"The reason this has been the rule is because in the first trimester, 20 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage," says OB/GYN and women's health expert Pari Ghodsi, MD. After those first 12 to 13 weeks, she says, the chances of miscarrying go down significantly (an estimated 1 to 5 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage after the first trimester). Those odds are the reason why she gives this advice to her newly-pregnant patients: "Don't tell anyone who you also wouldn't feel comfortable telling that you miscarried until you're past that first 13 weeks," she says.
At first glance, this recommendation makes sense: It can be emotionally painful to have to tell people who know you're pregnant that you no longer are, so why not play it safe and wait to spread the news until later? But Jessica Zucker, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in women's reproductive and maternal mental health, argues that this norm can further isolate people who have miscarriages—and leave them alone in their grief. "Why do we not want to share bad news? When a grandparent dies, we share that. Why not with a lost pregnancy?" she asks. "Not sharing is exactly why so many women feel isolated in the aftermath of pregnancy and infant loss. To me, that’s the central thing that I think we need to think about as a culture," she says.
When you ask women who have endured miscarriages why they did (or didn't) follow this rule, their answers vary.
"I got pregnant and told everyone right away"
"The first time I got pregnant, my husband and I told our family and friends in the first trimester," says Heidi McBain. All went well and she ultimately had a healthy baby. The second time McBain got pregnant, she and her husband again shared the news early on—but McBain miscarried at the end of her first trimester. "Everybody knew at that point, so it made it a little harder to have to backtrack and tell everybody what we were going through," she says. "That was really hard."
Some people, she says, were helpful in their support, but others—despite good intentions—weren't. "The empty statements like it being God's will or at least I could get pregnant were hard to hear because it missed the fact that I was grieving the loss of that baby," she says. McBain miscarried a second time before getting pregnant again, and waited until 20 weeks to share the news. "I'm sure I was showing and people suspected that I was pregnant, but I wasn't ready to tell people and neither was my husband," she says.
Sharon Farber says she had a similar experience—once she saw the two lines on the pregnancy test, she couldn't contain her excitement. "I got pregnant and told everyone right away, after about three days," she says. Thoughts of miscarriage, she says, weren't even on her radar. She had a smooth pregnancy and nine months later gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
A couple years later, Farber got pregnant again. Just like before, she told everyone right away. But unfortunately, her second pregnancy had a different outcome. "At 10 weeks, I started spotting. I was bleeding so my husband and I went in to the doctor. There was no heartbeat. Apparently, the baby had stopped living and growing a couple weeks earlier, but my body didn't know it. It was so incredibly devastating."
"If you don’t tell anyone, you have this incredible loss and no one to share it with or support you." —Sharon Farber
Stories like Farber's and McBain's are the reason why Dr. Ghodsi still advocates to her patients that they wait until after 12 weeks to share their pregnancy news outside of close family and friends. "Again, because the rate of miscarrying is so high in the first trimester, I advise them not to tell anyone that they also wouldn't want to tell if they lost the pregnancy," she says. The emotional distress of sharing the news with people, while dealing with the grief of a pregnancy loss, can be really hard for women to go through—so why not save a person some unnecessary heartache?
However, while Farber says telling people about the loss was difficult, the support she received because of it was crucial to her healing process. "If you don’t tell anyone, you have this incredible loss and no one to share it with or support you," she says. "There were a few people I could have done without telling, like people I worked with. The support they gave wasn't worth me having to go through it with quite so many people. But what amazed me was how many women started telling me about their miscarriages. I had absolutely no idea how common it was."
"I had a lot of emotions to work through"
Of course, fears of miscarriage aren't the only reason why a woman might choose not to disclose her pregnancy, says Dr. Zucker. For example, women might delay talking about their pregnancy at work, perhaps due to an unsupportive boss, a lack of clear maternity policy, or even fear of retaliation or job loss. A person might not even have wanted the pregnancy at all.
For Traci Houston, who waited until she was seven months pregnant to publicly discuss it with anyone, her choice was more about protecting her mental health. "The first time I got pregnant, there was a lot going on in my life and I wasn't happy about the circumstances in which I got pregnant," she says.
"If you're keeping your pregnancy a secret because of this age-old notion that this is something to be hidden and stifled or if there’s shame and stigma you might run into, then I want women to at least wrestle with that a little more." —Jessica Zucker, PhD
Houston felt guilty that she—who wasn't even trying to get pregnant—was experiencing a relatively uncomplicated pregnancy while one of her close friends had just lost a baby. "Another thing is that I'm Christian and was unmarried and pregnant, while my friend who lost her baby was married. There was just a lot on my mind." She also says that she was experiencing some serious depression at the time. So Houston made the decision to put her mental health first, focusing on processing her emotions rather than sharing her pregnancy news outside of her partner, immediate family, and a few close friends.
With her second child, she didn't tell anyone until after she had given birth. "I'm a private person so I don't feel the need to share personal details about my life with most people outside of my close friends and family," she says.
Dr. Zucker is in favor of women sharing their pregnancies whenever they feel is right for them, and respects that some women like Houston have reasons to keep their news private. "But if [you're keeping it secret] because of this age-old notion that this is something to be hidden and stifled or if there’s shame and stigma you might run into, then I want women to at least wrestle with that a little more," she says.
"Whatever happens, we're taking people on this journey with us"
Wellness influencer Alexi Panos and her husband are relatively open books on social media—yet when Panos found out she was expecting their first child, they waited until after the first trimester to announce the news on Instagram. "Every single friend of family member of mine told me, 'Don’t share publicly until you pass the 12-week mark,'" Panos recalls. "We were kind of resisting because we wanted to share it with our followers, who have been so invested in our love story, but we did it just to play that game and 'be safe.'" Panos gave birth to a healthy baby boy in early 2018.
When she found out she was pregnant again, Panos says she and her husband decided to tell everyone right away—including their social media followers. "We were like, 'Screw it. Let's lean in and be transparent. And whatever happens, we're taking people on this journey with us,'" she recalls.
"The hardest part of miscarrying was obviously losing the baby, but after that, it was allowing myself to be loved by my friends." —Alexi Panos
Sadly, Panos and her husband were on a flight back from Jamaica in January with all of their close friends when she started miscarrying on the plane. "This was happening in real time with all my friends around me," she says. Panos says she isn't used to needing support; usually she's the one who helps others and not the other way around. "The hardest part of miscarrying was obviously losing the baby, but after that, it was allowing myself to be loved by my friends," she says.
Panos navigated the difficult disclosure with her followers by sharing the news in an emotional (but ultimately positive) post a week after the miscarriage. "I wanted to share this experience with you because I’ve realized that so many people DON’T talk about this process of trying to conceive, and deal with it in silence, and often in shame," she wrote. "I also experienced all the feels of that initial shame... What could I have done differently? But then I drop into my heart and know that everything that is meant to be on this planet IS..." Fans flooded her comments with support and kind words.
Despite her discomfort and sadness, Panos says she wouldn't have had it any other way. "If I get pregnant again, I think we'll do the same thing: telling our community after the doctor confirms the pregnancy," she says.
Clearly, when it comes to disclosing a pregnancy, there is no one path that's right for everyone. It's a deeply personal choice that can involve more than just fears of miscarriage stigma. Maybe the question society should be asking isn't when to tell people. Maybe the question is: What's going to make a person feel supported and cared for the most?
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