There Will be Blood: What Nobody Told Me About Miscarriage
I was pregnant, then I wasn’t. This is the story of what happened next.
In 1979, my mother gave birth to me sans complications and wore her skinny jeans home from the hospital. She was 24. Lather, rinse, repeat (and repeat). Three for three.
The first wave of my girlfriends started having kids in their twenties. In my sheltered understanding of baby-having at the time, miscarriage was a rare, unfortunate blip. Women around me seemed abundantly fertile. Miscarriage, I imagined, was like an illusionist’s final act: Poof! Gone!
I knew that miscarriages happened secretly, and that some people’s chemistry didn’t add up, but surely most of these were very, very old women. And surely these women were not me.
I was married by 30, giving me plenty of years to allow the biological tick to progress to a steady thump-thump. But at 34, it had fallen silent — I was divorced and starting over. I met Reggie the same year, and told him exactly 19 days later that I wanted to have his kids. No number of hard-learned lessons seemed to placate my impulsiveness. Maybe that’s what makes me so charmingly, um, me? (My mother’s eyes are rolling audibly.) Gladwell suggests that going with your gut is perhaps an underrated method of decision making, that scientific questioning might overcomplicate what our instincts decide before we’re even conscious of them. I feel validated.
Was new love merely a fresh battery for my baby clock? It was making up for lost ticks, and Reggie was one fertile human worth ticking for. Luckily, baby-making wasn’t a snap — contrary to the fear-mongering 90s high school sex-ed curriculum — so we had time to grow our relationship and validate our impulses.
Somehow “let’s see what happens” turned into three visits to the fertility doctor, second (and third) opinions from my GP and naturopath, 17 vials of blood, and one sperm analysis (with visual aids!). Our equipment, it turns out, was functional. The only catch: I apparently had PCOS. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, my doctor explained, was more scary in name than symptoms. I’ve always had it, she said. 20 years of birth control had tricked my body into regular pain-free periods, little to no acne, and manageable weight. Give me back my drugs! I like my bubble!
Note: allegedly 1 in 10 women are affected by PCOS. Yet, I had never heard of it?
With the steady stream of hormones suddenly MIA, my body literally exploded. Acne everywhere (like, everywhere), abscesses, swollen nodes in my armpits, periods matched only by Kill Bill in gruesomeness, wildly unpredictable cycles, inexplicable weight gain (when you scoff at my use of “literally”, that’s what you get). But, I was fertile. I just didn’t know when.
Polycystic, it turns out, is a misnomer; it’s not actually “many cysts”. My body is just lazy at egg-making. My ovaries don’t make all of the hormones needed to create a fully mature egg, so many of the follicles are useless sacs (or cysts). The tricky buggers aren’t predictable. Either I am super diligent with the basal thermometer and cycle monitoring iOS app (I am not) or we’ll just have a lot of sex.
About a year after “let’s see what happens” I became pregnant the good old-fashioned way. At the time, we had been reluctantly considering drugs, recommended by our fertility doctor (some diabetic pill cocktail that induces ovulation as a side-effect) but I trust Big Pharma less than “your guy” and I’d already pumped my poor body full of enough hormone trickery. A drug-free year, with about a third of that being “actual trying” wasn’t bad for a 30-something with lazy eggs, yeah?
I texted a photo of the blue stick to Reggie 20 minutes before he arrived home (because who could wait that long?), and had a Skype date set up with my parents later that evening. We didn’t heed the 3-month rule or even wait for a second opinion. But remember, I was “surely not one of those women”. I read that 1 in 4 (or 5 or 6) pregnancies end in miscarriage, but dismissed it. I only personally knew maybe two people to ever miscarry, so how common could it actually be?
Before our big US road trip this summer, the dating ultrasound was inconclusive, as it was too early to tell much. I was pregnant, yessir, the technician had told us, but I’d need to come back when we returned from roaming. I gave up Happy Hour and Hurricanes (god bless America), in favour of folic acid and extra sleep.
