Friday, February 16, 2018

Let's Talk: Miscarriages in Romance

Miscarriages in Romance: Heavy Emotions, Content Warnings, and Spoilers

There’s this thing my friend Sara says about life and loss and being human: “Hurt people hurt people.” Something about the phrasing has stuck with me. It’s perfectly simple to say, but so heartbreakingly complex in its reality.

Hurt people are on my mind because I recently read a few romances where the heroines suffer through miscarriages, and I found myself thinking about how people deal with devastating losses, and how acts of radical self-protection can inadvertently hurt the ones we love. When I told a few friends I was working on a think piece about miscarriages in fiction, I got some blank looks. What responsibilities do authors and reviewers have to warn their readers about this kind of content, which is personally painful for so many women? And how can a genre dedicated to the HEA explore the rough, unfathomable depths of this kind of loss?

In Stacy Reid’s Accidentally Compromising the Duke, the hero’s first wife died after going into labor far too early with the birth of their third child, which today would be classified as a stillbirth. In an author’s note, Stacy Reid explains that it wasn’t until 1837 that England started to keep track of statistics related to death in childbirth, and those numbers weren’t at all accurate until after 1870. According to Planned Parenthood, the best current statistics we have  are that something between 10-20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. The fuzziness of of these numbers astounds me. How is it that something that profoundly impacts the health and emotional well being of women is something we know so little about? (Everyone, just stop reading here and go donate some money to either Planned Parenthood or the Guttmacher Institute. I’ll wait.)

Talking about miscarriage is hard because women’s feelings about pregnancy aren’t predictable or tidy. A pregnancy, whether planned or not, will cause every woman to experience a range of unexpected feelings. I can’t imagine there’s a pregnant woman in the world who hasn’t wondered how she would react if she had a miscarriage. The social stigma to keep miscarriages private (is this only an American thing?) is also strong. We are encouraged not to announce the news of a pregnancy until the 2nd trimester to spare ourselves the grief of having to share the news that something has gone wrong. I understand the reasoning. We’re already so vulnerable, but I can’t help but wonder if it might also be cutting women off from potential sources of emotional support? Pregnancy is complicated enough and, culturally, we don’t have a lot of models for how to talk about miscarriage.

Because romance is largely written by and for women, maybe it’s the best avenue for exploring how women and their partners deal with this loss? After reading six romances with miscarriages (3 historical and 3 contemporary), I did find some similar themes emerging. The clear, logical conclusion, and this idea won’t shock anyone: every woman is different, every partnership is different, and so are the reactions to a miscarriage. But these books about miscarriage lay bare a fear that usually drums steadily below our consciousness: we are at the mercy of our bodies, and our bodies can betray us in vast and terrifying ways.

In two of the historicals, the heroes, Virgil in Piper Huguley’s The Mayor’s Mission, and Edmond in Stacy Reid’s Accidentally Compromising the Duke, lost their first wives in childbirth or miscarriage. Their response with their new wives is to try and prevent pregnancy: Virgil and Mandy used a kind of rudimentary condom, while Edmond refuses to have sex with Adel at all. Both Mandy and Adel want to be mothers, and face the potential risks of childbirth with a kind of resigned strength. Each heroine’s desire for a family is stronger than any fear she might have about childbirth itself.

Virgil’s first wife was raped by her slave owner and died in childbirth, and he doesn’t handle it well when he returns home from a five month journey to Atlanta, only to find Mandy is carrying.

“Is that what you’re saying? Mandy. We had a deal.” He pounded a fist on his hand and grasped his hands together, and he struggled to be patient—she knew. “We said...” 
“I know what we said.” She tried to make her voice strong, as she knew it should be, but it quavered. What was the matter with him? “God had a different plan. That happens.” She gave a little half laugh and smiled. 
Virgil did not smile. Not at all. He stalked off to the barn he had just left, leaving her confused and crying…

Mandy is hurt, but she doesn’t know what he’s thinking, only the readers do. He’s afraid for her life, and he uses an interesting phrase when thinking about the master who impregnated his first wife, saying it was “without thought or care.” Virgil implicates himself with his words; he thought he was looking out for Mandy’s safety, and it didn’t work. He’s a better man and yet he put Mandy in danger, and it’s clear that this is breaking him. Unfortunately, he’s so confused and angry that he’s not supportive when she does miscarry later in the book. Virgil’s all about action while Mandy is all about grieving. He builds a coffin and buries the child, but it’s Mandy who names the baby and wonders why Virgil isn’t there to support her through their loss. Even more heartbreaking is how little time she is given to mourn. This is a book that left me marveling at the strength of women.

