Losing a pregnancy is often traumatic, not only for the grief but for the way our society shames us for it. Could this pandemic restore our humanity toward one another?
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“You doing OK, ma’am?”
The ultrasound technician hugged my right knee to her chest, shifting a transvaginal probe gingerly around inside my body, left, right, up, down, searching for signs of my lost pregnancy.
“Just five more minutes. Your endometrium looks good. Now I’m looking for your left ovary.”
I nodded, croaked out a reply. I didn’t cry. It was my third ultrasound that day; I was all cried out.
I was alone in the ultrasound room, just me and the technician and Cyndi Lauper singing “Time After Time” on the radio, the volume a little too loud to be appropriate. My husband, for the second time that week, waited in the car for me, turning the engine on and off at regular intervals to keep out the biting January air. He probably spent six hours in the car that week, waiting outside the hospital to find out what the bleeding meant, if the baby was gone, if I’d be OK.
My sweet husband. When we found out I was pregnant in early December, he immediately went book shopping, researching the best titles for Black fathers raising multiracial kids. He landed on Raising Multiracial Children by Farzana Nayani and Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood by Leonard Pitts, Jr. He was so excited to be a parent.
I had a miscarriage at nine weeks, one day pregnant. When I lost the baby, I’d been bleeding for a week already. It was light at first, no real cause for alarm. When it got worse, I went to the emergency room—my husband’s first long wait in the cold—and an ultrasound showed me a healthy, developing fetus, tiny heart rapping out 188 beats per minute. That was the only time I’d see the heartbeat; Jon, my husband, never got to see it.
The process of miscarrying was lonely. My husband supported me through the whole thing and would have taken it on himself if he could. I know how privileged I am to have his support, and we shared the pain of the loss. But the job of physically passing the “products of conception” was mine. It was exhausting.
COVID added a bulky extra layer to the loneliness. Those visits to the doctor’s office—the early, happy ones, and the awful later ones—Jon would have been there in normal times. He would have held my hand, in joy and in sorrow, he would have wept, he would have hugged me. Instead, he sat out in the Philadelphia cold. My friends, too, would have come to visit, would have brought snacks, hugs, laughter, understanding. My dad would have come from Canada, taking me out for lunch and to skate at a public ice rink, nice ways to take my mind off things. None of that happened. Jon missed out on the heartbeat, and I had only Cyndi Lauper to console me when my miscarriage was confirmed.
But the loneliness had a flipside, a surprising thing that’s kept me grounded through the whole terrible experience: a sense of community forged by the shared trauma of the pandemic.
Because we’ve been enduring this quarantine experience for the better part of a year now, we know how to be together apart. And we’ve become masters, all of us, at providing comfort in new ways.
Take the emergency room. I showed up late on a Saturday night, passed through a metal detector and waited a long time to be seen by the front desk. When I was finally checked in, the receptionist brought me to a quiet back waiting room. She told me to sit, rest, then patted me on the shoulder and said, “Good luck. It was really nice to meet you.” I welled up. It was an unexpected kindness. Upstairs, my nurse, Hannah, had an issue inserting an IV into my arm and got my blood everywhere, including all over my coat. I wasn’t concerned—it was waterproof —but she spent ten minutes meticulously cleaning every inch and promised to Venmo me enough for a replacement if she couldn’t get the blood out. It made me laugh. By the time I left, I wanted to hug her. I needed those moments to get by, to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
I was also showered in love by my friends, most of them at least six hours’ drive—if not six hours by plane—from my doorstep. One, a doula, checked in on me every day, reminding me that whatever I was feeling was valid; that the miscarriage wasn’t my fault. Another, herself 20 weeks pregnant, held my hand via text message through my whole emergency room ordeal. When I told her I lost my pregnancy, I could feel her draw even nearer to me; she didn’t turn away, protecting her own joy. She wrapped me in it. Another friend sent us dinner from a local restaurant, calling it a “warm, Greek hug.” I felt it. Still more have texted, called, made me laugh, let me cry. My brother sent a voice memo of his nearly 2-year-old daughter, saying, “I love you, Auntie Steph.”
I think the pandemic, in all of its horror, has given us something of a gift: a master class in empathy. I will never forget six years ago, when I left my first husband and our miserable marriage, how many friends treated me like Typhoid Mary. I felt cast off, a palpable fear that whatever was wrong with my marriage might be catching. Few people knew what to say; most just listened quietly, uncomfortable. One or two were even cruel, asking what I’d done to make it all go so wrong. I can’t imagine that now, in this moment. True, pregnancy loss is a different tragedy, but one that, historically, has been treated as equally shameful for women.
When I lost my pregnancy, I expected to be blamed, to be told I shouldn’t have exercised so much, should have given up coffee, shouldn’t have taken that long bike ride. I expected the same coldness I experienced when I went through my divorce. Pregnancy loss has long been seen as women’s failure, a failure to perform your assigned role. Not to mention the fact that pregnant people in Georgia, Texas, Indiana, and elsewhere in the country have been penalized or investigated by law enforcement following their miscarriages. There is an undeniable culture of blame and shame around pregnancy loss.
Until very recently, pregnant people who experienced a loss were expected to keep it to themselves; that’s why you’re supposed to wait till after 12 weeks to share the news of your pregnancy—up until that point the risk of loss is real, so why heft the pain of that loss, and the discomfort of your failure, onto your loved ones? But the winds are changing. Slowly, slowly, more women are sharing their losses publicly—Meghan Markle and Chrissy Teigen come to mind; both grieved lost pregnancies publicly in 2020. An estimated 10 to 20 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, and finally, I think, those losses are being grieved openly, collectively, and without fear or shame. And because of COVID, because we’ve all had to grieve together and process our generation’s great tragedy together, we’re getting better at compassion. We’re gaining muscle memory.
When the bleeding started, I thought a lot about what I would do if I lost the pregnancy, especially whether or not I’d want to try to get pregnant again. I felt the answer was no, that I couldn’t go through this again, the not knowing, the exhaustion, the loneliness. But I’m reconsidering now. Any baby would be lucky to experience all this love.
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