What do most professional women do after they've had a miscarriage early in the pregnancy? Go back to work, seemingly without skipping a beat, often saying nothing about it. Meghan McCain, co-host of The View and daughter of the late senator John McCain, recently published an op-ed in The New York Times, announcing that she'd recently had a miscarriage. At the time, she went right back on the air after missing only a few days.
But, she explained, when you're a daily fixture on national television, even a few days' absence is enough to cause rumors. "I am not hiding anymore," she wrote. "My miscarriage was a horrendous experience and I would not wish it upon anyone." Neither would I. I've had that experience twice.
My first miscarriage took me completely by surprise. My body had always worked like clockwork, and I'd assumed it would efficiently produce a healthy child. But then the technician explained to my husband and me at our first ultrasound that while I had a gestational sac, there was no embryo inside it. "Lights on, nobody home" is how I couldn't help thinking about it.
It was a traumatic experience, but also oddly isolating. My husband, Bill, of course, was by my side every moment he could be, but he was also struggling with his own reaction and desperate to know that I would be OK. And so I was determined to be OK, whenever he was around. Alone, in my bathtub, was the only time I let myself cry.
I was determined to be OK around everyone else as well. We hadn't told most people that we were pregnant yet--you're supposed to wait into the second trimester, which I had been beginning. Only the people we were close with knew anything had happened at all, and those who did know didn't seem to know what to say. So nobody said much of anything.
Back to work
I've always been deeply in love with my career, so I returned to that love as the most logical thing to do. A few days after that first miscarriage, I flew to Chicago for a conference where I hoped to gain some new clients. I never considered canceling. I hadn't planned to tell anyone I was pregnant, so it seemed just as easy not to say anything about the miscarriage, either. I even managed to put it out of my mind, at least some of the time.
Back home that weekend, Bill's son and daughter-in-law were having a christening for a child of their own. They had started having babies in their 20s. Bill is older than me, and I had married him at 40. That meant we were starting--or attempting to start--our family late in life, when he was already a grandfather. Being in my 40s added an extra layer of shame to the whole event. It felt like my own fault for having hesitated too long.
It didn't occur to anyone, not even Bill, that I might not want to go celebrate someone else's baby just then. When I suggested that I might stay home, his reaction was enough to convince me that I really couldn't say no. So I put on my prettiest dress and my best smile and went through the whole day acting like nothing was wrong. Afterward, I learned that some family members had waited till I was out of earshot to ask Bill how I was doing. I kind of wish they'd asked me instead. It would have been embarrassing and awkward for everyone and I wouldn't have known what to say. But at least I'd have felt like my miscarriage was a real event, not a ghost occurrence that couldn't even be mentioned.
The second time, after a few more years of trying, the miscarriage came much more quickly. I started spotting less than two weeks after the positive pregnancy test. I'd barely gotten used to the idea that I was finally having a child when it turned out I wasn't having one after all. By this time, I was 45, and I knew I'd lost my last chance to carry a baby to term.
The following week, I headed to New York for yet another conference. This time, I was one of its two co-chairs. For days, I smiled and networked and solved problems and chatted with hundreds of people. Again, I didn't mention that I'd just had a miscarriage. Only the other co-chair knew what had happened, and we didn't discuss it much. Depressingly, a big fertility conference was also taking place at the same hotel as our conference. I did my best to ignore it.
We have no ritual
If I'd managed to have a baby, there would have been a shower and balloons and all the ritual that goes with that. If I'd had a death in the family, there would have been a different, but just as elaborate, set of rituals to mark that occasion. If I'd had an illness, there would have been get-well cards and questions about how I was doing. Even if people didn't quite know what to say in the face of a personal tragedy, they would have known what to do: bring flowers, write cards, make casseroles. For a miscarriage, there is none of that. There is just ... silence. And an immediate return to what's supposed to be normal life.
McCain equates her miscarriage with losing a baby that she says she'll always love. For myself, I don't quite see it that way. I never felt a kick, or finished picking out a name, or bought a crib, or did any of the things that would make a baby seem truly real. But it was a big loss nonetheless. A loss of the future I thought I would have, of being a family and not just a couple. A loss of the chance to find out who I would be as a parent. Of the oceans of love I knew I would give to and receive from this mysterious new stranger I was both scared and eager to meet.
Health organizations estimate that there are about a million miscarriages a year in the United States, which comes out to about one every 30 seconds. It's happened to millions and millions of women, including many whom you know, even if they haven't told you about it. It may even have happened to you.
We live in a culture that's good at creating traditions and rituals for nearly every stage of life, from turning 16 to watching a baseball game to breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Something so common and so devastating deserves to have a ritual of its own. At least, it deserves to be talked about, not met with the bland pretense that nothing at all has happened. It deserves better than silence.