For someone who has been trying for a pregnancy, it is naturally tempting to want to share the exciting and potentially life-changing news of a positive home pregnancy test. Common wisdom has been to keep it secret, though, until the end of the first trimester, once miscarriage is less likely. After all, if you’ve taken the test when your period is a week late, you still have a 20% chance of losing the pregnancy.
But when sharing the news early in pregnancy is taboo, women and their partners are forced to suffer losses in silence. And their friends not only miss out on the chance to comfort them, they also do not have the opportunity to learn that miscarriages are a common part of childbearing for normal, healthy women.
There are several reasons why talking about early pregnancy and miscarriage is taboo. Historically, miscarriages were (mistakenly) attributed to women’s activities, such as doing heavy loads of wash by hand or running a foot-pedal sewing machine. Today women may still be made to feel guilt and shame when they miscarry. In addition, they may be justifiably worried about employment discrimination, and cautious about sharing the news until it is a sure thing. And they may be concerned about “jinxing” the pregnancy.
But this reluctance also stems, I think, from not having good ways to think and talk about new, not-yet-stable pregnancies. For many people, it may be emotionally premature to start talking about a “baby” when there’s a significant chance the pregnancy will not last. They may be reluctant to trigger well-wishers’ mistaken assumptions that sharing the news means it’s time to send baby gifts, or ask about the due date and brainstorm baby names. Becoming attached to a pregnancy and then miscarrying is difficult, and made all the harder knowing that future pregnancies come with the same substantial odds of miscarrying.
We need a new way to think and talk about early pregnancy and early pregnancy loss, so that we can discuss it openly and without shame. We can create a longer emotional ramp-up that correlates with the increasing security of the pregnancy over the course of the first trimester.
For inspiration, we can look to the past, and the ancient agricultural metaphors that made a child the “fruit of my loins” for a man, and the “fruit of my womb” for a woman. Before the terminology of modern embryology took root in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, agricultural metaphors for fertility were ubiquitous and intuitive to a population still grounded in farming culture.1 Men bragged that they “ploughed” their wives, planting their “seed.”2 Medical writers too used such language, and acknowledged that miscarriages were common. Jakob Rueff, the author of the sixteenth-century manual The Expert Midwife, described the embryo as “like a tender flower and blossom of trees, which is easily cast down and dejected with any blast of wind and rain.”3 When medical care was needed to complete a later miscarriage that could otherwise leave a woman infected or hemorrhaging, medical guides offered recipes for herbal stimulants to help “expel the dead fruit.”4 A pregnant woman’s innards remained metaphorically botanical until she delivered, and in the words of early nineteenth-century midwife Martha Ballard, became “the living mother of a living child.”5
We can and should embrace modern prenatal care, of course. But we can draw on thousands of years’ tradition of agricultural metaphors to describe early pregnancy. This language can make us think of cultivating a delicate crop, in the early weeks after the pregnancy test when modern metaphors of “bonding” with a baby seem premature.
My favorite metaphor for an early pregnancy is a sprout. A dear friend of mine who miscarried her first pregnancy called her second pregnancy “the sprout,” to honor, she explained, the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition that proscribed talking about it as “the baby” before the birth. When I picture a sprout, I picture the miracle of fertile soil and green plants that somehow know how to emerge from the ground. But I also picture the peas that I planted each year with my children when they were small. I explained to them that we would need to poke a bunch of the dried peas into the dirt because we would be lucky if even half of them grew. We would water them and cover them with netting to keep out the squirrels and rabbits. The rest, I would say, we would have to leave up to luck and nature, and try to be patient as we watched and waited.
What if we could tell our friends, “I have a sprout,” and they could reply, “good luck!” and “fingers crossed!” and “praying for you!” knowing that sprouts sometimes fail to develop, and patiently waiting for further news? And what if we could tell our friends, “I lost a sprout,” and they could understand that we needed a listening ear, a hug, an offer of help with our daily obligations? We would have a way to speak publicly about pregnancy that did not insist on the emotional commitment of speaking of a “baby,” or rely on the cold, awkwardly clinical language of “embryo” and “fetus.”
Choosing agricultural language does not automatically create this way of thinking about a pregnancy, of course. Websites and pregnancy apps have popularized the language of an embryo as a “bean,” referring to the bean-like appearance of the embryo in an 8-week ultrasound. But those apps commonly endow the “bean” with baby-like qualities, including an imputed personality, and may turn “Bean” into a baby nickname rather than a true metaphor.6 The cultural pull to see an impending full-term, healthy baby in an early pregnancy test is strong.
But agricultural metaphors such as “a sprout” at least provide the possibility of seeing early pregnancy as a specific stage of childbearing, calling for cultivation and nurturing, as well as an acceptance that not all seeds sprout, and not all sprouts grow and bear fruit. I offer these two shareable images as a start, assembled using publicly available clip art, a simple paint program, and some assistance from my teenagers. They express a message that would have been true to my heart, if Instagram had existed when I had three pregnancies, resulting in a miscarriage and two children, during my childbearing journey.
I hope that you will create and share your own image this October too, while we observe Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Together we can use our language and metaphors to support each other through pregnancy losses that may come our way on our journey to having a family.
Lara Freidenfelds, The Myth of the Perfect Pregnancy: A History of Miscarriage in America (Oxford University Press, 2020).
- Susan E. Klepp, “Revolutionary Bodies: Women and the Fertility Transition in the Mid-Atlantic Region, 1760–1820,” Journal of American History 85, no. 3 (1998): 910–45. Return to text.
- Helen King, “Sowing the Field: Greek and Roman Sexology,” in Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich, eds., Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Science: the History of Attitudes to Sexuality (Cambridge University Press, 1994), 29–46, esp. 38–9. Return to text.
- Quoted in Rebecca Kukla, Mass Hysteria: Medicine, Culture, and Mothers’ Bodies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 10. Return to text.
- Susan E. Klepp, Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760–1820 (University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 186. Return to text.
- Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “‘The Living Mother of a Living Child’: Midwifery and Mortality in Post-Revolutionary New England,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd. ser., 46, no. 1 (Jan 1989): 27–48. Return to text.
- For example, the Ovia Pregnancy app. Return to text.