Jessica Zucker is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, specializing in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health. A traumatic miscarriage and her subsequent personal interactions led her to start the viral hashtag campaign, #IhadaMiscarriage, in hopes of starting a more open dialogue about reproductive health.
An internationally recognized writer, Dr. Zucker speaks to exactly what my intentions were in creating Infertility Out Loud-to reduce the stigma surrounding infertility and pregnancy loss.
You can find Dr. Zucker at her website: www.drjessicazucker.com, on Twitter and on Instagram:
Dr. Zucker also created a line of pregnancy loss cards and apparel, which can be found here (they are amazing, check them out): shop.drjessicazucker.com
Originally printed in the Washington Post, please read below to find her honest, thoughtful and emotionally vivid account.
Trauma stains the heart like pomegranate juice on a white linen couch, erupting perspectives and shifting ideas of order. No matter what you attempt to do, it’s there.
I can feel in my body every detail from that day two years ago despite the passage of time. And now, as my 13-month-old daughter comes barreling toward my breasts for comfort and nourishment, I occasionally feel an emotional tug somewhere deep inside.
I’ve come to identity this feeling as a pinch of my soul’s memory, of the girl that wasn’t and the beauty of pain in the mash up of life. Trauma left me living on the outskirts for a while. But as my girl playfully cuddles into my body, I feel a sense of return.
At 16 weeks pregnant I had a life-threatening miscarriage, what I now think of as an unassisted homebirth to a daughter I will never know. As if it wasn’t hard enough to lose this pregnancy, I was dumbfounded by the reactions of those around me, or more accurately, the inactions.
A handful of people who comforted the bruised places in my heart and bore the pain alongside me helped restore me. But, for the most part, people seemed to vanish. Where did they go? I wondered to myself in the immediate aftermath of this mind-bending loss.
With few exceptions, it seemed that people around me—old friends and new friends alike—feared contamination. I couldn’t figure out if my impressions were based in part on my postpartum haywire hormones heightening my sensitivity, or if my friends were in fact reaching out to me less than usual. Relationships mutated, as if time might diminish my miscarriage germs and things would magically return to normal.
My hunch was validated when a dear friend shared what another friend of ours told her following my miscarriage. She explained that it stimulated too many fears in her. She wasn’t sure what to say or how to act, so she said nothing. When I could muster comic relief, I would joke that it seemed like people thought if I sneezed on them or even simply spoke to them, they too might have a second trimester miscarriage. I felt like the circumstances of my life were seen as a toxic threat. I was temporarily quarantined.
After I contracted malaria in Nigeria over a decade ago, my infectious disease, which rendered me frayed and emaciated, seemed to be a conversation piece rather than a reason to pull back. Maybe people viewed my survival as an interesting war story because it didn’t include death.
As a society we struggle, or worse, we fail, when it comes to rituals that honor mourning out-of-order losses.
Sentiments of potential contagion were illuminated further by a patient of mine who humbly wondered, “Did this happen to you because this happened to me?” I heard my patient asking if her openness about her very humanity (namely her pregnancy losses)
somehow spurred this in me, implying that we can lodge trauma into someone by merely talking. Tucked further into the nexus of her query is a kernel of shame. Perhaps she felt her hardships and the sharing of her intimate stories infected me, implanting a vector that
directly manifested my loss. I was bowled over. This inquiry induced a loss for words. We held eye contact as I ambled around in my mind for the potential roots of her question—where this stemmed from in accordance with her childhood history, the possible cultural influences, as well as what it might represent about our nascent therapeutic relationship. As humans, our ever-present vulnerability is made less potent if we imagine we had a hand in the creation of negative outcomes.
If only we had this much control.
Sometimes we view loss as a competition, as if one kind of grief is more worthy of our tears. But suffering is suffering. When we recognize this, competition becomes superfluous.
There are no inoculations that guard against miscarriage if we engage in the messiness of creating life. We don’t infect each other by speaking our truths or sifting through our grief out loud. Communing clearly is not the problem. Out-of-order loss is. Vaccines don’t exist for such things, nor can they.
But we pretend our silence will vaccinate us and we use that belief to justify our reluctance to extend compassion.
“People just don’t know what to say!”
I implore us to talk about the very things that make us uncomfortable—to examine our fears, superstitions, and our premonitions—if only as an exercise in understanding what it feels like to engage rather than clam up when faced with out-of-order death.
Perhaps the very antidote to drowning in the heartbreak of reproductive trauma is talking about it candidly and exorcising shame. Maybe if we move closer to discussions of grief, we can actually alter this stale cultural ethos, so that the ache of loss might ease through the compassion emanating from community. Maybe a societal shift such as this will in fact catch on and infiltrate like an emotional revolution, infecting us with benevolence.
If conversation about the vicissitudes of miscarriage became contagious, then the shame and isolation that often accompany this type of loss could perhaps be contained.
There are countless viruses we can contract over the course of our lives. To be sure, miscarriage isn’t one of them.
