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Talking About Miscarriage

You can tell your story—even if it doesn’t have a happy ending

Rachel Rosenthal
January 17, 2020
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

I had my second consecutive miscarriage three days before Rosh Hashanah. Like the first, it was an early pregnancy prior to the heartbeat phase—the sort they refer to as a “chemical pregnancy,” as if that will make you feel better about losing the hope of a baby.

If there is a single theme to the Torah and Haftarah readings on Rosh Hashanah, it is fertility and infertility. On the first day of the holiday, we read the story of Sarah, who is finally remembered by God and granted a son at the age of 90. Sarah’s infertility had filled her with bitterness, estranging her from her husband and causing her to laugh when God promises her that she will have a child. Even in her moment of joy, when Isaac is finally born, she fears for him and herself, and for their future status. Thus, she compels Abraham to send his older son Ishmael away, a rupture that never fully heals. Ishmael nearly dies; in the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Abraham nearly sacrifices Isaac. Even as Sarah’s prayers are answered, the scars from her trauma don’t seem to heal. Instead, they ripple out, nearly destroying her family.

In the Haftarah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Hannah cries out to God because she has no children, unlike her sister wife, Penina, who has many. Her husband, Elkanah, cannot understand her longing. He says to her, “Am I not more precious to you than seven sons?” Ultimately, Hannah is granted a son, and then other children after him, but I always imagine that her relationship with Elkanah never fully recovers from his inability to understand her deep longing to be a mother.

In the book of Genesis, Rachel, married to Jacob, is unable to have children, like her mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law before her. She tells Jacob, “Give me children or I will die.” Jacob responds in anger, or perhaps frustration, due to his inability to give his beloved something that she wants so deeply. But Rachel’s cry is recalled in the Haftarah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, when Jeremiah imagines Rachel crying on behalf of the children she wanted so badly, who have now gone astray.

As I sat in shul and listened to the stories of these women who deeply wanted to become mothers, while I bled and cried and continued to be overcome by waves of nausea, it was hard not to feel like my tradition was taunting me. Rather than feeling reassured by these stories of women who ultimately became mothers, I felt angry. I saw the pain each of them felt, and the ways that that pain tore at the fabric of their relationships with their families. I heard the bitterness in Sarah’s laugh, the desperation in Rachel’s tears, the loneliness in Hannah’s prayers. As we blew the shofar and recited the words, “Today the world is born,” all I could think of was my tiny bundle of cells that would never be.

When I got pregnant for the third time, then, my excitement was mixed with fear. This time, though, the line on the tests wasn’t faint, and the bleeding never came. I kept taking tests daily until the fifth week, but each time, the line appeared faster and darker. My nausea was strong, I could only eat white carbs, I was exhausted, but also, I was thrilled. This one would be different. When I called the doctor and was asked if I was pregnant, I finally got to say yes.

At the six-week appointment, everything looked good. It’s hard to find a heartbeat that early, but we got to see the tiny pulsing on the screen, and suddenly, it seemed like our luck might be changing. Watching my husband watch the ultrasound, I felt a surge of love for him stronger than I even knew was possible. Our baby was due the day before Tisha B’Av. The Jewish tradition says that the messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av, so we joked that perhaps our baby was destined to save the world. I also wondered if the baby might be a few days late, as first children often are, and thus might be born on my grandmother’s 10th yahrzeit, on the 12th of Av. I loved the idea of naming the baby after such a strong, amazing woman, renewing the life that we had lost 10 years earlier.

And so, when we went back to the doctor on the second day of Hanukkah, when I was nine weeks and two days pregnant, I wasn’t nervous. I still felt pregnant, I hadn’t bled, we had seen our baby’s heartbeat. It felt appropriate to me that this ultrasound would happen on Hanukkah. After two miscarriages, everything about this pregnancy felt miraculous to me. Having been through several difficult and damaging relationships in my 20s, I had long been afraid that I would never find a partner before I met my husband at 32, in November 2016. The following summer, when we were away for a weekend visiting friends, we bundled up to look at the stars and discovered that we both had imagined the same potential baby name—first and middle—despite its somewhat esoteric nature. This tiny person, who had existed only in my head, suddenly felt like they might one day be real. Four months later, we were engaged, and three months after that, we got married.

