Special Episode: Writing Motherhood & Miscarriage
March 31, 2021
This special episode is devoted to an issue so many women struggle with, and so few people discuss. Shannon Gibney and Kao Kalia Yang, co-editors of What God Is Honored Here: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color, talk about why it’s important to give voice to this common pain.
Welcome to Writer Mother Monster. I’m your host, Lara Ehrlich, and this is a special episode about an issue so many women experience but so few discuss. Writer mothers Shannon Gibney and Kao Kalia Yang are here to talk about writing motherhood and miscarriage. Please share your thoughts and questions with us in the comment section, and we’ll weave them into our conversation. Shannon Gibney and Kao Kalia Yang are the co-editors of What God Is Honored Here: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color.
Shannon Gibney is an award-winning author of books of all kinds, from novels to anthologies to essays to picture books. The through line in all of her work is stories that may have previously gone untold because the speakers have not had an outlet or because the stories carry darkness and fear that we prefer to look away from. Kirkus described her most recent book, Dream Country, as a necessary reckoning of tensions within the African diaspora, an introduction to its brokenness, and a place to start healing. Shannon is a professor of English at Minneapolis College where, for over 12 years, she’s worked with refugees, ex-offenders, international and in-country immigrants, indigenous and communities of color, and students from all walks of life to tell their stories and achieve their academic and professional goals. Her children are 11 and 6, and her third child would be 7. She describes writer motherhood as “exhilarating, exhausting, hilarious.”
Kao Kalia Yang is an award-winning Hmong-American writer. She is the author of the memoirs The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, The Song Poet, and Somewhere in the Unknown World. Yang is also the author of the children’s books A Map Into the World, The Shared Room, and The Most Beautiful Thing. She co-edited the ground-breaking collection What God is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss By and For Indigenous Women and Women of Color. Yang’s literary nonfiction work has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Chautauqua Prize, the PEN USA Literary Awards, the Dayton’s Literary Peace Prize, and garnered three Minnesota Book Awards. Her children’s books have been listed as an American Library Association Notable Book, a Zolotow Honor, a Kirkus Best Book of the Year, winner of a Minnesota Book Award in Children’s Literature and the Heartland Booksellers Award. She is a recipient of the McKnight Fellowship in Prose, the International Institute of Minnesota’s Olga Zoltai Award for her community leadership and service to New Americans, and the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts’ 2019 Sally Award for Social Impact.
Please join me in welcoming Shannon and Kalia.
Kao Kalia Yang
Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Thank you so much. Before we get into conversation, I’d love to invite Kalia to read a little bit from the book that you co-edited. A little later, we’ll hear from Shannon. Kalia, take it away.
Kao Kalia Yang
Thank you. I’ll be reading from “In the Month of August.”
The early morning nurses and the doctors visited.
They said, “Not yet?”
We shook our heads. They put more medication inside of me.
It was noon. I could tell because there were no shadows in the room. Just the shine of the sun from the window, the wash of light from the fluorescent bulbs overhead.
I wanted to go to the bathroom. My husband helped me up from the bed. He held my hand, and we walked to the bathroom, much as we had on numerous other occasions, inside the safety of walls, within the hold of nature. He might have even swung our hands—as was his habit. Inside the bathroom, our walk was done. We stood side by side. I looked at his shoulder. He closed the door. For a moment, he held me in his arms, and the world was very far away.
He said into my hair, “You have to let go.”
My arms fell from around him.
I felt something drop in my belly, the weight I had been harboring deep inside of me, the child we had made but could not keep.
The baby came…a little boy, mouth opened like a little bird, a little boy who looked like a version of me, eyes closed, skin translucent, a little boy who weighed nothing in my arms—despite the weight, the weight of hope, the weight of humanity, the gravity of my little love story—his body was more light than anything else it could have ever been.
That autumn, we took long walks. I thought I should sit down and write. I couldn’t. The emptiness was vast inside of me. I felt hollow as the wind shifted and the weather turned. The flowers I loved started to die, one by one. The cold grew inside of me until I wished I could melt away. The contradictions in what I felt what I wanted were not lost on me. My feet meandered from the grass to the sidewalk, to the very edge of the highways, to a high bridge over water, to the edge of that very river that sliced through America, the great Mississippi River, flowing far and fast, from the future to the past.
The doctors told me that if he had been a week older, Baby Jules would have been classified as a stillbirth. They called him a miscarriage. I thought of the medical definition of the word: a spontaneous loss of a fetus before the twentieth week of pregnancy. I kept thinking there was nothing spontaneous about what I had experienced. Spontaneous in the world of writing signifies a surprise, an intervention, a positive impulse. My world of writing had nothing to do with the world I was living in anymore.
