By Jenni Brighton
Just for today I hate everyone I know who is pregnant.
And everyone who has gotten pregnant on the first month they tried, or who got pregnant without trying, or who didn’t want to get pregnant but did anyway.
Just for today I hate everyone who has ever taken conception or pregnancy or full-term birth for granted.
I hate everyone who complains about being pregnant.
Everyone who complains about their kids.
Just for today I hate everyone who has never lost a baby, because they do not—cannot—understand.
Because today I’m saying farewell to another baby of mine.
From the earliest time I can remember, I wanted to be a mommy. When I was a child, I didn’t play games of house or school or fort-building; instead my sister and I played “baby”: we would stuff our dolls up our shirts, deliver them while lying on our beds, then nurse and care for them. When I married, I acquired a wonderful stepson from my husband’s first marriage, and my husband and I both hoped for a honeymoon baby. Six weeks after the wedding, we were thrilled to see two pink lines on a pregnancy test.
I was cautious. I knew that you’re “not supposed to tell” until the end of the first trimester at 13 weeks, because that’s when the greatest danger of miscarriage is past. In our excitement, we had told our parents and siblings early anyway, but at 13 weeks we joyfully announced our coming baby to our extended family. A week or so later, I went to the thrift store for some drawstring “fat pants” because my regular pants didn’t fit anymore and the maternity pants I’d bought would not yet stay up. I wore those pants for the first time on Tuesday, 6 April 2004. I had an appointment with a midwife that day; her apprentice was unable to hear a heartbeat. Although it’s not very common, there are a dozen reasons why it can be hard to hear a heartbeat at 14 weeks, so we scheduled an ultrasound for a few days later just to check on things.
That evening I had terrible cramping in my abdomen. I couldn’t imagine what I might have eaten that would upset my stomach so, but passing gas helped reduce the pain. The next morning, the pain returned, coming and going throughout the day. Although I detested peppermint tea, I forced myself to choke down half a cup of it as a safe remedy for this severe indigestion. Then I went about my errands for the day, including making bread.
Late in the afternoon, as my bread was rising on the counter, the pain overwhelmed me. I went into the living room to keep an eye on my preschooler while he played. I sat, I doubled over, I lay down, I stood up, but no position alleviated the pain. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, I felt something gush out of me. I looked down to see seeping blood. I raced to the bathroom, pulled down my pants, and saw that in the midst of all that blood was a sack of fluid the size of a grapefruit.
Inside that sack was a tiny baby boy.
I yelled for my son to bring me the telephone so I could call my husband, who was in a class. My son’s eyes widened when he saw all the blood and he looked like he might cry. “It’s okay, sweetie,” I said. “Please just go get me the cordless phone.” He had to push over a chair to reach the phone in its holder on the wall, but he quickly brought it to me. I left a message on my husband’s cell phone and prayed that he would listen to it before class ended. I staggered to the bathtub to clean myself up, then stayed there, too weak to move, too stunned to think about what I knew had just happened.
My husband arrived home within ten minutes, saw the pool of blood in the carpet, and took our son to the neighbor’s house. As I waited for him to return, I thought to myself that if I tried to sit up, I would pass out, and that if I passed out, I would never wake up. I don’t know how severe my hemorrhaging really was; I didn’t require transfusions, but I imagine I was close. Nonetheless it took six hours in the emergency room to stop the bleeding. I was shivering so hard they had to pile on three heated blankets. I somehow had the presence of mind to tell the nurse to put the IV in my right arm because the veins in my left arm are so small. They had to rearrange the room setup to accommodate me. At one point, my husband went home to get me some clothes (he had brought me wrapped in just a bathrobe), and I told him to please make sure to bake the bread, or at least put the dough in the fridge, so it wouldn’t be ruined.
I had been planning a quiet homebirth with a midwife, but instead this first delivery experience involved a roomful of strangers who did their best to be kind, but still repeatedly asked us things like “Are you sure the whole baby came out?” I was given Pitocin to clamp down my uterus and a painkiller I cannot even name. Then I had to deal with a very young doctor using forceps to yank out the last bits of placenta—everyone telling me to put my chin to my chest, hold my breath, and puuuuush.
Shortly before midnight, my husband took me home and put me to bed. Not until the next day was I able to return to my baby, crawling on my hands and knees because standing made me so dizzy. I had known that I had no choice but to go to the emergency room, but it broke my heart to leave my tiny baby in his bubble, protected only by bloodied clothes in the bathtub. In the morning, my husband and I sat on the bathroom floor, and unwrapped our son.
He had gotten so cold overnight. My husband got a pair of scissors and carefully pierced the sack. My baby, my Thomas, fit in my palm. We took some pictures, placing my husband’s wedding ring next to him for scale, but it would have fit on his head like a crown. He had individual fingers and toes; both of his hands and both of his feet fit all together on one of my thumbnails.
