October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month! The purpose of this is to raise awareness of the prominence of pregnancy loss and infant death, and to offer support to bereaved families that have lost children during pregnancy or shortly after birth. In honor of this, I just wanted to share some information with you and debunk some common myths and misconceptions regarding this sensitive topic. So, let’s jump right in!
MYTH #1 Miscarriages are rare.
Unfortunately, loss happens in 1 out of 4 pregnancies! This is not rare, this is actually very common. If you yourself have not had a miscarriage, I can guarantee that you know someone who has. Pregnancy loss just seems rare because no one really talks about it, which in turn makes it a very isolating and lonely experience. After I began talking about my first miscarriage, I was surprised to be opened up to a whole secret society of women who came forward and expressed that they had lost a baby, too.
MYTH #2 Pregnancy loss happens because you did/didn’t _____(insert any reason people come up with here).
Many people incorrectly believe that stress causes a miscarriage/stillbirth. Or intense exercise. Or past abortions. Heavy lifting. Not taking prenatal vitamins. Getting in an argument. Using birth control pills for too long. You name it, I’m sure you’ve heard any number of these things!
The truth is that most miscarriages are unavoidable genetic accidents, and have nothing to do with anything the mother did or did not do. Another large portion of losses (especially stillbirths) occur because there is some other underlying medical condition, like a blood disease, reproductive tract malformation or placental abnormality. Finally, a smaller number of losses happen because of physical trauma, infection, or exposure to teratogens (things like tobacco, alcohol, and drugs) that harm the developing baby.
MYTH #3 You are not experiencing infertility if you’ve gotten pregnant before.
I was telling a close friend about my personal struggle with loss, infertility and starting a family, and she kind of laughed at my use of the word “infertility”, thinking it was a bit extreme to say that. She told me “You don’t have infertility silly, you’re just having some trouble getting pregnant right now. It’s not like you have a hostile uterus or anything. You’ve been able to get pregnant before”. Her intent was to try and remind me that hope was not completely lost, and I appreciated that. But what she said also made me realize how misinformed so many people are when it comes to this stuff.
Clinically speaking, infertility and sterility are NOT the same thing. Being sterile is a state of being physically unable to reproduce offspring. This can be caused by radiation, surgical procedures (tubes tied, vasectomy, hysterectomy, etc), menopause, genetic defects, and other things, and is usually permanent.
However, a couple is experiencing infertility when they have been having unprotected and appropriately timed sex for longer than 1 year without conceiving or carrying a child to live birth. This means that someone can have previous pregnancies, and still be experiencing infertility if none of those pregnancies resulted in a live birth. This also means that someone can even have other living children, and still be currently experiencing infertility (this is called secondary infertility).
MYTH #4 Your friend who has lost a baby or experienced trouble conceiving does not want to talk about it.
Okay so obviously I can’t speak for everyone, but it is generally not a good idea to assume this about any one individual.
Speaking for myself, most times I do want to talk about my experiences and I wish that I had more people around me who could be a listening ear. Most [well-meaning] people just don’t understand, and that’s what makes me not want to talk about it. They get uncomfortable and change the subject, they make judgement calls on how you should feel, and they don’t know how to listen without offering advice and silver linings (“well at least…”). And you know what? It’s okay. I really don’t fault them, infertility and loss bring about a very unique type of pain that not everyone is equipped to understand.
The best thing you can do is ask your friend if they would be willing to share their experience with you. And when [if] they do share their experiences, try your best to listen intently and offer words of acknowledgement and empathy, realizing that your friend is extremely vulnerable in that moment of sharing. If you think asking your friend about how they’re doing concerning their loss will remind them of it, let me let you off the hook: they don’t need a reminder. Trust me, they have not forgotten their circumstances and you bringing it up will not remind them of their pain. If anything, it will remind them that you remember, and that you care. Again, the best thing you can do is ask someone how they want to be addressed concerning this! You have to be sensitive and mindful, at the same time without walking on eggshells or showing pity. True empathy really is an art! Ask questions. Listen. Acknowledge.
MYTH #5 Your friend who has lost a baby or experienced trouble conceiving does not want to hear about your new pregnancy/baby.
Again, I can’t speak for everyone here. Now, do I want to hear you constantly complain about how horrible your pregnancy is? No. Do I need a play by play on every twinge and flutter that comes from within your belly? Not really. Nor do I want you to joke about how I can have your trouble-making kids for a weekend because you’re sure I’ll change my mind about wanting my own. Save these things for your mommy friends!
However, I do want to celebrate your pregnancy with you! I do want to hear about all the milestones your little one hits, and the silly & amazing things that they do. I do want to be invited to your baby shower (if I am up for it, I will make the choice to attend), and I do want to be included in your little one’s life. I do not want to be left out, that will only intensify negative feelings; as my circumstances already have me feeling isolated and forgotten.
Now that’s just me; but I recognize that everyone is different. As a general rule of thumb:
- DO NOT: Surprise her by telling her in front of other people. No one likes being caught off guard.
