What Everyone Should Know About Miscarriage
As a sex educator, I spend a lot of time helping young people avoid pregnancy. Yay! Understanding the basics of birth control, reproductive health and sexual health are all great foundation blocks for helping you navigate your life. But more and more I am beginning to notice that sex education programs tend to ignore the reality that some girls will go on to become women who actually want to get pregnant or the other truth that some teens will, in fact, become pregnant. And when we talk about teen pregnancy we often only discuss her “options.”
What is missing from the conversation is that between 10-20% of all pregnancies (or more) and roughly 15% of teen pregnancies end in miscarriage. This can be a devastating experience no matter what your age or intent, and we need to start talking about it. Before we begin, simply put, a miscarriage, or “spontaneous abortion,” occurs when the embryo or fetus dies. A miscarriage occurs in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy and is most common in the first trimester (weeks 1-12).
Call your doctor right away if you are pregnant and have signs of a miscarriage:
Vaginal bleeding or spotting
Severe cramping, either in your belly or your back
The passing of fluid or clots
OK, now that we have a basic definition of miscarriage, and as a woman who has had some experience in this department, here’s what I think everyone should know:
You can’t stop them
I spent a lot of years tediously trying to “fix” my body. Examining my habits, lifestyle, diet, etc. with a magnifying glass and fine-toothed comb to find the problem, the “thing.” That one little thing that kept sabotaging my pregnancies. If I could find it, I could control it, and if I could control it, I could fix it. But sometimes, you can’t fix it. And as hard as that can be to accept, it’s even harder when I was constantly given the messages that if I “tried this or that,” “stayed positive,” “relaxed,” blah, blah, blah, that I would inevitably get what I wanted. This made me feel like I wasn’t trying hard enough. That I kept failing. That it was my fault.
But it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t eat the wrong thing. I didn’t exercise too much. I wasn’t too stressed. In most instances, there is no definitive diagnosis for why miscarriages occur. While there are genetic and chromosomal mutations and some severe illnesses that may trigger a miscarriage, for the most part, they just happen. You can’t fix them, you can’t control them, and you can’t stop them.
The language we use to discuss miscarriage sucks
You mis-carried. You lost the embryo. I didn’t drop my purse or lose my damn keys, I “lost” the potential for human life that was growing inside of me. The subtext of this language leaves women feeling at fault. Like she was careless or clumsy. And this couldn’t be further from the truth. Actually, if you think about it, a lot of the terminology surrounding infertility needlessly condemns women: Your ovaries are lazy. Your cervix is incompetent. Your uterus is hostile. It’s almost like these terms were created to make you feel inadequate. To make you feel like it is all your fault. Well, it’s not anyone’s fault. And it won’t be your fault if you ever experience one. It is a limitation of your body.
And that’s exactly why we need new language to discuss miscarriage. It’s OK to accept the limitations of your body. Every body is different; they are not all capable of the same things. That doesn’t mean you are less-than and it sure as hell doesn’t mean it’s your fault. We need to accept our differences - as painful as that may be. And the equally important point that expecting other people’s bodies to be able to do what ours can do (and vice versa) is judgmental and ableist.
We need to break the silence surrounding miscarriage
When I experienced my first miscarriage, I had a hard time coping. No one ever discussed miscarriage with me. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how I should feel. And I was immediately shrouded with overwhelming guilt. It was my fault (it wasn’t), I let my husband down (I didn’t), my body is broken (it’s not).
When we keep quiet about miscarriage, we allow stigma, stereotypes and harsh judgments to fill the information vacuum. If we don’t understand why and how miscarriages happen, we blame the woman by default. We judge her by wondering what she did wrong, we give her hurtful advice about what she should or shouldn’t do next time, and we subconsciously consider her “abnormal.” But if we talk about women’s experiences with miscarriage and understand the facts, we can be better allies and a better support system to those who have or are going through it. Experiencing a miscarriage is an incredibly painful, dauntingly lonely, and heartbreaking experience, but the worst part of all of it was knowing people were judging and blaming me.
Talking about miscarriage, as a woman who has had five, is a very vulnerable experience. And because we don’t talk about them or fully understand them (do I sound like a broken record yet?), if you choose to open up about it, people often project their discomfort with the topic onto you. I can’t count how many times people offered up meaningless platitudes about my experiences as a way to push past their own discomfort. And it never helped. Not once. In fact, what it did was take the attention away from what I was going through and made it about them. I was forced to put in the emotional labor to ease their discomfort which completely eroded any sense of support I was hoping to find.
It is also imperative to mention here that there are few things in this life that are more judged and more stigmatized than teen pregnancy. You become a “statistic” and, if you chose to parent your child, you are expected to live a life of poverty. You are a loser. But the truth is, with the right support and encouragement, teens can go on to become great parents and have fulfilling lives.
So, what happens if you're a teen and you miscarry? Sadly, people will probably tell you to be “relieved,” that you are “lucky,” and that you get a “fresh start.” But these thoughtless comments don't make a miscarriage any less devastating or worrisome. How are you supposed to manage this kind of loss when people think you are “lucky?”
Well, I can't answer that. But here is my biggest takeaway from my experiences with miscarriage: People may be unknowingly mean. People may judge you. People may double-down on their ignorance so they don’t have to understand you. But you do not have to be ashamed of what happened. It is OK to be hurt, upset or even worried. It is OK to feel that your miscarriage is a loss, because it is. Even if you feel relieved for miscarrying an unplanned pregnancy, you may still feel upset. Mixed emotions are perfectly normal. Give yourself time to grieve.
Talking about your experience and giving voice to your pain will not only help you cope, it can help other women feel less alone in their experience. But most importantly, it can encourage other women to speak up, too. The more we share, the more people will start to understand. The more people understand, the less stigmatized miscarriage will be. And that can help alleviate some of the overwhelming guilt and shame many women who miscarry feel - and that can make a world of difference.
If you have experienced a miscarriage and are in need of a support system, please contact RESOLVE, a non-profit organization that focuses on providing guidance, encouragement, and understanding to those experiencing infertility and miscarriage: 866-NOT-ALONE (866-668-2566) ext. 7
The website Mom Loves Best has put together a great guide for understanding what a miscarriage is, what to expect during one, and how to cope after one.