In Accidentally Compromising the Duke, Adel becomes pregnant, and Edmond is overwhelmed by anxiety and anger. He leaves her for months while he tries to deal with his feelings. He finally returns to her, and she successfully delivers the baby. For Edmond, the fear of physically losing his wife causes him to emotionally abandon her instead. It’s hard not to read his behavior through the lens of patriarchal thinking. Yes, he loves his wife, but he clutches for control in an effort to stave off fear: to have a woman’s body be something so mysterious and dangerous is unsettling and terrifying, especially when you love her so much.

But that leads to an interesting question that I grappled with: whose pain is primary? Why should Edmond or Virgil’s fears be the ones we’re sympathetic to, shouldn’t the heroine’s pain, shame, and sadness be more fully explored? Laura Florand’s Snow-Kissed explores the aftermath of a marriage in the wake of multiple miscarriages. It is not an exaggeration to say this is one of the most emotionally wrenching books I’ve ever read. It’s about a year after Kai left Kurt, her utter devastation at having lost a third child caused her to leave everything behind, including her marriage. She flees and lives in her mother-in-law’s cabin in the woods, proverbially licking her wounds. She made some progress recovering from the emotional trauma of her miscarriages, but quick on its heels is the pain of how she threw away her husband and wrecked her marriage in the throes of that grief. 

The mastery of Snow Kissed is how Laura Florand writes about Kai’s sadness in a way that makes it seem reasonable and sympathetic, when it’s really wild and uncontained. 

She had begged for pardon everywhere, after the second miscarriage. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, what’s wrong with me, what did I do wrong, doctors, tell me what to do.  
Kurt had told her it didn’t matter. He had said that, stroking her hair back from her wet cheeks as if he was trying to do a good thing: “Kai, it doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about it.” Yes, he had said that. It had been true for him. 
The third miscarriage had been the end. The end of her hope. The end of her. The end of them.

Kai is clear about the fault lines between her and Kurt. She knows that her emotional pain was both different and more; what was true for him was NOT true for her. I felt nothing but empathy for her. Kai’s pain capsized her entire life and marriage, and watching her try to untangle that ugly ball of feelings is wrenching. She struggles with the loss of her babies, wonders why her body betrayed her, fears that she lost who she was, knows she can’t have the future she wanted, and blames herself for destroying her marriage. Look at that list—it’s the distillation of all of the emotional labor that modern women perform, and how destabilizing it is when even one of those spinning plates crashes down. As the novel continues, Kurt shares how hurt he was when Kai lashed out and blamed him. Reading about the totality of the wreckage was overwhelming. I don’t doubt Kurt’s pain, but it’s more contained: his sadness about the miscarriages is secondary to his hope that she will become happy, whole, and his again.

They get back together at the end, but of all these books, I doubted this HEA the most. They didn’t practice safe sex, and both of them wondered about trying to get pregnant again; but what I wanted was for them to call a therapist and commit to lots of couples therapy. Is a weekend of talking it out enough to mine the depths of what happened? Could they survive a miscarriage in the future? The heart-breaking theme of Snow-Kissed is that love isn’t always enough in the face of monstrous pain. It’s brave for them to try again and take a chance. It’s an act of faith for the reader to believe they have a happy future together, no matter what might happen.

Kai’s retreat is an extreme example of isolation, a common reaction in most of the books. Both men and women retreat, either physically or emotionally, to muddle through their feelings. In Brutal Game by Cara McKenna, Laurel and Flynn are in a monogamous dating relationship when she accidentally gets pregnant. Neither of them know if they want the baby, and Flynn is clear that he’s there to support Laurel, but that he thinks it’s her body and her decision. Laurel is with Flynn’s sister when she feels painful cramps and knows something is wrong. Laurel goes home by herself, and later that night, Flynn comes home. 

“Fuck me, Heather said you had a headache.” 
She nodded, catching her breath […]”I asked her to tell you that.” 
[...] His brows knitted. “What?...So this happened hours ago? How could you not know how bad I’d want to be with you while you’re going through this?” 
“I didn’t know if I wanted that.” 
Hurt settled across his face like a shadow.  
“Not because you aren’t part of this...not because you don’t have a right to know or care, or want to help. It’s hard to explain.” It was that same instinct that urged cats to hide themselves away when they gave birth, wasn’t it? [...] Something primal and isolating.

