Why We Shouldn't Have to Keep Pregnancy A Secret For the First Trimester
The nausea had come on strong and swift, even before the results of my first pregnancy test showed positive. Just one day late and I felt a catch in my throat when the scent of garlic wafted into the bedroom from the kitchen. A few hours later, my breasts began to feel heavy and sting. I knew.
This little one wanted to make herself known. She announced herself loudly, with no signs of foul play. The symptoms were much more pronounced than with my first pregnancy.
With my son Lucas, I fretted for 12 weeks. Every cramp sent my anxiety into overdrive. Every bathroom break was spent fearful of looking into the toilet bowl and seeing red. But this time was different. I had vacillated between ambivalence and desire for a second child for nearly a year. But when I actually became pregnant, I realized how very much I would love this new baby. And as the symptoms strengthened, my love grew.
About seven weeks into my second pregnancy, I woke up one morning and could finally stomach a small cup of coffee. I was glad for the short reprieve but a little knot began to form in my gut. I thought the nausea was supposed to get worse. I pushed the anxiety away, but the knot never released.
A week later I sat in the doctor’s office, eagerly anticipating seeing the little bean and its blinking heartbeat on the ultrasound screen. The doctor moved the wand this way and that, her expression neutral. Seconds stretched into infinity. My palms began to sweat, my heart thumped against my chest and the knot tightened. A small crease formed on the doctor’s brow. She finally turned the screen to me. There was nothing there.
My hormone levels were high, and an amniotic sac and placenta had formed. The doctor postulated: Perhaps it was too early to see an embryo. I would return in a week for further testing. But the knot told me what I already knew. The baby was gone. I returned home, still nauseated, still exhausted, still feeling pregnant. But it was just a cruel trick my body had played on me.
Very few people had known that I was pregnant -- my immediate family and my hairdresser (I blurted it out during a routine trim). But now that I had lost the baby, was I supposed to just pretend that it never happened? I had always assumed I would let people know I was pregnant after the first trimester, the same way I did with Lucas. But what was the protocol now?
The purpose of keeping the first trimester a secret was to avoid having to announce a miscarriage. But I had no idea how I was going to keep this a secret, when everything inside of me was breaking.
I turned to the Internet. I Googled “blighted ovum,” which is the creepy medical term for my particular kind of early pregnancy failure. There was a handful of links with basic information and a smattering of support forums.
But as I stumbled my way through the online world of miscarriage and infertility and pregnancy and loss, I discovered a virtual sea of women who were reaching out to someone, something, so as not to drown in their own feelings of isolation and guilt.
There were so many women -- so so many women -- who had kept their first trimester pregnancies and subsequent miscarriages a secret, and now felt disconnected from the people in their everyday lives. Some had not told their parents. Others hadn’t even told their spouses or significant others. So they turned to the Internet for a sense of community that they could not achieve with the people they would normally tell anything, from the minutiae of their day to their deepest, darkest indiscretions.
I knew how they felt. My life felt like a giant lie. For two weeks while I waited for results and then learned that my baby had never developed properly, I walked among my friends and co-workers as a fairly functioning person. I cracked jokes. I talked pop culture. I attended meetings and managed projects and dropped my son off at pre-school.
But a thin veil had been drawn between me and the people who didn’t know, and each time I saw a visibly pregnant woman, or read about a new baby on Facebook, or saw a big brother leaning in to smooch his baby sister, the veil thickened, darkening my view. I wanted to scream, I wanted to stew in sour thoughts.
Most of all, despite believing I didn’t want to deal with people’s I’m-sorry-for-your-loss sympathy faces, I just wanted a world where it was OK for me feel this way -- out in the open.
My pregnancy symptoms began to wane, but they were not disappearing fast enough. Each ache in my breasts or fresh wave of nausea would remind me of my body’s betrayal, its sick, sick insistence on continuing to behave as though a baby were still growing inside me.