In the days after, we went through our lives, a piece at a time, looking for the parts that could hold him, a ghost baby, a dream baby, a baby that was but never will be.
I looked at autumn, my favorite season, as I had never seen it before, barren, full of bold promises waiting to die. Words made no more sense.
My annual garden, dollar-store pots full of cheerful blooms, my geraniums, marigolds, begonias, impatiens, could continue living, but I didn’t want them to. I stopped watering them. I watched them die. The blooms withered first, then the leaves started drying out in the sun and the strong winds. I thought about watering them in those final days, but my heart was so heavy I could not find the strength. What did a few more days of bloom matter when in the end, we would all die anyway?
The autumn passed between moments of life feeling almost normal, me talking to the people I love who loved me, trying to find perspective, and then other moments when I wished I had never met my husband and fallen in love with him, gotten married, gotten pregnant, when I wished I had never delivered a dead baby into the world—a baby the world would never know as mine. Then, I would cry and cry and cry until there were no more tears, until the throbbing in my head grew stronger than the beat of my own heart.
Thank you, Kalia, for your bravery and for reading your personal experience here today. I really appreciate it, and I’m sure listeners do as well. According to March of Dimes, about 10 to 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. It is believed that approximately 50% of all pregnancies—those might be pregnancies before a woman knows she is pregnant—end in miscarriage, and yet it’s something so few talk about, so thank you both for this anthology of women’s stories. It is such a vital resource for women who are going through this, often in silence. Tell us a little bit about your own experience, Kalia. Did you feel as though you had to suffer this loss in silence? And that’s a question for Shannon, too.
Kao Kalia Yang
No, I’m a very open person. When I was expecting my first child, it was very public. I told my friends on social media. I wasn’t hiding the experiences that I that I was feeling in my body. My mother had suffered seven miscarriages, so I knew that it was it was possible. And yeah, miscarriage is not something a writer yearns to understand from that place, and yet, it was a story that came upon me. When I went through my experience, I was so taken aback. I had no idea it was possible to love a baby in the process, and that the world couldn’t quite feel my grief with me, or there were no other places where I could express that. I went to social media. And that was how Shannon first came upon this loss. I’ve always been an open person, and there was nothing to indicate to me that I should be silent about this as well.
Kao Kalia Yang suffered her loss about a year before mine. I saw that post. We are both writers based in the Twin Cities. There’s a growing number of us BIPOC writers, but there’s not that many of us, so we all know each other, and we follow each other’s work. We were acquaintances, and I saw that post, and it affected me. But, of course, things affect you one way when they’re not you, and they affect you a different way when you experience them yourself.
About a year later, I was pregnant with my second child. I was 41 and a half weeks pregnant, so the baby was 10 days late. I went into labor and went to the midwifery clinic, and they tried to find the heartbeat and couldn’t find it. It was at that point that I was rushed to the hospital. I’ll read a little bit from that section later on, from my piece in the book that details what happened. But yeah, I mean, the shock of it, right? I think Kao Kalia Yang really hit the nail on the head when she said these things happen, but you just don’t think it’s gonna happen to you. There are a lot of different reasons for that, but there’s a big cultural silence around this.
Kao Kalia Yang and I, in talking about the process of getting this book together, always say that we were doing what writers do, which is looking at literature to reflect our experience as a way to start to heal, as a way to start to put some of that trauma in perspective. I don’t want to say get rid of it, because it’s still there, but each of us, in our own ways and in our own times, went looking for things—any books or movies, articles—especially around indigenous or women of color, but we were not finding things that really spoke to us. Kalia, do you want to talk about that a little bit?
Kao Kalia Yang
It was maybe about a month after Shannon’s loss. We were pregnant at the same time. Shannon was a little bit before me, but I was in the hospital. I’d put on water weight—that week was particularly hot in Minnesota—and I’d gone in to see the doctor, and they were a little bit concerned about the water weight. They wanted to know if I wanted to induce, that it was time. I did not want to induce. I turned on my social media as I was trying to make this decision, this hard decision in the doctor’s office, and I saw a post from Shannon, and it was, “If you’re pregnant, and it is time for your baby to come out, consider inducing because the risk of stillbirth goes up the longer you wait.”
Shannon’s post made the decision for me—for the delivery of Shengyeng, my second born, but the first child that came to me alive. Our stories then were linked in ways that we couldn’t have predicted. We were chatting, about a month after her loss, and she said, “One day when you’re ready, when I’m ready, would you ever want to put together something, because I’ve been looking…”—and I, too, had been looking. I’d spent a whole year looking. And so immediately, I said yes. When we’re both ready, let’s do this. And that’s exactly what we did. And that is, of course, the seed of What God Is Honored Here.
