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Unpregnant

  • It is really important for women to be able to speak publicly about miscarriage
  • Society blames women for their miscarriages and considers talking about it taboo

There was a pause.

I looked at my sonographer. She looked away. I turned to the black and white image of my baby, my ears perked to hear the joyful gallop of an embryo’s heartbeat.

There was none.

My sonographer pressed down harder. She called in her assistant. They mumbled to each other.

Finally, she turned to me.

“There’s no heartbeat," she said slowly. “I’m sorry."

She was lying. What else could it be? I had had no bleeding or pain or cramps, the telltale signs of miscarriage as shown in movies. More so, I felt pregnant; the fatigue, nausea and sore breasts were all there. How could it be? How could my body lie to me like this?

Such were life’s cruel tricks.

It was Teacher’s Day 2018 and I had learnt my lesson. I had no heart left for more. I collected the reports, went home, locked myself in my room, and wept for hours.

At eight weeks my womb had turned into a tomb and my emotions were a graveyard.

Four days later I lay on an operation table, my nail polish removed, my blood tests cross-checked, only one heart beating inside me. The 45 chromosomes that went into creating my baby, and that one rogue chromosome that didn’t make the cut, along with thousands of cells and tissues, were all suctioned out of me. I asked what they would do with my shrivelled-up baby. They told me to rest.

I spent the next few days staring at the four-week sonogram of my baby; the only proof that it had once lived. In that time, I had to interview a celebrity author, collect an award in Delhi, and do a photoshoot for a magazine. Amidst all this noise, my own silence was gnawing at me.

So I made the calls. I had the conversations. Because I had told many people I was pregnant. And people, well, they were largely sympathetic. Some were not. Things were said to me, most with good intentions but misplaced awareness, and one singular narrative emerged: I shouldn’t have told anyone I was expecting. The innuendo was clear: I’d had the miscarriage because I had shared the “good news".

And that’s how I learnt some more lessons.

The blame game, cleverly disguised, sinfully sanctimonious. The baby was lost because I had spoken on the phone, travelled, had sex, masturbated, worked, tweeted, climbed stairs, not taken care of my health, taken too much care of my health, written books, won awards, etc., etc. Something was wrong with me, not the faulty chromosome.

Then came the reductionist game. How dare I be sad? Mourning was for dead parents and dead pets, not for dead embryos. How dare I mourn for a lost child when I already had a one-year-old child? How dare I cry for something that I hadn’t even seen? How dare I miss one child when I could plan another one as easily as a weekend vacation? Dead babies were replaceable, weren’t they?

My baby had been incompatible with life and I began to feel the same way.

Almost all the women I spoke to admitted that they had also miscarried at some point in their lives but told no one about it. This gave me a new understanding about women in two ways: First, that although more women have lost a child than haven’t, miscarriage is portrayed as an exception and not the norm. Second, women never speak about their miscarriage because it’s considered taboo.

First things first. Announcing a pregnancy does not oblige it to go on, of course, but why use silence as a counterpoint in case something does “go wrong"? In early pregnancy, aside from the detection of disorders like Down Syndrome, there is only one thing that can go significantly wrong: a miscarriage. This vilifies the woman, most of which are due to chromosomal abnormalities rather than anything “the mother did". All that this silence does is to make a woman live in fear during the first three months of her pregnancy, even if the silence is medically sanctioned by well-meaning gynaecologists. And if her worst nightmare comes true, the taboo makes her suffer in silence, because—well—nobody knows that she was carrying another life that ceased to exist before its time. A woman who does not announce her pregnancy does not announce its loss. She is expected to move on in privacy, as if it never happened. This is easy for society, but not for the woman who is left feeling isolated, guilty and empty.

Our entire social construct is built to cower down women. To shame them for not successfully completing a task that is odiously demanded of their gender. It’s all very cleverly patriarchal: Speak and you shall be punished. It’s easier to call early pregnancy a private matter—much like domestic violence and sexual abuse—in order to keep women “in their place". This is clearly wrong.

But how do we change this wrongful rite of passage? By challenging norms that tell us not to reveal that we’re pregnant in the first trimester. Let’s stop treating the first trimester like a danger zone with hidden minefields. Let’s treat it as a time for us to reassess and realign our body and emotions, to surround ourselves with love and support, instead of shame and secrecy. Let’s honour miscarriages the way we celebrate birth. Let’s build customs, rituals and support systems around miscarriage the way we do with birth and death.

I repeat what I told my particularly concerned friends: that I will share the news even the next time I get pregnant. If I miscarry, I will share the misfortune. If I deliver a healthy baby, I will share the good news. But I will not allow my joy to be shrouded by fear, insinuations and outdated norms. Motherhood is not my redemption, honesty is.

And, for the blame and shame game, here are my two bits. If someone tells you, “Don’t worry, a foetus is just a bunch of cells", tell them it’s not. It’s a human being with a soul and a heart and fingers and toes, just like you and me. It didn’t live the way we understand life, but it still lived. If someone tells you, “Don’t blame yourself", tell them that you aren’t. Why should you? You are not what caused the miscarriage, nature did. If someone tells you, “Try again", tell them that you may or may not. But you can still mourn the one that you lost in the present. If someone tells you, “Don’t worry, you already have another child", tell them that this child may not have been born but it’s still your child. You’re allowed to feel what you feel. If someone tells you, “You should have had kids when you were younger", tell them that miscarriages are equally common for women in their 20s. And they should go back to the cave they live in. And if someone tells you, “You’re lucky because you never got to meet the baby," tell them to ask you how old the child would have been many years from now, for you will know.

If you’re a woman who has had a miscarriage, know that you are not alone. Your grief is not a secret you must carry to the grave. It’s not something shameful. It’s incredibly common. It’s not your fault. You must talk about it. Yes, it’s difficult to express loss the way one expresses joy. Loss doesn’t come with a formula. But sharing is healing.

Find closure. There is no protocol of a funeral for a foetus. It’s treated as clinical waste. I don’t abide by this. Not making it should not be confused with not existing. Every life should end with dignity. If you can’t arrange a funeral, plant a tree, write an article, travel. Do something in memory of the one who existed within you. In Hinduism it is believed that a foetus doesn’t stay in the body if it doesn’t have strong enough karmic bonds with the family it’s about to enter. So it quickly repays its karmic debts and moves on. We should too.

Of course it’s easy to trivialize miscarriage as a “women’s issue" and silence millions of women like it never happened. But it does happen. Every single day. To the mother and father who lose a child, their dreams and hopes shattered because something somewhere didn’t grow the way it was supposed to.

So if you know someone who has miscarried, please spare them the judgement and analysis. Just hug them and tell them that you’re there for them. If you have miscarried, this is me sending you a hug. After all, we can survive anything. Even kindness.

Meghna Pant is a an author, journalist and speaker. HOW TO GET PUBLISHED IN INDIA (Bloomsbury) and FEMINIST RANI (Penguin) are her most recently published books.

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