“Mis-carriage”

Why the hyphen separating the two halves of that word? This week I’ve been musing, by necessity though not design, on the concept of “miscarriage.” From the OED:

mis-, prefix.
Germanic, Old English origin; prefixed to verbs with sense “badly,” “wrongly,” “perversely,” “mistakenly”

carriage, n.
Carrying or bearing from one place to another; conveyance.

Though today the term “miscarriage” is typically attached to pregnancy, really we could describe the improper conveyance of anything–physically, conceptually, politically–a “miscarriage.” Over time I know I have “mis-carried” a lot of things. However, the main reason for this focus is that on Wednesday this week I miscarried my first pregnancy. To cut a long story short, I went to the ER on the day before Thanksgiving; several ultrasounds and exams confirmed the pregnancy had ended; I had a D & C; I slept it off at home; I cooked the big holiday dinner the next day. This experience made me think about other abandoned, aborted, or misaligned projects or endeavors of mine, or of other folks. To risk the wrath of parents who say that nothing is like the experience of birthing or raising a child, bear with me for the sake of the metaphor.

For example, I’ve considered in the last few months what it means–what it really means–to follow a long-term project through to completion. After all, I have to write a dissertation, a project which at this point looks as though it will take at least two or three years. For many humanities scholars, it takes much longer to complete a Ph.D. I know some folks in my own department who have been there eight or nine years (not something I hope to do). Many humanities folks will discontinue their work at some point (I hesitate to use the phrase “drop out,” because that sounds too juvenile considering the very difficult pressures of adulthood and academia). I got to thinking of an abandoned dissertation or abandoned academic career as a “miscarriage” for several reasons. One, an academic project or career is kind of like a child of the mind, spirit, and even body. It takes form in one’s imagination; one can work hard on its development; one has dreams for its future. One tries to take all the necessary precautions and make all the necessary interventions for its success: attending conferences, applying for grants and scholarships, padding the CV with any professional development opportunity available, and so on. However, not all projects, nor all pregnancies, go on to completion. The relationship between ex-scholars and current academics can be a bit prickly at times: it seems that those who leave academia often find themselves defending their decision to condescending colleagues who say, “Oh, the academy’s not for everyone,” or a variation of, “Oh, decided you wanted to make money instead of doing new work?” and so on. This is a very unfair characterization of people who leave academia or who discontinue a scholarly project. It also does not recognize how common it is to leave academia after finding oneself unsatisfied there.

Similarly, as I’ve been perusing message boards dealing with identifying a miscarriage and dealing with the loss of a pregnancy, and as I’ve reflected on conversations with my own circle of family and friends, it seems that though miscarriage, especially in early pregnancy, is very common (I’ve been given figures ranging from 30% to 70% of all women have a miscarriage at some point), it is just. not. talked. about. The responses on the message boards are telling. A woman may feel ashamed that her body couldn’t do this one evolutionary thing correctly; a woman may feel guilty that something she did or didn’t do ended the pregnancy; a woman may feel obligated to put on a straight face and not admit to feeling deeply about the loss of an early pregnancy. Despite the relative abundance of miscarriages out there, they really don’t get much talk time. The same silence often follows–or is cultivated by–those who leave graduate study, or who leave a large project unfinished. The sense of shame–its cultural imposition–is prevalent, though to me shame should not enter into the equation.

For instance, as I called my family and told them the disappointing news that I had miscarried at 10 weeks, I was surprised to find that at least four women between my own relatives and my in-laws had also miscarried within the past two generations. Previously, I had known only of one relative’s experience. When I was in the ER waiting for ultrasounds and exams and medications and an operating room, two of my nurses told me they had had miscarriages as well as successful pregnancies. I kept thinking, “Why, if this is so common, does no one ever talk about it?” The cone of silence seems to be around early-term miscarriages moreso than later-term stillbirths. I think the uncertainty resulting from the limited sense one gets of an embryo or fetus in its early stages contributes to this cone of silence. If you haven’t seen an ultrasound, heard a heartbeat, or found out the sex of your baby, can you really become that emotionally attached? Yes, for some women–for instance, if repeated attempts or fertilization treatments have failed in the past, or if one is by disposition more emotionally attuned to the idea of a baby growing in there. However, that was not the case for me, which leaves me attempting to figure out if I’m a secret sociopath or if I’m simply a product of rational, academicky analysis.