For both of us, there was no question that we had to deliver something to the world, something to the women who had experienced similar losses, something, I think, for each other and ourselves.
When did you feel ready to bring those stories together? How did you know you were ready? What was the decision around that process?
Kao Kalia Yang
I had, after my daughter, given birth to identical twin sons, and I knew that that was it for me. I had coded in the experience of delivering the boys, and the risks were too high. And then one day, Shannon wrote me, and we met up at my favorite coffee shop in the city from the days before this pandemic. That really was where the conversation began. Shannon had, by this time, given birth to her youngest, Mawe. She also knew that it was the end of those years. We could finally meet these stories and place them somewhere in the spectrum of our lives, in ways that we couldn’t have earlier. Before the boys, I would have never been ready to meet Baby Jules in the way that I am able to today. I think we were then ready to carry not only our own stories but the gravity of others. I think that process that happens inside when the heart flowers up, and you know that you can hold a lot more tears than you were able to before.
How did you invite others to join you in this book?
We have extensive contacts ourselves. The writing world is small in general. And then for women of color and indigenous woman, it’s even smaller. But also, we knew that there were people who maybe didn’t consider themselves writers who had stories to tell and just needed a push and some support and some access to create something powerful. We wanted a representative collection. We wanted to make sure that we had Black woman stories, Latina woman stories, Native women’s stories, Asian-American woman stories, and stories for Muslim women—not just women who identify as Christian.
We knew we wanted that, but we also knew we wanted the collection to be very strong writing. I understand that everybody processes things differently, but for me, it just increased my pain because it made me feel more isolated to encounter the stock language around stillbirth and miscarriage, like, “Oh my angel,” you know … “now she’s in heaven, and I know my heart will never be the same.”
Kalia and I are both open people—I’m a little blunter than she is, for sure, although when you get to know her, she’s very blunt in the best way possible. But anyway, when I read literature and stories, I want to be confronted with the truth, especially around pregnancy and birth and infant loss, but a lot of other things, too, like women’s bodies. I’m 46 now, and I don’t know how many more years I’ll have until I go through menopause, but that’s another thing nobody really talks about. Like, what is that actually like in your body?
There are all these things that are shrouded in mystery around women’s bodies, and a lot of it is painful, difficult stuff, so I really wanted stories that were like, no—this is what happened. This is how it felt when I was rushed into the bathroom in the hospital because I thought I had to go to the bathroom, but actually it was my baby coming out. You know, I had to balance one foot on the lever of the toilet, and three doctors rushed in to catch her, and there was blood and gunk everywhere. It’s like, I wanted that. I wanted that real visceral depiction of that, and I wasn’t finding it anywhere—and not in a sensational sense but just like this is what really happens when you go through miscarriage.
We have a piece in here about sudden infant death syndrome, which is also horrifying and very sad. Rona Fernandez, the writer, just depicts that so vividly, and it breaks your heart, but it is incredibly welcome. So, that’s what we wanted. We put out a call, and, I mean, it really wasn’t that laborious, in terms of trying to figure out what pieces we need to make this a multifaceted collection.
I will say I’m glad I had a partner like Kalia. A lot of people have said to us, “Oh my gosh—how could you go through all those stories of women losing babies?” I’m not gonna say it was easy, I’m certainly not going to say it was fun, but I will say I felt called to do this work. That’s the kind of writers that both Kalia and I are, and I think it would have been too much for one person. I really do. I’m very grateful that I had somebody like Kalia to walk the journey with me, and it brought us closer together—definitely much closer together. We’re really close now.
Could you talk about the process of editing the stories while respecting the voices of the women who contributed—the logistics of word choice and narrative structure, all the craft parts of the stories that feel like they could possibly be antithetical to the raw emotion of the women writing the story. But first, Kalia, did you have something to add to what Shannon was saying?
Kao Kalia Yang
I do. I think one of the most important things about this journey for me—and I think for Shannon—is knowing that we were not alone. In putting together this book, we felt our togetherness rise. That was one of the gifts of this experience. For all of the hurting, there was in that so much hope and so much beauty, especially at those early launch events.
In terms of the editing, I think one of the hardest things to ask was for our writers to linger. There were moments, and we knew those moments are so real, when a writer wants to run fast across a landscape of trauma or grief. One of the hardest things we had to ask contributors was to just slow down. And some of them said, “I need more time,” or “every time I try, all I find is tears, all I find is space.”
