Having a Miscarriage in China

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We started thinking about having kids in the summer of 2014. At this point, my husband and I had been married and living together in Chongqing for about half a year. Our Chinese wedding ceremony was planned for December of 2014, so we decided the earliest I could get pregnant and still fit into my already-bought wedding dress was October. And so it went–plans were made, periods were tracked, and we got pregnant in October of 2014 as planned. We were thrilled and told way too many people almost immediately. We were so excited, in fact, that we jumped the gun and went for our first ultrasound at just 6 weeks rather than the standard 8. At the time everything was fine.

I never thought I would have a miscarriage. I was under the false impression that miscarriages only happen to older women or to people with health problems. I also thought they were uncommon and could have never imagined a whopping 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. I had skipped every chapter in every book and passed up every blog post and Pinterest pin that talked about miscarriages. I really thought they were irrelevant to me.

So time went on. We had our wedding when I was 9 weeks pregnant, celebrated Christmas at 10 weeks pregnant, and rang in the New Year 2015 at 11 weeks pregnant.

I was 11 weeks 4 days pregnant on January 2nd, 2015. It was that morning that I had noticed a tiny bit of spotting. Of course, I ignored it. Spotting is not uncommon during pregnancy and of course, I thought I’d never have a miscarriage. That afternoon I was walking to work when I noticed a small cramp. Probably nothing. Another. Was that a cramp? Another. I dialed my work and by the time they picked up I was sobbing. “Um I don’t know if you know but I’m 3 months pregnant and I’m having cramps and I’m really scared. I can’t teach today. I’m sorry.” I planned to go home and lay very still. I still didn’t think I was losing the baby. I thought if I just lay down it would go away. I could never have a miscarriage. Not me. I called my husband and he was all the way across the city, he told me to take a taxi to the hospital to save time and he’d meet me there.

In the Hospital

I was greeted at the hospital by my husband, my mother-in-law, and my husband’s professor of medical statistics at Xinan hospital in Chongqing, a public military hospital. It was late but they still agreed to see us. I was really bleeding at this point. I don’t remember very clearly the next part, except for a doctor telling me my baby might still be ok, bleeding isn’t necessarily that bad, just relax, just relax. A Chinese woman apparently in the same predicament sat nearby without any doctors guidance, and her husband became angry and asked if only foreigners matter. Perhaps he had a point. After a while, I went in for an ultrasound and my husband’s professor accompanied me, as men were not allowed in. The technician said, “11 weeks? It’s way too small. Not even 8 weeks. No shape. No heartbeat. This is definitely not just today’s problem.”

I was in shock. I walked out of the room completely blank. I was even thinking maybe the technician was wrong; maybe the ultrasound machine was broken. It might still be okay because I’ll never have a miscarriage. I sat down in the waiting room next to my husband and didn’t say a word. It was then that my husband’s professor crouched down in front of us with her hands on my knees. She said, “可能。。。。不得行” Basically, “The baby isn’t alright.” I weakly tried to ask if there was any possibility if maybe it was really fine, but we all knew it wasn’t.

I tuned out as they were discussing the plan for the next few days. Tears were flowing down my face but I couldn’t make any noise anymore. I could have sworn it was a nightmare. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me.

Now, in China when you have a miscarriage you need to stay in the hospital. The next morning I woke up feeling blank, and we headed to the hospital. I was wearing my fluffiest pajamas, a thick hat, and I carried a stuffed German shepherd toy. Not joking, don’t judge me, I needed it. Now, I’m not sure whose idea this was but they set me up in the labor and delivery unit. I had to pass family after family smiling and cooing at their newborn babies before getting to my room, which had pictures of cute babies on the walls. Awesome.

I honestly don’t even remember how long I was in the hospital. I just sat in my room watching stand-up comedy on my iPad, and they’d occasionally come by to hook me up to random IVs and check how much I was bleeding. No one told me I was basically going to have a mini-labor so it scared the crap out of me when my water broke. After that I started having contractions. It got worse and worse and actually hurt pretty bad before I passed the tissue in the middle of the night. I had a D&C the next day to clean out my uterus of remaining tissue. It took place in the delivery room with a woman in active labor in the bed next to me. I remember vaguely feeling bad for her since we were sharing a doctor and I think she probably needed one more than me. But mainly I felt apathy; I didn’t really care what was happening to me, what medicine I was taking, or what was going happen next, but I did enjoy the nice nap I got from the medicine they used to knock me out during the D&C. Probably the highlight of my stay.

