Bullish Life: On Miscarriages, Goldfish, And Misunderstandings As The Price Of Freedom


Jennifer Dziura writes career and life advice weekly on TheGloss. Here is an archive, and here is an archive of Bullish columns from our sister site TheGrindstone.

Dear Jen,

My blatant overshare is that I’ve had two miscarriages this winter, and what I didn’t realize before was that miscarriage totally blows. Women get all the worst shit to deal with! Nobody really gets it (including your partner, even if he kindly doesn’t judge your need to drown yourself in the antiseptic waters of a Gilmore Girls marathon, an odd impulse I never knew I had in me), people refuse to talk or even think about it and, if you’re me, you end up obsessively going over every detail of every day that you were pregnant, trying to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. The truth is that these things are wildly more common than anyone realizes. What’s even more horrifying is that in half of these cases, there is never any reason found. So you basically have no control over it, and no amount of raspberry leaf tea you drank after finding out you were pregnant are the reason that you lost it. For someone impatient with a need for control, this is extremely hard to come to terms with.

I’ve had a hard time admitting any of this to friends and family, but I’ve found this weird need to be frank with distant acquaintances or long-lost friends who live in other countries. I also have this strong impulse to notify all women of child-bearing age/inclination that this happens more often than they might realize, but I recognize something a little cruel and Cassandra-esque in that. No doubt I’ll go on to have a kid soon enough, and I’ll more or less forget how shitty this feels – I just wish there was a tutorial on how to cope with this shit in the meantime. If you have any advice, stories, or experience that might help a woman out, send them my way – I suppose that’s the real reason I’m making you the unlucky recipient of this rant, since you always seem to have real and funny things to say about women in general.

- “Cassandra”

Dear Cassandra,

First, I am so very sorry.

Second, women do indeed get the worst shit to deal with. In the days before contraception, having a uterus was pretty much a full-time job. A job filled with blood, pain, hormones, and a high probability of death. Had I been born 150 years ago, I would Albert Nobbs myself in a second. I would trade it all for a sundry shop and a stovepipe hat.

Third, yes, miscarriages are very common. So common, in fact, that some atheists have posed the question, “If life begins at conception and souls also come into being around that time, isn’t heaven like half full of miscarried fetuses?” In this 2004 Reason article, Is Heaven Populated Chiefly By the Souls of Embryos?, Ronald Bailey writes:

John Opitz, a professor of pediatrics, human genetics, and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Utah, testified before the President’s Council on Bioethics that between 60 and 80 percent of all naturally conceived embryos are simply flushed out in women’s normal menstrual flows unnoticed….it seems that if human embryos consisting of one hundred cells or less are the moral equivalents of a normal adult, then religious believers must accept that such embryos share all of the attributes of a human being, including the possession of an immortal soul. So even if we generously exclude all of the naturally conceived abnormal embryos—presuming, for the sake of theological argument, that imperfections in their gene expression have somehow blocked the installation of a soul—that would still mean that perhaps 40 percent of all the residents of Heaven were never born, never developed brains, and never had thoughts, emotions, experiences, hopes, dreams, or desires.

Note that Opitz is talking here about fertilized embryos that never even register as miscarriages. If you think about all these “missed pregnancies” in addition to all the miscarriages everyone is having, it seems as though pregnancy goes wrong more often than it goes right. It astounds me that anyone believes in intelligent design. It especially astounds me that anyone could believe in souls and intelligent design and an all-knowing, benevolent god. What kind of god would put souls in embryos and then have most of them flushed out with our menstrual cycles, or worse, later? A god who wants to rule over a really weird-looking heaven, I guess.

And finally: there is nothing “grotesque” about having a miscarriage, no more so than there is about the rest of the body’s mysteries, inconveniences, tragedies, and mortal condition. We’re all offended by every tampon commercial that tries to tell us our periods are “gross,” right? Yeah, so this is just how bodies work.

In the 1973 Pulitzer winner The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker writes that man’s most deep seated and motivating conflict is that, as a child, he realizes that he is a creature of ideas and abstractions: He can make up stories and imagine fantastical creatures! He is adding and subtracting numbers in his head! He can live in a theoretical world! But then he has to poop, and the illusion is shattered. The psyche never recovers: man spends the rest of his life deeply troubled and ashamed by irresolvable conflict between the brain and the colon. (See “Ask a Mortician” Caitlin Doughty read the relevant portion of The Denial of Death at the very end of this video.)

So, that was a brief aside about an unrelated area of the body, but seriously: bodies do office-inappropriate stuff basically most of the time, and probably half of the people you see on a daily basis are having some not-very-pretty problems with their bodies, too (especially if you know a lot of old people). I often note that the only reason I wear a bra is that society insists that all of our breasts appear bra-shaped in public. In a way, society is built on denying the basic realities of bodies.

So, screw that. Perhaps you remember when Penelope Trunk tweeted (in 2009) about her miscarriage?

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    • Erica

      This was a wonderful post, thank you so much. I think this might be one of your best ever.

      I think you should know, though, especially because your post is going to get a lot of links, that it looks like Penelope Trunk mixed up her percentages – I think based on a post on her blog that she meant to say 25% of women experience miscarriages (75% work). Reference:

      I actually don’t think this makes a huge difference. If it’s 1 in 4 women, then it’s still likely that your mother, your aunt, your grandmother, or your daughter experienced it. It’s still something everyone should know about, even if it doesn’t happen to literally everyone.

    • kj

      I think that “understanding” is overrated. I think that different people can understand different parts of your experience, but that does not mean they will understand all of it. And just because someone doesn’t understand you doesn’t mean that they don’t care or aren’t hurt by seeing you in pain.

      I try to see differences in understanding as a chance to learn from our diversity of experiences, as opposed to an indication of humanity’s permanent, insurmountable isolation from one another. I think that a lot of the examples of “misunderstanding” that Jen describes – ie, different interpretations of the word ‘love’ – are just the result of good ol’ fashioned lack of communication and empathy.

      Obviously I am not trying to understate the grief of the reader who shared her story with us.

      Also, I get what Jen is trying to say about pluralism causing misunderstanding, but I think it’s super reductive to say that just because 2 people share the same orthodox religion, that they will understand each other better. Maybe it will be easier to agree on things that are dictated by the religion – ie, children – but that is meaningless when it comes to emotions. Lifestyle understanding =/= emotional understanding.

      Anyhoo, this has been your 2am comment rant.

    • JeRo

      This is a truly brilliant piece of writing.

    • Smartie

      Wow, really? 90% of this post was brilliant, great advice. It really was. But what was with the brief soapbox toward the beginning? How the fuck does someone asking you about her miscarriage turn into “and by the way, there is no god”? I understand the value of the question in academia or discussions about religion, but I felt that you kind of used this woman’s plight to push your own views for a moment there. Atheist agnostic, religious, whatever, piggybacking on tragedies to push your views is not okay. Otherwise, brilliant. :)