What Shannon and I had to do was ride that very fine line between being sensitive to the needs of our writers but also guiding this project along. Because we were a group moving in concert; we’re going to the same place, and we could only make it there if we didn’t lose anybody along the way. I think that’s really where the generosity of Shannon’s heart, and the patience of my own, were able to come together.
So, beyond just the word choice, Lara, beyond the level of the language itself, we wanted to give them creative freedom in terms of crafting the thing, so Shannon and I didn’t mess too much with structure. There were parts where we wanted them to linger, parts that needed to be cut a little bit here and there.
This was not a book Shannon or I would have voluntarily said we wanted to write or edit. And yet it was the project that had fallen upon us, as writers. I think when we said we would do it, there was a kind of responsibility that we were taking on, that neither Shannon nor myself wanted to take lightly. That was the hardest part, definitely—I don’t know if Shannon would agree, but I suspect so: asking people to linger.
You know, when you say the face of miscarriage: the baby dropped into your hands, what happened? Soniah Kamal, one of our contributors, wrote that while the baby dropped through her hands, the baby’s body slipped her fingers, but the head was still there, the head the size of a quarter. And what to do with the face of your baby? That question was the question that Soniah wanted to run by. And that was what I asked her as an editor. And her courage astounded me, at the thing she wrote. Shannon and I, you know, our hearts pause for a bit of time. What was it for you?
Yeah, I mean, the amount of bravery and brilliance; all our contributors in the collection pushed us through the really hard parts. And that doesn’t mean there weren’t moments, especially when the book came out, where people had differing responses to certain descriptions of things. People maybe got activated by some kind of discussion, and we had to work through some things, so I don’t want to be romantic about organizing with BIPOC folks because I do a lot of work in that area. I think that just makes things harder in the long run. People are people, regardless of our racial and cultural backgrounds, and regardless of what we’ve been through and made it through and what we carry with us and what we’ve let go of.
We sort of talked about the process of making the book and certainly afterwards, too, because now we have a whole group that we keep up with and share information and good news, stuff like this. People want to jump on and watch and comment and whatnot. We often say that the process of putting the book together is sort of like a template for processing trauma, in a lot of ways.
Kao Kalia Yang
And I’ll just add, Lara, there was the violence of what we had experienced, and then there was the violence from, in so many ways, white majority culture. From the very onset, when we published the call, we got personal messages from white people saying, “Why are you isolating us? Why are you excluding us?” And then, when we got the submissions, white men submitted, and we, as women of color editors, made decisions. We said, I’m sorry, your piece is not a good fit for this collection. We got pushback, and that continued on right to the evening of our launch event. There was a person whose social media icon was a rifle, and they posted in the launch page.
There were all of these forces that we were contending with, beyond just the experiences that we’ve undergone or the experiences of collecting these voices into this collection. We were also meeting certain forces in the majority culture along the way, where Shannon and I understood that there always a measure of risk that we were taking.
I think at every point, the writer decides who you want to be, whether you’re going to give in to these bigger forces that are trying to push down voices and presences like yours, or while you take up that space, and you do so with dignity. And every turn, Shannon and I didn’t respond personally, but we chose to do the work that was before us as courageously as possible. In that way, you’re the process, and you’re the courage that it took to undertake such a project and to carry through with it.
That’s unsurprising but devastating to hear at the same time. Can we talk a little bit about the need for a collection like this to be by women, specifically? A man’s story about miscarriage, of course, is heartbreaking as well, and there’s a pain and a loss there—but this is a collection for women. Could you talk a little bit about the need for women’s stories of loss and giving voice to what happens in a woman’s body? Shannon, you talked a little bit about the language surrounding that. We could talk a little bit about guilt and shame and the way women’s bodies are portrayed in literature generally. Shannon, during our planning meeting, you talked about how women’s bodies are often objectified as sexy or desirable. Is there a place for women’s bodies in other iterations?
I have a lot of favorite movies for a lot of different reasons. In Bridesmaids—Kalia and I bonded over this random scene—they’re all trying on bridesmaids’ outfits, and then they discovered that they’ve eaten this really bad meat at this Brazilian restaurant, and this disgusting, hilarious, revolting scene ensues, where everybody just starts vomiting and diarrhea. And Kristen Wiig, in an interview talking about it, was just like, you know, women are just not really allowed body humor, like full body humor. She’s like, I just wanted to do a full-on bash, unapologetic, woman’s body humor scene. I think that’s one of the reasons why I just love that scene.
