Miscarriage as a 'Terrible, Awful Relief'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader writes:

I was 26 years old and had a beautiful, thriving four-year-old daughter by my husband from whom I’d separated a year prior. I was in college struggling to finish my BA while working full time at a very active job. I had insurance through the state and lived in a progressive area and had made use of Planned Parenthood for basic contraception and medical before with much gratitude. I was in a monogamous relationship with an under-employed man. My nearest relative was 800 miles away.

I got knocked up. Finances were tight and Toyota was gearing up to repossess my car. I was tired. I agonized … for about one minute total.

I loved being a mother and was (still am) good at it, though it did not come naturally. My partner was willing to be a father but nowhere near excited to do so given the circumstances. I knew before I took the pregnancy test that it would be positive, and that was a negative for all involved. My daughter was adjusting to her dad being out of the picture (he moved on from our marriage with a frightening, violent, drug-addicted woman). I was poor, working for $10/hour at a job I wouldn’t be able to do past the second trimester, and of course I wouldn’t have paid parental leave, because this is the U.S. Also, I’m a real bitch when I’m pregnant (not helpful when you’re just trying to keep shit together).

I looked into abortion options. My insurance didn’t cover it (religion-based) and I had some income, so the sliding scale still indicated a $500 bill. I had no credit card or savings, no one to borrow from. I got on a list for assistance. The wait was excruciating, but I firmly knew that a pregnancy, let alone another child, would break us, no matter how much love I could provide.

A few weeks later, I woke up to terrible cramping. I called my regular doctor who advised I come in right away. I hoped in some way the pregnancy wasn’t viable anyway or that the test had been wrong. I told the practitioner I’d taken a home pregnancy test that was positive but could not/would not carry to term. I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t dying. They did an ultrasound, verified the strong heartbeat, and pointedly congratulated me on a being 10 weeks pregnant.

Later that day, my daughter and I visited a friend who had a baby of her own. She observed that I had the skills as a parent and encouraged me to carry on with the pregnancy.  I almost agreed. The thought crept into my mind that I could just MAKE it work.

And then the cramping came back. I miscarried there in her bathroom.

Hello mind-fuckery, serendipity, whatever. It was a terrible, awful relief. I ended up getting an infection from not passing all the “material” from my uterus and actually did almost die (or maybe just felt like it). I had an emergency D&C and recovered on the maternity ward surrounded by new moms with balloons and crap.

A year later I had finished school and started a professional career with real grown up wages and benefits. My relationship and daughter were stable and healthy. A month after that, I got pregnant again. My son is six now. We are strong and loving and healthy, even when things are hard. Timing is everything.

I’m grateful in a way that the decision was taken from me, because society prescribes guilt and regret for women who choose abortion, but I’ve never been one for regret. I am infinitely more grateful, however, that I had the right to decide at all.

From a reader who also had a miscarriage that required a dilation and curettage:

I am writing in response to the woman who wrote movingly about her own secondary infertility (“Abortion as Birth Control”). Like her, I lost a pregnancy around the six-week mark and required a D&C to remove the tissue. I also have two live and healthy children.

The other reader in that note wrote:

Ask any woman who has lost a wanted pregnancy: A miscarriage is an absolutely agonizing experience. Most women strongly identify their lost little ball of cells as a baby, not some impersonal collection of DNA. To watch your little one slip away before you even knew him or her is one of the most heartbreaking and isolating experiences for a woman.

She should have asked me. I do not feel that way at all about my early-term miscarriage. Certainly I do not ever think about the little ball of cells that failed to replicate properly as a lost child. It wasn’t. It was a missed opportunity, and those happen in life. I went on to have my second child with no complications—and I won’t be having any more, because my children keep me very, very busy.

It makes me a bit angry when I hear women compare those lost early-term pregnancies that are so common to losing a baby. They are not even in the same ballpark, and with the increasing move to define “fetal rights” as a back way to prevent abortion access, it is dangerous.

Experiencing two live births and the miscarriage in between clarified that for me. I needed the D&C and was lucky enough to get it in a hospital setting rather than a clinic. Even so, the nurse mouthed “Are you having an abortion?” rather than asking me in a normal voice. The message was clear: I was expected to feel shame, and even if I didn’t, the people one curtain away might be made uncomfortable.

Again, an early-term miscarriage is sad for a little while because your hopes are dashed, but ultimately it is no big deal for myself and for many women. I don’t like being made to feel as though I “must mourn my lost baby” by the women who are clearly in need of some perspective. I never think of myself as having lost a child, because I didn’t.

But there is a very different story among the mothers I know who have lost babies at 20+ weeks. At that point, you are right to hope and to love. That loss is real—because so was the baby. But those are not (usually) abortion stories. When they are abortion stories, they are heartbreaking. But they are not mine to tell.

Do you have a miscarriage experience to tell, one from a wanted pregnancy? Email us at hello@theatlantic.com. For more on the subject, we just posted a piece from Holly Cave called “The Miscarriage Taboo.” Update from the reader who was quoted in the above email:

Thank you for posting my perspective. I was very interested to hear the other reader’s response and see a different take on a very painful subject. I really appreciate that you took the time to post a link to the Miscarriage Taboo article. Many women might read the other reader’s response and feel like their grief and loss are not legitimate or deserved. It hurt me to think there could be a woman losing her pregnancy at this moment who might stumble across the other reader’s thoughts and experience even more pain and confusion because of it. I suspect your choice to link to an article acknowledging the serious impact it can have for those of us who were more attached to the pregnancy might really help some unknown reader.

I will continue to watch the reader series!