Now, almost two years after our wedding, the doctor pulled up the ultrasound. My husband gazed at the screen with concentration, ready to see our tiny baby, who we had learned from an app was going to be the size of a green olive.

Except it wasn’t. It was too small, and the wrong shape, and there was no heartbeat. The doctor kept moving the probe, hoping for a different result, but as she said, at nine weeks, it should be easy to find a heartbeat. That tiny embryo, our tiny miracle, was gone.

As we walked home, I alternated between hysterical crying and total numbness. That night, as we stood together to light Hanukkah candles for the third night, I sobbed, unable to thank God for the miracles done for us in the past and in our day. We didn’t get to have a miracle, I thought bitterly. That night, only my husband lit candles.

We called fertility clinics, since research suggested that having three consecutive miscarriages, even with the first two having been so early, is unusual and potentially the sign of a larger problem. When we made an appointment, they sent paperwork for us to fill out in advance. The questions gnawed at me. I tried to find the right answers, the ones I could give that would show them how to help us, and finally let us become parents. What was I most afraid of? What was my lifestyle? Did I have a history of family illness? How many pregnancies had we had, and how many live births?

The question that got me most, though, was a question about how many children we would want to have. Clicking on the dropdown menu, I could choose between one and 10. For me, the answer was three, but I was afraid to click it. Surely it was presumptuous of me to say I wanted three children, when my body would not even let me have one. Surely I could not expect a live birth for each of the tiny promises that hadn’t been fulfilled. Surely a woman who is 35 should not expect to be able to have such things. I imagined the doctor sighing sympathetically, or even rolling his eyes at me having such hope. What right did I have to ask for three, when right now I should feel lucky to have one?

Throughout this wave of medical forms and phone calls and dealing with insurance, I started having light cramps. By Shabbat, I was spotting, which became heavy bleeding and horrible pain by Monday night. As it turned out, my body had finally realized that the pregnancy wasn’t viable. Even though the internet had warned me about the amount of blood, nobody had told me that I would feel like I was being stabbed over and over again in the abdomen, no matter how much Advil I took or how long I kept the heating pad applied. Unable to sleep, I writhed in pain and cried, both from the physical pain and from the sense of what we were losing again. I cursed my body, my age, my professional ambition, my failure to do something, anything, differently, even though there was nothing I could have done. The few people who had known I was pregnant, until I wasn’t anymore, checked in, but I couldn’t bring myself to talk to anyone. Instead, the emails and text messages went unread, as I spiraled into loneliness that felt like it would go on forever. Somehow the world went on around me, with vacations and Hanukkah parties and other people’s babies being born, but I couldn’t do anything but retreat into my cocoon, curled up in, ironically, the fetal position.

The problem with miscarriage is that people don’t talk about it. I know that some of my friends have miscarried, but usually I don’t hear about it until after they have successfully had a live birth. As I looked around for resources, I found that the people who told their stories almost always did so with the hindsight of having been able to carry a baby to term. The trauma and pain don’t ever fully go away, they say, but there is still hope. Look, I’m a mother now.

And so I’m telling this story in hopes that it is somehow therapeutic for me, but even more so, in hopes that it helps other people out there who have felt this pain, whether physical or emotional, but couldn’t talk about it, and felt like they were the only one. You’re not alone, even when you feel like you are, even when you can’t imagine ever being around other people again. You don’t have to wait to talk about what is happening to you, your pain, your anger, your fear, your sadness, until you can tie it up with a neat bow. Your job is not to make people comfortable, it’s to count on them to support you when you’re in the depths of pain. You can tell your story even if it doesn’t have a happy ending.

Every night that we lit Hanukkah candles this year after that horrible trip to the doctor, I cried. And my husband said to me, “You know, one day—maybe even next year—we’ll be lighting candles, and you’ll be crying, but the tears will be different, and our kids will wonder why their mother is crying.” I hope with all of my heart that he’s right, for us, and for anyone else who needs that hope, too.

Rachel Rosenthal is a David Hartman Center fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and teaches Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She holds a PhD in rabbinic literature.

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