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Motherhood

Of Life: Its Miracles and Fragility

*Trigger warning: Today’s post discusses miscarriage. If this is a sensitive topic for you, I beg you not to read on. Thank you, and be well and blessed.

 

“Is that your daughter?”

“Yes. She’s my second born. She’s in the same grade as Summer.”

“Is the girl that’s with her yours too?”

“No,” I replied laughing.

People often mistake Regan* and Aya for sisters. They are of similar build and share the same exuberant, snorting laugh. “That’s her best friend, Regan. My three other kids are at home. I couldn’t imagine bringing all four out tonight.”

Michelle, the older Korean woman with whom I was chatting smiled benevolently; As though she couldn’t possibly understand my hesitation to trot all four of my children to Aya’s classmate’s (Summer) dance recital. I would soon discover a dreadful reason for the half-smile she gave me – a quirk I had misread as condescension –  when I asked about the birth order of the little girl wearing a periwinkle ribbon. She looked about 10. Was she her only child…or the baby?

“Yes, Jane is my only. I had her when I was 34. I wanted to have more but…”

She made a series of leapfrogging motions across her left forearm with her right hand. I immediately understood what she wasn’t saying.

“Miscarriages,” I whispered.

“Yes,” she whispered back – as though the word was too awful to say above a certain decibel. As though it might burn her lips if she uttered it too loudly or too quickly. In halting English, she went on to explain how she and her husband eventually stopped trying.

In time our conversation turned to the production we had just attended and the benefits of participating in the performing arts, details of which are now fuzzy to me. I can remember every syllable spoken concerning the topic of miscarriage, however, as this was the longest conversation I’d had on the subject with a stranger.

Miscarriage – the ending of life in and expulsion from the womb – is not something we discuss openly in any society. I don’t care if it’s Missouri or Morocco, it’s an event that women are expected to shut up about, endure silently or only talk about in a secret circle. Men hardly ever discuss it at all. And that’s a shame. As a species, we’ve done a frightfully poor job of exploring and dealing with the spiritual and psychological effects of life coming to and end in the womb, even when that termination is by choice. I believe a part of that is because we have chosen to remain ignorant about the extraordinary circumstances that are required to bring a healthy human being into existence, and so we take the genesis of life for granted. This is evident in the language employed whenever a friend or a loved one loses an unborn child unexpectedly.

“Don’t worry! You can always try again.”

“It wasn’t a real baby anyway, was it? It was just a fetus/collection of cells.”

“But don’t you have other kids anyway? What’s the rush to have more?”

“God knows what’s best.”

Perhaps these phrases sound familiar to you. Perhaps you’ve uttered them yourself. Perhaps I should take this time to inform you that none of these comments are appropriate or helpful…even the ones about God knowing what’s best. Because on the other side of any of those sentiments, there is no real consolation; little follow up from the mutterer of vain (but well-meaning) opinions; no forgetting the child who should/could have been. I have aunties in the 60s who remember the miscarriages they suffered 40 years before when they can’t remember what they had for breakfast last Tuesday, and yet that’s we expect women to do: forget. Forget and try again.

We rush them to get over their grief and discomfort so that we neither have to deal with theirs nor our own. 

The sobering fact is that 1 in 4 pregnancies will end in a miscarriage, something my BFFFL, Nana Darkoa, shared in a passionate and personal account of her first pregnancy, and miscarriage, on our blog, Adventures. In the 22 years of our friendship, have never known her to express more grief. Not when our beloved Grand Pa passed away. Not when her favorite Auntie Jo died after a protracted and painful death while on admittance in Ghana’s failed hospital system. Because of this I had always assumed she was completely pragmatic – almost made of stone – where death was concerned. Yet here she was detailing the hours she’s spent crying over a person she’d never met, but had dreamed of loving long into the future. How do you soothe that kind of loss? How does the promise that you can replace that type of love by ‘trying again’ act as a panacea? It can’t.

It’s true that not all women form an emotional attachment to their unborn children, and I would never attempt to paint the motherhood/pregnancy experience with a broad brush by asserting that they do. Some merely see pregnancy as a Biological Olympic event; something your body is meant to do, but failed to achieve… like running a race or competitive eating. This is why it’s so important to examine the other side of the miscarriage coin, because physical health becomes the main issue. And again, we’ve done a piss-poor job of understanding all the mechanics of pregnancy and giving realistic expectations to women in terms of what their bodies are capable of after a miscarriage. It takes time to recover from that.

