Parents Should Talk to Their Kids About Miscarriage

If children learn that sex makes babies, shouldn’t they also learn that some pregnancies don’t get that far?

Feb 20 2018, 10:57pm

“Oh my god, you still look pregnant!” my mother exclaimed. It was two days after I traumatically miscarried at 16 weeks, and she just happened to be in town. A fetus had fallen from my body at home—I held her in my hands, cut my own cord—and I was rushed in for an unmedicated D&C, a procedure to remove remaining tissue from the uterus. Five years later, I still can’t comprehend where my mom was coming from with that comment. I was still bleeding, which she knew. I guess she tried?

She tried again a few weeks later with, “Your pregnancy was giving me something to look forward to.” Strike two. Later, perhaps trying to pathologize the situation, she wondered (aloud, to me) whether the reason I had felt so sick in my first trimester was because something was wrong with the developing baby. Not only was this the last strike, but it’s the most illustrative of a larger problem: She didn’t know what she was talking about.

Nobody knows exactly what to say about pregnancy loss. Fine, I’ll give her that. But these comments point to a concerning pattern of intergenerational conversations (and lack thereof) around health, women’s bodies, and loss.

I was grieving a child I wouldn’t get to have, and my mother remarked upon my body, and made my loss about her, sharing about her own disappointment. Then, when I was trying to put the pieces together and carry on, she thought she’d solve the puzzle by pointing out just what could’ve been wrong with me. (She was sure I was the only woman in our family who’d experienced miscarriage. What’s more likely is that she just had no idea.)

The most outlandish part wasn’t just how ill-prepared she was to comfort her child—it’s that she had her facts wrong. She didn’t know that miscarriage doesn’t equal infertility; she didn’t know that nausea can in fact be a good sign in early pregnancy, nor that chromosomal abnormalities, like the one that caused my loss, are incredibly common and can have nothing to do with the mother’s health.

What seems clear now is that my mom hadn’t been taught the basics of reproductive health, or pregnancy loss, when she was a girl. I very well may have been the first person to ever speak to her about pregnancy loss. The culture of silence is so pervasive that anyone who experienced this in my mom’s orbit would have probably kept it to herself, thus keeping my mom—like so many of us, even today—completely in the dark about these painful realities.

As a result, I inherited this mess of ineffectual support and information; she wasn’t able to show up for me. Her reactions seared, they made me feel more isolated and confused in my grief.

Culture is complicit in these failings, and it has to change.

We have to work in these conversations early, so that when our children go through something challenging, or outright unimaginable, we aren’t perpetrators of further hurt, creating feelings of shame, self-blame, or guilt, which is how so many experience pregnancy loss now. We should strive to create an environment of safety so that our children know they can turn to us with every question at any time.

Watch More From Tonic:

Sex-related conversations between a parent and child, as we know them now, mostly focus on the ease of reproductive outcomes: live births. But where are the discussions of the biological processes that result in other outcomes, namely death? If children are being taught that sex (and reproductive technologies like IUI or IVF) make babies, shouldn’t they also learn that some fetuses don’t get that far? Discussions about our bodies and how they work and what they create, (and sometimes don’t) are simply that: discussions.

I can understand why “the talk” could feel like an anticipatory nightmare—I’m still avoiding fully going there with my 9-year-old son. The thing is: This shouldn’t be just one talk. It’s not about cramming everything a human needs to know about menstruation, erections, fertility, pregnancy, and bad outcomes together in one awkward sit-down at the foot of your 12-year-old’s bed. Maybe pregnancy loss shouldn’t even come up in the same conversation as safer sex—we wouldn’t want the risk of ending up with a baby to seem diminished by the potential for fetal demise.

But the latter is just as important for fledgling adults to know about; to begin the arduous process of mentally preparing for the many ways life can be hard or unpredictable. In order to tackle all of this, we should develop a culture of openness within our families, through a series of conversations that we tend to over time. A one-off just won’t cut it.

When my kids were toddlers, for example, we used anatomically correct words for body parts (we didn’t say “down there”), and from there I followed their lead. Reminiscing around birthdays, we look at videos of their births, and now both my son and daughter (who is 4) have come to appreciate the way humans come into the world. By establishing comfort around body talk, we set the groundwork for future discussions. My hope is that, over time, my kids will understand how their bodies work, how their bodies interact with others’, and what can happen as a result.

One thing that happens is pregnancy loss: About 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage. Miscarriage is not a disease; there is no cure. By incorporating this topic into early chats with our children, we begin to shift the cultural silence and deep stigma around it. We normalize what is, truly, already normal. This allows our kids to grow up wiser, empowered in their emotions, and able to fold the concept of grief into the everyday—free from shame.

I wish my mother would’ve presented these things to me during my girlhood. I can only imagine how that might have affected my mourning process, how it could’ve helped our relationship when I needed her support in order to heal. We did, in time, discuss my feelings about our stilted exchanges following my miscarriage. Emblematic of larger issues, she acknowledged how these statements were hurtful, though this didn’t mean she wouldn’t go on to hurt me yet again.

Ideally, our conversation strategies grow up with our kids, evolving with them and meeting them where they are developmentally. I want to be a source of truth for my children. I want them to know what it means to own a body—it’s not always a fairytale, and that’s okay—and I want them to learn how to deal with that without fear.

Each generation has qualms about their mothers, and only time will tell how much my kids really learned from watching their own births and talking about breastfeeding, pregnancy, and loss over dinner. But it’s part of our family dynamic. All I can hope to do is give them sound information—and try to respect when they’ve had enough.

Jessica Zucker is a Los Angeles-based psychologist. She is the creator of the #IHadAMiscarriage campaign.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox weekly.