.” But when the loss is of what Zucker calls an imagined family, “There’s nothing tangible. There’s nothing philosophical that we’re offered as a way to, kind of, create healing or something like closure.”
For Nicole Feddock, finding community was an immediate way to make her loss meaningful. She joined a support group and found some solace in being helpful to others in the group, as well as online forums; she began actively updating an Instagram account devoted to her loss journey, which she has since let lapse. She began studying to become a doula, to learn everything there was to know about pregnancy and childbirth (“I think that, definitely, was part of my healing process,” she says). And through all that she became something of a loss sherpa for friends of friends; anytime someone in her broader network went through a loss, they’d be sent to Nicole, who’d help guide them through. But she found herself doing a lot of educating outside of those scenarios, too — telling pregnant friends the statistics around stillbirth (both 1 in 160, and 1% of pregnancies in the U.S. have been reported), to reassure them that they shouldn’t worry. “Any time there’s somebody whose loss is new, I definitely want to be there to hold space for them. But in terms of educating people and feeling like I have to explain, like, ‘don’t worry it doesn’t happen very often,’ or ‘it’s so super rare,’ that is exhausting to me,” she says. “I’m sort of done with that.”
Nicole dove headlong into the forums, into new friendships, into educating and helping others, and now she’s easing off of that strategy. She and her husband are moving to Chicago, where her family is, and where the storage unit of her lost baby’s belongings is not. In a way she’s a case study in the meaning-making that Zucker’s campaign prescribes. She tried again; she shared again; she helped others again, and now she’s focusing on herself. “We’re not trying to run away from anything, per se, but just start fresh," she says. And you don't have to look too close to find the meaning in that.