The Secret Society No Woman Wants To Join

Through the fog of my grief, I discovered that pregnancy loss is like a secret society you never asked to join. You don’t realize how many members there are until you become one of them.

There are some questions almost too big to answer. Or too loaded. “How many times have you been pregnant?” is one of them.

At dinner with girlfriends a few weeks ago, talk turned to someone we knew who was having her fourth round of IVF.

“Has she ever been pregnant before?” I asked. “No,” came the reply. “Never.” Oh. There was a brief moment of silence as we sadly contemplated what this meant before someone looked around and asked, “How many times have you been pregnant?”

It’s a question that’s rarely asked outside of a doctor’s office because it’s just too fraught. It’s a rare woman who doesn’t have to think and blink before she answers. Because for most of us, there are a thousand words and a hundred emotions embedded into that number, which hardly ever correlates with the number of children you have. Or don’t have.

Over dinner, as the question hung in the air, we all looked toward the ceiling in that way you do when you’re trying to remember something. Some of us started absently counting on our fingers. Each of us did some quick and intensely personal calculations as our minds traveled back over private moments of joy, dread, devastation, relief, grief, frustration, fear, anger, hope, and despair.

A woman’s gynecological history is fertile ground for complex emotions and many, many anecdotes which are rarely shared except among our tightest friendship circle. But once you turn on the tap …

Someone ordered another bottle of wine as we remembered all the pregnancies we’d lost. And ended. This sounds terribly maudlin but it was in fact cathartic and natural, particularly for those of us who had children. Such conversations are far more poignant for those who don’t.

Between the five of us, we counted nine children and 27 pregnancies. It took a while to do the numbers because each one had a story attached although admittedly, for the mother who’d had nine miscarriages in five years, they blurred a little. I’m telling you all this because pregnancy loss—and pregnancy termination—remains one of the big secrets of motherhood. Actually it’s one of the biggest secrets of women’s lives.

I had two miscarriages. Because the first one was late in my pregnancy and I had a media profile at the time, it was an uncomfortably public experience. As difficult as that was to endure, there were some benefits to people knowing what had happened without me having to explain.

Through the fog of my grief, I discovered that pregnancy loss is like a secret society you never asked to join. You don’t realize how many members there are until you become one of them.

“Oh, it happened to me last year, it’s so hard,” said a colleague the day I returned to work, squeezing my arm.

“I had four miscarriages with IVF before I finally had my twins,” confessed the woman at the coffee shop, slipping me a free biscotti.

“My sister had a miscarriage before each of her kids,” confided a girlfriend, giving me a hug. “Dear, you know my son had a twin brother but he died before he was born,” whispered an elderly relative, patting my hand.

In their heartfelt efforts to console me, the private stories of other women bubbled up and made me feel a little less alone. Because miscarriage can be a lonely journey and an odd type of grief, mourning someone you never met. In many ways you’re grieving an imagined future.

We’re very good at celebrating good news in our culture. You’re pregnant! Engaged! You got married! Had a baby! Bought a house! Got a promotion! But we’re collectively hopeless when it comes to acknowledging things that are painful, awkward, unpleasant, and sad. Things like pregnancy loss. It’s not that people don’t mean well when they say things like “Oh well, it’s nature’s way,” and “Better it happened early rather than later,” and “At least you have a child already. Count your blessings!” There’s truth in all those platitudes, but in our hurry to make someone look at the silver lining, we often overlook their need to acknowledge the cloud.

And so it is with terminations—although that grief and those feelings are far more complex than when you want to be pregnant. It’s only now that we’re nearing the end of our fertile years that I’ve found women less reluctant to open up about the pregnancies they chose to end.

There’s a Japanese tradition called Mizuko kuyo, which translates literally as “fetus memorial service” and it’s a ceremony for those who have had a miscarriage, stillbirth, or termination. The practice has gained popularity since the 1970s and, as the New York Times reports, temple worshipers pay a fee to “adopt” a small stone statue called a mizuko and inscribe their names on it. “They often regard it as representing their own lost baby and they dress up the mizuko figurines like little newborns, wrapping them with bibs, hand-knit sweaters, booties, or hats against the cold. And they pour water over the childlike figurines to quench their thirst.”

To some, this might sound comical, but if you’ve ever grieved for a baby you never had a chance to meet, you’ll recognize the deep poignancy of having a place to go and mourn. In our culture there are no rituals for this type of loss and it’s to our detriment.

So if you’re a member of that secret society none of us ever planned to join, either now or in the future, know this: You’re not alone.

Mia Freedman is the editor and publisher of, the website she founded in 2007 when she left traditional media and didn’t quite know what else to do next. You can follow Mia on twitter @miafreedman.

This originally appeared on Debrief Daily. Republished here with permission.

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