On Thursday, I was pregnant. Seven weeks and six days of gestation. This was a very carefully timed, meticulously planned, and surprisingly quickly achieved pregnancy. On Thursday, I was happy. I had attended a meeting after work, hearing a report back from a protester that had been in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and analysis of police violence and the new phase in the struggle against American racism and police terrorism.
And then, I was bleeding.
I didn’t know, I couldn’t know, at first, if I would be the one in two women with first trimester bleeding, or the one in ten pregnant women overall, that would have a miscarriage, or spontaneous abortion. But I knew enough to identify that sign of bright red bleeding that doesn’t stop, when I had no risk factors for other causes of first trimester bleeding, meant I was losing this pregnancy.
And so, by Friday, I wasn’t pregnant any more.
And, since I’m not allowed to take any days off work until I’ve been at my job a complete six months (and I’m just three weeks shy of that), I went to work caring for women on Friday, while my uterus emptied. I felt myself bleeding while listening to a young mom’s baby’s heartbeat for the first time, celebrating with her and her beautiful partner. I patiently explained the speculum exam to a terrified young woman, and did a six-week postpartum checkup and got to coo over her gorgeous baby. I counseled an older woman on the risks and benefits of sterilization versus long-acting reversible contraception. I tried to have a normal day, when I wanted to be home, mourning.
It’s only Saturday, and I’m still pretty devastated. I was supposed to attend my city’s SlutWalk protest, where a year ago, I had given a rousing speech tearing apart sexism. I wanted to be standing with my sisters and comrades in the streets. But more so, I need to heal.
I have been musing quietly about the loneliness of the first trimester since I peed on the stick weeks back and had the delightful moment of reading “pregnant” on the digital screen. The feeling was so different from the myriad other times in my life when I had taken the test in anguish — especially the one other time when I had a positive result, in midwifery school, and knew I was going to have an abortion. I was, this time, elated.
But there is convention in our society to stay quiet about that positive pregnancy test until the second trimester, regardless of which choice we plan to make about the pregnancy. We know that people won’t really understand the complexity of our feelings about the pregnancy, and that we don’t want to tell everybody the bad news, if we end up needing or wanting an abortion, or if the pregnancy ends in a miscarriage. And so we tend to suffer through many discomforts of the first trimester, in silence.
I remember telling some of my comrades and friends what was going on, when I had the unplanned pregnancy years back. Because I am part of a community that embraces reproductive rights, I was fortunate that it was fairly easy for me to tell people at the time that I was planning an abortion, or that I was still dealing with some of the medical issues related to my abortion the few months after it started. I have since publicly spoken out about my abortion many times, working to de-stigmatize the experience that three in ten women will experience before the age of 45.
At that time, however, I didn’t talk openly about what was going on outside my activist network. But I did have a fellow midwife student classmate and friend who turned out to have an unplanned pregnancy at the exact same time as me. We turned to each other one day after class with our secrets: “I’m pregnant.” Neither of us felt good about it. We were both in the first of our two year program, and planned to go full time. There was no time for pregnancy, birth, and parenting, and both of us had partners that were full time graduate or professional school students. It was terrible timing. We each made different decisions, however. I ended my pregnancy, while she continued hers and is parenting this beautiful child, who is almost three now.
The other difference between us was that none of our classmates knew that I was pregnant or had an abortion, while they eventually found out about hers, when she started showing and eventually had the baby during the program. We both knew that even in a midwifery program, people weren’t emotionally intelligent enough to deal with a sister midwife’s pregnancy to respond appropriately to our news. So we both kept quiet, attending class while coping with our own pregnancy challenges.
I have wondered sometimes if we would have felt that way if we were attending school in a more politicized or radical time, say at the height of second or third wave feminism. Interestingly, I was able to talk about it with my faculty and preceptors, who all had trained as midwives in more political times and were very accepting of my decision.
If a group of midwife students can’t be mature enough to be present with each other during pregnancy, who can be?
This time around, I spent much of the initial weeks of pregnancy being silently excited. I talked about it with few people: my mother, my partner, my nurse-midwife team, and one friend, whom I had asked to be my birth doula. It was strange not revealing the news when talking to friends and family about this big thing that was going on in my life. Many times, I wanted to tell more people. It was humbling to now be experiencing life as a “pregnant patient,” much as I had appreciated the experience of being the “abortion patient,” knowing that this would make me a more compassionate nurse-midwife.
