On miscarriage and the female body

Try as we might to escape the confines of our sex, our female bodies won’t allow it.

Like most women, I have always had a strange relationship with my body. As soon as puberty hits, women are made aware, every month, of our capacity to breed. As teenagers, we are taught to fear our own fertility and view intercourse as a perpetual risk. In our thirties, menstruation is treated as a reminder of our ticking biological clock — we are constantly told that if we wait to long, we’ll miss our chance at fulfilling our natural reproductive role. From puberty onward, the sight of menstrual blood every month reminds us of our sex in a way that renders difficult all the battles I have had over the years to define myself beyond the rigidly policed boundaries of gender. I am more than just my body. Yet the rhythm of being bound by my menstrual cycle pulls me back in to femaleness in the most animalistic sense. The smell of blood reminds me, at my worst moments, that I am reducible to my womb. And when that womb fails you for an unknown reason,  you are left to question where you begin and where you end.

In light of recent debates around femaleness, sex, and gender, this experience has led me to examine the nature of reproductive rights and bodily identity. Attempting to derive meaning from the distinctive nature of my femaleness does not mean I am falling back into the historic strait-jacket of being a woman, but rather searching for identity while recognizing my body as part of what makes me who I am.

In my case, the experience was tied to what felt like a failure, in terms of my female body — the glimpse of blurred images on an ultrasound, the sombre note in my doctor’s voice when he told me that he could see an embryo the size of a small seed nestled in the darkness, when by this stage it should have been so much larger… My own reflections are perhaps unique to my experience — reproduction and fertility are increasingly complex, considering technological advances and the extreme medicalization of reproduction and birth. When your body goes through pregnancy and birth it can be traumatic for some women — the experience of losing oneself in the process of birthing another, and the way your body can feel like that of a stranger’s afterwards — unrecognizable. But the fact of being pregnant or having the ability to become pregnant is inextricable from our female experiences.

As much as I have fought to be understood and appreciated beyond the confines of my sex, the awareness of my sex in all its messy, uncomfortable, and hormonal being and becoming has been forever present in my life. Lying in bed with a man, you are very much aware that you are receptive. His penis is, or can be, a weapon of power and dominance. While your sexual excitement can be hidden, his readiness for sex is evident: it literally protrudes from his body, intruding on any space. While a woman can become pregnant regardless of whether or not she has an orgasm, this is not the case for men, who must orgasm in order to impregnate. A woman’s orgasm, during sex, is treated as a footnote, at best.

***

I didn’t even notice I was pregnant the first time around until I was nine or 10 weeks, so I missed the period where you have a constant lump in your throat, willing time to go faster until you reach the 12-week safety line. I remember venturing down to the Tesco Metro to buys cans of tuna — sometimes devouring six a day — but I thought that maybe I was just going through a weird food phase. Once reality dawned, the pregnancy itself was a dream. I was lucky to avoid the morning sickness that has plagued so many of my friends, and relished the calm I felt as my skin stretched and my baby grew. I felt better than I ever have before or since — I was swimming three times a week, eating three healthy meals a day, sleeping for 10 hours a night. I was still living in a shared house with my friends, so often felt like a zen-like whale floating happily at a distance in the chaotic sea of early 20s late night parties, relationships, and the stresses of new jobs. I would often be tucking into bed just as they were getting geared up to go out, and yes, I do remember coming downstairs, arms folded, dressing-gown belted across my protruding bump, asking them to turn down the loud music… at 10 o’clock. I was only missing curlers. What a delight I must have been to live with.

So, when my second pregnancy ended in miscarriage recently, a decade later, it was a shock. Shock doesn’t even seem the right word to describe it. None of them do really. “Loss” sounds too vague, as if I’m talking about an item that has been misplaced, which I might find at a later date. The word “miscarriage” reminds me of the law — something has gone awry; proper procedure has not been followed. It lacks warmth and omits grief. The inclusion of “carriage” makes me recoil because it is a reminder of women’s status as a vessel waiting to be filled with offspring to carry on titles and inherit property. You are a being reduced to your womb, and, in that sense, you have failed to fulfill your “purpose.” All of this is what was going through my head as I lay in the first bed I would occupy in a foreign hospital, reeling from it all.

It is said that a lot of women know instinctively that they are pregnant. I suppose it naturally follows that you might have a similar instinct when something isn’t right. This time around, I was so anxious about everything — I am as waylaid with doubts and worries as the next 21st century woman living in the current political climate (relative privilege aside), but this felt like an apprehensive flood of fear, about every little thing. I accidentally ate an apple seed and remembered something I had once read about them containing cyanide, so, in a panic, scoured internet forums and even spoke online to a midwife, needing to know I hadn’t lethally harmed my baby. She reassured me that I would need to eat about 40 apples’ worth for this to be dangerous. I solemnly vowed, in all seriousness, never to do so. I rang the midwife at the maternity clinic because I felt a strange and unrecognizable pain in my groin, but she told me in a calm voice not to worry, “because all pregnancies are different.”

I repeated this like a mantra: “All pregnancies are different.” Ok, so this wasn’t going to be like my first pregnancy. I woke up at night feeling nauseous and had to nibble on an almond just to get back to sleep but that was ok — all pregnancies are different. I had to fall asleep to a 10-hour rainstorm soundtrack on YouTube just to quell the strange discomfort in my chest, but it’s ok — each pregnancy is unique. Vicious back ache — just a different pregnancy. And this was a decade later than the first. Maybe moving to a new job, in a new country, had simply elevated my stress in a very natural way and in fact everything was fine. Maybe you don’t know, until someone tells you that it has gone away.

