Embracing the mess: How a miscarriage forced a journalist to tell her story

When Monica Hesse became a columnist for The Washington Post, she didn’t imagine her writing would ever get this personal. How her miscarriage pushed to her to embrace the messiness

Sunday 07 April 2019 12:28
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Matching my Type A personality, I’ve always had a Type A menstrual cycle – textbook, punctual, predictable to the hour. When I went into the bathroom one morning early this winter and didn’t need a tampon, I knew I was pregnant. Five minutes later, two pink lines confirmed it.

Some time later, I woke with cramps and back pain and a text from my doctor’s office. My scheduled sonogram had been cancelled – bad weather. Immediately, I left a message with the answering service: will the office open by the afternoon? I’m experiencing pain; I think something is wrong. The doctor who called back was kind and professional and wondered, I think, whether I was an overly nervous first-timer. Cramps can be common, she said reassuringly. I should be concerned only if there was a lot of blood.

It turns out my miscarriage was Type A, too. I hung up the phone and promptly started to bleed.

My job as a columnist is to write about gender. In general, in the specific, in the way we talk about it or don’t talk about it. When I got the position, a friend joked that I was now a Professional Woman, as in, a portion of my paid vocation involved being female and thinking about what it meant.

I never viewed my work so personally, not until the day after the bleeding began, when the nurse handed me a paper gown and motioned towards the exam table. All at once, what was happening felt specifically ladyish: the cramps, the stirrups, the matter-of-fact kindness of the office staff, the implied secrecy of the ordeal. It happens to more women than you’d expect, the nurse told my husband and me. It’s one of those things nobody likes to talk about.

I nodded, and mentally planned how to not talk about it. How to excuse my work absence by claiming the flu – we hadn’t told many people about the pregnancy. How to spare everyone else the messiness.

Meanwhile, the journalist part of me was mentally scrolling through the hundreds of women and men during my career who had not spared me their messiness. Who had let me into their stories, who had allowed me into their weddings and HIV tests, their abortions and church services, and who had talked with me about their sexual assaults, their abuse, their triumphs and traumas.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my job. I’ve been thinking about how the decade I spent as a reporter provided an asymmetrical intimacy – asking for other people’s experiences while never sharing my own. And it costs something to share your story. It’s hard. People are never sure whether reporters will tell them the right way.

I’ve been wondering whether writing about gender should require me to mine my own experiences with it.

Being a person having a miscarriage does not feel like being a journalist writing about it; it does not lend itself to rational thought.

Beyoncé opened up about her miscarriage to Oprah Winfrey in 2013

It lends itself to thoughts such as: did this happen because I took a couple of Excedrin for a migraine the day before? Because I shovelled snow that morning, or cleaned the tub with Clorox instead of organic baking soda?

Was it because the pregnancy was a surprise, and it had taken my husband and me the better part of a month to wrap our minds around it? My initial panic was over weird, frivolous things: we’d finally bought a sleeper sofa for the spare room and now we’d have to make it a nursery instead. One time, during a slap-happy conversation about Washington’s insane daycare fees, I’d joked, “We can’t do it! Maybe the pregnancy will just vanish?”

I laughed when I said it, but inside, here is what I was picturing: the rocking chair that could replace the sofa, Halloween with a young Hermione Granger, the boutonnière of a gawky kid at prom. I was picturing a wish.

Sadness is a complete emotion, a multivitamin of an emotion. Even when you fully understand that yours is minor compared to that of others.

A friend texted an article while I was writing this paragraph: “Pregnant teacher speaks out after being stabbed multiple times during carjacking.” My God, I thought. Nothing that terrible happened to me.

A colleague wrote a brave, wrenching article about her stillbirth, and how social networks assumed she was still pregnant. My God, I thought when I read it, my hurt was so mundane.

What are we looking for when we tell stories? Do stories deserve to be told when they’re mundane and happen to lots of women? Should a gender columnist write about the extraordinary, or should she also try to talk frankly about the regular, common sadnesses that are discussed mostly in whispers?

Is that the job – to figure out how we fit together, to search for the secret undercurrents of emotion that run through all of humanity?

In the end, what complicated the sadness for me was kindness. When I eventually emailed my boss, I didn’t invent the flu. I told her what had happened, feeling inexplicably embarrassed – me and my dumb lady pain – but she wrote back, not embarrassed. The next day, she sent the loveliest crate of oranges and pears.

My mother sent flowers. My father sent four boxes of cherry cordials. My in-laws sent chocolate. My best friend, knowing I’d find comfort in numbers, sent her dissertation, on reproductive loss. My husband, grieving himself, was still the one to go out in a blizzard to buy paracetamol and walk the dog and search for vegetarian matzo ball soup.

I took two sick days – and thank God I have a job with sick days, and thank God I needed only two of them, and thank God I have health insurance and money for lab tests – surrounded by the type of unfathomable, undeserved kindness that centres the universe when it’s most off-keel.

Here is a thing people may not realise. A miscarriage takes days. It can take weeks. It seems like it’s instantaneous because it’s always talked about in the past tense: I had a miscarriage. But as time passed, I thought about how I could address it in the present tense. To the telemarketer on the phone: not now, I’m bleeding. To a co-worker needling me about a deadline: could this hold until next week? I’m waiting for a wish to slowly ebb out of my body.

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At one point, I sat in the bedroom thinking about how, if this were a novel, now is when I’d eat ice cream. But I couldn’t fathom dessert; we’d bought apple fritters a few days before when I was still pregnant. I’d eaten half of one; the rest were still sitting reproachfully on the counter.

What I could fathom doing in that moment was watching a comic book movie, something with fight scenes and quippy dialogue. I could fathom Iron Man bantering with Captain America, and I could fathom nothing else.

When I went downstairs, my husband had listlessly turned on the television. What was playing on cable, in the tenderest and oddest of mercies, was Marvel’s The Avengers.

So we sat and watched. I had a miscarriage and we watched The Avengers. The dog needed another walk, and my sister called, and I thought about the kindness and sadness and messiness that binds us all together, and I bled, and bled, and we watched The Avengers and I admired the sheen in Chris Hemsworth’s hair.

© Washington Post

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