My late husband Paul was an artist. When we were alone, I sometimes sang to him these lyrics that Joni Mitchell penned sometime before 1970:
Oh I am a lonely painter I live in a box of paints
I’m frightened by the devil
And I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid
I remember that time that you told me, you said “Love is touching souls”
Surely you touched mine ’cause
Part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time
Almost every time I sang these words to him, one or both of us would be moved to tears. The words acknowledged the solitary nature of his painting and drawing and the quiet process of my writing. We called his work art; we called mine work. It was as though there were only room for one artist at a time.
My mother had a really interesting relationship with Paul. Her own father had been a painter who specialized in faux finishes. She didn’t call her dad an artist. Maybe there was not room for him to be one. When she talked about her childhood, she would sometimes add that her family moved around a lot because of his various painting jobs, mostly in churches or public buildings. Whatever connection she made with Paul, it seemed to be intimately tied to her memory of her father who died when she was 15.
One afternoon after a visit with my mother, Paul turned to me in the car and asked about her miscarriages. Within a few miles I pulled off the freeway in disbelief to quiz him about the intimacies she had shared with him. She talked with her not-quite son-in-law about something I had not known. She was in her mid-eighties when she reflected on her two incomplete pregnancies.
Paul said there was one two years before I was born. She hinted at an earlier one some time after my brother was born. I later learned that my oldest sister could recall the upset(s) during those periods of her childhood, but not the events themselves. My sister was more likely to have been kept in the dark about miscarriages and not merely forgotten them. After all, she would have been 11 years old at the time of the second one.
Had my mother felt shame? Inadequacy? Failure? Relief? I can’t help questioning if she had grieved enough. I wonder if her general bitterness about life was born then. Or perhaps, just maybe, these events only confirmed a view of life developed in her childhood and cemented into place when she was orphaned as young teen.
Miscarriages are very common, with about one in ten U.S. women who know they are pregnant miscarrying. They are much more common, however, among those who do not realize they are pregnant, with as many as 50% of all fertilized eggs being spontaneously discharged.
As each day of December makes the impending Christmas holiday more apparent, I am reminded of another essential part of the myth. There is said to have been a young girl. I wonder how her knowledge of pregnancy, miscarriage, and birth was gained. Did her own mother who, according to the undocumented story, was still alive educate her? Given how my siblings and I were kept in the dark about sex and reproduction, it is doubtful that my grandmother had done so with my mom.
This got me to thinking: Why are we so obviously unable to be present with each other during losses like miscarriage? And why do we even use the odd expression miscarriage? The term suggests negativity, mistakes, wrong, or wrong doing. This shaming expression for spontaneous abortion, it seems to me, contributes to some of the silence on this apparently natural outcome of so many pregnancies.
Did the term itself keep my mother silent for more than five decades until she could not contain herself any longer in the presence of a young man who reminded her in unexpected ways of her daddy? What if we renamed miscarriages unplanned departures? We are apparently reluctant to use the medical term spontaneous abortion, so another might work better for those needing to reflect, grieve, or mark their relief.
In the mid-1980s, while leading the education programs for Planned Parenthood, I participated in some of the fairly robust discussions around the country about changing another fairly common phrase – premature ejaculation. The thought was that this expression was quite inaccurate and possibly too negative. Precisely when would the rapid discharge of semen be considered premature? If, for example, there were other reasons for male sexual climax than impregnation, would these necessarily be viewed as premature? It was even argued that there could be benefits from earlier than planned ejaculations, such as greater opportunities to pleasure a partner in other ways, reducing the risk of pregnancy if the climax was reached prior to penetration, and clarifying that male ejaculation is not the sole point of sex.
Perhaps pregnancy is not the sole point of heterosexual sex. Perhaps reproduction is more of a crap shoot than we like to acknowledge.
There might be room in the impending holiday to consider in its myth refugees, immigrants, government intervention, brutality, infanticide, mental health, poverty, miscarriages, and indifference. There might be room for justice, too. And love.