Mother tongue

My mother’s tongue is harsh. Hers is a language of efficiency, deftly cutting between ribs to strike to the tender core. In my mother’s tongue, what has happened to my body, what my body has done, is called Fehlgeburt. Fail birth.

In the emergency room the first time, my doctor had a strange accent, the product of a diasporic German upbringing in Brazil. Undaunted by the blood between my thighs, he found a tiny heartbeat echoing mine on an ultrasound screen and, relieved, we laughed over the quirks of our shared second language.

Over its words for specific forms of yearning or anger or hunger, and its stark brevity in delicate matters of the body.

Two nights later, I am back and the blood is everywhere, on my legs and under my nails and pounding a racing, singular heartbeat into my ears. I see the same doctor down the hall, and to distract me my partner Google-translates the cause of our return visit into his other language, Portuguese. Mi esposa está sangrando. A kinder tongue, but one that still darts, forked, between dripping fangs.

*

One in four known pregnancies will end in miscarriage. Either abruptly, with a violent streak of red on white, or quietly, with silence divulging an unbeating heart that has hidden inside for weeks, it will end. For between one and two percent of us, it will end again, and again, and again. Most recurrent miscarriages are a mystery to specialists; I have been diagnosed with clinical bad luck.

It would be bad luck, we had said, driving home from the pub sober but loudly confident with newly-pregnant smugness, bad luck and that’s all. Buoyed by our feminism, we would understand a loss of the pregnancy not as a death, but as a disappointment. The cells multiplying inside me were not a person, not yet. This knowledge would make any loss survivable.

Weeks later, referred by the accented doctor, I am alone in a reclining chair in the day surgery ward, awaiting a minor procedure to address a minor problem of stubborn fetal tissue. With curtains drawn and contractions rolling and remnants of misoprostol forming a bitter paste against molars, I am, for the first time, unsure of this core feminist conviction. How can nothing feel like everything is gone?

*

I have now miscarried in every cubicle of my office toilets. I have miscarried while marching for marriage equality. I have miscarried in my bed, in my shower, on the 59  tram that stops outside the women’s hospital. I have miscarried in a triage bathroom, stifling gasping cries below the guttural din of women in early labour on the other side of a locked door.

In pregnancy, the blood of the mother increases in volume; plasma by 40-50 percent, red blood cells by 20-30 percent. Eyeballs change in shape. A whole new organ grows. Even in the first trimester, the shapeshifting is underway. Each time I miscarry, I am struck anew by the visceral physicality of the process.

It is the world flowing out of you. It is the earth’s rivers and streams dammed and diverted to run through you, to irrigate you, and now they seek a river mouth and find it between your legs. It is twin terror and curiosity as clots of blood and tissue the size of your palm, the size of inside-outside organs, splash downstream into toilet bowls. The water, the sides, your hands, the floor, your vision turning red then red then black.

It is waking up from a surgical vacuuming of your insides with your cheeks already wet with passive tears, the salt from your womb stinging your eyes. It is seeing from underwater a woman sitting up in the bed opposite yours, her open mouth twisted and balled fists rubbing exaggeratedly at her eyes as she giggles, pantomiming your grief for an audience of one.

It is, weeks later, seeing roadside greens and browns and the warm yellow of passing marigolds desaturate into the greys and whites of machines and a paper-covered, stirruped chair. It is a warm pelvic ultrasound wand nestled inside you while the room grows cold and a nurse performs a sadness routine. It is retching on the side of the road and not knowing how the car reached the shoulder, why it didn’t swing into the sal trees with you inside.

It is living alone, inside and out. It is standing on the packed morning train, arms touching strangers, and wondering you too? It is silence and downcast eyes, swaying together but apart.

*

Stuffed in my handbag after the first procedure, sealed in their own sterile plastic bag bearing stickers with my name, are pamphlets for support services. The one recommended by the hospital claims that a miscarriage is a death, equal in every way to the loss of a newborn baby.

Women online proclaim the same. The ones who gather in loss forums are
predominantly women of faith, their mother-tongues comfortably carrying terms like ‘angel baby’ and trilling metaphors about feet and eyes and tiny still hearts. They accumulate shrines of ultrasound photos, unworn knitted hats, necklaces inlaid with unbirthstones.

These things denote value, a life, tangible space and pieces of the world
claimed by someone. I have tested the word ‘baby’. Alone in my kitchen, I have felt the word swell and press against the backs of my teeth, and I have spat to no one, my babies all died. The words make me cry, but in the abstract. They correspond, theoretically, to the grief I feel around my ankles like a rip current, but still, they are not mine. These are tears for someone who believes it, someone who has a reason to feel as lost as I do.

I had never collected baby things, and I threw out the ultrasound photos as soon as I could. In place of a shrine, I have a gallery of photos of blood. In parts of the gore, I can trace my insides; the firm mucus that glued my cervix closed, the long and narrow clot of blood that snaked down from a fallopian tube. There is too much of it to be embryonic; it is placental, uterine, mine. Maybe this is reason enough to feel so hollowed out.

*

The bleak silver lining of a third miscarriage is entry into Australia’s publicly-funded recurrent miscarriage clinics. My clinic is not a clinic at all; it is a timeslot on Thursday afternoons, when the regular pregnancy service deigns to admit the chronically unpregnant.

My specialist offers a number of tests, all to do with my blood and chromosomes and the precise cartography of my uterus. He is nonchalant as he mentions, in passing, that many of his patients are suicidal in their distress. The room is silent, but an ululating carries through my skull, through the marrow of my bones, into the fingertips resting on his desk.

Buried deep in the research lining the office walls: a study finding that 28 percent of miscarriers meet the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress. Depression, distress, nightmares, avoidance, fractured relationships. I have flashbacks, brought on by the sight of my own blood, of red wine on paper towel, of lipstick on a cotton pad. Time and place are lost and I am pulled violently back to the sensation of heavy tissue falling from my body, leaving thighs sticky-slick with blood.

My fingers curl and my nails leave fury-red crescents in my palms. I have never been asked if mine is among those hearts drained and left empty. I leave through a waiting room echoing with the mundane complaints of enviably round women, hands balled to keep claws from the temptation of smooth throats.

*

My mother’s tongue uses words like building blocks, taking what we have and creating what we need. Mutterseelenallein: mother souls alone. It means the deepest loneliness, aching isolation. I was taught that this word grew from abandonment, from the feeling of being so alone that even the bonds connecting you to your mother had broken.

I know, now, that there is a deeper lonesomeness. That there is the feeling of gestating a mother-soul, only to have the promise and the growing parts torn away, nothing to absorb its reckless desperation and anguish and strange, untethered love.

Soon, I will release an egg. My largest cell may split and multiply, ex unum pluribus into something not yet a person, but not without a kind of power. And it will leave. In days or weeks or nine anxious months, it will leave. My mother-tongue may feel the familiar edges of incisors as I bite down to stop from howling in another hospital waiting room.

Or my mother-tongue may, at last, give it a name. And when it comes, that name will be heralded with the sound of trumpets made of thigh bone, and it will carry on northern winds to the ears of the older Mutterseelen, still there, still allein.

Image credit: Kristina Tripkovic

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Erin is an emerging writer and international development professional, working in the field of disability rights across Asia and the Pacific. She has qualifications in international development and gender analysis, and has particular interests in the intersections of sexual orientation, gender identity, mental health and poverty. She lives on Wurundjeri land. 

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