A girlfriend of mine who is trying for her first child recently had a miscarriage. She was understandably upset. But her upset turned to rage and bewilderment when she confided in another woman friend only to receive the following e-mailed response:
"Dear [recent miscarriage sufferer] Too bad. But yes . . . now you have one big question answered. You can conceive. Having children brings an incredible calm to me. . . . Take a big breath . . . move your family of origin into the background and be present in your self and in having a child.
"The other thing about miscarrying that is good . . . is usually it means that something wasn't right with the baby . . . and that would be really hard to deal with so in a way it can be a blessing.
"My sister-in-law got pregnant with that same method. She was taking a lot of vitamins (Materna) and was told to stay away from the drink. Do that . . . make your body and your life about your baby . . . not about you. I hope these are not unwelcome comments."
Unwelcome comments? More like unwelcome punches to the recently ravaged womb. My friend was gobsmacked, brimming with disbelief that any fellow female (let alone a new mother) could speak with such prescriptive arrogance. Such smug, clichéd thoughtlessness for how she -- as a newly bereaved pregnant person -- might be feeling was beyond astonishing.
Are people really this insensitive to those who have miscarried? Indeed they are -- and it gets worse. I once heard the story of a woman who, having recently miscarried, was at a family dinner party. As she reached for an extra chicken skewer, her mother-in-law called across the room, "Are you sure you need that dear? You're not eating for two any more."
As for the astonishing e-mail, my friend replied in an upbeat-yet-skeptical manner, pointing out that, while being "present in yourself" was all fine and good, women in Baghdad and other Third World hellholes are conceiving and carrying to term, "and they aren't at one with themselves and their babies. They're terrified and stressed beyond anything we can think of."
To which she received the following reply:
"I think Third World people are built differently. I don't mean to be an evolutionist -- or do I? Our reality is much different. We have the luxury of moving beyond our primitive selves.
"My mental image of you conceiving . . . is tightly wound. And you have always had this great capacity for love and for being healthy -- but then it gets thrown off the rails somehow.
"Trying to breastfeed while typing this so should go."
Okay, clearly this woman has a chronic (and possibly brain-numbing) case of the new mummy smugs. But what gives in the broader picture when it comes to miscarriage manners? Few people, it seems, are sure how to act around a friend who has just lost a baby.
Should you send flowers? A note? Ignore it completely? Do women want to talk about it, or pretend it didn't happen?
The question has been on my mind lately. The unfortunate fact is, not just one but a handful of my female friends have gone though what one calls "the first-class trauma" of miscarriage in the past few weeks. It's weird -- but not that weird. Many of my female friends are trying to get pregnant in their late 30s. At 35, the chance of miscarrying is one in four, and at 40 the miscarriage rate is close to one in three. That said, of women who have one miscarriage, 90 per cent go on to have a healthy pregnancy.
But none of these statistics are any consolation to an aspiring mother -- or, for that matter, an aspiring father -- who has just lost a baby.
Only those who have gone through it understand the pain of miscarriage. I asked a lawyer girlfriend in her mid-30s to explain it to me.
"At first you don't really feel anything at all. Then you start to feel worried that you blew your last chance. Then you start to feel empty -- emotionally and physically. That lasts for a long time."
Her advice to those around a person who has experienced a miscarriage is to avoid clichés (apart from "I'm so sorry" and "Is there anything I can do?" which are heartfelt). And yes, to send flowers. "I would have liked them," she acknowledges. "When does a woman not like flowers?"
An especially bad thing to do, another girlfriend confided, is to make prescriptive comments.
"It rankles when people insist that I have to try again," she said. "I don't think people really understand how truly awful a thing it is. And I mean beyond the upset and the physical pain of it -- it's a horror. So why would I be in a rush to risk that again?"
It makes perfect sense once you hear someone who has gone through it explain it. When it comes to miscarriages, I've learned, talk is cheap (and e-mail is definitely not a suitable forum for discussion). As in many cases in life, people are eager to inform and offer advice, but not to listen.
"There's the obvious thing, where you have to put yourself in the other person's position," my lawyer girlfriend says. "And if you can't manage that, you should probably just shut up."