Nursing Clio is honored to have Carrie Pitzulo as our guest author today. Carrie is an Assistant Professor of History at University of West Georgia, where she teaches courses in the history of American women, gender and sexuality. Carrie received her Ph.D. from the City University of New York Graduate Center in 2008. Her first book, Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2011. Carrie’s current project explores the role of women and gender in the nation’s last public hanging.
Recently, Marjorie Ingall, writing for the Tablet, discusses the complicated – but sometimes very simple – feelings women have about their abortions or miscarriages. In “My Abortion, My Miscarriage, and My Right To Have My Own Feelings,” Ingall presents a sensitive, levelheaded rendering of her own spectrum of reproductive experiences. She describes the relief she felt at terminating a pregnancy in her youth, and the overwhelming sadness she felt at a later miscarriage, before having two healthy children. Ingall points out the lack of cultural acceptance of women’s wide variety of feelings about their own lives: “No matter what we feel—sadness at a miscarriage, relief at an abortion—women are told their feelings aren’t legitimate. Someone—a politician, a friend, a member of the clergy—invariably tells us to buck up if we’re devastated by the loss of a wanted pregnancy, and/or to hate ourselves if we’re not devastated to end an unwanted one.”
Likewise, at Slate, Jessica Grose rightly points out that public confessions of termination too often focus on the extremes of abortion, to the detriment of the pro-choice perspective:“We trot out the saddest stories: a woman who really wanted a baby but terminated because the baby was not going to be able to live outside the womb or a woman who can’t afford another child without tumbling into poverty. But a lot of women have abortions and don’t look back. A lot of women don’t want a baby, and they don’t care whether the fetus is viable or how much money is in their bank account. Where are their essays?” Both Ingall and Grose are spot-on. I’ve had two miscarriages and can attest to the lack of agency accorded to women in feeling and interpreting their own lives. I came away from my miscarriages feeling ashamed and guilty for not expressing the feelings other people, including strangers, projected onto me. Scholar Leslie J. Reagan provides historical context:
A woman’s response to miscarriage is neither purely personal nor universal. Rather, the meaning of miscarriage is historically and culturally constructed….The normative representation of miscarriage has dramatically changed during the twentieth century from hazard to blessing to tragedy….Today, when the emotional distress following a miscarriage is highlighted, the physical stress of the event tends to be obscured…
My second pregnancy was very brief and I knew immediately that it wasn’t working. So I was relieved when it went away gently and dramatically differently than the first, which ended with a life-threatening hemorrhage. A week prior to that initial (first trimester) miscarriage, my husband and I found out the pregnancy would not continue, when an ultrasound revealed a blighted ovum. We both felt a lot of sadness, but after a few days, I had mostly processed the new reality and tried to prepare for the physical event that I knew was imminent. That was impossible, however, as the unexpected complications made it the worst, and most dangerous, physical event of my life.
The miscarriage began naturally, but soon the bleeding became overwhelming. I repeatedly asked the emergency room doctor if I was going to die. She told me that I would not, but if I had lived in another time or place, my “story would have ended very differently.” Ultimately, I lost thirty percent of my blood, and required four transfusions. When it was all over, after my blood was replaced and I had an emergency D & C, I felt…fabulous. Physically, the improvement was instantaneous (although also brief, since soon the trauma to my body set in, and I could hardly get out of bed or walk for days). Right after I woke from surgery, I felt elated. The contrast with how I felt only a few hours earlier was marked. My primary emotion was joy and relief to be alive.
But I quickly got the message that my feelings were not acceptable. The next morning, a nurse came to my room and asked how I felt. I exclaimed, “Great!” I was still high on the full complement of blood running through my veins, and was so grateful to no longer be collapsing, passing out, vomiting all over myself, and generally feeling the worst sickness I had ever experienced. The nurse literally stopped in her tracks and looked at me like I was crazy. She recovered after a few seconds, completely ignored what I said, and then offered her condolences. For a moment I was confused; why was she so solemn? For me, the pregnancy ended the previous week, when I learned of the blighted ovum. The more recent physical ordeal seemed a separate, horrible event. I realized the nurse was only thinking of the loss of my pregnancy. She went on to inform me of her own miscarriage, and assured me that I would cry every time I saw a child on the street and would grieve all over again every year on my dead baby’s missed birthday. I was flabbergasted, but immediately lowered my voice to take on the demeanor of a grieving mother. Later, the same nurse prepped my husband for his inevitable onslaught of grief. There was no space for his gratitude at having dodged young widowhood. Leslie Reagan points out that this is a common experience: “[H]ospitals continue to be insensitive to some women and participate in establishing norms for female behavior and feeling. Those norms are rooted in a conservative gender ideology that treats motherhood as woman’s greatest achievement and its denial as woman’s greatest suffering….Hospital materials and staff tell the woman how she will feel instead of listening to her description of how she understands her miscarriage.”
From that day in the hospital, it was all the same. Unlike Ingall’s experience, however, I did not feel that I wasn’t allowed to be devastated after the failed pregnancy, but rather that I wasn’t devastated enough. Many well-meaning women said some version of, “You have experienced a real loss, don’t let anyone minimize what you’ve been through.” They were talking only about the lost baby, not the traumatic physical event. Ironically, this was always said while also informing me that I had a right to my own feelings about the experience, and that I shouldn’t let others project their feelings onto me.