That ties into our conversation here because I do feel like there’s these very particular ways that women are embodied in popular culture, and in American dominant discourse. We’re allowed to be objectified sexually, certainly, and in this cult of motherhood, as long as all your buttons are in a row, you know, you can be a mess, but you can’t be a grotesque mess. We don’t want to hear about the fluids. We don’t want to see the fluids. We know that miscarriage and infant loss and dead babies happen, but we don’t really want to know about how that happened in the body and what that feels like and what are the ramifications of that, in terms of recovery and all this stuff. We really don’t want to hear about that as a culture.
I think Kalia would be a good person to talk about the domain of white men in the genre of memoir. It’s just been so dominant for so long, and that definitely is something we want to shatter.
Kao Kalia Yang
Shannon’s absolutely right. And I think it’s important for us to say, as women, and to speak to the truth of a bigger world: maternal health is incredibly understudied. When cars get into accidents, airbags are tested on men dummies, not women. Across the board, when you start talking about marginalized women and their health care, there’s the start of studies, but even on the level of women, we’re less than 30% of all of the research that is done about how safe it is to be in our cars or how medications affect our bodies. We’re under-thought and under-considered—in literature, yes, but also in the medical industry.
For Shannon and I to put together this collection, we were speaking to all of that, as well as the history in this country and other countries, about women and children and the separation. I’m thinking immediately about what’s happening at our southern borders. I’m thinking about the Hmong refugees and what happened in Laos. The Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America came, and said, “We want your children to fight the war”—8, 9, 10, 11 years old. Americans did not make army boots for children. And every time a bomb fell, because Laos is the most heavily bombed nation in the world, only the world didn’t know it, it was the children whose boots fell off their feet first. That’s how people knew that they killed children.
In the African American context, we have this history of slavery. And then, of course, now the school to prison pipeline. There are so many reasons why women are separated from their children in this country that we as a country have never reckoned with.
This book brings all of that grief into focus. Beyond experiences of miscarriage and infant loss, we’re talking about all of the forces that have created all these divisions, all the sad, broken mothers, mothers who have to be stronger than they are to hold some idea of family and legacy. I knew at the onset that we were tackling all of these things. By focusing on the very specifics, we speak to the universal. And so that is exactly what we’re doing here.
I have younger sisters who are in graduate school, and they read this book, because I co-edited it, and one of them had been a women and gender studies major, and she said, “I wish we had a book like this. College women need books like this.” This is also what happened to our bodies. And the fact is, as a women and gender studies student myself, there were no such books in my experience, so there are all of these secrets that we are forced into hiding from each other, from other women, all along the way. Part of the work of this project is to begin to make some noise. We need representation in research. We need representation in literature. But more importantly, we need you to understand that our lives are important to the whole of this operation. The human experiment.
Thank you. You’ve just got me streaming tears here. Sorry. Shannon, go ahead.
My mom, who’s a former therapist, always says we’re a grief-averse culture, and most western cultures are. We don’t want to deal with grief. I don’t want to appropriate Hmong culture, but it has ceremonies and outlets in place to help people productively channel their grief in a way that we don’t culturally have in mainstream American culture, and that has all these ramifications. You can’t let go of something if you haven’t had it moved through you.
Shannon, something else you mentioned in our planning session was that women as caretakers protect others from our own pain. Can you talk a little bit about that, about what our conditioning as caretakers sets us up for when experiencing loss like this?
It looks like Kalia wanted to say something.
Kao Kalia Yang
I was just thinking about how, yes, we have rituals in place, but in this pandemic, all of those rituals for grief have been effectively obliterated. We cannot grieve together. That is the essence of communal grief, and we cannot grieve together, so I think about that and about the layering of that for women who have undergone miscarriage and infant loss in this pandemic. These are the undercurrents of our existences. They’re not on pause because we’re going through something else right now. I cannot begin to conceive of what it must have been like for so many women who’ve experienced loss at this time, when our focus is on the magnitude of this big thing and all of the tests related to COVID that we are suffering from. Also layered and complicated is that onion of womanhood that nobody really wants to peel back the surface of. I think this speaks directly to the responsibilities and goals of so many women as caretakers.
Totally. Thank you for that current contextualization. I was just reading a story in the Washington Post, talking about grieving from the perspective of psychologists and therapists, and I’ve definitely seen it with my friends who have lost loved ones during the pandemic. It just makes it so much harder when you cannot say goodbye and gather with people.
So, the book launched in October 2019, so we had probably a good six months of events at bookstores. We have a really vibrant book industry and bookish culture here in the Twin Cities that’s very supportive. The audiences were always smaller than we thought they might be—again because this is such a difficult topic, I think, for folks to embrace—but there was one woman I remember, an older white woman who came up to me after I read my piece, and said, “You just said it. You just said, ‘The baby’s dead.’” She looked like she was in her 60s, maybe. She was like, “I never felt like I could say that, just say what happened. I had to sort of dance around it delicately—she didn’t make it, we lost her, or she’s in heaven now. I never could just lay out the bare truth of my baby died. She’s dead. Because I knew that other people couldn’t handle it, and I had to take care of them and their emotional needs.”
