Squinting at the blurry image on the sonographer’s screen, Cindy Marie Jenkins—flanked by her husband and her young son—scanned excitedly for signs of life. Her first pregnancy had been so straightforward that this seemed like a special moment the entire family could share. But as the minutes dragged on, the sonographer became very quiet, leaving to find a doctor, who delivered the news: There would be no baby.
Jenkins had signed up to receive alerts from the ovulation apps Ovia and Glow, and pregnancy updates from BabyCenter, which she checked incessantly, sometimes up to four times a day. After the loss of the pregnancy, she ignored the apps for the longest time until she could muster the emotional strength to delete all the accounts. Still, she found the process of getting rid of her Glow account to be cumbersome, which only amplified her pain. “It should have been easier to figure out how to ‘report a loss,’ which is what they call it,” Jenkins told me.
App companies say they try to make it easy for women to delete or update their accounts. Jennifer Tye, the chief operating officer of Glow, told me that the app tries to make it as simple as possible for bereaved mothers to report a loss. “Glow offers a ‘Healing from a Loss’ experience that connects women with a community that is going through the same thing,” she says. “To set this status, users need to click on the ‘more’ tab within the Glow app and change their status to ‘I’m healing from a loss.’” That said, in the aftermath of a miscarriage, doing so may be emotionally taxing for women, even when it is technologically simple.
Up to 10 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. And after the loss of a pregnancy, couples can find reminders of their once-promised future all around. It could be a color swatch picked out for the nursery walls or a bag in the closet containing an impossibly small pair of socks. Although grieving mothers have always struggled with these tangible souvenirs, now they often must also contend with an array of digital reminders of what might have been: Apps like BabyCenter, Glow, Ovia, and Sprout that chart their pregnancy and compare the developing baby to the size of different fruits keep sending reminders long after it’s all over, while online advertising can flood these would-be moms with ads for baby products they no longer want or need. For women like Jenkins, these reminders can be upsetting, and stopping the onslaught of notifications and ads isn’t always an easy endeavor.
While only some women download pregnancy and fertility apps, even more face online ads that can evoke what they have lost. After a woman goes through the trauma of a miscarriage, it can take months to overwrite the profile that marketers have built of her as a soon-to-be mother. So-called targeted advertising presents messages to people based on their previous browsing history—so if a woman has been looking for pregnancy or baby items online, chances are that her social-media feeds will be bombarded with “new mom” messaging, with ads for everything from folic acid to cribs to cord-blood-banking services.
Andy Sambandam, CEO of the privacy-management company Clarip, says that while companies have long tailored their ad campaigns to specific groups, the internet has allowed them to follow users around from site to site with a watchful eye and, in turn, to show them more specific ads based on their interests. “Organizations can track individuals across the internet in multiple ways, such as their IP address, a cookie saved on their computer, or their username when they are logged in to a specific website,” he told me.
But problems arise when people no longer want to see certain messages. There are usually ways to stop the ads, but the onus is on the individual to manually unsubscribe. “Consumers must take the time to go through the opt-out process of every organization and trust that their preference is honored,” Sambandam says.
Sunny, who is being identified only by her first name to protect her privacy, suffered a string of three devastating miscarriages, and lingering ads only made the experience worse. “I kept getting targeted ads on Facebook and other social-media sites about newborn and pregnancy items,” she told me. “Then when I updated them all to note the miscarriage, I started getting emails about trying again and pregnancy-loss support groups.”
That’s echoed by Elizabeth, a Los Angeles–based artist who also asked to be referred to by her first name only. After she lost her pregnancy, she still saw ads for strollers and Diaper Genies on the internet. “I was grief-stricken,” she told me, “and the ads felt like more proof that everything in the universe was conspiring to make me sad. It all felt invasive because I hadn’t signed up for anything.”
Despite the pain, not all women are eager to quickly delete all traces of the pregnancy apps on their phone. For Sandi Haustein, who miscarried at 12 weeks, the finality of closing her account was something she avoided, even though she found the reminders intrusive. “It felt cruel that I had to even think about going in and canceling the record of my baby—I wanted her life to count,” she says. “Keeping the account and allowing those emails to continue helped me feel like I was still remembering her.”