"Invisible loss": Breaking down the stigma surrounding miscarriages

The challenges of talking about miscarriages

Eighty percent of miscarriages occur in the first trimester, before many women have even told anyone that they are pregnant. "We're in a culture where you're taught not to talk about your pregnancy until the three-month mark," said Jamie Stelter. "So, if you never told them you were pregnant, you're certainly not going to march around and tell them you had a miscarriage."

Stelter, the traffic anchor for NY1, a 24-hour news channel in New York City, revealed she had had five miscarriages while trying to conceive, sharing her fertility struggles on social media and live TV.

In a recent Op-Ed for Glamour magazine, she wrote: "The sting of all the loss and trauma fades for sure, but it never goes away. I wear these losses like scars. They each have their own story to tell. With dates and numbers and wait times. But how can you possibly quantify them? You can't."

Stelter has a two-year-old daughter, Sunny, and is due to have another baby in two weeks.

On "CBS This Morning" Friday, Stelter said it wasn't until she had had miscarriages that she realized there is a "giant club" of women speaking of their experiences in their own language, in the framework of a typical 40-week pregnancy. 

"As soon as you get pregnant, you're thinking to yourself, 'Okay, I'm having a baby in 40 weeks from now.' And when you have a miscarriage you have to start over," Stelter said. "And it's very overwhelming when you think about these numbers on a day-to-day basis, and you're trying to wrap your head around it and you're grieving at the same time, and then you're also trying to live your normal life at the same time."

Co-host Gayle King asked, "You would think having Sunny, it would make it easier for you, but in many respects it made it harder for you to go through this?"

"It did," Stelter replied. "First of all, you see how beautiful having a child is and you see that it can work. So, when I had two miscarriages between Sunny and this healthy pregnancy, it's, Why can't my body do this again?"

Stelter also said she questioned feelings of guilt surrounding births. "I looked at everyone complaining or being sad about secondary infertility; I'm like, You have one. You're being so greedy. Then, I felt guilty about that greed after I had Sunny. Like, should I just be happy with her and stop? But the truth is that we want her to have a sibling."

In recent years Beyoncé, Michelle Obama, Carrie Underwood and Meghan McCain have all spoken publicly about their miscarriages, in hopes of breaking the culture of silence. Co-host Vladimir Duthiers asked, "Miscarriages are common, and yet many women suffer in silence, which is heartbreaking to learn. Why is it such a stigma?"

Dr. Tara Narula said the reason miscarriage carries a stigma for so many is multifactorial: "As women, so much of our sense of self is tied into motherhood and fertility. And when we lose a child, the feeling is, I somehow lost it, I failed, there's something wrong with me or my body, and there's a tremendous amount of shame and guilt. And we tend to insulate and not share that.

"As Jamie mentioned, the culture says don't talk about your pregnancy until the end of the first trimester, which means when you lose your baby, there's not that outpouring of community support to give us love and embrace us. Also, when we lose someone – a parent, a friend – we mark it with ceremonies, religious rites. We don't have anything like that when it comes to miscarriage, but [with] that invisible loss, there's the same sense of profound grief and trauma as there is with any other kind of loss."

Co-host Tony Dokoupil asked Stelter, "When you break a silence on a subject like this, it's always a little bit scary. I'm curious what you learned from other women after the story came out, and what are the benefits of sharing this type of story."

"Just when I was in your makeup room, I was getting another private message from a woman telling me her story," Stelter said. "I get these stories on a daily basis on all my social media platforms. And after I wrote the Glamour Op-Ed, I went to my bosses at NY1 and I said, 'I'm overwhelmed and inundated by these stories. We have to do something.' So, we organized a panel of women to talk about miscarriage, because these women are looking for a venue to talk about their feelings and, like you were saying, to create a vocabulary around the grief of it all."

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists estimates about one in ten pregnancies end in miscarriages.

Eighty percent of miscarriages occur in the first three months. "Half of those are due to chromosomal abnormalities with the embryos," Dr. Narula said. "One thing that increases the risk of that is advanced maternal age, when you're over 35. [There's a] 20% risk of miscarriage around 35; that jumps to about 40% when you're 40.

"Previous early pregnancy loss can be a risk factor. There are certain medical conditions – thyroid condition, PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), obesity, even uterine conditions – that can raise risk."

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  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.