When my belly began to pucker and swell ever-so-slightly, I knew I couldn’t ride the miscarriage out naturally. I elected to have a D&C and get it over with. More lies. A vague email to co-workers about why I’d be missing work. (I have an appointment. I’m having a procedure done. Something minor, no big whoop.) I made jokes about playing hooky, since the procedure was to take place the day before my five-year wedding anniversary.
While talking up romantic weekend plans to my friends, I quietly canceled our dinner reservations.
But with the date set, the finality of it, the dangerous proximity to what should have been a happy event, something in me cracked. I told myself I didn’t care, because if I did start to care then any awful thing that had ever happened to me would gather into a giant ball of misery -- the kind that’s been under the couch mutating from basic lint to possible living organism for the last several years.
I knew myself and my track record with holding things in. It didn’t work for me in romance (I would bottle up emotions out of a fear of confrontation and then implode the relationship) and it wasn’t working for me now. So I slowly began to leak the news to close friends and extended family. I braced myself for...I don’t know what. Judgment? Faux sympathy? Well-intentioned but clichéd advice? Stupid nonsense people inevitably say to pregnant women about their bodies? What I didn’t expect, and what I learned I desperately needed, was an outpouring of empathy.
The realities of making a baby are thus: 10 to 20 percent of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. Of that number, more than 80 percent occur in the first 12 weeks. And as I shared my story, I learned the numbers don’t lie.
Women in my family, friends and acquaintances all came forward with stories of their own. They had gone through it, many of them very alone, and they had come out the other side, changed but not undone. Several had quite plainly moved on. Others admitted they’d always mourn the baby that never was. Still others blocked it out of their memory as a coping mechanism.
But all of the talk, ranging from gruesome and gut-wrenching to soulful and enlightening, became my comfort.
Most moms love to recount their birthing stories. It’s their badge of honor; proof that they are, in fact, heroes who suffer through great pain to bring new life to the world. But not so many women like to come forward with their other war stories, the ones that don’t have happy endings.
These stories are important, too. Important because, when you’re going through a miscarriage, you can look to other women and know that you will survive.
The D&C was every bit as awful as I thought it would be. I was not put under general anesthesia, nor was I given any drugs for anxiety or sedation. A nurse pricked me with a needle full of super-Motrin and left me alone and naked from the waist down for 45 minutes waiting for the doctor.
He came in, took one last ultrasound for good measure, and matter-of-factly began the procedure that sucked the life out of me. I felt everything. I heard everything. I shook violently on the table and groaned as a nurse clutched my hand and patted my head. I stared up at her as she openly wept.
When it was all over, she brought me a blanket and held me for a long time. I remember thinking that she was the best nurse I had ever had, better than those in labor and delivery, so compassionate and so kind. Now I wonder if she, too, had gone through a miscarriage and never said a word, instead having to relive it daily on her job.
Some time has passed and now most people know about the miscarriage. Sharing with friends and family (and Internet strangers) has allowed me to heal, to sit comfortably with what happened and begin to accept it. But I can’t help but feel angry, too.
I’m angry that we live in a world where talking about miscarriage and first trimester pregnancy is still taboo. Where a woman must go to great lengths to hide her fatigue, nausea, sudden diet changes and pain, both emotional and physical, just to be polite.
Staying quiet for 12 weeks while you grow a human being inside of you is nothing short of completely insane.
Thanks in large part to social media, people have no problem opening up about personal details to those they might not have shared with in the past. The curtain of privacy has been pulled back, yet this one life-changing event remains shrouded until you reach a certain threshold.
I respect any woman’s decision to keep her pregnancy or miscarriage a secret, but I don't think we should feel ashamed if we decide to share the news with whomever we choose, whenever we choose.
Take a look around you. Chances are, if you’re sitting in a room with five women of childbearing age, one of them has had (or will have) a miscarriage. And if you’re one of them, don’t be afraid to open up. You just might find comfort in the arms of a nurse, in the knowing nod of a trusted friend, or in kind words of an Internet stranger -- the war stories of unlikely heroes.