The Book Club

A Festival of Ironies

Hi, Emily:

I am, like you, struggling through Layne’s endless descriptions of pregnancies that end in the seventh month (where I am now) or in the hours after birth. You are right in saying that reading all this is a perverse but useful antidote to the sunny maternity industrial complex that most of us make of pregnancy. Layne does a thorough job of detailing how much of American pregnancy is about consuming, shopping, gifting, and hoarding. You suddenly find yourself on a million mailing lists, receiving hundreds of communications about all the clever tricks your fetus is performing at 13 weeks, then 14 weeks, and so on. I remember having quite a struggle getting off some of those lists when it became evident that the tricks had suddenly stopped, at least in my house. 

You talk about your innocence before your miscarriage and the fear that pervaded this new pregnancy; the odd schism in preparing for this magical life experience while fearing yet another hideous loss. I had exactly the same reaction: Holding myself back from the second pregnancy for weeks and weeks, so I wouldn’t be fooled again. I wrote letters to both my babies through each pregnancy. The first book is jolly and silly and ends abruptly. The second is spare and fearful and cautious. I don’t think you ever go back. One of the subjects Layne treats most beautifully is irony. She points out that irony works best in the face of innocence and that most pregnant women are hopelessly innocent because of what you aptly characterize as the “one-note” insistence that births are happy, healthy, and always successful. 

I think one place that this is particularly true is in hospitals—a subject Layne glosses over more than I expected. Because midwives and obstetricians and obstetric units represent the Disney World of the medical profession—all sunshine and hope and magic—they generally deal pretty poorly with pregnancy loss. Layne quotes someone saying that “hospitals seem to have no physical or psychological space” for women who have lost babies and describes a woman left alone for hours after such a loss, because she was suddenly neither a mother, nor a patient, but just kind of a medical bummer. Allowing all the women who miscarry into the world of obstetrics is like letting Dracula into the Enchanted Castle.

Yet when I had to have our fetus surgically removed, the procedure was performed, astonishingly, in the same maternity ward I would otherwise have delivered in. We had to walk the same hallways, past a pair of laboring women excitedly pacing the halls with their husbands, and past the nursery where all the beautiful newborns had been planted in their neat squalling little rows. Aaron, my husband, was at some point trapped on an elevator with a million balloons, a teddy bear, and a jubilant new daddy bent on asking him how our birth was going. And the nurse who jabbed at me over and over with an IV needle had a nametag that read “Hope.” 

Miscarriage is nothing if not a festival of ironies.

In all honesty, I’d have preferred to have that surgery in a hospital broom closet. In hindsight, it’s unbelievable that any modern American hospital would not have a soothing, non-ironic place to minister to the thousands of pregnancies that end as mine did. I am blessed in that my obstetrician was and is as compassionate and caring about the lost baby as she is about the live one. But I get the sense from Layne, and from some of the Fray posters, that she does not represent the norm.

Layne’s book ends with a set of prescriptions for feminists seeking to incorporate pregnancy loss into their agenda. She mentions—as do you—the need to tell women early and often that there are high risks of losses, and to downplay the individualist, you-are-in-total-control tone of the pregnancy books and classes. She talks about creating better spaces than anonymous Internet chat rooms or support groups for women to cope. But she doesn’t mention that hospitals that thoughtfully offer massages and hot tubs and music for new mommies also need to provide spaces—both physical and psychological—for the almost-mommies as well.