No one can tell me that any other baby could replace this angel. I wept over him for weeks; I thought of him daily for months. The depression that rolled in held me down for the better part of a year. I never will—never can—be the same person I was before.
And yet I was supposed to try, try to get back to “normal.” I wept when I saw my bread dough, which had overflowed the bowl, covered the counter, and pushed into the sink. I don’t think my husband ever understood how much that wasted dough and unnecessary mess bothered me, or he would never have assured me that it was “all taken care of.” Pregnancy may be unpredictable, but bread dough I should have been able to control, and I couldn’t even manage that. Then there was the blood—my blood—in the living room carpet. It took four days and almost three bottles of hydrogen peroxide to clean out the stain. It took six weeks of iron supplements before my blood iron count was back up and I felt anywhere near as strong as I had been before the miscarriage. Every month when my period came, it was a painful reminder that I was not pregnant, and I became gradually more and more depressed. Every month there was more blood and still no baby. But I looked normal, and society expected me to act normal.
In November of that same year, I conceived again. I was determined that my joy (and my grief if need be) would not be solitary, so we told everyone right away. My morning sickness was much worse; I could only tolerate about a dozen foods. I took this as a sign that my hormone levels were high and that the pregnancy was going well. Three months later, on Valentine’s Day, I had an ultrasound; the baby measured four weeks smaller than it should have. There was no heartbeat. I was so afraid of repeating the emergency room scenario that I scheduled a dilation and curettage, or D & C, for that same day. This process of medically removing the “products of conception” circumvents excessive bleeding for women who have miscarried. Although there was no body to hold, I believed that that baby had been a girl, and we named her Kjersti (“Cher-stee”), a Norwegian name meaning “beloved.”
A few days after the D & C, I went downstairs to do some laundry and found that my husband had done it—a gesture of kindness and concern. I burst into tears. As with the bread dough the year before, I desperately needed something that I could control, even if it was only the white and dark loads. At least for me, miscarriage was not just the loss of my baby; it was a loss of control over my life. So I determined to make a deal with God: I could not handle another miscarriage, I told him, so either let me carry to term next time, or don’t let there be another pregnancy. I figured that wanting children was a righteous desire and I was following the checklist: I had been a virgin when I married a returned missionary in the temple, I went to church every week, and I was trying to be a good Mormon girl. Surely, if my single neighbor (who didn’t even like her boyfriend) could get pregnant and have a baby, then God would not withhold a baby from me.
That June I was surprised but excited to discover I was pregnant again. This time, I called a doctor the day I took the test and got prescriptions for hormone supplements that supposedly could help. I knew this time would be different, because I had made my deal with God and I was keeping my end. In late July, I had an ultrasound. It had been only three weeks since a previous ultrasound that had revealed a heartbeat, but the doctor wanted another one. On that day, my birthday, there was no heartbeat. The doctor offered to do a D & C for me that same night, but I declined.
Part of me was sure that the ultrasound had been wrong—I had a deal with God, didn’t I? This baby was going to be okay. The fetus was only peanut-sized, and the measurements were still correct for my gestational dates. Maybe they just hadn’t seen the heartbeat. I scheduled another ultrasound three days later, with a different doctor. Meanwhile I scoured the internet for stories of “misdiagnosed miscarriages,” incorrect ultrasound results, and other reassurances.
That next ultrasound revealed exactly what the prior one had shown: a baby that was the correct size, but had no heartbeat. Still I refused the proffered D & C. My previous D & C had been physically easier but emotionally harder for me than the natural miscarriage, so I opted to wait things out. The doctors assured me that my body would release the baby within a few days—a week or two at most. Once a mother knows that her baby is dead, her body tends to take action. And so I went home to wait.
That afternoon, I sat in the basement where I could be alone, and sobbed as I demanded that God tell me why. Why had he let me down on this? What was I supposed to do now? In stunning clarity, I heard in my head these words: “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
And so I was still. I did not have the D & C. I just waited. I thought at first that I would experience one of those miracle stories I had read about—where they do one more ultrasound, find a heartbeat, and everything is okay. A week passed, and nothing happened. No spotting, no cramping, no nothing. Then another week. My husband struggled with my decision; he felt that this was just prolonging the grief. He would have preferred to do the D & C, have it over with, and move on. As the days passed, I became more hopeful, but still I hardly dared go anywhere, lest I be surprised by a gush of blood as had happened with my first miscarriage. I didn’t want that to happen in the aisle at the supermarket! So mostly I sat at home, wondering, hoping, and waiting.