What happened after I woke up from the nap, however, was definitely the low point. I was just in my room minding my own business when a doctor walked in with a big group of medical students. The doctor was eyeing my chart and announced, “Ok it looks like this girl had a miscarriage. Now, what can cause miscarriages?” The students started to raise their hands. The doctor probed me with questions such as, “Did you fall?” “Did you come into contact with any dangerous chemicals?” “Did you eat something bad?” I couldn’t answer her questions anymore and started sobbing, and they all just stared at me while the doctor continued her lesson about what I probably did wrong. Looking back I find this hilarious because it’s just so comically awful. But at the time I felt devastatingly humiliated.

The fun times continued when random family members, friends, and colleagues kept stopping by to give me wonderful nuggets of comfort like, “Maybe you shouldn’t have exercised”, “Did you drink cold water?”, “I told you having a dog was bad for pregnancy”, and my personal favorite, “I know how you feel–I’ve had 3 abortions.”

Recovery

Then I got discharged from the hospital. My parents-in-law advised me to wear a hat and wouldn’t let me leave the house. Just one day after I got home from the hospital they announced that our one-year old German Shepherd dog, Damon, was being sent away because in their opinion, having a dog is what caused me to miscarry (it wasn’t). We got into a massive argument and eventually I had to concede when my mother-in-law yelled at me through angry tears that I cared more about dogs than babies.

The following few weeks were probably the roughest of my life. When I was finally allowed to leave the house I would just wander around aimlessly, crying at random. One time I was crossing the street and a car ran the red light and nearly hit me. I remember thinking it wouldn’t have mattered if it had. I thought who cares if I die, I probably caused the miscarriage. I wanted to punish myself. It’s hard to explain but even considering myself to be a feminist, I felt like I wasn’t a real woman for having a miscarriage. I saw glowing, beautiful pregnant women everywhere I went and in comparison, I felt barren and cold. I felt like a failure.

Sometime around there I went back to get a checkup and ultrasound, and there was still some tissue in my uterus that needed to come out or risk infection. The next day I waited in line for my second D&C with a group of women getting abortions. This procedure is common and available in the gynaecology department at hospitals in China. The line was quite long and we all had IVs attached to our arms, ready to have medication injected once our names were called. After the D&C I was crying and eating chocolate on a recovery bed saying, “I just want to have a baby” through my drug-induced stupor. An older woman I had never met who had been in line before me was hugging me tight and telling me I had plenty of time. She told me she was over 50 and that her son was already in college, she didn’t know how she had managed to get pregnant again.

Aftermath

I was angry. I was ashamed. I was bitter. I started going running every morning with Damon, every step filled with anger and self-hate. The doctor said we shouldn’t try to get pregnant again for at least 6 months, as is standard procedure in China. I was impatient and I wondered whether this miscarriage wasn’t just a fluke, what if there really was something wrong with me? What if I could never have kids? I drew into myself and didn’t want to talk to anyone. I was afraid my colleagues at work would complain about how they had needed to cover my classes while I took time off to recover. I wrote a list of all the people who had known I was pregnant and shuddered every time I looked at it. I lived in fear of running into people I knew who would look at my belly and wonder why it wasn’t getting bigger. Most of all I was furious with my parents-in-law for their plan to take away my dog, who I really, really needed to have and take care of at that point.

But somehow things got better. At the end of January 2015, we took a trip to Chongqing’s Fairy Mountain (仙女山) with Damon–it was supposed to be our last hurrah before he was sent away. It was beyond cold with no indoor heating. I swear I came very close to getting hypothermia at one point and I fell down on the ice maybe 20 times. It was amazingly fun and most importantly, it’s something I could have never done had I still been pregnant.

Shortly after that, I decided that Damon was not going away no matter what. I wrote a letter to my in-laws explaining my reasons. My husband and I edited and perfected it over the course of a couple weeks and it went from angry and bitter to a pretty convincing and coherent persuasive letter. One day they came over for dinner and I offered to clean up while they read the letter. I washed the dishes with shaking hands listening for any sign of their response. After they both had read it my mother-in-law said softly, “Okay, he can stay.”

