My mother miscarried alone in the upstairs bathroom. It was her third pregnancy after two successful births—my older brothers. She was in the first trimester and was ready for a third child. The baby was somewhere between the size of a poppy seed and a kidney bean, developing facial features and neural tissue at the time. It all happened in a moment. The baby, placenta and all, was there, then gone.
When it was over—when my mother birthed her baby too early, I mean—the landline rang. It was our neighbor with an emergency, wondering if my mother could help. Yes, my mother said. I’ll be right over, she said. She lost her pregnancy and forced herself to move on without pause.
I was born a few years later in February 1998. I was my mother’s third child, her fourth pregnancy.
I spoke to my mother about her miscarriage for the first time in January after finishing Jessica Zucker’s I Had a Miscarriage: A Memoir, A Movement. I knew I was a rainbow baby, a child born after a miscarriage, but had never thought to ask for details of the moment my mother lost her pregnancy. She said she didn’t tell anyone when it happened. People didn’t talk about miscarriage in the mid ‘90s.
People don’t talk about miscarriage. Though it plagues one in four pregnancies, pregnancy loss is not something mothers are encouraged to discuss, which Zucker makes clear in her memoir-slash-manifesto. Zucker, a psychologist specializing in reproductive and maternal mental health and the founder of the #IHadAMiscarriage movement, is an expert on miscarriage: she provides therapy to mothers experiencing pregnancy loss. But she was intimately confronted with it in October 2012 when she miscarried alone in her Los Angeles house at sixteen weeks.
Zucker describes her miscarriage in detail at the beginning of the book‘s first chapter:
My baby slid out. I saw her there, dead, dangling from me mere inches from the toilet-bowl water. There was some movement—maybe just from falling? I don’t and will never know—and, just like that, I was overcome with physical relief, after having labored for hours. A relief that anyone who’s experienced childbirth will understand: the quick kind that’s instantly replaced with an overwhelming gravity. My window-clad house should have shattered from the pitch of my primordial scream. It didn’t. I did.
Zucker puts this passage at the beginning of the memoir to prepare readers for the rest of her intimate, honest work. She takes the reader on a journey through the lives and pregnancy loss experiences of herself and her patients, which culminates in a call to action asking readers to change the way we think and talk about miscarriage. We read about grief and trauma and how hard it is to live in a society that stigmatizes and shames speaking openly about pregnancy loss. We learn how to approach those in our own lives who have endured pregnancy loss. We celebrate with Zucker when she gives birth to her own rainbow baby, and stand by her as she seeks to memorialize the child she miscarried.
WebMD (an all too familiar site these days) says that miscarriage is the “spontaneous loss of a woman’s pregnancy before the twentieth week.” Zucker elucidates that miscarriage is not a spontaneous loss, but a spontaneous birth. When she describes the details of her miscarriage, she recounts having contractions for multiple hours before the actual event. Her miscarriage also included a dilation and curettage (D&C) procedure to extract the placenta and remove any remaining tissue in her uterus. This was done without anesthesia. As if all of this weren’t enough, after the baby and placenta were out of her uterus, her body still thought it was pregnant. Zucker writes,
Depending on where we were in pregnancy, our bodies might take some time to fully comprehend and adjust to the nature of the loss. Milk arrives for a baby that did not. Hormones plunge us into the depths of a postpartum experience without an infant to serve as a breath of fresh air.
While the event of a miscarriage may only be a moment, the body and mind grieve long after.
Aside from Zucker’s detailed descriptions of her own miscarriage, the most memorable parts of I Had A Miscarriage are the scenes with her children: Liev, rainbow baby Noa, and her unborn child. It’s in these scenes the reader sees Zucker with her guard down, her prose poignant and poetic with detail, sophistication, and honesty. These passages remind her readers of her identity as not only a professional and scientific scholar, but a damn good writer, too.
At the end of her memoir, Zucker tells her son Liev about her own miscarriage:
“So the baby’s heart is beating one minute, and then not the next? Does it hurt the mommy’s heart when that happens?” he asked, curious and concerned.
“They hurt indescribably so,” I told him.
“But what do the mommies do the next day? Without the baby?”
“They rest. They cry. They remember. They receive support,” I replied.
And at that, he asked to feel my heartbeat, and offered to let me feel his.
Zucker’s tenderness when writing about her children and personal experience is raw. She opens her arms wide to her readers, saying, come with anything and everything, I will share my story with you, too.
I am drawn to these scenes of intimacy with her children, born and unborn. Because Zucker hears stories from mothers at all stages in her professional life, she no doubt had enough material to write this book without her own story. This book could have been told solely through others’ experiences. Zucker didn’t have to put herself in.
But that would be a very different kind of book. That book would probably be less successful, less tender, less effective. Through her own trauma and grief, Zucker made me reconsider my own attitudes and responses to miscarriage. Her book made me call my mother. It was the first time I’d ever thought to ask, because I’ve subscribed to what Zucker calls “the strident trifecta: silence, stigma, and shame.” Unconsciously, I wanted to keep my mother’s miscarriage silent. It’s not something I felt I had the tools to address until Zucker invited me in. She points to silence, stigma, and shame as the reason we “[obstruct] conversations and connection around this all too common topic, and [isolate] those who experience it.” She reminds us over and over again that one in four women experience pregnancy loss, a wide-reaching community of women all over the world.
While this book acts as a powerful tool for women who are experiencing or have experienced pregnancy loss, it also serves those of us who haven’t. Zucker is smart to include scenes recounting her own incidents with friends and family post-miscarriage that felt extremely isolating and inappropriate. Just two days after Zucker’s miscarriage, her mother exclaims, “Oh my goodness, you still look pregnant!” During a lunch date with an old friend named Sara, Zucker details her miscarriage and asks if Sara would be willing to see a picture of the baby. Upon seeing the photograph, “Sara screamed, not quite loud enough for other tables to hear, as she averted her winced gaze from the fetus that fell from my body a couple weeks prior. She looked disgusted.”
Zucker points to these situations as things not to do after someone you know has a miscarriage. Don’t make comments about the mother’s body, or say anything about the existence of already-healthy children as proof that it’s okay one baby was lost, or mention the miscarriage as evidence that the mother can at least get pregnant in the first place. Instead, she encourages her readers to offer support and encouragement and empathy.
I Had A Miscarriage: A Memoir, A Movement is radical in what it asks its readers to do. It asks us to change the narrative of shame and silence surrounding miscarriage and pregnancy loss to one of conversation and acceptance. Zucker encourages women who have experienced pregnancy loss to speak about their experience, and stand in solidarity with others. This requires a massive societal shift, one that will not transpire overnight. Zucker asks her readers to take what they know about grief and pregnancy loss and turn it on its head, to reject the social norms. This takes practice and thoughtful risk-taking. But something has to change.
Zucker’s memoir is the first step.