The months following the miscarriage are difficult for Laurel and Flynn. They can’t seem to get back in sync. This theme was repeated in every book, miscarriage is shown to be tremendously isolating. It didn’t matter if the pregnancy was planned or not, it forces people into a state of reflection: Who am I? Who are we together? How do I feel about the future I lost, even if I didn’t want it? How do I survive now that the future I desperately wanted is gone? Am I allowed to feel this sad? Will I ever be myself again? Will we ever be the same again? No matter how much they might want to deal with these questions as a couple, most of this work was done individually. Retreat and seclusion happens in almost every book, but physical isolation was just a symbol for the real, emotional distance of recovery.

Take all the above factors: powerlessness, shame, guilt, blame, and isolation. Now add betrayal and regret, and you’re ready for Sarah Maclean’s The Day of the Duchess. Three years earlier, Sera miscarried and disappeared, and Malcolm is determined to find her and set about repairing their broken marriage. The Day of the Duchess has a non-linear chronology, and it’s a brilliant way to reveal just how much Sera and Malcolm have lost. The structure of the novel is like a giant game of Jenga, with pieces of information being added and subtracted until the story of their marriage is complete. The structure helps the reader, because we’d never forgive Malcolm if we knew all of his fuck-ups from the beginning; but it also protects us from the totality of Sera’s anguish. She lost her love, her baby, her sisters, and her place in the world. The shifting, piecemeal narrative mimics the way we hide the truth of our own worst behavior from ourselves. The structure shows how humans make sense of our pain—the mistakes and regrets, the rash actions fueled by our most primal fears, the miserable losses—which is impossible to face it all head on. It’s can only be done one manageable bite at a time.

As a reader, I started the book anticipating that Sera had lost the baby. She was pregnant at the beginning of The Rogue Not Taken, the first book in the trilogy, but it’s years later and there’s no mention of a child. She miscarries right at the beginning of The Day of the Duchess. It’s a traumatic scene, and the focus is on Sera. She and Malcolm have been separated, but she comes to him, knowing she’s in trouble. This is some of the most heartbreaking inner turmoil I’ve ever read in a heroine.

She should not have come. It had been irresponsible beyond measure. She’d made the decision in a fit of unbearable emotion, desperate for some sort of control in this, the most out-of-control time of her life. 
If it weren’t so cold, she would laugh at the madness of the idea that she might have any control over her world, ever again...  
[She was] here at Highley, the manor house of which she was—by name—mistress. Name did not bestow rights, however. Not for women. And by rights, she was nothing but a visitor. Not even a guest...  
[The footman opens the door] She looked up somehow, her eyes finding his in the dim light. “Do you know me?” 
His gaze flickered to her swollen midsection. Back.  
Her hand spread over the child there. “The heir.” 
He nodded, and relief flooded her, a wash of warmth. She swayed with it even as his young eyes widened, drawn to the floor beneath him.  
Not relief. Blood.

Even guessing something must have happened, I was unprepared for how devastating this scene was. Look at all the ways in which she is utterly alone—she must beg for entrance at the door, convinced she has no rights to her own home; the presence of a young servant, a boy she doesn’t know, emphasizes the absence of her husband, the man who should be there, but isn’t; and she knows her ticket into the house isn’t who she is, it’s the baby she’s carrying. Everything about the scene reinforces what she already knows: she is nothing, and now that the baby is gone, she might as well be, too. It’s a rare romance novel that leads with the dark moment. Ironically, Sera gives up just as Malcolm decides to fight for her, and the rest of the novel unspools backwards and forwards in time from this terrible moment.

Finally, this brings me to the book that made me write this whole thing, a romance I quite liked, called Playing House by Amy Andrews. I couldn’t figure out how to fairly review Playing House because it needs a huge Content Warning for miscarriage, but that miscarriage happens about three quarters of the way through the book, and it seemed impossible to give a CW without a spoiler.

Eleanor and Bodie have a one night stand at a wedding, and even though they use condoms, she ends up pregnant. They agree to try a relationship for a month to give themselves time to figure things out. Eleanor worries that their feelings aren’t real, and that he’ll eventually conclude she tried to trap him; meanwhile, Bodie is falling in love with her, and knows those feelings have nothing to do with the baby. Losing the baby brings their nascent relationship to a crisis: what happens when their reason for being a couple is gone?