Personally, I did not feel that I had experienced a “real” loss. I know women whose children have died. This was absolutely not that. I have children in my life who are my light, and if the unfathomable happened to any of them, that would be a “real” loss. What I felt about the failed pregnancies was profound disappointment at the loss of potential and whatever fantasies I had about the future, but I accepted and understood them. I was okay with it. Maybe it’s the wisdom of my “advanced maternal age.” I’d seen so many women go through the same thing, I knew that miscarriage is a very common, normal reproductive experience. And on a spiritual level, I did not believe that anyone died. For me, it was a matter of bad timing, not death. The lingering trauma primarily concerned the physical event, even though I did feel sadness at the time of my first due date, and experienced – and continue to experience – a variety of feelings about what happened to me. Other women have very different interpretations of their miscarriages, and I respect those differences. These events are too personal to put one label on all of them.
As Ingall and Grose point out, women’s experiences of their lives, especially their reproductive lives, should not be forced into a rigid box of cultural expectation. Unfortunately, it’s that very box that determines how American culture and policy treat women, their health, and their bodies. Anti-abortion mania, judgment of women who choose to not procreate, judgment of women who do procreate and breastfeed, or don’t breastfeed, or work, or don’t work… As a culture, we insist on fetishizing motherhood, and only want to imagine glowing pregnancies and bouncing babies. But the spectrum of women’s reproductive lives encompasses so much more than that. Women have myriad experiences and feelings, but we are taught to deny the unpleasant, to hide what doesn’t conform to unfair, unrealistic, simplistic expectations.
While I understand how profoundly personal these life experiences are, and thus many women feel hesitant or unwilling to discuss them openly, I wish that more women would talk honestly about their reproductive lives. If these subjects were less taboo – I had many women merely whisper their miscarriage stories to me when they found out I had been through it, like a shared dirty secret – it would be difficult to isolate and demonize women for the fact of their womanhood, wherever they fall on the reproductive spectrum. Significantly, if we acknowledged women as complex and diverse, it would also be much harder to pass legislation that discounts women’s health, agency, and very lives. We need to stop assuming that women can ever conform to a one-size-fits all label, because our experiences are historically, culturally, and personally contingent. Women need the flexibility, compassion, and space to create lives of their own meaning. Without that, we deny women’s full humanity.
Leslie J. Reagan, “From Hazard to Blessing to Tragedy: Representations of Miscarriage in Twentieth-Century America,” Feminist Studies, vol. 29, no. 2 (Summer, 2003), pp. 356-378.
Thank you for your very insightful and heartfelt article.
Great essay. I haven’t had a miscarriage (or a pregnancy) but I think there are rigid narratives around the body generally, that it’s not done to flout. I had cancer and experienced exactly none of the psychological artefacts I was supposed to (the profound grief, the determination to live life differently, the big life epiphany etc etc). This has made discussing cancer with others remarkably difficult. You just have to be determined to be authentic about your own experience.
i too did not respond correctly to the cancer diagnosis. People did not seem to know what to do with me. I did not want pity or grief, hell, i barely wanted anyone to know and did not tell a good deal of people till the drugs were done. On the other side, my daughter just had a miscarriage and again I don’t want to share my grief not even with her. My mind, my body, my spirit to share as I will. MINE and no one else. Thanks for sharing to you both and reminding me I am myself. . .
Thanks for sharing this.
I experienced multiple miscarriages on my way to having the one child I have, and you couldn’t be more correct – every women experiences things different, and there is a very rigid framework in which our feelings are supposed to fit, at least according to society at large. After one miscarriage, the nurse couldn’t understand why I was so crushed – it was an early miscarriage, and I could try again, so what’s the problem? She had no frame of reference to understand the very personal nature of those assumptions.
The final one, I got to experience not once, but twice. Once when I KNEW I had to be miscarrying very early, then two plus months later, to discover that my body had tried to save me, and hadn’t managed, and I had an ectopic pregnancy going that could kill me. Double the thrills and spills, and the resulting emergency surgery, hospital stay, and severely reduced fertility.
In the end, everyone has their own story of their life, love, and loss. Why can’t we all be free to experience it and express it as we see it, rather than as society thinks we should?
We’d all be free to experience and express it as we see it if we all did that. When we conform our behavior (including expressions of emotion) to how we think others expect us to behave, we sacrifice our own experience and expression and an opportunity for others to grow and connect with what we’re really experiencing. It’s totally understandable that we’d conform, especially when we’re in vulnerable circumstances, but by doing so, we are being the society we despise.
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Thank you so much for writing this. The closest Ive come to daring to talk about this is in poetry form. http://www.numbmum.com/2012/05/different-kind-of-miscarriage-story.html
wonderful essay. thanks for sharing it. (and for quoting me, too!)
Great essay, but the one thing you omitted was the “shame” of female infertility.
I loved this piece. Why do we as a society feel the need to pre-assume others experiences? And why is this especially the case with (all aspects) of motherhood? Fascinating topic!
[…] experiences mixed with historical context. The last two posts I read, Carrie Pitzulo’s My Miscarriage (Is Not Your Miscarriage) and Carrie Adkins’ article on “Blame” and the history of 19th and 20th century […]
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[…] rooted in cultural and social meanings, but also deeply intimate. Historian and cultural critic Carrie Pitzulo argues in this post that “women have myriad experiences and feelings, but we are taught to deny the unpleasant, to […]
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