I had two miscarriages prior to the birth of our first son. We began “trying” like everyone does with no expectations, but a lot of hopes. I wasn't prepared for it. Not sure if anyone is. I blamed it on so many things. I hadn't taken good enough care of my body. I was too stressed. It must have been that deli sandwich I ate. I was on birth control too long. Or maybe too many years of partying in college. So many factors all with one common denominator: me.
We were rookies at the miscarriage process so had a whole weekend to know for sure; to see if our numbers were rising or not rising. When the blood came, I still held onto hope and to internet searches of “bleeding during pregnancy ok”. Then confirmed on a Monday: miscarriage. A word that is terrifying, daunting and vomit-inducing when happening to you. I remember crying myself to sleep promising I would make it right. Such a big promise for something so fragile.
Armed with my promise and body prepared this time, we tried again. My mind made up this lie that we had the miscarriage out of the way so the second time was meant to be. And then it happened again. Same emotions. Blindsided. Shocked. Darkness.
I can give the perspective now of “it was just meant to happen” but that is only because I have two beautiful boys that I wouldn't change a thing about. During it, however, I was overwhelmed with guilt. That is how I am wired. The third time resulted in our 6-year old son. I walked on the proverbial eggshells for him and I wouldn’t have changed a thing (now).
Flash forward to trying for our second child. I was ready this time. Much more relaxed; most likely because I had one child and I figured if this is what God planned, so be it. Plus, I had friends still trying for their first, so I reminded myself often to be blessed and to be grateful. I was also strangely prepared for a miscarriage- or so I thought. We tried casually for a year with no results. We stepped up our game, which is code for counting to 10 after your period and doing the deed every other day. Still no results. I became obsessed with pregnancy tests. I took them too early, too often and experienced several chemical pregnancies (meaning my hormones could turn a test, I guess). These brought the same excitement of a true pregnancy and the same feelings of loss from a miscarriage, but just a quicker process and a new feeling of embarrassment.
With my doctor's approval, I went to an acupuncturist, which I highly recommend, as it opened my eyes to a whole-body approach. Everything is connected. I found it fascinating enough that I even tried the awful tasting herbs. My acupuncturist said if she had to pick one - needles or the herbs - she would recommend the herbs for the most results. They are taken daily and needles are only once a session. Well, soon after I was pregnant! Viola!
This time I got further than the last before the miscarriage began consuming me. We went for our first ultrasound and that is when we found out. I had no idea. Did I not know my body? I started the bleeding process the next day and I remember wishing it had happened before that ultrasound. Such a special moment shattered. That is how I felt: shattered. I was not prepared. I hadn't managed my expectations...can you? I had a miscarriage and it just sucked. The possibilities of more loss, the knowing you would have to wait cycles before you tried again- those months felt like a lifetime. Again, I hope I can offer here a sense of “it was meant to be.” But that is only because my next pregnancy resulted in the birth of my almost two-year old son. That time felt like a blip. You tell yourself that during the process but I wish you could blip it right then. I wish I could blip it for you: the reader.
My pick-me-back-ups were different each pregnancy. Remember, I am wired for guilt. So, I didn't want to lay too much on too many people. I found my healing outlets through my husband, my family, my friends and a counselor. There were moments where only one would help and moments where I needed all of them to wipe the tears away. The ache was always there. But you aren't alone. The people who love you ache too. I remember my sister going through her miscarriages and my heart broke each time. Everyone feels it. Yet as the mother, you are reminded of it much more often.
My son was conceived via IVF after years of fertility treatments. When he turned one, my husband and I started trying again. We’d heard it was easier to get pregnant after having had a child but this did not seem to be the case for us. But after a few months of trying the fertility treatment route again, we decided to stop trying altogether. My emotional well-being was taking a beating, and I didn't want to go through all that heartache again.
Almost a year later, I was shocked to find out I was pregnant. I was ecstatic, relieved and beyond grateful. But within a week, I started bleeding. And didn’t stop until my OBGYN confirmed my miscarriage. I was devastated. And confused. Truly surprised by the depths of my grief-how could I feel so deeply when I didn’t even know I was pregnant the week before? And I felt guilty about my grief-was I entitled to feeling this intensely? I was probably only 6-7 weeks by that point. Was it legitimate for me to feel so sad? I already had a son, was I being greedy and insensitive toward those who couldn’t get pregnant? I had been there myself not too long ago.
And then there was the intense self-blame. Yikes. I was really hard on myself. Clearly I had done something to cause this, what other explanation was there? I was obviously a crappy mom and shouldn’t have ___________ (insert anything I did in that week).
Looking back, I know there is no protocol to follow in terms of how one should or should not feel when it comes to miscarriage. There are no rules on how to deal with it. And I also know that there is nothing I could have done to change the outcome of that pregnancy. There are just so many thoughts and emotions that accompany a pregnancy loss and everyone’s experience is going to be different. But all of this is hard to understand when you’re in the middle of it.