And I continued with my life — bicycling, gardening, going to protests, working long hours, cleaning my house — while thinking about the little life growing inside me. Fantasizing about the home birth I expected to have in early April with the fabulous team of midwives I had chosen to care for me. Talking with my partner about changing the guest room into the baby room over the winter. Getting excited about the cousins our baby was going to have, given that my sister in law is pregnant with her second, and my brother and his wife might be trying to conceive soon. Planning with my partner how we were going to cleverly announce my pregnancy on Facebook and to friends in person. Looking forward to the excitement and congratulations we could expect from family, comrades, and friends. And trying to imagine what it would be like to meet that tiny creature my partner and I had created.
I was starting in some ways to relish the privacy of the last couple of months. It has meant more time for introspection, self-care, and focus. I have needed that inner space to deal with some significant changes to my body and my changing life priorities.
Like sobriety. I chose to stop drinking around the time that I believed I was ovulating, in the first cycle we tried to (and did) conceive. I genuinely enjoy beer, wine, and the occasional cocktail, but since beginning my new job for the last few months at my job, I had also relied on that delicious glass of wine after work to help me unwind. Being sober means having to actually face all the trauma I see at work, and process it in some other way. And this is a pretty drug- and alcohol- heavy society we live in, so not drinking or partaking in any drugs can be pretty challenging, socially and personally. I have loads of patients that aren’t able to cope with life without substances, and continue drinking and using (marijuana, mostly) during pregnancy. Like many women facing the prospect of complete sobriety for 40 weeks, I worried that I would be tempted to drink and felt guilty for even thinking it might be hard to stop.
Fortunately, I have felt pretty good about not drinking and have enjoyed the challenge of sobriety. But I also dreaded social situations in which I would normally be drinking, worried someone would ask why I am not having my customary glass (or three) of wine. What would I say if someone suggested I was not drinking because I was pregnant? Would I choose to tell them? Would I lie? Would I tell them I didn’t want to talk about it? Fortunately it never came up. (For the record, peeps: Don’t ever ask someone if they are pregnant! They will tell you if they want you to know!)
Another major chemical change occurred in my body as I prepared my body for pregnancy by weaning myself off the anti-depressant I had been taking the last few years. That drug had really helped me through some major difficulties the last few years, from completing my midwifery program, to facing my midwifery board certification, to an extended job search, to the major transition of this new and difficult job I eventually landed and accepted. I am fortunate that my depression is well enough managed, and I am stable enough to face stress without the help of this wonderful pharmaceutical product or alcohol. Mostly I owe that to years of therapy and yoga practice that have enabled me to access pretty decent coping skills, along with an extremely supportive partner. Nonetheless, it felt very difficult to stop drinking and to stop taking this antidepressant at the same time. In hindsight, I may have done it a little differently, but it worked out OK.
Mainly, the changes in my body with the new pregnancy made me feel extremely vulnerable. I knew I had little control over if this pregnancy would continue successfully or not — knowing what I do about rates and causes of miscarriage. For the first few weeks, I could hardly believe I was really pregnant! Every trip to the bathroom, I feared seeing blood on the tissue paper. Every little tiny cramp or feeling in my pelvic area felt like it could be something wrong with the pregnancy. And since I only experienced momentary twinges of nausea, I looked forward to them, as proof that I was in fact pregnant. I caught myself looking at my breasts in the mirror and sometimes touching them to make sure they were really growing, and tender enough. Loads of women face extreme nausea and vomiting in the first trimester and are completely miserable, whether or not the pregnancy is desired or if she plans to continue it. I’m fortunate I was at least feeling well.
And when the proof was there, out of nowhere — sustained bright red vaginal bleeding, cramping, and passing tissue — it was clear that it was all over, in a flash. One day, a pregnant patient, the next, a “miscarriage patient.” And I had to believe there was nothing I could have done differently. It wasn’t my fault. It just wan’t going to work out this time.
These are some of the things we don’t talk about when we talk about pregnancy, planned or unplanned; desired, undesired, or ambivalent; spontaneously aborted, continued successfully, or electively aborted. These are some of the things we don’t talk about because we have internalized the messages of the war on women. This war psychically imposes a social and cultural expectation that all women naturally 1. want to become a mother and should embrace every chance at motherhood, no matter the circumstances; and 2. adjust and cope in a healthy way to the emotional and physical challenges of pregnancy. And if they don’t, there is something wrong, or even criminal in her thoughts or actions. Yes, lawmakers have proposed criminalizing miscarriage. Yes, every year, dozens of laws in every state of the United States are proposed and pass regulating women’s bodies and restricting abortion. Yes, laws primarily aimed at Black women criminalize drug and alcohol use in pregnancy (see Dorothy Roberts’s Killing the Black Body).
