It was an unusually honest and emotional baby announcement, especially coming from Mark Zuckerberg. Recently, Facebook’s founder announced (on Facebook, natch) that he and wife of three years, Priscilla Chan, are expecting a baby girl. That was the happy part. Then came his frank confession of how hard it had been for them:
“We’ve been trying to have a child for a couple of years and have had three miscarriages along the way. You feel so hopeful when you learn you’re going to have a child. You start imagining who they’ll become and dreaming of hopes for their future. You start making plans, and then they’re gone. It’s a lonely experience.” tweet
All of which turned the Internet into a tizzy with confessions about everyone else’s experiences and experts weighing in how often miscarriages happen — a lot, actually. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were more than 1 million miscarriages in 2009 and more than 23,000 stillbirths yearly in the United States — each one a heart-breaking, lonely, devastating experience. I had one before my first child was born in 1990, so I know the feeling well. And because women are delaying childbirth and miscarriages are more common as women age, this is likely going to be a reality for many more couples.
Zuckerberg is right — it’s a lonely experience even though it impacts so many of us. And, for the most part, we haven’t been talking much about it, so I applaud his decision to be so open about the experience.
There are many stigmas around miscarriages. There still is a belief, from others and from moms-to-be themselves, that it’s somehow the woman’s fault — don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t get stressed, eat meat, don’t eat meat, be a vegetarian, don’t be a vegetarian, it’s karma if you previously had an abortion; there are so many ways a woman can feel responsible for a miscarriage. As if that weren’t enough, the personhood movement is creating some unique and scary challenges for pregnant women. But, in fact, most miscarriages occur because of genetic abnormalities in the pregnancy. This is actually a good thing even though it’s still devastating for the couple.
OK, maybe you’re a woman who doesn’t blame herself for a miscarriage. You’re in a happy, healthy relationship with your partner. Still, you experience a miscarriage. Now what? A miscarriage impacts a couple — hugely. According to a 2010 study, couples that experienced a miscarriage were 22 percent more likely to break up compared with couples that gave birth. The rate jumped to 40 percent for those who experienced a stillbirth. There are some caveats, though — those who tended to break up more were cohabiting versus married couples, the mom was young and the relationship was less than a year old. Plus, affluent couples were more likely to stay together, so don’t expect a Zuckerberg-Chan conscious uncoupling any time soon.
But, why? The study didn’t look into things like how a mother’s depression, chronic illness or substance abuse might lead to a dissolution, or even how the quality of the relationship might be a factor — really important discussions. But it’s clear that people have different ways of handling grief, shame, anger, sadness and frustrations, and that alone can tear apart a couple — even if they didn’t experience a miscarriage.
There is a lot more that can go wrong beyond miscarriages and stillbirths once a child is born. Autism, Asperger’s, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, bipolar disorder, cancer — there are any number of things that can challenge a parent’s idea of what raising a child will be like. And because couples are having kids later, we’ll likely see more of that, as well as fertility issues. Infertility can greatly impact a marriage and infertile couples may be three times more likely to divorce.
What’s particularly important about Zuckerberg’s announcement is that it came from him, not his wife — past studies indicate that men often don’t make the connection to fatherhood until they physically can hold their baby, and that the reaction of a woman’s partner is huge in how a couple moves forward. Millennial men are without a doubt changing the relationship and marital landscape. So, I have hope.
Still, anyone who is thinking of having kids might want to have some conversations with his or her partner about death — what his/her experience of it has been, how did he/she grieve, what emotions are still unresolved — as well as conversations about fertility — what if we can’t have a baby the “old-fashioned” way? — and the possibility of a special needs child. True, you can’t predict and be prepared for every scenario. But, as we say in The New I Do, talking about the hard stuff will lead to more indications that you and your partner are on the same page … or not.
Interested in knowing how to have hard conversations about fertility and babies? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.