The path to healing cuts through the taboo
Trigger warning: Abortion, miscarriage
I’ll be honest. I am going to remember this month as Womaning’s month of darkness.
Four weeks back, I wrote the story of Swati – the doctor who had a 7-year-long abusive marriage, which included an MTP (Medical Termination of Pregnancy), and which ended in an exploitative divorce.
This week, we come a full circle with the stories of some medically-terminated pregnancies, and the impact they have left on the women who went through them.
Like I said, it has been a dark, dark month. Just listening to these stories of divorce, abuse, and loss makes you feel all the grief and pain behind them. My hope with these four pieces is that some woman somewhere reads them and draws strength from them, making this entire exercise worth it.✓
When Aaradhna and her boyfriend found out that they were pregnant, they were nervous since a pregnancy out of wedlock is still considered taboo in most Indian families and Indian society.
“We decided to terminate the pregnancy. We looked it up and were pleasantly surprised to see that the Indian abortion law is quite progressive and it recognizes the right of every woman – married or unmarried – to take this decision about her own body.”
They took an appointment with a renowned doctor in Mumbai – arguably the most modern city of India when it comes to women’s freedom and rights.
“The doctor heard about my situation and – instead of telling me about the procedure – began saying things like ‘The first child is sacred. You would be committing a sin by killing it.’ He went as far as to suggest that he would be willing to fudge the date of conception on my medical record if I can quickly get married to my boyfriend. And when the baby was born, he would tell our families that it was premature.”
Even as Aaradhna made a beeline for the exit, his words stayed with her.
“I found another doctor. She was professional enough to do the procedure without making any personal comments. But given the vulnerable state I was in, I could never really forget the comments of the first doctor.”
Five years later, Aaradhna and her then-boyfriend and now-husband were trying for a baby.
“We went to see a doctor who began scaring us about how – since I was 29-years-old – it might be difficult for us to conceive. This turned out to not be true as we conceived normally soon afterward, but I could not shake the dread I felt when I first heard her words – and the feeling like I was being punished by the Universe for my MTP.”
All through her pregnancy, Aaradhna remained on edge because of this feeling.
“I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. It was really unhealthy. My pregnancy was going great but I was so scared that something would go wrong that my medical team kept asking me why I was so stressed.”
Finally, after five years of having told no one about it, Aaradhna shared the secret of her MTP with her doctor.
“I broke down while telling it. She was very kind, though. She told me that there was nothing wrong with having an MTP and nothing will happen to my current pregnancy because of it. The first doctor I saw for my MTP had done so much damage with his words that I could not enjoy my happy, healthy pregnancy the way I should have been able to.”
The years of silence on the subject did not help either.
A taboo subject
Riya and her husband had a two-year-old child when they conceived for a second time. It was a planned pregnancy. Riya was staying with her in-laws at the time since her husband was out of town for work several weeks at a time.
“During a routine checkup, my doctor discovered that the baby had no heartbeat. It was absolutely devastating. She gave me a pill to take to terminate the pregnancy. She said that I would have some pain but could go to work the next day if I wished.”
Riya told her husband. He said that he would not be able to come back at such short notice. She figured it was okay since there was nothing they could do anyway.
“It was heartbreaking to continue the pregnancy for a single more day, so I decided to take the pill the same night. I had terrible pain all night and the next morning. My mother-in-law helped me through it. By 11am the next morning, the pain had subsided a bit.”
To distract herself from the loss, Riya decided to go to work to attend an important meeting.
“Nobody at work knew I was even pregnant and I didn’t want them talking about my loss, so I just didn’t mention anything at all. I went for another full-day of hectic work the next day, and the next. The project I was working on was quite stressful but I thought I would be able to cope.”
However, by the next week, Riya hit a wall.
“I was fine physically but the loss took a huge toll on me mentally and emotionally. I had a complete breakdown. I had to tell my boss about it, and he was upset that I didn’t feel like I could come to him a week back when I was going through all this in silence.”
“And while I appreciate what he said to me, I think we must address the fact that there is a pressure we feel as high-performing working women. We feel the need to prove that we are ‘just like the men’. The reality is that we are not. As women, we are so much stronger. We go through so much more, and I wish our workplaces allowed us the space to at least talk about it without the fear of stigma or gossip or even professional setbacks. I am fortunate to work in a fairly open organization, and I am generally an outspoken confident woman. Despite all this, I did not have the guts to stand up and ask for help when I needed it most. “
Riya’s feeling that the loss of a pregnancy is a taboo subject was soon proven to her.
“After telling my bosses, I took 15 days off to heal from the loss. But no one – not my boss, not the HR team, not any of my colleagues who all eventually found out about the MTP – came forward and told me that I was legally allowed to take an even longer paid leave of absence after a pregnancy loss. I only found that out many years later. It just goes to show how little communication there is about this subject at our workplaces.”
The second takeaway that Riya wanted to highlight was how both she and her husband tried to normalize his absence at the time of the termination.
“When he said that he could not travel back for the termination, I felt the need to act strong around him and agreed to this proposition. But once he got back a few weeks later, our communication completely broke down. I blamed him for not being by my side and he said I should have asked him to come. This is another example of how we feel like we need to ‘act strong’ when the actual strong thing to do is to ask for support. I should have told him I needed him at that time, and he too should have prioritized my health and made time to be by my side as we grieved our loss.”
Sukanya knows more about grieving loss than most people. Three of her pregnancies ended in miscarriage or medically advised termination.
