Thursday, September 22, 2016


I read an interesting article from Slate's Double XX blog this afternoon (by parenting writer Elissa Strauss, who wrote that great critique of Rachel Cusk's review of Julia Leigh's book "Avalanche"), and it got me thinking.

Strauss had read an essay by actress Ashley Williams about her miscarriage and the silence surrounding it (an excellent read itself). She agrees with Williams that we need to end the silence that surrounds miscarriage -- that speaking out will help to normalize an experience that 25% of all women go through:
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.

(Hmmm, sounds a bit like something I wrote a few weeks ago. ;) )

However, she objects to Williams' use of the word "survivor" to describe herself.
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.

She notes that others have objected to the survivor narrative, including Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon (who has dealt with stage 4 cancer) and Parul Sehgal in the New York Times Magazine, writing about women who have experienced sexual violence.  (Both are great articles too.) "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," Strauss points out.

I understand that. It's why so many of us tell people that we're fine, just fine, even when we (still) feel like crap sometimes. It's why so many women living without children after infertility & loss feel like they can't just live an ordinary life -- if their life is going to be so different from other women's because they're not having children, then they need to do something REALLY different, and grand and bold and adventurous and fabulous -- because they can!! Right??  

I understand the point that Strauss and the others are making, and it's a valid one. But there's no getting around the fact that, right now, at least, miscarriage and stillbirth and infertility are NOT normal experiences. OK, miscarriage might be a normal experience from a biological perspective -- but it doesn't feel that way. The silence and shame and stigma that surround it are not normal, and certainly not acceptable. Until we do normalize miscarriage and other kinds of pregnancy loss, and until those of us who have been through these traumatic experiences begin to feel supported and heard and not so "other," I would not deny those who feel like they have survived something and want to call themselves "survivors" the right to do so.

What do you think? Do you consider yourself a survivor of pregnancy loss &/or infertility? Is there a term that you would prefer instead? (Or do we need to label ourselves in this way at all?)

(Do I feel like a survivor? Sometimes, yes.)

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And now, just because the earworm has been planted ;) and because it's one of dh's all-time favourite songs: 


  1. I'm not a survivor, because it wasn't my life that was endangered. It was something that happened to me, something I experienced. I think we have co-opted survivor in such a way as to reduce its meaning to having lived through anything rather than having lived through something you weren't supposed to live through. So, I will be fine with a cancer survivor or a tornado survivor (if said tornado actually went through a building you were in, and not, say, next door). But if it was just a horrible, rotten experience...well, you didn't survive it. You endured it. You suffered it.

    *Note: I am frequently pedantic.

  2. It's hard because I'm mixed on this. For one, why are we again quantifying pain? But on the other, there are some who blow their pain out of proportion as so to minimize others. So I do see her point.

    That said, I consider you and myself infertility surviviors. In my eyes, we easily fit the definition.

  3. I think in the beginning (just after going through IVf, and realising I was at the end of the road) I did feel like a 'survivor' of sorts, but then the bald truth gradually hit me that nobody outside of the IF community gave a flying f*ck about what I'd been through. So I downplayed the whole thing and avoided referring to it at all.

    Interestingly, having a miscarriage was one of the points at which I realised that nobody (in the fertile world) thinks infertility is a big deal.

    If anything, in my experience/according to my circle of friends, miscarriage already seems to be 'normalised' to the extent that it made barely a ripple when I told friends about mine. To my knowledge, none of them had had one, but no one batted an eyelid when I told them about mine. Or maybe a better term than 'normalised' would be 'misunderstood' or 'misinterpreted'.

    Mine was an early, pathetic one, at five-six weeks, but it was the only time I had ever managed to conceive, and I was nearly 40, so to me it was far from being the 'good sign' that everyone told me it was.

    Without exception, everybody I told said 'Well that's really good, it means you can get pregnant!'; one good friend seemed to feel a bit 'defrauded' and said, 'Er, I thought you couldn't get pregnant??'.

    Like having a bucket of cold water thrown over you.

    Their reactions showed that they knew nothing about infertility - for them, having a miscarriage seemed to be part of the landscape of trying to conceive: you might have one, but then you'd most certainly go on to have a baby. It was a mark of fertility to them! Not many people I know are familiar with the other side of that: women who continually miscarriage; or conceive once, then miscarry during years of IVF....

    Regarding your last question, I'm not sure how I would term myself...As the first comment says, maybe an 'endurer' or a 'sufferer'. Ex-sufferer of infertility? Yet the effects are long-lasting. Definitely an interesting topic that you've opened up, anyway!

    Hope all that makes sense; I seem to always be commenting during the 3pm slump at work when my brain is mush....

  4. I think it's the framing of the loss that is important. I do think that anyone who has gone through a stillbirth or neonatal loss IS a survivor - to lose a child is without doubt one of the (if not THE) hardest thing we can go through in life. I have not experienced either of these things but have seen friends do so and I think it sometimes takes everything they have in them just to continue to breathe.

    I've had six miscarriages, so I feel pretty qualified to talk about earlier loss (or at least my own experience of it). One was a shock but not a disaster. Each successive loss - initially one year apart - was a source of more worry and sadness. Not so much because of the losses themselves but because of the increasing anxiety that I was never going to be a mother and that my body had let me (and my husband and the rest of our families) down. Failed infertility treatments felt quite similar.

    Once I finally had my little boy (donor eggs!), a subsequent failed treatment was miserable but not at all on the same scale as the pre-kid ones. I suspect a miscarriage would have been the same - awful but not the binary "mother/ not mother" experience it was before.

    I would not say that I am a *literal* survivor. At least not in the miscarriage/IF stakes - I am one year past a cancer diagnosis and treatment. But it took some serious work for various parts of my life to survive 8 years of miscarriage/IF - my marriage, my career, my self-confidence, my friendships. So, in that sense, I think those who have a rocky path ARE survivors. Research has shown that the stress experienced during infertility is akin to that experienced during cancer - I can confirm that was my experience.

    Above all, the phrase "your pain is your own" comes to mind. We all feel things differently and are supported differently.