And it just struck me. I mean, I felt like in this process, so many older women have come up to us and shared these stories. Earlier times, when our culture was even more closed about these losses than we are now, and just the added layers of grief that that created for them, that they are still working through, because a woman is never going to forget a baby that she’s had ever, no matter what the outcome is. A friend told me her mom was on her deathbed and wasn’t ready to go. Everybody has different belief systems, but she saw her child that she had lost, her baby that she had lost, and then she was ready.
I’ll read just a little bit from my piece. It’s called “Sianneh: The Trip Was Good.”
I don’t want to be here.
I lie down on the bed.
The doctor sits on the chair beside me. She squirts some transmission fluid on my raised stomach, and an image of a baby lying on her back, feet up, comes onto the screen. The baby is not moving. The baby has no heartbeat.
Two more doctors come into the room and stand next to [my midwife] Amy, who is seated in the corner.
“Okay,” says the doctor with the ultrasound probe. “So yes. The baby has no heartbeat.” She puts the ultrasound probe down and stands up.
I look from her back to the screen, and the baby still isn’t moving. “Okay,” I say. I want to ask her how to get the heartbeat started again, but some part of my brain is telling me not to say that.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m so sorry.”
I look to Amy, then each of the three doctors beside her. Discomfort drains their faces, though I can see they are trying hard to mask it. I wonder how it feels to have to tell a woman something like that and then still be expected to remain professional. It must not be easy. I asked if I can go to the bathroom.
Once inside the bathroom, I grip the sink until my knuckles are white, and stare into the spotless mirror. The woman looking back at me has dark -brown eyes that hold nothing. What was once a sharp chin is now round and plump. Her hair freezes all over from the humidity. I turn on the faucet as high as it will go, and flush the toilet. Then I scream. The woman in the mirror screams and lets go the sink as she does it. She wonders if she is just a copy of herself today, and if her real self is back at home, washing dishes. She does not want to go back into the patient room, because she knows they will tell her what she has to do next, and she does not want to know what she has to do next. She does not want to leave the bathroom, because she will have to say to her husband, Our baby is dead. She does not want to call her mother, because her mother will cry, and nothing will make her stop. She does not like to see or hear her mother cry. She will have to rewrite the story of the pregnancy, and the baby coming, the happy house, her young son so eager to be a brother. Now the story will center on a chapter in which the eagerly awaited baby dies in utero, never to be cuddled and warmed in her arms, never to scream and demand a diaper change, never to suckle her breast. The woman does not want that story. She is not ready for it, for what it will mean—not just now, today, tonight, but forever, for the rest of her life. The weight of that story could crush all other stories of her life and the lives of those she loves. She does not want that. She is too tired, and she wants to sleep. She wants to awaken.
I place my hand on my belly and tell my baby I love her. Then I open the door. I shuffle slolwy back to the room, telling myself this is real with every step.
“What do I have to do?” I ask them.
Thank you, Shannon. It seems like an obvious question to ask, and I know that you both have been asked this question. You’ve told me that people ask you, why can’t you just get over it? It shouldn’t even be a question somebody should ask. I think anyone who hears your stories would immediately understand why you can’t just get over it—but could you talk about that question and the how it’s been asked of you, and why women are expected just to get over something that is so powerful?
Kao Kalia Yang
For me, the question really begins with us, not in the history books of America. When people read about American history, they read about the Vietnam War, what happened in the war to the Americans. They don’t read about the 32,000 men and boys commissioned to fight and to die on America’s behalf in Laos. They don’t write about the countless women and children who were slaughtered in that war. We are secret because the Central Intelligence Agency expected that none of us would surface from the hot humid jungle, where we felt like jungle fruit, rotting among the leaves. And yet, here I am.
People ask me all the time, who are you? And where are you from? And I try to explain, but nothing makes sense until I talk about that war. Nothing makes sense about how I am and who I am until I speak to the undocumented. The same is true of my miscarriage, who I am as a mother, who I am as a wife, who I am as a daughter, who I am as a friend, who I am as a human being.
My husband and I go back to this very, very tiny moment. Three months after the miscarriage, I go to my mom and dad’s house. My mom had seven miscarriages after I was born, but I’m sitting on their toilet, and I’m not crying, but I feel liquid on my thighs, and I looked down and I noticed that it’s the milk coming from my chest, from my breast, that without a baby, my body is creating a substance that falls in the wake of my tears. And I start crying because I don’t know what to do and I don’t quite know how to navigate the moment. I hear this gentle knock on the outside of the door, and my mom says, “I’m here.” And that was enough. You know, that was enough. I knew what was waiting for me when that door opened.
