Why a Miscarriage Still Carries Shame

It is hard to watch the recent Public Service Announcement created by actress Melissa Rauch without being moved. Rauch—along with various other celebrities including Vanna White and Nancy Kerrigan—open up about their experiences with miscarriage and stillbirth. They describe how frequently these events occur and how alone they felt when it happened to them. Rauch, who herself had a miscarriage, wrote an essay in Glamour explaining why she decided to make the video. After her miscarriage, she writes:

I was so moved by how many people reached out to share stories of their loss and heartbreak. It was from this beautiful outpouring of openness, candor, and courage offered by all of these kindred spirits that I began to heal a part of me that I didn’t know was still in need of repair. The part that still blamed myself. The part that was still holding on to shame.

The word “shame” is used frequently when people are describing their miscarriage experience, but why? In an era when people are so unlikely to feel shame about things for which they are actually to blame, why would women feel shame about something that is almost always out of their control?

The first possibility is that we have simply misunderstood shame. Many women feel miscarriage as a very private loss. It’s why many don’t want to tell people they’re pregnant in the first trimester when chances of miscarriage are much higher—they don’t really want to have to announce publicly if things go wrong. Unfortunately, too often our culture sends the message that anything we want to keep private must be a source of shame. (This is true of sexual assault as well. Many women don’t want to talk about rape not because they blame themselves but because they don’t want to speak about such an intimate violation with people they don’t know.)

But the other possibility is that we have given women the false sense that they can manage every aspect of pregnancy and if something goes wrong it must be their fault. Indeed, a number of the women in the video say they felt it was their fault.

All of the pregnancy books and endless online advice and the public tsk-tsking of women who drink a glass of wine or eat unpasteurized cheese during pregnancy certainly contribute to this sense.

But so, in a sense, does modern technology and medicine. There is so much we can control about pregnancy and childbirth these days. We can do prenatal screenings for genetic conditions and even undergo prenatal surgery to fix any problems. We can control the process of childbirth—whether to have a C-section or not, whether to undergo a VBAC. There are so many choices we can make about doctors and hospitals and doulas and homebirths—it gives us the feeling that we are in charge of what is happening inside our bodies.

But as Rauch tragically found, that is not true. Even after the fact, she cannot make sense of what happened. She writes, “The unknown is a scary place, but it’s also where hope and possibility live. I’m trying as much as I can to embrace the reality of that uncertainty.”

Messages like Rauch’s may help women feel as though they are not alone. But there is another message that is far more difficult to convey with a celebrity PSA. We need to be reminded that there are limits to human knowledge and some things tragically are out of our control. This was a message that was once provided by the world’s religions. But in an age when science is considered the ultimate arbiter of our fates, is it any surprise that women (and men) now find only cold comfort when things go wrong?

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