Ask Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher, and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing). To submit a question to Ask Bear, email email@example.com. Questions will remain 100 percent confidential, and may be edited for length.
I’m a good feminist. I know that at eight weeks of gestation a pregnancy does not yet mean a baby, and I absolutely would support a person’s right to choose abortion at that point (or at any point, really). But I was personally just pregnant, and I miscarried at eight weeks and feel really sad. How can I recognize my grief and process that but also stand by my pro-choice values?
I keep thinking, “I lost a baby,” even though I know eight weeks is actually about a sesame seed worth of barely differentiated cells. About which I am so, so sad. Help?
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Dear Brave Correspondent,
I’m so sorry. So sorry. In the least creepy way imaginable, I would like to give you a huge hug and make you a pot of soup so you can eat without having to think about it too much. My husband and I had two miscarriages on our way to our two children, who are currently making a lot of noise while I type, and I remember. I remember what that first week was like, especially.
As far as your feminism—which is probably very good indeed even though I am equally sure that there is no objective measure of such things—maybe we can leave it alone for the day. Feminism is about the idea that all people should have the same opportunities, regardless of sex or gender. Nothing in your letter suggests that you have abandoned that ideal. Your feminism is in whatever shape it was in before your miscarriage (though, since we’re talking about it, I would like to vote for “intersectional” over “good” as the adjective to strive toward, feminism-wise). Let’s talk about feminism again in a minute, after we tend to your feelings, okay?
As far as your heart, of course you’re grieving. The loss of possibility with a wanted pregnancy is tremendous. Eight weeks means you’ve known you were pregnant for three or maybe even four weeks, and three or four weeks is plenty of time for thinking about names, for imagining how your friends will react to the news or how your Great Aunt Petunia will, for calling around to midwives, for eyeing cute pregnancy tops at Target. You created an entire room in your heart for this new human you had started gestating, and now it stays empty. There might well be more chances for you to build a similar room again anew—I really hope that, for your sake. But no amount of logical arguments or medically accurate fetal development timelines will change the difficult emotional truth that this particular room will always be small and darkened.
I recognize that that’s not an uplifting thought. However, it’s a direct result of my family’s experience with miscarriage, which sometimes felt like a musical with only one number: “You Can Always Try Again!” And we did, and the result of the “trying again” process was a great new human. But some people cannot try again; sometimes for reasons of health or money or circumstance there’s no Trying Again available. It’s not just the end of a chapter, but the end of a certain volume of the great story of hope.
Even though we were able to try again, and we made the decision to give it one more go, I struggled with not wanting to smack those very well-meaning people in the mouth. (“I understand how human reproduction works, thank you. I have studied for this quiz. Please stop talking now.”) I wanted people to acknowledge what we’d lost, or at least to let me acknowledge it without trying to talk me out of my feelings. In my heart, that room became a quiet spot where my feelings could be protected in relative peace.
It may help you to know that many, many people have feelings and stories around miscarriage. It may not seem like it—it didn’t to me—because people I knew hadn’t disclosed that they had (unwanted, disappointing) miscarriages to us until we shared the news that we’d had one. It’s like a giant secret club no one wants to belong to. The fact of which is further complicated by the reality that some people’s miscarriages were not disappointing to them at all; they weren’t occasions of grief but rather relief. However, I am willing to wager, Brave Correspondent, that if you quietly let it be known that you are having a hard time around this, some people will come and hold your hand and nod knowingly and listen to you talk (which is most of what we need when we feel really sad, I find).
It occurs to me as I write this that part of what the pro-choice movement is about is choice, the choice of a pregnant person to decide whether they can or should continue being pregnant. There are sometimes questions about when the incipient being in there could, possibly, manage on its own; at what developmental stage (grape? kiwi? orange? Why are they always fruits?) a fetus could reasonably said to be a separate being. Regardless of that, though, the salient point remains: In this case, your choice about your pregnancy got taken away from you. For you it was by circumstances rather than by law, but it still feels relevant. This is how I understand your grief as not being incongruous with feminist ideals in any way.
Another thing feminism is about is defining your body and your self on your own terms, and I would like to propose that this includes everything in it. If it is useful to you to define that which you lost as a baby, then I would consider that feminist. If—in another circumstance, or for another person—it’s useful to think of it as a fetus, I believe that is also feminist. It’s the self-determination that makes it feminist, by its very nature.
Anti-choice people are frequently concerned with the question of “when is it REALLY a baby?” When I did clinic defense for Planned Parenthood in the ‘90s, I was often surrounded by yelling people with big feelings about that topic and large posters to go with them. They did not tend to be especially concerned with the lives of the pregnant people or the children once they were born, however. Their actual anger about abortion services was about not being allowed to control the bodies of pregnant people or shame them for having engaged in sexual acts. If they really cared about limiting abortion, they’d be crazy-go-nuts for other family planning services like free contraception. But they’re not. If they really cared about children, they’d be shoveling money at nutrition and wellness programs for babies and children. But they’re not.
This “when is it really a baby” thing is a decoy. It’s an anti-choice right-wing framing that tries to draw pro-choice people into an energy-sucking debate that has no clear answer, all the better to distract us from protecting the rights of people to become pregnant or not as they choose. For this reason, I don’t really think you have to engage with it right now or ever. I think you can be sad without worrying that you are betraying the movement. I think your grief can be real and you owe nothing to the mean yelling people outside the clinics. I think the love and sweetness of possibility you began to feel can be banked like the coals of a fire and blaze brightly again when the time is right, whether by conception or adoption or blending of families.
In my life, the biggest places of sorrow have always been the loss of possibility. And the greatest joys have been the realization of it—the sweetness of being able to make real the wonders of my secret heart, which were long sought-for and long lavished with the many luminous glazings of hope and desire. I wish most sincerely for you, Brave Correspondent, that eventually you also feel this joy.
Love and courage,
Related Reading: What to Say—And What Not to Say—After Someone Has a Miscarriage