What I mean is this: I was not emotionally attached to the fetus (or embryo…it’s still not clear at what stage the pregnancy self-aborted) because I was only 10 weeks along and had not yet had an ultrasound (I was supposed to have a first ultrasound next week). There wasn’t really time for me to feel yet like the pregnancy was REAL: my body wasn’t changing yet (except my boobs had already gotten bigger, which was awesome); I had almost no nausea; my other classic first-trimester symptoms were relatively low-key in comparison with some of my friends’ experiences. My spouse and I had told our parents the good news only days before we had to deliver the bad news. I was fortunate that my parents-in-law had traveled down to be with us for the holiday–I think they took the event of the miscarriage harder than I did, but they were very patient in the ER while waiting for news. We had originally planned to tell the rest of our families over the phone on Thanksgiving, and I now had to decide whether to drop the bad news. I decided that I did not want to continue the cultural sublimation of shame alongside miscarriage–shame through silence–so I told our various families.

I considered my own reaction and how I structured my conversations with my families: I decided to be the way I was. Resigned but not shamed; disappointed but not sad and certainly not devastated; irritated that my carefully-timed pregnancy got messed up. However, I omitted the part where I felt a little relieved because, although we decided years ago that we would have a child and we worked for several months to get pregnant, I’m still ambivalent on trading my independent adulthood and my skin elasticity for years of sleep deprivation. I value my own self, my marriage, and my career, so I don’t want my kiddo to be the tyrant of my life. I write that in the most loving way possible, but I often find that other women respond with some form of disgust or dismay when I mention it. Sigh.

Interestingly, everyone took the news in quite different ways (though I acknowledge it’s hard to gauge reactions over the phone): some, like my father with whom I purposely have little to no contact, seemed broken up; some directed attention to themselves and their own exploits; some were quietly sympathetic (these were the women whom I was just learning had had miscarriages too); none were shocked or weepy (or at least they had the courtesy to get off the phone first!). All were surprised that I was pregnant in the first place, though they should not have been surprised that I would hold in the news for so long. I thought waiting 10 weeks would get me out of the danger zone (ha). I also don’t like the thought of my extended circle thinking about my body in that way, or really thinking about my body at all, and I didn’t want to be the center of attention.

However, those personal reactions or desires clash with my other desire to help demystify and de-shame miscarriage. To do so, one must “own” the event–but how does one do that, really? It certainly doesn’t seem appropriate to take pride in the event, but it does seem appropriate to talk about it. Acknowledging that miscarriage exists and is very common is not enough; acknowledging that a range of emotional responses is good but still not enough. There must be some kind of balance struck between accommodating the range of women’s personal responses (from devastated to neutral or even relieved) and not secreting those responses or looking down on them. I was worried that my family may think I’m a secret sociopath for not being totally broken up after miscarrying my first pregnancy; now I’m resolved to help change those types of perceptions by making pregnancy neutrality a thing.

Postscript:
Because this all happened over Thanksgiving and there was a lot of football on TV, I also got to thinking of “mis-carrying” in the sports world, and how the idea of “fumbling” a ball, a play, a project, a dissertation, a fetus, etc. can give the impression of an accident. Since there’s no one to blame in a true accident, it might be useful to think of miscarriage as a biological accident, or an evolutionary accident, in which (in many cases) no one can be blamed. No blame means no shame for either the event or for the feelings which accompany it.

Post-postscript:
Evolutionarily speaking, a miscarriage is actually a pretty good thing. Many early-term miscarriages are the result of some genetic sequence being incompatible or incorrectly put-together which, if the fetus were carried to term, would likely result in birth defects or disability. These thoughts helped me not only rationalize the event but be relieved that it happened when it did. Better early than late.

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