“My first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage at 9 weeks. I was asked to take a tablet to terminate the pregnancy fully. During my second pregnancy, the 20-week prenatal scan showed that the fetus had a disorder that would have led to serious health complications if the pregnancy was carried to term. My doctor suggested I go for an MTP. I was in labour for 36 hours to expel the fetus, and needed two months to recover from it.”
“I got pregnant again the next year. The doctors had warned me that the same problem could recur with this pregnancy as well. And it did. During the 13 week scan, they found the same abnormality and I was advised to terminate this pregnancy as well.”
After the third time, Sukanya and her husband decided to consult a genetic expert.
“We discovered that there was a genetic problem on my side which was causing these problems with the fetuses. The doctor said I could keep trying but it was a question of probability whether or not the next pregnancy would have the same complication. We decided to give one last shot to a natural pregnancy. If it didn’t work again, we would accept our fate.”
Thankfully, Sukanya went on to have a healthy baby this time, but she was on tenterhooks all through the nine months.
“I did not enjoy a single day of my fourth pregnancy. I did not do any of the things pregnant women normally do – photoshoots, baby showers, etc. I think I barely have two photos from my entire pregnancy. I did not even call it ‘my baby’ but kept using the term ‘fetus’ because I did not want to get attached in case I had to face another loss.”
Sukanya says that one of the things that made the ordeal even worse for her was the attitude of the medical staff when it came to a termination.
“As I said, I went through 36 hours of labour for the second pregnancy. There was another woman next to me who was also going through something similar. And just across from our room was the labour room where people were having healthy deliveries. It made me wonder – did it not occur to anyone to separate these two rooms? I don’t begrudge people who had healthy babies. But in that moment, when you are already dealing with so much, you can’t help but feel terrible. I think that hospitals are just not sensitive enough to these things.”
“Even while I was going through the labour, I had two doctors talking about my case standing right next to me, pretending I wasn’t there. I heard the term ‘breach baby’. When I asked them to tell me what was going on, they dismissively said to me, ‘Everything is fine.’ I am well-read and informed enough to know what a breach baby means, and this infantilization only made things worse.”
“A similar situation also happened with my first miscarriage. The fetus had no heartbeat and the doctor gave me a pill for the termination. She gave me no warning whatsoever about what I should expect it to feel like – physically, mentally, emotionally. I was crying and in gruesome pain all night. My husband was worried that something was going seriously wrong. We would have been able to cope with the loss a lot better if our doctor gave us some basic counseling ahead of it.”
“I can’t help but wonder – if I went through all this as a married and highly educated woman in her 30s, what must young unmarried women with less education, a lower income, and no support system be going through during their abortions?”
Sukanya says that it seems, in fact, as if – instead of counseling women through them – doctors and hospitals often want to pretend that abortions and miscarriages just don’t happen at all.
“I have been to several ob-gyns over the course of all my pregnancies – different doctors, different hospitals, even different cities. Photos of babies, posters about breastfeeding, informationa about fertility treatments, etc. are plastered all over their clinics. Not once have I seen a clinic which carried flyers, or posters, or any literature whatsoever educating a woman about her options, asking her to meet a counselor to make an informed choice about her pregnancy.”
Looking back, there is one biggest gap that Sukanya wishes did not exist when she was going through these losses.
“I wish I had a support system to talk about all of this with. My parents and in-laws were very supportive, but everyone considers this subject so taboo that no one even mentioned it around me. Even when I was healing from the MTPs, they would try their best to pretend that nothing had happened, and I followed their lead. This meant that I never got a chance to process what I had just been through.”
Almost ten years later, Sukanya has finally been able to process these losses. And she is now trying to normalize talking about these realities.
“I wrote about my pregnancies on my blog. Two of my cousins and three of my friends from school emailed me saying ‘I also went through this’. These are women close to me – women I am in regular touch with. And we never discussed this, we never even brought up this topic. We could have been there for each other when we were going through it, we would have understood each other, and been able to share our grief with each other. We could have said to one another, ‘It is painful. But it happens to a lot of people, and it’s not your fault.’ If only we lived in a culture that talked about these things! Right?”
Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day
To that end, here is the reason I am publishing this post today. Today – October 15th – is marked across the world as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. Sukanya told me about it, so I will have her explain what this day signifies to her.
“It is a day marked for folks like me who lost pregnancies for any reason, at any phase – might be a baby stillborn at term, or maybe premature births, or pregnancies that had to be medically terminated like mine. Today is the day we remember and grieve these losses.”
“I lost my first one too soon, but I know that the second and third were girls. My son has a birthday, but I don’t have any dates for my first three. I don’t have names. I don’t have photos. The hospital discards fetuses as biomedical tissue, and so I never even got to do any last rites for any of them. Essentially, I got no closure. The only record I have of their existence is my memory and a couple of papers in my hospital file.”
“But, going through this has only made me stronger. So I don’t want to forget about it, ever. Today is a day for me to remember them.”
The culture of silence and stigma around the loss of a pregnancy is something that is making millions of women suffer unimaginable agony without being able to share it with anyone.
Whether you are a woman who exercised your rightful choice to end a pregnancy you didn’t want, or if you are one who lost a pregnancy you wanted – I am sure it was one of the toughest chapters of your life. Whether you remember it with grief, sorrow, loss, pain, or relief – I hope you remember it with someone today. Ending this culture of silence takes courage but, from what I have learned this month, it is the only way to start healing.
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