In many ways, I imagined that one day when I’m very old, when my children are grown up, and if I don’t remember any more, that this book here means that when I opened that door, there will be someone there who understands, there will be someone there that gets at the heart of who I am. Why is this book necessary? Because I know that that door opens for everyone, and when it is my turn, even if I don’t remember any more, I wanted to remind me of myself—what it has cost, what it has given, what it has granted, in this experience.
There are so much many parts to that question. Because it’s not about getting over; it’s really about acceptance. What is real? This really happened? No. I grew this person inside of me, and they died before they came out, and that is something that is written in my body forever. It’s written on my soul, and that’s not something I have a choice about. I have a choice about whether I share how that affects me, which is really what that question is pointing to. I don’t want you to share this with me because it makes me feel pain, and I don’t want that, which is a normal human response. It’s misguided. There’s no way you can avoid pain as a human being. Plenty of people who try usually end up with other problems, like addiction but no meaningful relationships in their lives. It just doesn’t work.
And the thing about it is, the reason why I feel pain, such searing pain that cleaves you, just cleaves you, is because of the immensity of the love that I had and still have for my daughter. You can’t have one thing without the other. You just can’t. That’s the problem with this whole grief-averse culture. Oh, I just want to be happy. Well, then you’re gonna have to be sad sometimes. That’s just the way it goes.
People always comment on my two living children, how they always mention their sister all the time. I’ve got a sister—oh, but I’ve got another one. She’s just dead. To him, it’s just a fact, right? He loved her and she’s not here now. And they make up all kinds of stuff, like if she were here, we’d have to get a bigger car. It wouldn’t be enough. We’d have to get another bedroom. There wouldn’t be enough room for her. “She’d probably laugh at that joke because Molly laughed at it”—you know, whatever, all this stuff.
My mom was talking to my son recently. They were making this book project together. And they had a whole two-page spread about her, and my mom was like, “Some people don’t like to talk about people they love who have died.” And she said my boy’s face just fell, and he was like, “Why?” And she’s like, “Because they don’t want to feel sad.” And he’s like, “But she’s my sister.”
It’s just a question that doesn’t have a response because it answers itself. Like, why did you walk here? Because I walked here. Why do you love me? Because I love you. In the Buddhist tradition, we call it a Kōan. Like, there is no answer.
That touches on something I’ve always wondered about: the traditional three-month period where you aren’t supposed to tell people you’re pregnant, in case you lose the child. I remember telling just my closest family that I was pregnant; I wanted the people I loved and who loved me to know I was pregnant so that if I lost the baby, they could gather around me and support me and help me through it. Although I didn’t tell my boss or my friends or anyone else beyond my family, if I were to get pregnant again, I think I would tell everyone widely, as soon as I knew, for just that reason.
That goes back to the ruling last week in New Zealand, where women now have a grieving period when they’ve suffered a miscarriage. Why that isn’t the norm in the United States probably goes back to ingrained biases about health care and women’s health. What I’m getting at is: What do you both think about that three-month waiting period? And do you agree with me that it protects others from the possibility of your pain, and then ostensibly puts you in a position where if you suffer loss, you’re suffering in silence?
Kao Kalia Yang
I think one of the most beautiful things about that is that it acknowledges there is a loss to begin with. That is still a question. How many months? How many weeks before a loss becomes valid? Women will say, “Oh, but mine is nothing like yours.” Or it was too early. There was this whole discomfort around the language. What is valid? What are we allowed to feel in the space and time of three months, acknowledging that we’ve suffered something and that our hearts our body need time to gather itself? I think that is the gift of an acknowledgement. It is kind of the opposite of what goes on in this country, in so many countries, where we’re expected to continue with life, as if that part of our living bodies had never happened.
And also, a lot can happen any time. I mean, my case, I’m one in a million, right? There are women who have all kinds of predispositions toward dangerous birth outcomes and all kinds of things. I wasn’t one of them. I was in perfect health, nothing was wrong, and I lost my baby 10 days after she was due. She was a full-term baby. I hate to tell people, but it’s a myth. It’s this mythology, right? It’s sort of like, “Oh, is it safe after three months?” It’s like, no. Then it gets to, well, who are we really protecting here?