In the months that followed I was somewhat fine. Maybe a little not fine. I’d feel normal and happy but suddenly something would set me off and I’d be crying in the middle of the street. For example, when a friend’s girlfriend gave me this advice: “You are wearing a coat even though it’s not very cold, so you are afraid of cold. So your uterus is cold and that may be why you miscarried. You should drink ginger soup.” Even with a comment like that I’d smile and say thanks, not feeling anything. But walking home I’d get so angry I’d want to scream. I surprised myself. I scared myself. I had a wound that I’d covered but it hadn’t healed. I was bitter against a lot of people who I perceived to have not supported me or blamed me, and I was even angry at my husband, simply because he didn’t seem to feel the pain that I did. Yeah, I take it back, I was not even “somewhat” fine.

But anyhow, I got through it. I stopped drinking caffeine, stopped running so much, stopped eating out and started requiring myself to eat a food of every color for lunch and dinner. I told myself if I were careful enough, maybe I’d get to keep my next pregnancy. Objectively I knew that what had happened wasn’t my fault, but I just needed to feel like I had some control over the situation. Eventually, it came time to try again.

New Beginnings

Getting pregnant again after a miscarriage is strange. When I saw those two pink lines on the pregnancy test, I didn’t feel excited like I did the first time. I felt tentative, scared. Unlike the first time, I didn’t scream, “It’s positive, let’s call my parents!!” from the bathroom. This time it was just a somber, “It’s positive…”, answered by, “Ok, then we can get an ultrasound in 4 weeks.”

When it was time to go in for our 8-week ultrasound I was deeply terrified. The ultrasound technician didn’t say a word to me—just announced random measurements to the other technician. I finally couldn’t help myself and asked, ““Is it big enough?” “Yes” “Is there a heartbeat?” “Yes” “Is there any problem?” “No”. I cried with joy right there on the hospital bed.

After the pain came the healing. I had a healthy, easy pregnancy and a beautiful baby boy in May 2016. I stopped feeling angry at my husband, at my in-laws, and at everyone else around me. I stopped feeling ashamed about having lost a pregnancy.

I don’t regret what happened for one second. If it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have my sweet baby boy, who is now 15 months old. Perhaps I wouldn’t cherish him as much if I hadn’t learned how deeply I wanted him if I hadn’t wondered if I’d ever have him. I believe everything happens for a reason, and pain just makes you stronger. I’m different now, and that’s good.

Final Thoughts

I have hesitated to share my story about having a miscarriage in China for a long time. My main worry was that others would read about my experiences and use them to justify prejudices about Chinese people, such as the common misconception that Chinese people lack sympathy. That is not my intention at all.

Although it’s true that my Chinese family and friends definitely said some things to me that would be considered insensitive to say to a grieving woman in many western countries, the fact is that in China those same comments are not only not hurtful, but are actually considered a way to show love and care. For example, telling me not to exercise next time wasn’t a way to blame me, it was in fact way to help me avoid the same situation in the future, and spare me more pain.

I also didn’t mention the love my Chinese family showed me simply by being there when I needed them. In the hospital, my parents-in-law stayed with us late into the night and helped me time my contractions even as I sat unspeaking, nearly catatonic with shock and grief. My husband stayed up all night with me telling me happy stories to keep my mind off of what was happening. My parents-in-law cooked and cleaned for us for two weeks after the fact, only leaving after I requested them to. Despite me having kicked them out, for months following they bought me new things that could possibly help for next time, including quite humorously, loose-fitting “granny panty” underwear because my mother-in-law believed fitted underwear was not good for pregnancy. This is a different type of love. After four years in China I still don’t fully understand it, and sometimes I downright don’t appreciate it enough, but this love is strong, and it’s real.

Julia Chen

Julia Chen

Julia is from Seattle, Washington, USA and has been married to her Chinese husband for 3 years. Together they live in Chongqing with their 1 year old son and 3 year old German Shepherd dog.
Julia Chen

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6 comments

  1. I’m so proud of you Julia, it was hard to be so far away when you were having so much pain. I’m glad you had your Chinese family with you. You’re a wonderful mother! – Love Mom

  2. Thank you for telling your story in an honest unflinching way, I really appreciate the whole gamut of emotions.
    ❤️

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