The XX Factor

We Can Normalize Miscarriages Without Calling Women Who Have Had Them “Survivors”

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Miscarriages are something women endure, not survive.

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Ashley Williams, an actress who stars on The Jim Gaffigan Show, really wants to tell you about her miscarriage. In a recently published essay, she recounts her experience of pregnancy loss, including the gush of warm blood that ran down her thigh at Whole Foods as well as her shock at her previous ignorance of how common such a loss is. Ultimately, her sadness and frustration over her own miscarriage is eclipsed by the sadness and frustration she feels over how rarely women talk about their miscarriages. “If 25 percent of my peers are currently experiencing miscarriages right alongside me, why wasn’t I prepared? Why don’t we talk about it? Why was I feeling embarrassed, broken, like a walking wound?” she writes.

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These were questions I asked myself after miscarrying an 8-week-old embryo last spring. I was aware of how common miscarriage was, but had heard little about what it would actually feel like. As such, I was not prepared for two weeks of bleeding, nor did I anticipate going into labor and giving birth to two softball-sized blood clots halfway through. Knowing this was possible beforehand would not have relieved the immediate discomfort, but it would have helped prevent much of the debilitating shock I felt for the following weeks.

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So yes, stories like Williams’ are exactly what we need more of in order for women to understand that miscarriages are really upsetting, bloody things that happen all the time. At first, I was thrilled to see someone with a wide reach attempting to, in her words, “normalize miscarriage.” And I maintained this enthusiasm throughout nearly the entire essay, until I neared the end and came upon this phrase: “I’m a survivor. Healed, I will try again.”

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I understand the instinct to frame women who have had miscarriages as survivors; it’s a way to find meaning, even redemption, in chaos. Still, it’s wrong, in both logical and emotional terms.

When we call someone a survivor we are emphasizing the unacceptability, or unnaturalness, of the situation they were forced to endure. We don’t survive what is normal, we survive what is exceptional or repugnant. If the goal is to make miscarriage feel normal, then the survivor label is counterproductive.

My favorite illustration of the complexity of survivorship, and the dangers of too freely using the survivor label, comes from Curb Your Enthusiasm. During a 2004 episode, Larry is told by a friend that he is bringing a survivor to a dinner party. Larry assumes he means a survivor of the Holocaust, and thus tells his dad to bring a friend of his who had spent time in a concentration camp. Instead, Larry’s friend brings a former contestant of the reality show Survivor and the two spend much of the dinner party arguing about who suffered a worse fate. It’s a funny scene, one that reminds us that the circumstances of suffering matter as much, if not more, than the perceived impact of suffering when it comes to determining who should be able to call themselves a survivor and who should not.

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Miscarriages are a source of suffering, but the circumstances of the suffering are both common and inevitable. Unlike genocide or other acts of violence, miscarriages are not something we can rise up against. Quite the opposite, they are a necessary part of the reproductive process. The majority of miscarriages occur because of chromosomal abnormalities in the embryo: We may imagine that embryo as a future baby, but in reality it is a cluster of cells that lacks the information to become one.

Other recent critiques of the word survivor are relevant here as well. Writing at Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams takes issue with using the term for people who had cancer and no longer do. She resents the tidy narrative “survivor” represents, the assumption of feelings of triumph when trauma rarely leads to such a happy ending. She also can’t stand what “survivor” infers about those for whom treatment doesn’t work and “[dreads] knowing that at any time, a person who’s survived can turn into the worst kind of loser, the person everyone says ‘lost her battle.’”

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And in a recent essay for the New York Times Magazine, Parul Sehgal looks at the “forced heroism” of survivor in the context of women who have experienced sexual assault or rape. She points out that “what once felt radical has blossomed into a rhetoric of almost mandatory heroism.” Survivors aren’t permitted to just deal, they must thrive while also becoming ambassadors of post-sexual violence thriving. It’s a lot. (Also, by calling attention to survivors, as opposed to the victim, attention is drawn away from the violence—and the rapist or abuser—and towards the act of recovery.) Much of this critique translates to the miscarriage. It’s not enough for a woman to deal with something crappy, but we’ve got to make a hero narrative out of it, too.

Miscarriages can be physically brutal, financially burdensome, and emotionally devastating. They suck, and I share Williams’ urge to help make sure people know how much and how often they suck, so they can prepare themselves for the worst of it and feel less alone when it happens. But as sucky as they are, miscarriages are not something we survive—they’re something we endure. That’s enough of a story to tell.

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