We nicknamed it “Cricket”. We bought a vintage high chair in New York. We attacked a baby store clerk in New Orleans with a million cloth-diapering questions. We dropped the P-bomb on every unassuming grocery clerk from here to Virginia Beach. We were those people.
Upon returning in July, though, we were both feeling that something was weird. I had spotting. I was no longer craving Lipton Chicken Noodle (I’m a vegetarian). Things seemed inexplicably “off”. I arrived for the follow-up ultrasound, but the technician, this time, spoke only to me when necessary.
“You might feel a little pressure.”
“Bathroom across the hall.”
“We’ll be in touch.”
Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.
My doctor called the very next day to invite us in to discuss the results. By the time we reached her office, the bleeding had started. She told us (while I squirmed and worried about the flimsy pantyliner separating me from the world) that the math wasn’t right. I should have been 9–10 weeks along by her calculations, but the baby looked about 6 weeks and there was no heartbeat. Likely I had a “silent miscarriage” during the trip. She asked us to book another ultrasound to be sure. We never made it. The bleeding progressed in intensity following the appointment, and then it became ugly.
We need to talk.
What are we not saying about miscarriage? I will tell you. I will do this, in colourful, descriptive sentences with no details missed. I will add humour to lessen your discomfort (but only enough to keep you here). I will do this because no one told me. Everything I read about miscarriages online mentioned “feeling loss” and “allowing yourself time to grieve”. But what, was a miscarriage, actually? What did it look and feel like? The word “blood” may have appeared once, reluctantly, or maybe it was “spotting” which sounds about as scary as a blue-liquid tampon commercial.
I read forums and blog posts and medical publications. No one who had actually experienced a miscarriage explained the physical details in plain, unfiltered language.
DISCLAIMER: This is where it turns into a horror story. It’s gross. Not as gross as period bacon (seriously, don’t click that), but gross. Those with heart conditions or squeamishness — and also my brother — should proceed with caution or not at all.
When the bleeding accelerated, I couldn’t keep on top of it. I sat on the toilet for an hour and wailed at Reggie to run to the drug store to buy maxi pads. I told him to look for the biggest package, and any/all of the following keywords: super, jumbo, heavy, overnight, extra-long, galactic, California King. Basically, scan the aisle for the most embarrassing thing that doesn’t fit into the pharmacy’s largest bag. A feminine hygiene bouncy castle. Bless his heart.
I annihilated at least 4 superjumbomegaplus pads in the first 2 hours, between lengthy intervals of sitting on the toilet. The blood occasionally became clots or chunks. No, no, no, child, not the clots you occasionally get on your “heavy day”. These are the size and shape of mangoes and footballs and Volkswagen Jettas (note: sense of scale may have been affected by drugs – read on). Any one of these masses may contain your would-have-been child, which is an incredibly disturbing thought to have while flushing.
The pain. OK, I have not had a baby yet so I humbly acknowledge that my worst-pain-ever is yet to come, but the miscarriage has been the most spectacular pain for me, to date. I inched around on the floor on elbows and knees and only found brief, slight amounts of comfort in a face-down fetal. Child’s pose, if you will, with more screaming and less namaste. I turned to Big Pharma, and double-dosed on Midol which had zero effect. (OK it was a triple dose. I didn’t want you to worry, but you need to know the facts.)
How can I explain this pain? To women: your worst cramps multiplied by your worst bout of constipation to the power of Ab Blast Bootcamp. To men: I dunno, something to do with repeatedly being kicked in the junk? I understand that hurts.
I remember later saying, “Of course it hurts — you’re essentially giving birth.” But my mom friends gave me that “sister please” look, so I have since retracted the statement.
The pain was intense and the bleeding heavy for what felt like a year. In total the expulsion of “stuff” took more than eight days, though I stopped counting. The blogs like to misleadingly call this stuff “pregnancy material” as if it’s a pastel crèpe de chine fainting couch.
