Eric Shapiro went through a miscarriage with his wife. He would like to be able to talk about it.
As a general rule, people don’t talk much about miscarriages.
One way to verify this is to look at the word itself: Miscarriage. There’s no other term for it. No slang alternative. No contemporary spin. When somebody dies, you can say they “died” or “passed away” or “got laid to rest” and so on. And surrounding death, the causes are in plain sight: illness, accident, murder. But it’s impossible to pinpoint the cause of any miscarriage. It happens in the dark, within that most sacred and intimidating of spaces: a woman’s body. The being that dies (if we permit that word) is alone, and unknown. No name, usually. No gender, often. Humanity can’t get its collective mind together on whether or not it’s a person that was lost, so we kind of avoid the topic altogether.
And we’re left with a single, cold term for it: Miscarriage. I hate saying it. It brings to mind the 1800s, when people rode around in carriages. The word’s overwrought formality is an insult to the ugliness of the experience it attempts to describe.
So if you give me just a minute, I’ll attempt to describe my wife Rhoda’s miscarriage in less dressy terms…
We love being parents. Our son is a joy without limit, so we were beyond excited to be expecting a second child. Seven weeks into Rhoda’s pregnancy, we went for the initial ultrasound. Right away, things got difficult.
The doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat. Equally disturbing, he couldn’t find the right words. His tongue got tied as he simultaneously tried to reassure us and prepare us for the worst. Each word he said only drew the walls in tighter. It was arranged for us to go to another branch of the hospital for a radiological ultrasound. The heartbeat could indeed be found there, he explained.
The waiting put us through a shredder. It took over an hour to get the ultrasound, and the technician in the room was prohibited from answering questions. “ANY questions?” I asked.
She said, “Yes.” Haha—I got her. She answered that one!
By the time we went back upstairs to the doctor’s office for the results, I was acutely aware that I’m not a kid anymore. At 35, I’ve got a body approaching middle age, and the fatigue created by all the suspense snuck up on me. I felt incapable of handling any real pressure. Forget about me ever serving in a war or signing up to be a fireman; my nervous system was a frayed, limp tangle.
The doctor looked at his computer. He made a low sound: Anguish. We winced. Then he said, “The results aren’t here yet.”
My wife and I held hands. It was hard to think. We watched in mild disbelief as he dialed up four different numbers to track down the results. My outrage over him calling us in unprepared was softened only by my freezing terror.
Then the news came: Heartbeat! “The baby’s alive,” he said.
We saved our tears for the hallway. Then slept pretty gently come the night.
But that was the seventh week, and it was—as they say—still early. You gotta get past Week 12 to truly feel safe, and even then, no one’s invulnerable. But we set our sights on our Week 12 appointment, which was scheduled for September 19. That was the date that mattered. The one when we’d see a buoyant, healthy baby on the ultrasound monitor. We talked about names. We gathered guesses from our closest relatives: Boy or girl? We debated about what wording to use when we at last made the announcement on Facebook.
September 14 interrupted our reverie. I was in our bedroom. Rhoda walked in. “I’m bleeding a little,” she said.
Like it had never left, it came back hard: The terror.
Our day at the hospital was identical to the previous one. Only longer and slower. First a doctor check-in. Then a radiological ultrasound. Then back to the doctor for results. And this time we had our toddler, Benjamin, with us (he’d been with his grandparents the previous time), so we had to blend our out-of-breath fatigue with keeping him fed, changed, and happy.
Prior to the ultrasound, I said I couldn’t take handling Benjamin anymore. I was gonna faint. Rhoda’s bleeding, and accordant panic, were intensifying. So we agreed to take him to a kid’s care center, then go back to the hospital and finish up. The only problem was, Benny fell asleep immediately on the ride. And then the hospital called and said the ultrasound room was available half an hour sooner than expected.
So much for that plan. We turned the car around. Waking Benjamin up would have increased our challenges, so I had to drop Rhoda off to do the ultrasound by herself. “I’m in there with you,” I said as she left. “I’m there with you every second.”
I watched her go, then parked and awaited the call. As I waited, I bawled, and woke my son. He looked at me with lowered brows, knowing something was wrong. I told him we were checking on the little baby in mommy’s belly. He went through this, too. Rhoda called me fast: a bad sign. The ultrasound had been way shorter than the one from weeks before. I gathered Benjamin and placed him in his stroller and wondered how I was actually able to stand up and achieve locomotion.