- DO: Tell her about your pregnancy via email, card, or even a heartfelt text message before you make the big announcement. This gives her time and space to process the news by herself.
- DO NOT: Ignore her situation. Acknowledge that you understand how difficult this might be for her in light of her recent loss or struggles conceiving.
- DO: Ask her how much she wants to hear about what is going on with you, don’t assume! Respect whatever she says and accept that she may need time and space to feel differently. Follow her lead.
Sure, at the end of the day it will probably be hard for her no matter how you flip it, I won’t lie to you. There’s really no easy way to go about this. But if she loves you, I can almost guarantee that she is not hurting because you are experiencing the excitement of motherhood, she’s hurting because she is not. There’s a difference! Your joy is not her sorrow, her sorrow is her sorrow. And though it may be difficult for her to express it while she’s hurting, know that she is (likely) absolutely thrilled for you.
MYTH #6 The earlier a loss happens during the pregnancy, the better.
Not true, not true, not true. I remember talking to someone after my first loss, and though she had not experienced loss herself, she offered great comfort by sharing with me stories of other women who had. She told me about her friend who had just lost a baby and said: “but hers wasn’t just a miscarriage, she actually had to give birth to hers”.
Just a miscarriage?
This is the equivalent of saying to a victim of sexual abuse *trigger warning* “Well, at least it was only molestation, it could’ve been rape”! Silly, right? There is no better or worse here, only pain. And pain cannot be quantified by anyone except the person experiencing it.
I am not taking anything away from what I’m sure is a very traumatic experience of birthing a stillborn. Both of my losses have been before the 20 week mark (which is the clinical distinction between miscarriage and stillbirth), and both of my unborn babies were removed surgically, and so I cannot comment on anything other than my experiences. However, I can say this: The mother who went into the operating room 11 weeks pregnant and woke up in recovery with an empty womb, hurts. The mother who gave birth to her baby at 28 weeks in a hospital bed, hurts. The mother who gave birth to her tiny baby at home in the bathroom toilet at 8.5 weeks, she hurts too. Losing an unborn child can be incredibly painful and life altering, and I am sure that this is the case for most who have experienced some form of this, no matter when the loss occurred.
Which brings me to my next point.
MYTH #7 An early pregnancy is just a clump of cells.
I think this is one of the most damaging misconceptions out there. And that’s because, for the most part (according to yunno…actual medicine and science) this just isn’t true. A quick embryology lesson: at the time of conception, momma’s egg and daddy’s sperm meet to form a zygote, which is the earliest stage of human life. It is at this stage, at the very moment of conception, that the entire genetic makeup of this new life is determined…hair color, eye color, whether they will be athletic or musical, boy or girl, tall or short, the shape of their nose, the dimples in their cheeks – literally everything – all contained within this single cell.
During that first week or so, the cell divides a bunch of times and eventually forms a blastocyst, which at this point actually is just a clump of cells (albeit, a highly specialized and rapidly dividing clump of cells, but a clump of cells nonetheless). The blastocyst travels to the uterus and implants into the uterine wall, marking the official start of pregnancy, though the mother will not realize she is pregnant for another week or so.
By the time she is able to test positive on a home urine test, usually during the 4th-5th week, the human blastocyst has graduated to become an embryo. And guess what? By the end of the 4th week, that embryo has a heart, and that heart is beating as it pumps blood through the tiny human body. Granted, it doesn’t really look like a human body yet, I’ll give you that. It looks more like a tadpole at that point. But the fact is that it is human, with a beating heart and developing brain to boot. At 4 weeks gestation!! (so in awe of God right now, excuse me)!! By week 5, the face begins to develop and by week 6, the human embryo can move it’s body and limbs. At the end of the 8th week of pregnancy, the embryo has arms and legs complete with tiny fingers and tiny toes. The face is recognizable with a little nose, two ears, and a mouth; and it has tiny boy parts or girl parts (though still too small to tell the difference).
At this point you might be bored out of your mind. Please forgive me, I could go on and on about this kind of stuff. The bottom line is this – around the time that a woman discovers her pregnancy, she already has a living being with a beating heart and its own genetic makeup growing inside of her. Far from just a clump of cells; it is a tiny, developing human being. Life functions on a continuum, and as human life grows and develops, we call it different names. Embryo, fetus, infant, toddler, child, teenager, adult, elder…the difference here is a matter of time.
These are straight facts from my med school textbook, by no means is this an opinion based on my political affiliation or my belief in God as the Creator of human life. The fact is that we’ve been done a huge disservice by being told the “clump of cells” lie. Do your research and know the truth for yourself! And remember this when someone tells you that they’ve suffered a miscarriage. They didn’t lose a clump of cells. They’ve lost a life, the life of their child, in it’s earliest form.
I hope I was able to shed some light on some things you didn’t know, or maybe even reinforce some things you already did. Please like, comment, and share for the purpose of raising awareness!