Today’s society tells us that fetuses and embryos aren’t babies. They are “products of conception.” They are “clumps of cells.” They are “the contents of your uterus.” They aren’t “born” unless they’re born alive. They aren’t human beings until they cross the birth canal, so if they don’t cross it alive then they were certainly never human beings. And when you refer to the time at which the unborn child’s heart stopped beating, you can’t even say “when she died” because in medical terms she was never alive. You have to say “when she stopped growing” (or better yet, when “it” stopped growing).
Women in labor for a miscarriage usually don’t get medication or the medical assistance women receive who are giving live birth (although many women will tell you the contractions are equally as painful if not more so). Also, if you deliver a baby before 20 weeks, you can’t call it a stillborn, even though that’s what it is (trust me, I delivered a tiny human at 13 weeks). You have to call it a miscarriage, which many assume is just a blood clot coming out with your period. Babies delivered before 20 weeks also don’t get birth certificates, so other than the pain you feel, it’s as though they never existed.
Because fetuses aren’t recognized as babies, women suffer in silence. They can’t take maternity leave to recover from their delivery or D&C surgery (which are both very difficult on the body), and their loss isn’t recognized or understood by so many. Unless they have other children, these women aren’t mothers by society’s standards. At my company we are entitled to 3 days bereavement leave to grieve the loss of an immediate family member and arrange their funeral. Until I made a fuss about it, my request for bereavement leave was denied by HR, basically because my daughter didn’t qualify as a family member (person). Because the loss of an unborn child isn’t recognized in these situations, as well as many others, women usually feel shame they are so heartbroken over a “fetus,” as well as isolation and loneliness for their loss not being validated in society.
Most women who have miscarriages do not talk about their loss. They choose to bear that pain alone with their partner for many reasons, including A) the loss is so misunderstood; B) they don’t want to upset their families and friends over a baby that never came into existance (in the eyes of society); and C) for the reasons set forth above, it is simply too painful to talk about. After my first miscarriage I was diagnosed with postpartum depression and PTSD from the trauma (which is very common). People who have not experienced this loss will tell you (“nicely”) to get over it, that you’ll get pregnant again soon enough, that “at least you know you can get pregnant,” or that God had a plan for your baby and you’ll see her in Heaven. They mean well, but dismissing this pain only asserts that it isn’t legitimate.
Another problem faced by bereaved mothers is the lack of medical research on miscarriages. The vast majority of women who have miscarriages will never receive answers to what went wrong. Doctors will say it’s something that “just happens.” The women will likely spend the rest of their lives blaming themselves, due to not being able to point to some medical cause. I can’t say whether the lack of research and knowledge is due to the belief many hold that fetuses aren’t people and therefore aren’t important, but I’m sure it doesn’t help. If unborn children were more valued in society you would think medical studies of their causes of death would be more prevalent. Although in medical terms they never died, so I guess not. My daughter would have been tossed in medical waste if I hadn’t demanded a full autopsy and genetic testing. Why isn’t this done for all miscarried babies? It’s done for all adults where a cause of death is not known. Women aren’t getting closure because their children were too small? Too unimportant? Too easy to replace?
And if the lack of closure from a medical explanation isn’t bad enough, the bereaved parents also have to go to great lengths to figure out what to do with the baby’s body, if they have it. It’s difficult to find a funeral home that will bury or cremate a miscarried baby, as I discovered firsthand. Some will cremate for free, but there won’t be enough ashes to save. And unless you ask the hospital to release the fetus to you, they discard it as medical waste. Even worse is when a woman has to go through a D&C surgery to get the baby out (instead of delivery) and her baby’s body is left in pieces. What could be worse for a grieving parent than not being able to hold a memorial — either because the baby is dismembered and trashed, or because funeral homes can’t do anything for you?
I would love to raise awareness for this tragic loss and invoke change so women who’ve experienced miscarriage don’t feel so alone. My proposal is this:
- Everyone: call the fetus what it is – a baby. Call the pregnant woman what she is – a mother. Even if you’re pro-choice, I think we can all agree (based on biology textbooks) that a new human life begins at conception.
- Healthcare practitioners: treat a woman in labor for a miscarriage the same as a woman giving live birth. Giver her pain meds. Print out an honorary birth certificate, even if it’s not a legal one.
- Employers: make your bereavement leave policy apply to miscarriages. Perhaps look into some kind of modified maternity leave — maybe a week to recover from the physical trauma of delivery and/or D&C surgery? Or at least make it common knowledge that FMLA leave is an option after a pregnancy loss.
- Friends and family: learn what not to say in these situations. I’ll write another post on this topic.
- Funeral homes: have some kind of protocol for this situation already established. Maybe include a suggestion that the families bury their child in a potting plant with a flower or tree (that’s what my husband and I came up with, when we couldn’t find help, and we are very happy with our decision).
Thank you for reading. If you are a friend or family member of someone who experienced pregnancy loss, or just curious about it, thank you so much for your love and support. And if you are a mother or father of a miscarried child, my heart truly goes out to you.