Other women, I found out later, sometimes need to go through a process called dilation and curettage which I had to Google because: are those even words? And since even Google is trying to protect us from the M-word, I will explain it layman-style: they scoop out your uterus lining with a spoon, like a Halloween pumpkin. Feelings of loss aside, that’s a really fucking traumatic thing.
If you’re farther along than I was, it’s even worse: surgery is actually preferable, and far less traumatic than passing the pregnancy sac. Surgery! Preferable!
Emotionally, how did I feel? I was okay. Remarkably so. I knew (though dismissed) that there was a high risk of losing the baby in the first 3 months. I wasn’t too attached. If I thought rationally about my feelings, I was disappointed more than I was sad. I took one day off work (because: blood), but freely told co-workers about it, and spread the news to those in the know about our poorly kept secret. The hardest part was telling my parents, but I only choked up a little on their behalf. Again, I was in touch with my feelings and they were repeating back: Okay! Okay!
A few days later, we were grocery shopping and Reggie said a very minor thing that likely, under normal hormonal conditions, would have been fine. I burst into choking sobs in the canned soup aisle. It was uncontrollable. I interrupted the crying with bouts of laughter because I couldn’t understand why my body was doing this thing. I was a sneezing baby YouTube panda: completely startled by my own body!
What was happening? I didn’t feel sad but my body disagreed. Postpartum depression affects women at any stage of the process, I found out. You’re pregnant and then you’re not (whether it’s an abortion or a miscarriage or full term birth), so you qualify. Was I experiencing it? I don’t know. But I found most of the online resources to be infuriatingly unhelpful, fluffy, and condescending.
“It’s okay to feel grief.”
“Take 6 months before trying again, to allow yourself to properly mourn.”
Fine. But please actually explain what’s going on with me, internet. I don’t feel overwhelming grief or the need to mourn, but I’m finding work extra stressful and can’t cope with conflict. And I really just want to start making babies again.
Another side-effect for which I was not prepared? Partner grief. If there was very little decent info for moms-to-be, there was even less for the helpless partners. Even Zuck wanted to talk.
I wondered: if we’re not talking about miscarriages, where were women (and men) going for answers and commiseration? Many of the support groups I found contained “angel” or “heaven” in the name. It smacked of Jesus and I’m not a prayin’ gal. If the idea of your never-born child floating winged among clouds brings you comfort, I fully support you. Mine was “pregnancy material” and I flushed it. Like a pet goldfish.
One day, sometime in my mid 20s, my friend told me a story about an encounter she’d had the day before. She was on a business lunch with a woman she’d never met. The woman clearly had something on her mind, and blurted out mid-appetizer that she had recently had a miscarriage. At the time my friend and I agreed that it was a totally horrifying and embarrassing and inappropriate (O.M.G.). I feel differently about that woman now.
A funny thing happened when I decided that I was just going to talk about it freely, awkwardness be damned: everyone had a story. Sisters, mothers, friends, wives. Every person I told had a 1-degree connection to miscarriage and they wanted to talk about it. Remember how I thought I only knew two people?
I have heard graphic descriptions of birth horror: from episiotomies to pooping on a table in front of strangers to mangled nipples to emergency c-sections. These are very good, helpful conversations to have with women who are getting ready to have kids. Tell us everything! No surprises! No sugar-coating! Somehow, though, miscarriage has stigma like whoa.
Since starting this post, I have discovered (through digging and recommendations) a few posts that do justice to the topic. If you’re willing to wade through the fluff, the conversations are happening (even on tv), just not as loudly as they should be.
What’s the most remarkable thing about my story? That it’s not remarkable in any way. Statistically speaking, at least 10 women on a packed Toronto streetcar have been through the same (or worse). Our months of trying? A hot minute compared to couples who’ve been at it for years. And, the physical and emotional trauma I experienced? Relatively, it was kittens.
Why tell my super typical story? Because you’re not.