"Do we really shroud something so joyous (and potentially heartbreaking) in secrecy because… it might be awkward?"
You’re idly scanning your Facebook feed, past photos of organic seedlings and Andalusian beer, when suddenly a black-and-white splotch claims top spot. Your first thought: Christ on a stick! My friend is pregnant with an out of focus baby! Your second: How did they keep that secret for twelve weeks?
On one level, we know why: the first trimester of pregnancy is when women are most likely to miscarry. Presumably, announcing a pregnancy only to have to unannounce it is not a pleasant experience. But – what if it was a normal one? Do we really shroud something so joyous (and potentially heartbreaking) in secrecy because… it might be awkward?
“Historically, we thought the whole child-bearing process a sole woman’s responsibility,” says Donna, a midwife with ten years' experience. “Women dealt with miscarriage privately. But as midwives, we now tell people there’s no good reason to have to wait to tell people anymore. Yes, there are various things to watch for, but there’s already so much guilt around pregnancy and motherhood – at least now if you do have a miscarriage, it involves men and families.”
“It used to be that even late pregnancy was a bit unseemly,” says psychologist Julie Houniet. “We’ve come a long way from the Victorian era, but the idea persists that if something has gone wrong that’s best not discussed.”
Some women, like mother of two Kathy Winton, prefer to tell people straight away, but feel constrained by the expectation that ‘it’s just not done’. “In your first pregnancy, you tend to do what others say without questioning it,” says Winton. “I was so excited, but I felt guilty telling people, like ‘It’s just not what we do’ – I had this fear of going against the social norm, ‘No one else does it, therefore I shouldn’t.’ It felt secretive.”
“Social norms play more of a role than we realise,” says Houniet. “Thankfully, cultural delicacy around pregnancy is disappearing – ten years ago, I was amazed to see pregnant women in Europe in bikinis, now it’s something to be celebrated. And though our whole approach to pregnancy complications and grief have evolved significantly over past decades, we still have a long way to go.”
When performer Queenie van de Zandt got pregnant, those around her warned her against being open about it. “They’d say things like ‘Be careful, it’s too private’, ‘You’ll get fired,’ or ‘If something happens, you’ll have to tell people’. I just thought ‘Why shouldn’t I tell’? I was excited! I much prefer to share what’s really going on anyway, and it felt horrible not being open. In the end I thought ‘Bugger it, I’m not going to sneak around with morning sickness, or cover up that I’m having a hard time if anything bad does happen.’”
Sadly, van de Zandt did eventually miscarry. But she is adamant that her decision to tell people early made the experience less, not more, distressing. “I can’t imagine not having told people and going back to work and dealing with this stuff without colleagues knowing. So many people opened up, and told me their own stories. That sort of stuff is lovely because you don’t feel alone.”
“People aren’t always all that appropriate with grief anyway, let alone miscarriage,” says Houniet. “Yes, some prefer to grieve privately, but when that’s done - because of attitudes about how it ‘should’ be private or it isn’t the done thing to mention it - that can cause more damage. We call it ‘disenfranchised grief’ – it actually drives the loss further into the person, and makes it harder to process.”
Women still bear the brunt of secrecy. Houniet tells the story of a patient she had who had a psychotic breakdown 20 years after she’d had a stillborn baby girl. The child was taken before she could see her, and buried in a mass grave. “No one seemed to get it that she’d be aggrieved about a full-term baby – that attitude seems insane now, and yet we still treat miscarriage and termination as something not to be spoken of.”
“There are still taboos around termination for developmental reasons,” says McLeish. “We’re better at accepting miscarriage isn’t a woman’s ‘fault’, whereas women are more aware that decisions around termination could cause offense, or even that it might seem like ingratitude.”
McLeish works in the emergency department of a maternity hospital, and she says one reason support of friends and family in the early stages is so important is that if something does happen, “women are unlikely to find the emotional support they need in an emergency department, especially at early gestation when they’re not yet linked in with midwife.”
“You hear horror stories about women passing ‘the products of conception’ in the emergency room toilets. But what strikes me from a professional point of view is that reducing that shock and fright means talking about it. For them, it’s devastating, but as far as a medical emergency goes it’s a low risk to their health.”
For van de Zandt, being open from the beginning meant she felt much more supported when something did go wrong. “People’s capacity for empathy is heightened if they already know you were pregnant,” she says. “By only telling the good stuff, we do ourselves a great disservice. It locks you in a jail of your own making, you can become a weapon against others who look at you and think ‘their life is perfect’, it’s so easy for them to have baby.’
“When you’re open about things, it gives other people permission to do the same. You hear the truth of other people’s lives and realise others aren’t perfect. But most of all you get lovely support – you realise you’re not alone.”
Alice Williams is a Melbourne author and yoga teacher.