The Truth is Hard to Bear
This week, Mona editor Lauren reviews the newly released difficult read, Hard to Bear: Investigating the science and silence of miscarriage by Isabelle Oderberg. Weaving together research and her own lived experience of several devastating miscarriages, this book captures the horror of women's medical, cultural and social experiences of pregnancy loss under the patriarchy.
Before you read this review, I have a disclaimer to make; I have never experienced miscarriage, pregnancy or even the remotest desire to have children (and, actually, do everything in my power to remain child-free). At Mona, we are always talking about authenticity, and the experiences of pregnancy loss that Oderberg explores in her book are not ones of which I have first hand knowledge and it's important that I say that.
But the more I read, the more I realised I was probably the perfect person TO read this book. As someone who is never likely to know the pain of miscarriage myself, it is even more important that I inform myself. And, like it or not, I am implicated in many of the experiences in this book purely because of my existence as a woman subject to the colonial, heteronormative, individualist patriarchy's exertion on all things medical, emotional and spiritual; after all, while one woman is in chains, the rest of us are not free.
Prior to this, miscarriage seemed to me to be painful beyond expression, and whilst I knew (as much as I could have theoretical knowledge) that the emotional and physical impact of miscarriage were devastating, I'll admit I had taken for granted that there was medical care they received, just as a woman would when she had a live birth.
I am what I would proudly term a rabid feminist, but even I was horrified to discover the ways misogeny has penetrated our health system to such an extent that many of the women and gender diverse people who experience miscarriage not only have their emotional pain dismissed (to be honest, this one isn't a big surprise given what we know about male dominated industries like the medical field) but that they are denied basic medical care when they are experiencing pregnancy loss and often face dire medical consequences. I'd even naively assumed that there was a widely known protocol for managing what is known as 'pregnancy tissue'.
Imagine my shock when Oderberg details one episode in which she flushes her daughter down the toilet, or when another woman interviewed puts her miscarried baby in the freezer. In reality, these women were sent home from hospitals and told to, essentially, ride it out, as if it were nothing but regular menstruation during which that which was formerly a feotus is just a giant blood clot.
A few years ago, a close friend of mine was trying to conceive through IVF when she had an ectopic pregnancy. She had surgery because there was the threat of serious complications and thus miscarried at about 10 weeks into her pregnancy. I remember being so glad that she was alive (I had Googled ectopic pregnancy and my stress levels skyrocketed). I now realise that I assumed she would have felt the same relief. I don't pretend now to know how she felt, but I'm sure she needed me to say more, do more, acknowledge more. I wish I'd had Oderberg's guide for family, friends and colleagues that she kindly details in Chapter 9 (which she does, by the way, without any form of condescension, even though, to be honest, if we have to be told some of these things, we deserve it). How often did she need to be stoic?
Lastly, I had never considered that feminism might be letting women down in some way or another. Hadn't we marched on the streets for reproductive rights for decades?
Unfortunately, the militant pursuit of abortion has often made women who experience miscarriage and demand recognition of their painful loss of what might have been, feel that they are letting down the sisterhood. The heart of the issue is, obviously, that it is misogeny that divides women; if women were validated for their feelings, we wouldn't need to seek justification for these experiences by tying them to whether a feotus is a person or not. Legal definitions shouldn't play a part in women or gender diverse people's right to embrace or reject the development of a foetus in her own body.
It's another distraction, another misdirect, a way of fanning infighting within the feminist movement to detract from their ability to unite and fight for the dismantling of the same system.
The other implication of our white feminism, with our placards demanding a right to termination, is that it completely ignores the racist and eugenicist political imperatives of our past. Oderberg partners with Cherisse Buzzacott, Arrernte midwife and mother, to detail how, some First Nations women welcome restrictions on abortion because of the way these practices have been historically (and, according to these authors, not so historically) enacted upon them without consent in an effort to 'control populations' of First Nations peoples. Their miscarriages were seen through a colonial lens as a relief.
Their experiences of the guilt and shame that accompanies many women and gender diverse people's miscarriages is amplified by medical and social assumptions about the role of their 'lifestyle choices' in their pregnancy loss. While white women seek changes to the current system to encourage more medical intervention around pregnancy loss, this is something First Nations women often actively avoid for fear of these accusations (not to mention the way that the hospital system uses these opportunities to push contraception on them if they do seek intervention for pregnancy loss) and the way this completely divorces the cultural and spiritual experiences of miscarriage in First Nations communities.
If you've experienced pregnancy loss, this book is likely to be a comfort, a validation or fuel for your own rage at the injustices you've experienced. If you haven't been through this journey yourself, and especially if you are not likely to: read. this. book. It's horrible and I cried so many times for the layers of raw pain and trauma I can never understand. But it's the most important kind of horrible: the one you need to know about.
Hard to Bear: Investigating the science and silence of miscarriage by Isabelle Oderberg is available from Amazon and Booktopia.
After growing up in Hong Kong, Isabelle Oderberg went to university in Melbourne. She has worked as a journalist for two decades in newswires across Europe, Asia and Australia, where she was the country's first social media editor for Melbourne’s Herald Sun. Her work has appeared in The Age/SMH, Guardian, ABC, Meanjin and elsewhere. She also worked as a media and communications strategist across the not-for-profit sector. Hard to Bear is her first book.
Lauren Forner is the Fiction, Poetry and Experimental Forms Editor at Mona Magazine. She has been awarded various prizes for her short stories and published a collection of poetry, Parts of a Whole, in 2021. Lauren has years of experience teaching English literature and creative writing to teenagers, adults and children and reads like her life depends on it. She is perpetually completing her Masters in Creative Writing and, like all good writers, working on the elusive novel. Lauren currently lives on Wiradjuri land in the Riverina, New South Wales, and dedicates most of her waking hours to her work in public mental health.