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When I was pregnant with Zoe in 2006 my mom gave me a book that had belonged to her when she was pregnant with me in 1973. She gave it to me because she thought I would enjoy the photos of embryo and fetus in various stages of development, so I could see larger-than-life representations of what was going on inside me. The pictures were neat, but then I made the mistake of reading the text. The spirit of the book seemed to be “you can be pregnant and STILL be pretty, feminine, and otherwise pretend you’re not pregnant at all!” The author detailed various techniques women could use to hide their growing bellies, including putting a band-aid or tape on the offending belly button that pops out a few months into a pregnancy. The book also recommended make-up as well as accessories such as scarves, all of which would draw attention away from the baby inside you while emphasizing your lovely womanhood. I suppose they wanted you to look womanly, but not so womanly that you would reveal that you were in the process of the embodiment of womanhood-carrying a child.

Certainly we’ve come a long way in thirty-some years toward making pregnancy more acceptable in polite society and embracing–at times even exploiting–the female figure with child. Think naked and pregnant Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair. But there remains a great deal of secrecy around pregnancy, the symptoms that often accompany it, and the risks and challenges of it.

The conventional wisdom when you’re pregnant is that you keep it a secret at least until the first trimester is over. The rationale here is that if you should have a miscarriage–although people generally say “if anything happens”–you wouldn’t want to have to tell all the people you shared the good news with that you now have bad news. Or you wouldn’t want well-meaning people asking how your pregnancy is going when in fact, it isn’t.

I think this attitude about the beginning of pregnancy, and the resulting secrecy, is absurd and perhaps even dangerous.

Why, during the first trimester of pregnancy in which you are usually completely exhausted, nauseous or throwing up all the time, and overwhelmed by the avalanche of hormones that’s making you crazy, are you supposed to keep it a secret? This is when you really need the help. Sure, in your third trimester when you’re huge, it’s a welcome relief to have someone else helping with physically demanding chores, or making dinner, but it’s also easier to solicit assistance when you’re lumbering around. It’s obvious you’re pregnant and most (polite and thoughtful) people will ask if you need help. It’s especially easy to get a lot of sympathy from your husband during this stage. But at the beginning you’re not supposed to tell anyone what’s happening, so there’s no way to ask for a little relief or commiseration. Particularly when you’re pregnant and the parent of a preschooler, any kind of helpful hand would be such a blessing. Really, not even physical help, but just compassion and empathy is so welcome at this point. Being able to say to someone when you’re dropping your kid off at preschool “I feel so nauseous today I can hardly stand up” and hearing that someone else has been there, and that it sucks but you’ll survive. Particularly when you’re pregnant with your second child, it would be nice to be able to pull aside parents of two or three and ask “how did you manage this? What secrets can you share about not ignoring your child when you’re growing another one? And how did you make it work for your kids to share a room?” And all of those questions that you have absolutely no way of answering yourself.

For these reasons alone, it would be so freeing and reassuring to feel comfortable telling anyone you wanted to that you’re pregnant. But then, what if you have a miscarriage?

Are you supposed to suffer in silence? A miscarriage is a loss whose significance I am still trying to comprehend. I found out at my first prenatal appointment, when I was eight weeks along, that something was wrong. After a congratulatory hug, an initial physical exam, and a conversation about upcoming tests and procedures, my doctor spontaneously ushered me into the ultrasound room across the hall “for a quick look.” I’m still not sure why she did it. My husband, who had planned to accompany me to the appointment, was home with swine flu, and the doctor said “we can send you home with some pictures for him to see.” Maybe that was the only reason she wanted to check things out, but I know it wasn’t standard procedure to have an ultrasound at eight weeks. Once I was lying on the table, I started to wonder what was going on from the doctor’s expression. She said she wasn’t seeing what she expected to see at eight weeks. That didn’t sound good. She asked repeatedly if I was sure of the dates of my last period and conception, which I was. After she had asked several times I said I would go home and check, even though I was positive that I was correct. Maybe I was trying to be hopeful for her, I’m not sure. She said I would need to come back in two days for the sonographer to double check what she was seeing, which she suspected was a blighted ovum. So I went back that Wednesday and the sonographer confirmed the bad news. There was an 8 1/2 week-old yolk sac in my uterus, containing a 6-week-old embryo. For whatever reason, which we will never know, the embryo stopped developing at 6 weeks. Unfortunately my body hadn’t yet gotten the message, since the placenta was still growing, and I was still experiencing all the symptoms of pregnancy, even though I wasn’t pregnant anymore.

