The 12 Week Taboo, or how we unconsciously tell people to keep quiet about their miscarriages...
Written by Margaret Sambol, one of the volunteers for Aaron's Butterfly Run Ottawa/Gatinea, who lost her son Matthew at 26 weeks and lost another pregnancy with a first-trimester miscarriage (read her previous blog posts here and here)
I don’t recall when I first heard the “rule” that you shouldn’t tell people you are pregnant until you are 12 weeks along. I don’t recall who told it to me, but I received it as a helpful piece of advice. The unspoken reason behind that taboo of secrecy is because the risk of miscarriage is highest in the first trimester. If you tell everyone you’re pregnant, you’ll have to tell everyone when you have a miscarriage. And it didn’t occur to me until years later the unintended isolation this rule causes.
I diligently followed this rule during my first pregnancy, which ended in a stillbirth at 26 weeks, and because I had told everyone I was pregnant, I had a several uncomfortable conversations with professional associates in the year that followed, asking me how the baby was doing and why I was back at work so soon. So, I thought, “Yeah, maybe that’s not a bad rule.” I worked in a very public job where I had a roster of hundreds of contacts and it would be hard to tell all those people about another loss.
I followed this rule during my next two healthy pregnancies, making up excuses for being so tired during that first trimester of silence, or why I didn’t feel like having a drink when heading out with friends. Luckily, I didn’t suffer from morning sickness but I certainly feel for the women who are trying to hide their pregnancies while sneaking away from their desks to vomit discreetly. I was happy to be pregnant so keeping it a secret was a battle of near constantly biting my tongue to keep my good news from spilling out.
My next pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. When I started bleeding, I went to see my family doctor and totally forgot to cancel my lunch date with my aunt. I felt bad for standing her up, but I also hating having to tell her the good news/bad news at the same time. “Hey, I was pregnant, but I’m not anymore.”
Because I hadn’t told anyone about my pregnancy yet, my husband and my doctor were the only ones to know about the miscarriage. I ended up telling a few people, my mom, my sister, but mostly I kept that loss to myself.
When I got pregnant again a few months later, I spent a fair bit of time thinking about that first trimester of silence. For whom was this rule created? Who does it benefit? It certainly doesn’t benefit the woman who feels alone in her loss. It doesn’t help people find resources, or talk about what is happening to their body. This silence about early pregnancy implies that we are supposed to keep our losses to ourselves, and hide our tears and grief, the same way we hid the exhaustion and the nausea. Are we so uncomfortable with grief that we think it is better to pretend it doesn’t exist at all?
So for my fifth pregnancy, I did tell people. We were visiting friends and family at Christmas time, and we made the announcement in person to much congratulations and hugs from the people who matter the most to me, although I chose not to put it on Facebook.
I did get the question, “how far along are you?” and heard that bit of surprise when I said just nine weeks. With other women, I have certainly seen that arched eyebrow, that whispered judgement that says, “Isn’t she telling everyone too soon?”
A week later, on New Year’s Eve I began to bleed and I just knew it was the start of another miscarriage. Once I confirmed it with my doctor in the following days, I did have to tell all those people about the miscarriage and it was hard. But it was also nice to not feel alone. It was comforting to receive sympathy and care, and a fair bit better than the isolation of the previous miscarriage. The people who love me want to know what is going on in my life, which means both celebrating the good news and comforting in the bad. I don’t have to worry about “burdening” my loved ones with the news of my miscarriages. There is no embarrassment in vulnerability, and a tremendous amount of support when you are willing to open up and admit you need it.
The other thing I found surprising about all this talk of loss, is how often my story is reciprocated by someone else’s story. How often I have felt that discussing our losses is a relief and a bond. So I tell my children about my miscarriages and the miscarriages of my friends. I tell them why I am making this casserole for this friend or why we are shopping for flowers for that friend. They are young, but they understand the idea that not all pregnancies end in a healthy baby, they understand that it is common and they understand that there is support. And as they say, forewarned is forearmed, and the best idea I have to make the sad journey of miscarriage less lonely.