Imagine if men were expected to turn up to work and act normal even if they were bleeding, doubled-over with abdominal pain, and grief stricken because their baby just died.
This is often exactly what happens when working women miscarry and succumb to the immense social pressure to keep quiet.
Over the weekend, Minister for Jobs and Women Kelly O’Dwyer announced that she was quitting politics, partly because she’d suffered a miscarriage in Parliament away from the support of her family and she never wanted to go through that experience again.
Her announcement is shocking for more than just party-political reasons.
There’s the juxtaposition of hearing about something as intimate and visceral as losing a baby in the context of the boys’ club of Parliament, where bullying, intimidation, and stand-over tactics are accepted in ways that bleeding and breastfeeding are not.
But mostly it’s that miscarriage is the Voldemort of pregnancy: that which must not be named, no matter how much your body, your heart, and your ability to work happen to be suffering.
Ms O’Dwyer’s honesty has reignited debate about the medieval taboos that still prevent open discussion about how frequently miscarriages occur (in Australia, around one in four pregnancies end this way) and how truly dreadful it can be to endure one.
“The silence is toxic, cruel, and absolutely gendered.”
From an industrial relations perspective, it’s also starkly at odds with contemporary standards around what it is reasonable to expect workers to solider on through.
I’ve lost three babies — while working
I’ve had three miscarriages. And I was a freelance writer at the time, so I worked through and around all of them.
The first and second ones were early on — within the first trimester — but they didn’t feel like it.
The first time I was playing with my two-year-old when, out of nowhere, I felt like someone had slammed me across the back of the knees.
When the paramedics arrived, I was barely conscious, but by the time they bundled me into the back of the ambulance, I was screaming, writhing, and retching in pain.
It felt a lot like labour, except instead of producing another baby, I delivered what medical staff referred to as “the products of conception” into a hospital toilet.
The third miscarriage was much further along. Everything was going fine until a routine ultrasound showed the baby’s heart was beating unusually slowly.
That was on a Friday. By the Monday, a follow-up ultrasound showed no heartbeat at all.
The doctor who broke this news told me I had two options. The first was to check into hospital for a general anaesthetic and a D&C (that’s a “dilation and curettage” — the same procedure used for abortions).
The second was to wait, maybe up to a month, for my body to “dispel” the “fetal tissue” on its own like the first time.
I went for the option that temporarily rendered me unconscious so I could take a break from the hellscape.
I woke up weeping. Not pale, polite tears but convulsive, ugly, gut-wrenching wails like a wounded animal.
Years later, the exact same sobbing can still return without warning. I see a miscarriage or a birth in a movie and it comes back. I catch myself staring at the three stones I keep in an understated shrine on the mantlepiece of my office, and it’s back.
Even writing these words now, I’m a blubbering mess.
How do you get sick leave through silence?
Obviously, no two women’s experiences are alike. Some, especially those who lose late-term babies, suffer the sort of full-body devastation most of us can’t even begin to imagine.
Others have a relatively easy time of it: the miscarriage itself is no worse than a heavy period and emotionally they remain even-keeled.
What we all experience, however, is the pressure to hide everything away.
One of the most insidious things about this disappearing act is that it is billed as being in our best interests.
Pregnancy guides still advise the newly fertilised to keep their condition under wraps for the first 12 weeks to escape the sad awkwardness of having to tell people the baby didn’t make it.
While grief affects everyone differently and some of us might well prefer to keep it private, there are some circumstances where it is just not feasible or helpful to keep it hidden.
For instance, we might need emotional support and sick days. We might need the time and space to organise a funeral.
Miscarriage is an embodied experience involving a complex interplay of the emotional and the physical, and yet workers’ rights in this area are a hodge-podge of vagueness (as you can see from reading this, this, and this).
Add the fact that pregnancy discrimination is endemic (despite the legal frameworks supposed to prevent it), and women are yet again drawing all sorts of reproductive and economic short straws.
I’m sure I’m not alone in thanking Kelly O’Dwyer for speaking openly.
More of us need to follow suit.
And more men in suits — both in and out of Canberra — need to listen.
Emma A. Jane is a writer and senior lecturer at UNSW School of Arts and Media.
This article was first published by ABC News.