I know 15 women who have had miscarriages, some who have suffered multiple ones. It’s very possible that I may unknowingly know more. Their circumstances were heartbreaking.

My friend Christine lost her son a week before he was due. He was 8lbs and had a full head of hair at the time she had to deliver her dead baby. Christine is a proud Nigerian women with an imposing presence. She didn’t want to be cut and bear the scar for the rest of her life, so she chose to vaginally deliver her deceased son.

My cousin had three miscarriages in succession.

I was never particularly close to this one girl in secondary school, but for some reason she felt comfortable enough to confide in me how she had gone to the bathroom and watched in horror/fear/amazement as a “red glob” slid out of her body and into the toilet. She knew it was a baby.

“I just cried and cried, Malaka,” she said.

We were 16. What was I supposed to say? I thought she should have been relieved for having dodged the teen mom bullet, but she wasn’t. I just stood and stared at her as her eyes welled with fresh tears as she recounted the event.

Though her circumstance was not a miscarriage, a dear friend of mine lost her 27-week-old baby after an emergency C-Section in Ghana because there was no functioning incubator IN THE WHOLE COUNTRY to keep her child alive. Worse yet she was given Paracetamol (a pain killer less potent than Aspirin) for pain and was struggling to keep it all together. Guess what the well-meaning (but ill trained) nurse said to her?

“Oh, sistah. Don’t cry eh? You can try again!”

My distraught friend asked her how soon she could. This was a medical professional, right?

“Oh! Maybe 6 weeks. Don’t worry eh!”

Thankfully, my friend had the good sense to do some research online and discovered that she should NOT – in fact –  get pregnant again after 6 weeks, but rather a year, at least. Her fury was palpable as she described how the nurse’s advice could have killed her and wondered how many other less privileged women had died after receiving and adhering to foolish council. And from someone who works in the medical field, but clearly has no understanding that the making of human life is nothing short of a miracle.

  • That were is only a short window in time when a woman actually can get pregnant.
  • That millions of sperm die in the vagina’s acrimonious environment with only one emerging as the victor and penetrate the egg.
  • That the very same victorious sperm needs to be carrying a healthy payload of DNA and chromosomes and fairy dust magic.
  • That the uterus has to have the structural integrity to support and carry life for 9-10 months.
  • That environmental factors can and will affect the outcome of conception and hopefully, birth.

The ideal factors are too many to list, so watch this video instead.

 

We really don’t get it.

I saw the most unfortunate comment on Twitter a few weeks ago in connection with this beautiful image of a newborn baby lying beneath the scar that brought him/her into this world via an emergency C-section. The procedure reportedly saved both the mother and child’s life and the mom wanted to celebrate LIFE. The image went viral, garnering different reactions, including this one:

“Hoes always want some props for some sh*t they’re supposed to be doing anyway.”

Photography by Helen Carmina

Photography by Helen Carmina

The original tweet appears to have been deleted… but I will never forget it for the callous, ignorant assumptions it makes about a woman’s ability to carry and bring life into this world.

In chatting with Michelle, the stranger who bravely shared her miscarriage story, I revealed that I thought I was losing my unborn son during my second trimester. (I’ve written about this before.) I had begun bleeding out and my husband drove me straight to the emergency room. They took an ultrasound (and sent me a bill) but really, there was no treatment the doctors could offer me in that moment, except to show me the dark spot on the black and white image where part of the placenta was now missing. My OB later told me it was a placenta previa and that’s why they basically had to DIG the placenta out of my body. During my recovery, Dr. Richards told me he’d never seen anybody loose so much blood and not need a transfusion.

“I don’t take the fact that I have four kids for granted,” I said.

In response, Michelle turned her lips upward in the same not-quite-a-smile manner she’d done earlier in our conversation.

“Yes,” she said, “you’re very lucky.”

She was right.

Whether we call it blessing, luck or fate, we have to acknowledge that where a successful conception and birth are involved there is a certain powerlessness we are subject to; that there are many factors beyond our control, even with the intervention of science and medicine. Despite prayer, despite fancy medical equipment, regardless of wealth or poverty or social standing, every day, women lose their babies and sometimes their own lives in the process. If we are going to have a complete discussion about life and the human experience, we must include more conversation about miscarriage.