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First Person

The Secret Code of Miscarriage Survivors

July 11, 1999|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A friend of mine just called to announce that she's pregnant. Four months' pregnant, but, she said, she and her husband had just begun to tell people because they "wanted to be sure."

Now I have a reticent relationship with "sure" because although the definition of sure reads like everything you've ever wanted in a mate, or a stockbroker ("that will not fail, that can be relied upon, that cannot be doubted or disputed"), the word itself seems suspect. Too many vowels; it whooshes away like a breath, like waxed wood on snow, with no solid final consonant to catch it, to hold it steady.

But I knew what my friend meant; it is a code I, and many other women, paid a high price to break.

In her particular context, "sure" meant her pregnancy had advanced past the first trimester. That the danger of a miscarriage, though not removed, was greatly reduced. That she was indeed pregnant.

As if she hadn't been before.

But again, I knew what she meant. Two years ago, when I discovered I was pregnant, I was so stunned, in a joyful sort of way, I told a few people when I was but two months gone. Several of these friends, two of them mothers, greeted my news with measured felicitations, suggesting that I might want to keep the news a bit more to myself until that first trimester was over "just in case something goes wrong."

This of course registered not at all because, while I understood the content of the message and certainly appreciated the intention behind it, nothing was going to go wrong.

And then it did.

At nine weeks, almost 10. On a gritty hot day in June, just as my then-fiance's entire family had arrived at my apartment for a ham dinner, I started having cramps. My doctor told me to lie down and drink water, but I was too embarrassed, or too frightened or too something, to let my guests know what was going on, and so I served potato salad and French rolls, smiling and nodding and listening to nothing. Until the cramps got worse, and I left them with the dishes, and lay on my bed, offering ragged-breath deals with God that devolved into my prayer of last resort, "Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease."

As is so often the case, God had plans different from my own, plans that did not include this pregnancy, which during the next week wrenched itself from my body.

I realized that even though I had not allowed the word miscarriage to light in my consciousness, I had expectations of it all the same. I thought, for instance, that it would be over in an evening, leaving me wan and, more importantly, hospitalized. But that first night, the emergency room staff sent me home. I cramped intensely and constantly, and it seemed like it would never end. But after the first day, I went to work and when someone asked, I said I was "fine."

If I had wrenched my back or contracted food poisoning or lost someone close to me, I would have mentioned it. But somehow telling the truth--"Well, actually I'm having a miscarriage and, you know what, it's really quite horrible," did not seem like an option.

Finally, it ended with the outpatient D and C, and then more pain and bed rest and many videos and Cokes and mourning. But the only people I told were the ones I felt I had to, the ones who knew about the pregnancy.

And I found myself the newest member in a secret society. The survivors of miscarriage.

Almost every woman I knew, it turned out, had had one, some more than one. Most had simply kept the pregnancies, and the subsequent loss, pretty much to themselves. Almost all of them had gone on to have babies, which was their main message, that my miscarriage did not mean I would never have a child, that it was very common, that it seemed an almost necessary step--a clearing of pipes as it were.

And the medical literature, those paragraphs in the prenatal books I had so blithely ignored, bears this out, claiming that 30% to 50% of first pregnancies end in miscarriage. I had known the statistics, but in my haze of new-pregnancy exaltation, I had neglected to consider that these numbers were women, women I knew. Women who were keeping this to themselves.

Why?

In this full-disclosure age, when I have heard friends recount the travails of death, divorce and kidney stones to people barely of their acquaintance, miscarriage seems the last denizen of the closed drawer marked "women troubles."

Some of my friends said they didn't talk about it because they didn't want to make people uncomfortable. Miscarriage falls into a fuzzy area, developmentally, especially in our society where the charged atmosphere over abortion rights threatens to politicize any woman's reaction. Is it a death? A loss? A medical trauma, along the lines of illness?

Some women feel as if they have lost a child, and will at times throughout the years be reminded of that loss. Some psychologists recommend marking the loss with a ritual, be it a shared memorial service or a private token.

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