We sat puzzling over the faint pink line. Was it a sign that would change our lives forever, or just a smudge? So much hangs on such a little dash of color.
It was our first pregnancy test. We had just started trying and hadn’t expected it to happen so fast—so many people we knew had struggled for so long. I was excited—I had always wanted to be a dad and had romantic notions about reading bedtime stories, giving piggyback rides, and taking my kids to see a baseball game at Fenway Park. But YJ was ambivalent.
YJ had defied her family’s Orthodox Jewish community by refusing to get married and start having children right after high school. Instead she became an Ivy League–trained lawyer and diplomat who prized her independence above all else. Even as we built a full and happy life together, she was adamant that she didn’t want to get married and wasn’t ready to have kids.
Then came the 2016 election. I had spent more than a decade working for Hillary Clinton as a speechwriter, policy advisor, and book collaborator—and YJ was somehow even more committed than I was to electing the first woman president. Heartsick, we moved from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles. Let’s live by the ocean, we said, and go hiking in the canyons. And let’s have a family, I said. She would nod, but I could tell she still wasn’t sure.
So it was surprising when, one day in September 2017, YJ got down on one knee in a cobblestone street in Rome and proposed to me. It was equally surprising when, a few months later, just before vowing to love, honor, and cherish each other while in Malibu overlooking the Pacific, on a bluff, YJ added, “I promise that we will build a family.” She was finally ready. I turned to our parents and siblings and said, “You are all witnesses!” Sure enough, a few months later she woke up feeling queasy, and we were staring at that faint pink line.
After a second test confirmed that that we were, in fact, pregnant, we decided to tell our immediate families but otherwise hold off talking about it until our first doctor’s appointment. That seemed like a prudent course. We were both over 35 and worried about a miscarriage, which ends about one in five pregnancies. Playing it cool, YJ told our parents she was more focused on the op-ed about Iran she’d published that morning in the Financial Times than a pregnancy that might or might not pan out.
But then, two days later, we attended a political fundraiser in my brother’s backyard off Sunset Boulevard. One of the first people we ran into was a Hollywood agent known for telling too-good-to-check stories and hosting dinner parties where you might find yourself seated with Tony Blair, Katy Perry, and a pet kangaroo. He began telling YJ about his annual made-for-Instagram weight loss competition and, without a moment’s hesitation, she blurted out: “Well, I’m doing the opposite—we’re pregnant!” So much for waiting to see the doctor.
Soon I was sending around ultrasound pictures to all my friends and getting advice from Hillary about how to get the most out of the grandmothers when the baby came. YJ and I were still worried about a miscarriage, but we couldn’t imagine keeping such a big development from the people we talked to and leaned on every day. Despite both holding top-secret clearances when we worked in the Obama administration, neither of us were natural secret-keepers. And we figured that if something went wrong, we’d want the support of our loved ones more than ever.
YJ faced a harder decision about whether to share the news with her colleagues at a high-tech transportation company. A few months earlier, her boss, a lawyer who should have known better, had said he didn’t want to let YJ take on too many responsibilities because she might get pregnant one day. Nonetheless, when faced with a boozy work dinner in London, YJ decided to explain why she wasn’t enjoying her usual dirty martini.
Soon we reached the 12th week and began allowing ourselves to feel cautiously optimistic that things might work out after all.
Then came the genetic tests. YJ took the call while sitting on the tarmac at LAX about to fly to Copenhagen. A soft-spoken genetic counselor with a lot of patience but not many answers explained that our tests had revealed serious chromosomal abnormalities. There was a chance it was a false alarm and we would need more tests to confirm the findings, but the odds were high that if our child survived, they would face debilitating developmental challenges.
YJ spent the next 14 hours high above the Atlantic, trapped alone with her fears. The days that followed were agonizing; we arranged for follow-up tests and prayed for the long shot of a false positive. We hoped that the wheel of fortune would spin our way. But the chromosomes were unforgiving.
Devastated, we made the decision to end the pregnancy. One of my closest friends, a devout Catholic and political conservative, called to urge me to think hard—a decision to terminate would be irrevocable. But we were sure it was the right decision for us.
After the procedure, we were in shock, feeling whiplashed by fate, grieving for an imagined child we’d never meet and a future we’d never see. On top of it all, I had to find a way to “untell” everyone we’d so eagerly told about our pregnancy over the past three months.
As Hillary’s speechwriter, I had some experience trying to find the words to explain disappointment and loss. But this was different. It was the hardest email I had ever had to compose. The empty page stared back at me with unforgiving blankness. I suddenly understood, really for the first time, the culture of silence around the first trimester.
I took a deep breath and started to write. I explained that we were determined to view this as a detour on a long journey. “This is not the first time we’ve had our hopes for the future turned upside down,” I wrote. “We’ve learned that we could weather disappointment together—and that being together is, in fact, the only way to do it.”
I hit send and went to go check on my wife. Minutes later, our inboxes started to fill up with replies.
“We lost two pregnancies, both of which we terminated because of serious genetic problems,” wrote a former colleague from the State Department. “The stigma can be pretty intense, and for a long while we kept quiet, but over time, talking to others and recognizing how often this unfortunately happens helped us get through it.”