And waiting. And waiting. Three weeks after that initial ultrasound, I still had not had any signs of miscarriage. I called the doctor’s office and scheduled an ultrasound. On some level I was certain that this would be that miraculous moment where we discovered that the baby was actually okay. But it was not. On the morning of the ultrasound, I began spotting, and when I got to the clinic we saw a fetus without a heartbeat that was now three weeks too small for my gestational dates. As was policy, they took me in to see a doctor (the only one in the practice that I had not met before) so that he could tell me my options. I told him I had actually started spotting that morning and that I was going to just let nature take its course. He expressed his sympathies, and asked if I had ever been referred to the miscarriage specialist at a nearby university. I never had.
I’ve sometimes thought that maybe God kept his end of the deal after all. Every doctor I’ve talked with has expressed surprise that it took me three weeks to miscarry—that extended time frame is very unusual. Perhaps there was something about being in the clinic on the right day to meet the right doctor who would send me to the specialist. Perhaps God knew that I needed that third consecutive miscarriage to make me statistically a “chronic aborter” so that the insurance would pay for me to see the specialist. Perhaps there was something I needed to learn about letting go and leaving things in God’s hands. Perhaps the time was just not right for our family to have a baby. Perhaps all of these things are true. Perhaps none of them. I cannot know. I understand how experiences like this can shatter faith, but I forced myself to trust that there was a greater purpose to it all, and I called the specialist.
I have miscarried at least four times, perhaps as many as seven. The specialist ran a slew of tests, but (as in the majority of cases) he never found any medical explanation. My first three losses were in the 11–15 week range, which is on the late side for miscarriages. The others were very early. Early miscarriages are often hard to identify—easily mistaken for a regular period that is just a few days late. I practice fertility awareness, however, monitoring and charting my basal body temperature and cervical fluids in order to know when I ovulate. Over the course of several years as I learned what a “not pregnant” cycle looked like on the chart, I also learned what a “pregnant” cycle looked like. I could usually identify a pregnancy within a few days of ovulation (before my missed period), and I could always tell whether being “three days late” was because of late ovulation or an early miscarriage, even if I never had a pregnancy test.
When I had that first miscarriage in 2004, I knew only one person who had miscarried: my mother. After I miscarried, and began talking about it, I found women all around me who had miscarried too, but had never discussed it. My mother said she had had the same experience, of women appearing “out of the woodwork” after her miscarriages. Two days after my second miscarriage, a neighbor I barely knew showed up on my doorstep. She had dinner, a pretty-smelling candle, and a fleece blanket that she said was a “hug” that I could use whenever I needed one. She stayed for more than two hours, listening to my stories of my losses, and telling me of the two babies she had lost. In two hours, a virtual stranger became a kindred spirit via the common experiences we shared.
Statistically, around one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, and two thousand women in the United States miscarry each day. That means that as many as one in four women you pass on the street may have suffered a miscarriage. If you, like many Mormon women, were raised with the message to “multiply and replenish,” and have more than three children, then you have a high probability of having a miscarriage yourself.
A mere week after my first pregnancy announcement, I had to follow it with a miscarriage announcement. A week after that, a cousin about my age called me and said, “I don’t know the best way to say this, but I did not want you to hear it from someone else. So I will just tell you that I am pregnant, and that I am so sorry to hear about your baby.” Her due date was two weeks after mine would have been. Three years later, when she miscarried, she called me. Her first comment was to apologize for any harshness or insensitivity when she had told me of her pregnancy those years before, because she finally understood some of what I had felt at the time. In fact, that was the best way she could have told me, because she acknowledged my situation without trying to hide hers. I have often been grateful for the tender mercy of how she told me her news, because I also had many interactions that were not so gentle.
After a miscarriage, people often tell the mother that she needs to “move on” or, worse yet, “get over it.” They offer seemingly “optimistic” comments like “you can always have another baby.” That doesn’t help. If a person’s father dies, would anyone suggest acquiring a new one? Of course not. Having another child is a wonderful thing, but it does not replace the one lost. It’s not like buying a new watch when the old one breaks or gets lost. This is a person, a beloved person—this is my child.
Shortly after my first miscarriage, a relative said consolingly “Well, at least you know you can get pregnant.” Yes, I could get pregnant. But that didn’t automatically mean I would ever be able to have a baby. For all I knew, I might conceive over and over and over but never carry a baby to term.
Even the most well-meaning advice can induce both guilt and anxiety about trying to do things other mothers do easily. For instance, my grandmother warned me against carrying my adopted three-year-old son, riding in cars over bumpy roads, or lifting a turkey out of the oven, because, she assured me, those things had been the causes of her mother’s miscarriages. I also came to cringe at the casually used abbreviation “D & C” for the Doctrine and Covenants. Those of us who have had the medical procedure don’t care to be reminded of it every week in Sunday school.