I wish I could say the doctor saw us right away, but we waited 90 minutes for him to show. Since it was a Saturday, we had a different doctor from our regular one. We prayed for a better communicator—at least give us that much.
As we waited, Rhoda kept making trips to the bathroom. Came back shaking her head. Describing strange gobs and darkening blood.
The doctor’s appearance was like something out of a dream—like being on an airplane in turbulence for five straight hours, followed by a sudden alignment. Only in this case the sense of stability was an illusion. Sure, the suspense of awaiting his presence was over, so our nerves could at last shift gears, but we still had to navigate the sharp thorns of The Moment.
Earlier, out in the waiting room, we’d made grim predictions. We figured we couldn’t be lucky twice in a row. Could this day really end with another heartbeat?
It didn’t. The doctor was a good communicator, but it fell on him to give voice to the old word: “Miscarriage.”
Twenty-four hours prior, I’d been fantasizing about being Chevy Chase in “Vacation,” at last with two kids in our backseat. But instead of that reality, we got tears. And tissues. Gloom. And long stretches of unblinking stares. I hate admitting this because I like to think of myself as a bright person, but I’d underestimated the gravity of miscarriages beforehand. For one thing, they’re common: One in five pregnancies goes that way. For another thing, they’re not the end of the road: When we try again, our odds will be just as good as they were at any previous point.
Yet those two factors—which are partially to blame for people’s general disinterest in talking about miscarriages—are born of logic. And having a child is not a logical act. You don’t do it to check something off your list (I hope!). You don’t do it because it serves any reasonable function. You do it because it inspires awe, lights up your heart, enlarges your mind, brings magic to the world, and brings precious life to a human.
A miscarriage is an erasure of awe, magic, and life. To use less elegant words, it felt like being smashed in the mind with a baseball bat.
And while we walked around in our daze (which still comes and goes now, some weeks after the fact), we encountered the inevitable: People’s Reactions. I’m being dramatic now; it wasn’t bad. Most of the friends and relatives we told were great. Sentiments were expressed. Presents were sent. No fistfights or screaming matches erupted.
There were, however, two common sentiments that I objected to. Should you walk down this misfortunate road—and, naturally, I hope you don’t—you are all but guaranteed to come across them.
The first is that the child is now with God, and eagerly awaits our presence.
Well, I don’t know, maybe that’s true. But let’s calm down and be honest for a second: We don’t actually know that, now, do we? Seems to me—having had a front row seat to this dark spectacle—that the whole ordeal is shrouded in mystery. Was it a person? Was it shy of a person? An entity? A spirit? A mass of physical matter? Damned if I know. All I know is we had something wonderful and we lost it. I believe in many a metaphysical thing, but for me, discussing God at that juncture was about as constructive as discussing Batman.
The other thing that got repeated is more delicate to discuss, and I almost avoided going near it. But I’m going anyway:
People will point out, in the wake of a miscarriage, that the mother is suffering more than the father.
Now, let me be clear here: I think that’s true. On a grounded, physical basis, the mother’s undergoing the ugly business within her body. Any father who tries to override that fact is a first-class schmuck.
I’ll even go farther: I love women. Most of my friends are women. I have a problem getting close to men. I worship women. I think they’re more intuitive, by and large, than men. I think they’re more fascinating conversationalists than men. When it comes to this topic, I am so sexist against men that I might be wise to someday take up the matter with a therapist.
That said, I humbly propose that it might not be the best idea to draw a distinction between the mother’s pain and the father’s pain after a miscarriage. Reason being, it serves no purpose whatsoever. What are we doing here? Building a pain hierarchy? Did Rhoda undergo ten units of pain while I only made it to six?
After labor, I’ll be the first mofo to line up with the rest of humanity and say, “That woman just worked her ass off in there, while I — the stupid, useless man — just sat there like the ineffectual sperm dispenser that I am.” No problem. Sign me up!
After a miscarriage, I say any dividers whatsoever between the mother and the father are destructive. Don’t remind the father that the mother’s taking it harder; that’s just a way of avoiding the topic’s discomfort while engaging in some overeager feminine-aggrandizement program.
The father is real. He takes the loss. And if he’s like me, he loves being a father.
Missing a chance to be one is a terrible thing.
Photo: makelessnoise / flickr