“During the year before I got pregnant with our daughter, I had four consecutive miscarriages,” wrote a friend. “Like most people, I didn’t have any idea how common this was until it happened and people started telling me their stories.” I’d known her for 25 years and had never heard anything about that.
“I well remember the particular twists and jabs of that pain,” wrote yet another friend. “Six years later, the pain is gone, and it’s all just part of the story of how we got to the life we are living now, in all its richness and complexity and joy.”
I thought again about our decision to share the news of our pregnancy earlier than any parenting guidebook would advise. I had wondered if it had been a mistake. Now, I felt enormously grateful. We had avoided a culture of silence that, every year, consigns hundreds of thousands of expecting parents to suffer alone without the support of loved ones or the comfort of talking with others who’ve faced similar experiences.
The taboo against discussing early pregnancies is rooted primarily in how we think about early miscarriages, according to Jessica Zucker, Ph.D., a Los Angeles–based clinical psychologist specializing in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health. There are many ways for a pregnancy to end prematurely—from a “chemical” pregnancy that ends shortly after implantation to a miscarriage in later weeks, a termination for medical reasons, or stillbirth—but miscarriages are the most common cause. Dr. Zucker has written about her own miscarriage at 16 weeks, and she created the social media campaign #IHadAMiscarriage to encourage more transparency. She has argued that, “when we encourage women to be hush-hush in the early weeks of pregnancy, we’re potentially robbing women of support they need should a miscarriage take place.”
It’s important to say here that all parents need to make the choices that feel right for them. Not everyone will be as understanding and supportive as our friends and colleagues were. It’s also just hard to talk about painful things, and no one should feel pressured to do so if they don’t want to; I’m certainly in no position to tell anyone what choices they should or shouldn’t make. But, as Dr. Zucker told me, “the cultural silence around pregnancy loss promotes shame, self-blame, and guilt.” Women particularly are taught to think of a failed pregnancy as their failure, that they must have done something wrong or that they’re defective in some way. If you don’t tell anyone you’re pregnant in the first place, the thinking goes, you won’t have to face the shame when something goes wrong or the feeling that you’ve let everyone down.
That’s an understandable impulse, but it’s based on widespread misunderstanding about how common miscarriages are. One study, published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology , found that most Americans believe miscarriages are rare, occurring in just 5% or less of all pregnancies. In fact, they occur in 15 to 20% of pregnancies—750,000 to 1,000,000 each year in the United States. Large numbers of people also wrongly believe that the most common causes of miscarriages are stressful events, lifting something heavy, or the use of drugs or alcohol. In reality, chromosomal abnormalities—factors beyond anyone’s control—are responsible for most miscarriages (and for many terminations for medical reasons, like ours).
Women who terminate pregnancies for medical reasons may have similar feelings of shame or guilt, Dr. Zucker told me, with the added weight of having made what can be an excruciating “choice” and finding themselves thrust into the minefield of our country’s hyper-politicized debate around abortion.
Terminations for medical reasons aren’t usually what we think of when we talk about abortion, and married 30-somethings like my wife and I aren’t either, but that just goes to show how blinkered the discourse can be. The truth is that one in four women have an abortion by the time they’re 45, coming from every walk of life and reflecting an enormous diversity of experiences.
YJ and I had always been pro-choice, but it had been largely an abstract question. After our termination, it was inescapably real. We were jarred when our doctor wheeled my wife into the operating room, repeatedly reassuring us that the procedure was legal and nothing to be ashamed of. It hadn’t even occurred to us to worry about that. Later we reflected on how lucky we were to have access to good medical care, a strong support network, and constitutional rights—which feel increasingly at risk.
Each of these situations—different kinds of miscarriages, stillbirths, and abortions—carries its own complications, but step back and it’s clear that there’s a deep-seated sexist stigma around discussing women’s health across the board. Gloria Steinem once wryly noted that if men could menstruate, everything would be different. “Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day,” she wrote, “Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea.” I think it’s also safe to say that if men were the ones bearing children and losing or ending pregnancies, instead of shame and stigma, we’d see research dollars, PSAs, and Hallmark cards.
For my wife and I, as we tried to find our footing after the termination, it was deeply comforting to hear our friends’ stories. I was struck not just by how many people we knew had suffered pregnancy tragedies, but also that nearly all of them went on to eventually have healthy children.
We held onto those happy endings and decided to try again in a few months. By the end of the year, YJ was feeling nauseous again. We were holed up in a big snow-bound house in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York before New Year’s Eve, waiting for friends to arrive. I asked one of them to stop at a drugstore on the way and buy us a pregnancy test. We wondered if the stars—and chromosomes—would align this time. One thing was certain, though: No matter what happened, we were once again going to reject the code of silence and lean on our family and friends. We knew the risks, and there was no way we were getting on this rollercoaster alone.
Nine months later, just after Labor Day, we met our son, Theodore, all seven pounds and eight ounces of him. He was totally worth the wait. Late that night, while he and his mother slept around me, I sat down to write the best email I’d ever get to send.