Why Miscarriages Aren’t Failures
Sixteen weeks into her second pregnancy, Jessica Zucker experienced spotting. Two days later she miscarried a baby girl.
“My [first] pregnancy went beautifully,” she tells me. Four years later, she and her husband decided to expand their family. As a psychologist who specializes in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health, she was aware of the risks. She made her career working with women who struggled with fertility, pregnancy loss, infant loss, stillbirth, abortions, and postpartum mood and anxiety disorders. But she’d not experienced any of those issues herself.
At 16 weeks along, Jessica began to spot. She went straight to her obstetrician who said everything looked fine. Telling the story now, Jessica says that even then, in those early moments, surrounded by medical professionals, she knew it wasn’t fine, or that it wouldn’t be. Two days later, she started having contractions. She felt clammy and anxious, and went to the bathroom to calm down. It was there, home by herself, that her baby fell out of her body. She had had a miscarriage.
“When I retell [the story], it feels out of body. Unimaginable. Surreal. How do we survive these things?” she asks—wondering about women and the incredible things we do for our children, our bodies. But that day, alone in her house, she rapidly fell into survivor mode.
Jessica called her gynecologist, shouting,“ The baby fell out! What do I do?” Matching Jessica’s panic with calm, her doctor asked if she could get to a pair of scissors. Jessica shuffled from the toilet to the sink where she grabbed eyebrow trimmers. She held the baby, now dangling between her legs, and cut the umbilical cord.
Immediately, Jessica began to hemorrhage. I might die here, she thought. I can’t let this happen; I can’t die; I’ve got to take action. The thought wasn’t lost on her that under different circumstances, in a different country or even city where she couldn’t get to a provider quickly enough, she could have bled out. Fortunately, Jessica’s husband arrived home and quickly got her to the doctor’s office where she promptly underwent an emergency unmedicated D&C.
The email Jessica sent to her friends and family the day after her miscarriage. Photo by Meg Fee / email courtesy of Jessica Zucker.
Despite the pain, despite the fact that everything was moving so quickly, when the doctor asked her if she wanted to have the baby tested, she knew to say yes; she wanted an answer—if such a thing was possible. Ten days later the doctor called, “The baby had an extra chromosome.”
“I would have terminated the pregnancy,” Jessica is clear on this when we speak to her. “My amnio was scheduled for week 18, I would’ve gone through with a termination of this much-wanted pregnancy based on the potentially life-threatening challenges our daughter may have had.” Jessica saw the miscarriage as evidence that her body was working—the pregnancy wasn’t viable, and so the body did its job. “I felt like this was actually an example of survival of the fittest. This is what miscarriage is sometimes.” And yet, despite this awareness, the miscarriage changed Jessica.
After 10 years of working with women struggling to get pregnant or struggling with the loss of a pregnancy, Jessica was aware of the usual thought patterns. “Everyday women share with me sentiments such as: my body betrayed me, what did I do wrong? I feel so guilty…maybe it’s because I smoked when I was a teenager or the wine I sipped just before finding out I was pregnant. [People make] unbelievable connections to blame themselves.” Before I can ask if she relates to this, Jessica says, “I don’t resonate with any of these lines of thinking. It troubles me to no end that women are blaming themselves for things over which they have no control.”
Jessica on the day before her daughter arrived. Image courtesy of Jessica Zucker.
But while shame didn’t take hold, fear did. Four months after miscarrying, Jessica became pregnant again. “I was a complete wreck,” she tells me. “Any time I peed, I was searching for blood. I didn’t believe [the baby] would survive until she did.”
“Babies that come after loss are called rainbow babies. It was raining the day my daughter was born and there was this huge, gorgeous rainbow outside the hospital window over the Hollywood Hills as she came into the world. It was such a significant memory to cherish.” But Jessica makes a point to pause before continuing, “We don’t always get the rainbow. And even if we do, parenting after loss is no walk in the park.”
A view of the rainbow from Jessica’s hospital window. Image courtesy of Jessica Zucker.
Despite having a healthy baby girl, Jessica is still a parent who has lost a child. A parent grappling with raising two children, grieving another, and struggling to understand the shame that keeps so many women from speaking out about their own miscarriages. It was the issue of shame that prompted Jessica to launch the #ihadamiscarriage campaign just 10 months after giving birth.
When we ask her why, she tells us it’s because she wanted to dismantle the stigma. She envisioned a cultural shift in which silence was replaced with storytelling. When she launched the campaign in 2014 with her first New York Times piece, she was essentially saying, “Here’s my story of miscarriage, in all its detail, maybe you can relate to this experience or perhaps not, but here’s the thing: I’m asking you to question the shame you carry, if you have any. Question the ubiquitous silence. The antiquated stigma surrounding pregnancy loss.” She makes clear she’s not asking other women to share their stories if they don’t want to, but rather asking us all to confront whether an unwillingness to speak up is rooted in personal discomfort or self blame.
Jessica created a line of pregnancy and infant loss cards with the aim of filling a gaping hole in the cultural conversation and in the marketplace. Jessica’s goal with this collection is to help people have the tools to connect after loss, providing the antidote to “I just don’t know what to say.” Image courtesy of Jessica Zucker.
“Miscarriage, pregnancy loss, stillbirth, infant loss…it’s not going anywhere. It’s not a disease, it can’t be cured. Approximately 20 percent of pregnancies result in miscarriage, one in 160 pregnancies result in stillbirth. It’s time we dismantle the stigma.”
Jessica makes it clear that we do that one story at a time. Miscarriages aren’t failures, but an essential part of our own humanity.