Even though I had worried about having a miscarriage, which I imagine any pregnant woman does, I certainly didn’t expect it. I had also thought that miscarriages were characterized by a sudden gush of blood. I hadn’t bled a drop and didn’t realize until it happened to me that not everyone’s body reacts to the end of a pregnancy the same way. After the ultrasound, Randy and I were led into another exam room, where we held each other and cried for a while. I had already done some crying between the first appointment and that one, but those tears were just a sneak preview of what was to come. Eventually the doctor came back and outlined my options: wait for my body to figure out what had happened and clean itself out, which could take weeks. The thought of this made me want to throw up. I couldn’t bear to spend another unnecessary minute feeling pregnant when I wasn’t going to have a baby. Option two was to take medication to accelerate the body’s understanding and release. Basically you go home and wait for the blood to gush, often ending up in the ER with an infection. No thank you. The third option was a D&C, which seemed scary to me but also like the safest and most efficient way of handling it.

I had the D&C, which went fine. Every member of the staff at Virginia Hospital Center, Arlington, was extraordinarily kind and helpful to me. I had little pain and recovered–physically–surprisingly quickly. I have no idea how long it will take until my heart stops feeling broken.

As it happens I had told several people I was pregnant, even though I was not “supposed to.” I told my immediate family right away, primarily because my dad is planning to undergo treatment for prostate cancer that will make him radioactive for 85 days and he was warned to stay six feet away from pregnant women. I had no idea how we were planning to handle that, but we knew we would figure it out. So they wanted to know so that whenever my dad’s treatment started he would not be endangering our baby in any way. I had also told a few close friends, mostly people who were pregnant or trying themselves, because we’d been going through the process together. I had even told a couple random people like my hairdresser, because last time I was pregnant my usually curly hair went straight and I wanted her to give me a haircut that would work with my hormones, and the contractor who was remodeling our bathroom because the smell of all the construction materials was making me feel ill.

So I certainly received sympathy and love from all these people. But I also felt incredibly isolated. For a few weeks, all I wanted to do was sleep, punctuated by crying. Meanwhile, my husband and daughter were still sick, my husband was behind in his work because of his prolonged sickness, and my daughter was still two and appropriately demanding. It was rough. I found solace emailing a couple friends of a friend who I had learned had experienced miscarriages and offered their stories and support. I deeply appreciated friends who invited Zoe over for day-long playdates with their daughter two weekends in a row so I could just rest. Still, I mostly felt sad and alone.

Last night I watched a video blog, recommended by a friend, about the stigma of miscarriage. I watched it a few times and read all 45 comments. I cried as I read story after story after story of so many women’s heartbreaking losses. As I wept I felt a wave of relief wash over me. Why did this have to be a secret? I needed to share it because my heart needed to be healed, starting with accepting the love and sympathy of my friends, colleagues, and extended family. I have realized in the past few weeks something I never understood before about life before and after birth. I have grieved for loved ones I have lost–both young adults and elderly people. Before my miscarriage I didn’t really believe you could be as attached to someone who hadn’t yet come into the world as you could a person who had lived and breathed beside you. I was wrong. This baby I lost already had a name. The baby lived in my heart, and my husband’s. This baby already had a big sister who constantly talks about taking care of babies and babies coming out of mommies’ tummies, and breastfeeding and giving babies rattles and bottles and pacifiers. No, we hadn’t told her, but she’s already prepared herself for an eventual future as a big sister. This baby lived in my mind, as the person who would completely change our family and our lives next summer, whose future we were already imagining and wondering about and fantasizing about. This baby was growing inside me. I felt the baby’s existence all day, every day, for several weeks. I had already talked with this baby, even if it wasn’t out loud.

Last fall my husband had to have two eye surgeries to treat his strabismus, a condition that causes double vision. Friends, family, neighbors, and people from church rallied around, bringing us dinners, offering to babysit, sending cards, and generally expressing concern and love while we went through a difficult time. There was no shame or embarrassment about his eye problem. In fact the reason he had a second surgery was because the first one caused an unexpected reaction that further impaired his vision. But thankfully we could talk to people about the challenges and they supported us throughout.

My family and I have gratefully received similar expressions of love and concern when we lost my Nana, my Papa, and my Aunt Judy. I have often felt comforted to know that people are thinking or praying for us, thankful for the hugs and cards, and appreciative of the meals that appear when you are too exhausted or sad to think about cooking.

Why should a miscarriage be any different? Why should we pretend we’re not pregnant when we feel miserable and could really benefit from love and support and (solicited) advice about how to cope? Why would we not want to tell people when we experience such a profound loss and are most in need of some help just to survive? I know some people like to think they can take care of themselves when something bad happens, that they don’t need anyone else. I will not kid myself. When the hardest thing I’ve faced in my life happens, suddenly and unexpectedly, why would I want to be alone?

That’s why I’m telling you. If you have a story, please tell it too.

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