Yes, this impacts popular opinion, and shapes how people–even and maybe especially women themselves–understand and talk about pregnancy, abortion, miscarriage, and motherhood. And mostly creates the circumstances for not understanding what it is to be pregnant, or how to empathize with a woman who is pregnant, or wants, does not want, or who cannot achieve pregnancy or parenting.
I was grateful I was pregnant on Thursday, and still sad that I’m saying goodbye to that little embryo that I hoped would become a fetus and eventually the baby I would get to parent. I am nervous about what happens next. Will I be able to get pregnant again right away? What kind of loneliness and fear will I face the second time around? Will I make it past the eight week mark next time? Will my readers and friends respond compassionately to this post?
I feel like I’m in a good enough place emotionally to be able to share my miscarriage story, alongside my abortion story. And like coming out about being queer, or about having had an abortion, I hope that by telling my story, I can contribute to de-stigmatizing something that our deeply misogynistic society doesn’t understand.
But it takes more than being able to tell the story, for those of us for whom it is safe to do so, to change cultural values around pregnancy and sexuality. We have to end the war on women if we want to shift people’s consciousness and foster solidarity with the challenges people face during pregnancy and parenting. How could we do that? It means opposing every state/federal/local law and institutional policy that aims to decrease women’s bodily autonomy and impose control over women’s sexuality. It means being in solidarity against every form of sexual violence and coercion. It means fighting to end the New Jim Crow. It means demanding comprehensive sexual education for all children. It means standing up for a living wage, the right to union representation, and dignity on the job. It means building a movement for immigrant rights and to tear down the borders. It means calling for free quality childcare and the valuing of care work.
Some of these things might seem far-fetched and maybe even only tangentially related to my story. Maybe you think I am coming out of left field?
But there used to be a saying in the women’s movement that really meant something, though it has ceased to bear any resemblance to its original meaning: “The personal is political.” In its best sense, it meant that our personal struggles as women or as women of color, weren’t ours alone, but a reflection, or a symptom, of the broader racism and sexism in society. In the era of neoliberalism, we are meant to see our problems as isolated from each other’s, and mostly as a reflection of our own personal weaknesses and inner failings.
More and more, however, I am seeing my personal struggles as intimately related to the structures of social oppression, and I’m tired of bearing them alone. When I fight against the war on women, or against the war on the poor, or the war on people of color, it’s personal. It’s deeply political, as well, but when I think about the circumstances of my reproduction, it’s also deeply personal.
The last women’s movement, like the civil rights and Black Power movements, changed culture dramatically — but throughout my entire lifetime, the right wing has undertaken a sustained attack on the progress those movements made possible. It is my hope that we can build new social struggles from the ground up, that take up some of the demands I mentioned above, and more. Yet most of all, my hope and my argument is that the voices and demands of ordinary people as we struggle with our “personal” issues must be at the forefront of these movements — rather than the tepid Democratic Party politicians and NGO leaders who have been too afraid about upsetting the right wing that they have done nothing but compromise while our rights are under attack.
After all, it was- not well-meaning liberal politicians that made Roe v. Wade possible, but the fact that women took to the streets to tell their own stories about illegal abortion and forced sterilization. Those movements put women first — not the careers of politicians or career “activists.” Change happened, then, and it happens now, from the bottom, up. Or, as the late, great historian Howard Zinn put it, “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but ‘who is sitting in’ — and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.”
I don’t think the first trimester, or any part of pregnancy or parenting, has to be lonely. I know that people can develop deep empathy and solidarity with each other’s struggles — and we see a glimmer of that in every mass movement, from the revolution in Egypt to the capitol occupation in Wisconsin, to Occupy Wall Street, and even how people looked after each other in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We have to foster that in our communities as much as we can, but more so, we have to organize movements for reproductive justice that put the demands, voices, and strategies of ordinary women and other people who can get pregnant at the forefront.
Being part of those social movement traditions is what makes me feel a little less lonely as I grieve my lost pregnancy and look forward to the future.