The injustice of miscarriage

Face it: Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan think social media can break the silence on 'taboo' topics like miscarriages. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Face it: Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan think social media can break the silence on 'taboo' topics like miscarriages. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

“Most people don’t discuss miscarriages because you worry your problems will distance you or reflect upon you – as if you’re defective or did something to cause this,” wrote Mark Zuckerberg, announcing his wife’s pregnancy, after three miscarriages.

In his open letter, he continued: “In today’s open and connected world, discussing these issues doesn’t distance us; it brings us together. It creates understanding and tolerance, and it gives us hope.”

Is it not strange that the inventor of Facebook would think social media had a new answer to a problem as old as humankind?

The shame of miscarriage is an enraging thing. We have this convention of not announcing a pregnancy until the high-risk first three months have passed, but the only reason for it is to maintain a cult of silence about the possibility of miscarriage.

But what we’re protecting is not the couple who suffers the miscarriage, but the world around them – which, under cover of respecting private grief, clings to an infantile squeamishness about the particulars of reproduction.

From a feminist perspective, this is an amplification of the shame involved in being female.
Like motherhood, it’s the territory on which you discover that the one thing more deficient and embarrassing than holding the female apparatus is to hold it wrongly.

Naturally, though, a culture in which the loss of a pregnancy is unmentionable affects women and men, and spreads loneliness indiscriminately across the genders, so it is only a feminist issue in so far as it’s a human one.

What I found frustrating – hated in myself, actually – was that, even thinking all this, I found it impossible not to collude with the silence when I was pregnant.

I understood the taboo and whence it stemmed; I rejected the terms of it, and rejected the idea that I would want it shrouded in secrecy if I did have a miscarriage.

  And yet I found it impossible to break that three-month omerta. Rationally, you don’t know until it happens how open you’ll want to be; to allow for the possibility that you might not want anyone to know is the safer wager, even if it feeds into a culture of isolation.

On the irrational side, you don’t use your own body to make a statement about gender politics (even though, as second-wave and even first-wave feminists taught us, that’s exactly what you use); it’s tempting fate. Fate might not sign up to feminism.

Where Zuckerberg looks at modernity and sees openness and connectedness, I would point to a narrative to do with pregnancy and childbirth that makes it more difficult to be open – a narrative that makes connectedness superficial and manicured.

There has, over the past decade, been a vast inflation of the way risks to pregnancies are being presented, to the extent that it is now routine for the British health department, for example, to put out guidelines for which there is no actual empirical basis, or the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to produce papers “dealing with potential, but unproven, risks to child health”.

No trace of peril is considered too slight or random to be endlessly evaluated by the responsible would-be mother.

The territory of “irresponsible mother” has spread from “pregnant woman who smokes” to “pregnant woman who drinks, eats tuna, fails to keep abreast of the latest guidelines on bagged salad or allows herself to become too stressed”.

It is extremely hard, in this pitiless environment, for anything to go wrong just because it went wrong. Everybody knows how high miscarriage rates are – a fifth of people who know they’re pregnant will miscarry.

Everybody also knows that the dangers of pâté and raw fish and mercury are negligible in all this, but that doesn’t help when it’s you.

In the rush to build this new truth, in which there’s no tragedy without a culprit and the donkey work of grief is to find that culprit, an older, schmaltzy story has been buried.

Obviously, the natural response is empathy. Here, perhaps, is where Zuckerberg’s hope that we could create understanding and tolerance if we would only discuss things is warranted.

Because, though there is nothing in the DNA of social media that quashes spite or says people have to tell one another the truth about it, there is something about the response, when people do tell the truth about themselves, that insists upon fellowship as more than a feeling – as a force. –© Guardian News & Media 2015

  Zoe Williams is an columnist, journalist and author

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