The scene from Playing House that will always stick with me happens after the miscarriage. They had stumbled home from the hospital and it’s the next morning. She wants Bodie to go in to work, telling him, “There’s nothing you can do here anyways.” She is trying to accept that it happened, that it was out of their control, and that nothing more can be done. It’s wrenching. Eleanor’s response captures exactly how women are conditioned to respond to unrest: we smooth over our emotions, we encourage things to go back to normal, we control what we can in an effort to keep going, and we say we’re sorry, even when we’ve done nothing wrong.

And what I would wish is that every heroine, every woman, who suffers this loss would get the response that she does.

His brows drew together. “Damn it, Eleanor. It was my baby, too.” His eyes blazed down at her. “I don’t feel like playing fucking football tonight.” 
Eleanor blinked at the raw emotion in his voice. It sounded like the back of her throat felt. Tight and achy and ragged. She’d been so wrapped up in her own loss, she hadn’t given a lot of thought to his.  
That baby had been as real to him as it had to her.  
“I just want to lay in bed with you and hold you and feel sorry for us for a bit.” 
A lump swelled in Eleanor’s throat, making it rawer still. She needed the same. She shouldn’t. The baby was gone and with it the reasons why Bodie was with her. But for now, she’d very much like to lie with Bodie and wallow in their misery.

I’m not saying this moment solved their problems. It didn’t. Eleanor is still grieving, and Bodie has to recognize who she is independent of the pregnancy. Although the aftermath is compressed,  and maybe I could have used some more description of their healing, Eleanor and Bodie’s post-miscarriage journey follows the same pattern: isolation, emotional soul-searching, and personal reflection.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about how these novels explore the coping strategies that help women heal, recover, and find the strength to move forward. Time, of course, is the most important. Conversation with their men, sharing and hearing each other’s pain. The freedom to feel grief and sadness without fear of judgment or condemnation. But I also appreciated that most stories emphasized how support and friendship from other women are integral to the healing process. Flynn’s sister Heather is with Laurel, and walks her through what to do. Heather appears briefly, but her quiet calm and honest recounting of her past miscarriages help Laurel to steady herself. Mandy is helped by Calla and Pauline, who tell Virgil to leave them alone to help her because “This is women’s business.” Even Kai, who isolates herself by choice, assumed that her mother-in-law, Anne, rented her the cabin to hurry along the separation. Instead, Kurt reveals that it was “proof my mother actually had a heart.” Anne had several miscarriages when Kurt was a young boy. Anne never appears on page, but it’s clear that her generous gift to Kai—a place to heal quietly—is what she would have wanted for herself. In Playing House, Eleanor simply wants to go home to her own mother. These books made me unbearably sad, but I was also moved at the ways in which women reached out, sometimes across years of sadness, to help ease the pain for each other.

Right around the time I was reading these books, I was also working on a Content Warning list to be used in reviews. Suffering and loss are part of being human. Maybe that’s why I have nothing but respect for the sanctity of Content Warnings: shouldn’t we decide what we give our brains access to in fiction since we don’t have any control over it in real life? But I’m also hyper-sensitive to the spoiler problem. Some CWs are spoilers, and all the tagging in the world can’t hide that turn of the plot. As a reviewer, I can’t help but wonder which way to jump: Warn about content? Or give a spoiler-free review? I’m not sure there’s always a right answer. My instinct is to err on the side of Content Warning. Some things are too painful to stumble across them by accident, and it seems like most women put miscarriage in this category. Other times, maybe it’s just a matter of spoiler-tagging and, as Bree suggested on Twitter, saying, “This content is very hurtful to some, but such a huge spoiler I can’t even hint without spoiling. Make your choice now about whether or not you want to read this review.”

Reading these books affirmed why I read romance. Women’s feelings matter. And yet, the entire world tells us that our feelings are silly and inconsequential. In romance, I know that a heroine’s inner world will be treated with dignity and respect. No matter how raw, volatile, or ugly her feelings, there is a place for her in romance. Loving ourselves, our family, or our partners helps us to face even the most terrible tragedies. In our moments of most profound sorrow and loss, especially for a child, may all of us find solace in the arms of the ones we love.

If you or someone you love has had a miscarriage, you might be interested in these resources:

Feel free to look through Jen's Goodreads shelf for "miscarriage" HERE

Here's a list of the books mentioned in this post as well as those from Jen's GR shelf.

Mentioned in this Post:

From the GR Shelf:

This is not an easy subject, in fiction or out of it. But I hope you found this discussion helpful in some way. If you wish to talk about your own experiences or feelings with reading romances that have a miscarriage or loss of a child in it, please feel free to leave a comment below. ❤❤


Until Next Time,

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