The next morning, I walked into the clinic. I fainted, as I always do, when they took the first of many blood samples. (I don’t know what it is that makes me do this — it’s not the blood, I think it is the vulnerability of the exposed vein). They instructed me to follow a yellow line on the floor to find my way back to the waiting room, where, once again, I fainted. In the doctor’s room I twisted with pain while he prodded me and asked where it hurt. Then they took me to a bed in a corridor and gave me painkillers. I lay there for two hours not knowing what I was waiting for or if it was already over. After the opiate took effect and the pain went away, I just stared at the clock. Hospital staff marched past the end of my bed and served lunch to the invisible people on either side of me, hidden behind green curtains. They still hadn’t done an ultrasound, so I had no idea what was happening inside me. Maybe it was nothing. There was no more bleeding, after all. I remember thinking that maybe I would be able to go home.

After a couple of hours, I was taken back to the doctor, who did an internal examination that left me feeling like a piece of meat he was tenderizing, or a car being serviced. It hurt and was quick — it didn’t feel like what he was touching had anything to do with me.

The tunnel underneath the hospital felt like a spaceship, as if the man-bun wearing orderly was wheeling me down a corridor that was floating thousands of miles above the earth. I realized I hadn’t looked outside for hours, and had seen no windows anywhere, so for a few discombobulating, morphine-induced moments felt maybe I was right. I had never wanted to go into space. The smiling face of the midwife was a relief after the perfunctory nature of the doctor. She explained that they were waiting for the doctor to do an ultrasound, and took another blood sample. This time, I faced the curtain and started counting to 20 in German, for some reason. It helped, and this time I didn’t faint. They took another two blood samples and I did the same thing, until I felt I was stuck in a strange loop.

On the ultrasound scan I could see a mark, a smudge inside the cave of the uterus, glinting like a secret hoard. They told me they were going to keep me overnight, and monitor how things were going. I disappeared into a labyrinth of online pregnancy forums on my phone, reading countless comments from women who said they had experienced pain and spotting at this time during their pregnancies, but that it had been fine, and had turned out well (I avoided comments which suggested anything else). I looked up the word for “warrior” in different languages and decided that was going to be his middle name.

Later that night I started to bleed heavily.

***

I didn’t, and still don’t really know how to process what happened. Miscarriage feels like a strange, private pain, and, as an atheist, I have no belief in souls, so can’t twist the incident into a positive, life-affirming lesson about having faith in a mysterious plan. Sometimes I want people to stop being so nice and stop telling me, “It just happens” (in 15-20 per cent of cases, or one in five pregnancies, to be exact) and that, “It’s not your fault.” I know, rationally, that they are correct. But I’d prefer someone tell me it was something I did — that I should have retired to my bed and drawn the curtains as soon as I saw those double lines, laid on my back under a large duvet like a minor Victorian royal for a period of confinement. That I shouldn’t have eaten that apple seed.

In the UK, there are too few ways to help us deal with grief and loss. We hide elderly people away in homes so we can only be assaulted by the smell of decay on rare visits, mainly undertaken through a sense of obligation. Most people rarely see death on the scale we would have historically, due to advances in modern medicine and society. The loss of religion means our language also lacks sufficient words for grief. When you don’t believe in an afterlife, many terms meant to give comfort sound hollow. The Japanese ritual of mizuko kuyo provides a memorial ceremony for pregnancy loss, where offerings are given as a reminder of what has been lost to a statue of Jizō, the protector of children. Jewish Rabbis have specifically created grieving rituals following miscarriage, including one where you write out all your related hopes and fears on a note you then burn, smearing the ashes on your skin. I think there is something to this: not necessarily writing hopes and fears, as I think to me that would be too specific, too pointed, too painful somehow. It also renders everything far too black and white. What I’m feeling now is much messier. I think the act of writing is a way of saving yourself — at least it is for me. My writing is the heart-wrenching, gut-punching, wracking sob of having no one and nothing to blame. It is the guttural noise I want to make but can’t, the blunt description of what happened in a way I can’t say out loud, the only way I can put into words the shaking in my limbs when I try to get up out of bed. I know it will fade, and I know it will change. But if you have been through this, and felt the way I did, I don’t want to placate you with beige murmurings about how time will heal.

In Mikhail Bakhtin’s theorization of the grotesque body — open, primal and unfinished — the womb represents the most obvious symbol of the philosophy of fecundity and excess. For a while, then, as strange as it may sound, I want to dwell in the grotesque, in the non-normative — somewhere there is a strength in this bodily force of destruction and generation, of the always incomplete and the unravelling. As Bakhtin writes, the grotesque body “is not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits.” Perhaps, then, healing, in other words, is not about hiding from these deviant openings and uncompliant messiness of all that is not right when you feel your body has let you down, but rather to dwell in the difficult and complicated excess — the essence of the “ever unfinished, ever creating body.” This isn’t a candle on the altar or a gentle hymn, but a furious, corporeal grasping of everything that your body is, was, and can yet be.

Carter Sheard is a feminist writer, poet, and postdoctoral researcher working in Europe.

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  • Signme Uplease

    Thankfully I’ve never experienced a miscarriage, but your story so moved me that I felt flooded with emotion and a connectedness with you in our common womanhood. Virtual hugs for you my dear for your love , courage and vulnerability. Best wishes on your healing process. It may be a long one, but I have faith you will come out of it infinitely wiser.

  • Maeve

    Great to read. My body is truly a constant reminder of the life/death/life continuum. I read a study once that suggested women handle death better than men. It seems obvious why this would be. And it’s no surprise that one notable attribute of patriarchal religion and society is the banishing of the corporeal and death experience into shadow, separating it from life and obsessively adhering to concepts of immortality and youth.

  • hyperjoy

    Sorry, couldn’t read it all, but what I read’s not all correct. Anyway, men don’t have to orgasm in order to contribute their part to the process of conceiving. That’s a myth.