And although it might seem petty and irrational, I was always hurt when someone said that I had “lost the baby” rather than saying that I had miscarried. After a miscarriage, a mother repeatedly asks herself if there was anything she could have done to prevent it, and “you lost the baby” can sound—or feel—as though we are indeed responsible somehow, as in “how careless of you, to lose a baby . . . .”
It’s not uncommon for women to feel guilt over miscarriages. Many think that if they had only been more diligent about taking vitamins or started prenatal visits sooner, they might have prevented the miscarriage. Latter-day Saint women may believe that had they been more righteous, they would not have miscarried. They blame their loss on having had sex before marriage, on not praying enough, or on neglecting their callings; they think the miscarriage might have been prevented if only they had done something different. In fact, the majority of miscarriages have no known cause, and I do not believe (nor do I know of any Church teaching that suggests) that miscarriage is a punishment for sin. It just isn’t. It is a biological fluke. Actually, considering the diverse and complex processes of human fetal development, the real ‘fluke’ might be how many babies are not miscarried.
Women also have questions about doctrinal issues surrounding miscarriage. Will I as the mother get to raise this child in the Millennium or not? Did this child get his or her body or not? If not, will I see this spirit again? Will he or she be born to someone else? For a religion so focused on multiplying and replenishing, the leadership has been nearly silent on the topic of prenatal or perinatal death. In fact, the only official statement I have ever found is from Brigham Young, who said that “when the mother feels life there is an evidence that the spirit from heaven has entered the tabernacle.” Women feel movement at drastically different stages of pregnancy, however, and with ultrasound we can see movement at just a few weeks gestation. If the spirit has entered the body so early, are these children ours to raise in the next life? And if the spirit has not entered the body by eight or twelve or sixteen weeks, what implications does that have about the Church’s statements against birth control, the morning-after pill, or abortion?
After six years of working through and pondering issues like this, after six years of being “that friend” people came to when they miscarried, I gathered some women and started the Amethyst Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing woman-to-woman support for miscarriage. We work to educate women and the general public about miscarriage, and to advocate with medical providers and others for more supportive policies and practices.1
For mothers who are experiencing miscarriage, I offer a few suggestions. First, acknowledge it all: the baby, the loss, and your need to grieve. Do things that are validating, such as naming the baby or recording the birth day or creating some kind of keepsake. Second, be open about what has happened to you. Your candor will help others to support you in the ways that you need, and you may also find others with similar experiences who can genuinely understand. In fact, it may be a good idea to seek out those kindred spirits, as you may find comfort in sharing your story with others who can relate, and they also may have helpful advice for coping with your grief.
Third, seek grief counseling if you need or want it. Finally, be gentle with yourself, and be willing to give it time. Realize that everyone grieves differently, that grief is a process with many ups and downs, and it may take months or years.
Miscarriage is an almost invisible tragedy. The mother has probably been dreaming about the future and may have begun to love that child at the moment she saw those two pink lines on the pregnancy test. But most miscarriages happen in the earlier parts of pregnancy—before the woman’s pregnancy shows in a rounded belly, before many people know that she is even expecting—and so the parents grieve alone. Because men and women often grieve differently and also because a father may not have connected to the unborn child as much as the mother, many women feel especially lonely. Our culture does not validate a pregnancy loss as we do the loss of an older child, perhaps because it is so common, perhaps because we have been denied the joy of seeing the child smile or hearing him or her laugh, so the loss simply seems unreal to many people. Perhaps it is another result of patriarchy, because a man cannot relate to pregnancy, and therefore does not fully relate to the experience of pregnancy loss. Our patriarchal culture may not accept our grief because it does not understand it, but we as women can change that. We have the ability to tell our stories and to support one another. We have the power to make our society a more understanding and validating place for everyone who feels misunderstood.
After three (or maybe six) miscarriages over the course of two years, I conceived again. My son, my Samuel, was born in January 2007, and like Hannah, I held him and rejoiced, saying, “For this child I prayed” (Samuel 1:27). In November 2009, after almost three more years (and one more miscarriage), I gave birth to another son. Although both pregnancies were a bit nerve-wracking—I became especially nervous when the morning sickness subsided since that had been a sign of prior miscarriages—neither pregnancy had complications and both babies were born at full-term. Although I had always wanted a large family, I have my three boys and I am done. No more pregnancies means no more children. It’s not what I had hoped for, but it also means no more miscarriages, and for that I am grateful.
1. You can learn more about us at http://theamethystnetwork.org/. I have also collected advice from several mothers about what others did that was helpful—or not—as we dealt with our miscarriages; find it at http://brightonwoman.blogspot.com/2008/01/when-someone-miscarries.html.