Yeah, it’s not something you hear about in childbirth classes or when you go to the hospital tour. In my case, they didn’t even talk about the possibility of a C-section. It was all, like, “Oh, but none of you probably will need to worry about that.” Of course, most of us probably need to think about what would happen if we needed a C-section. I’d rather know. And, of course, miscarriages are never mentioned in any of those classes. Then you’re left trying to seek out your own support and resources after the fact, when you’re least equipped to do so. Kalia, you mentioned early on that you wanted to talk about how this experience has changed you as a writer.
Kao Kalia Yang
I’ve always loved languages. But when I suffered the loss, the baby who died inside of me, when it was time for me to write again, I had the hardest time trusting words. It was as if the language itself had betrayed me. All of the beautiful words that I stored inside my heart for a time when I would need it, none of them were able to do the job.
It took having Shengyeng, and I want to say this because it is true. If I had never had Shengyeng, if the baby I lost was as close as it came for me, that experience would be fundamentally different in my life. But because there was Shengyeng, I remember when she was first born, I was holding her feet in my hands, and I could feel the throbbing of her heart, and I remember being, perhaps 6 years old, and holding a little bird for the very first time and feeling the beat of the bird’s heart. Something inside of me was able to fly again, because of her. But the flight was now so much more treacherous than I had ever imagined. I knew the fragility of life in a way that I couldn’t have conceived of. And now I think whenever I write, I write from this place, that cherishes life so much more than before. Before, life was this gift that I’d been granted and I could explore in any way that I wanted to—run across its terrain, jump and fly, whatever I wanted to do, dig if I wanted. But now there’s this kind of gentleness with which I approach all living things, because of the loss of the living thing inside of me, because of my own fragile life in the days after. There were so many moments when, if I closed my eyes, I believed I could slow my heart. And I believed I could die right along with my baby. Just close my eyes and slow everything down. I never knew that could happen before. And now because I know that, that informs everything I do on the page, the sensitivity of my touch, the gentleness of my regard for everything that lives; how hard it is to live. I wanted to speak to that, how we are forever changed by our experiences, and how these experiences enable and embody so much of who we are across the realms of our lives.
Thank you, Kalia. Shannon, same question to you.
I’m a very high-functioning person, and I couldn’t do anything for like, two months, maybe more. My best friend flew out from New York, and she organized my friends here into different tasks. People brought us food, people took out the trash, people washed dishes, people picked up my son and dropped him off at daycare. I literally could not do anything, and my body was healing, but my mind was not there. It took time for me to come back to language, to the written word. I, too, couldn’t write for a while, which is really hard because writing and reading are a really a big part of how I make sense of the world and my experience in it. So that was hard. I wasn’t scared about it because I knew it would come back when it was time.
I think the experience has made me a different kind of parent, too, because when you’ve had a loss like that, you know how fragile and lucky you are for all the life that you have. With my next pregnancy, it’s like hyper-vigilance, to an unhealthy level, when she was in utero and after she came out. Both my children. I will check on them even still now, when they’re sleeping. I just want to make sure they’re breathing and there’s no problem, because it can just be snatched away from you, at the smallest moment and when you’re not looking or maybe even when you are. It’s not up to you, at a certain level, and is therefore terrifying and also humbling.
I feel deeply that if you’re writing and you’re not telling the truth, I don’t know why you would write. We can’t choose the truth that we’ve been tasked to document. That’s what has been given to us, and sometimes it might feel too heavy, and sometimes it might be too heavy, but that also is how it is. I feel like it’s changed me in so many different ways. Certainly, before becoming a mother, I wasn’t writing about motherhood. And certainly, before stillbirth and pregnancy loss, I wasn’t writing about that or even really thinking about that. And those are definitely huge. They become huge parts of my writing.
Thank you both so much. Kalia, do you have anything final to add?
Kao Kalia Yang
Just want to say thank you for having us. And Shannon, I want to say this to you. I don’t think I’ve ever formally said these words aloud. Your grace and your generosity as a human being, as a mother, as a friend, and a sister has been a gift to me, not only in the making of this book but in making the world softer and gentler. We know what’s going on across this country. You know, particularly with AAPI hate presently. But even in this moment, your friendship and your generosity has somehow made everything easier. It’s easier for me to go outside among strangers, because I know there are some strangers like you in the world. I wanted to say that to you, that yes, our journey began with What God Is Honored Here, but our journey travels far beyond that. Thank you both.
Thank you, Kalia. Kalia is as gorgeous a speaker as she is a writer. I think that that’s the other gift of this project. I have a soul friend, and that’s also somebody that has your back, too. And there’s, unfortunately, far too few examples of that for African-American women and Asian-American women. Kalia and I both talk about our friendship publicly, because we want a model that for other people, what the possibilities can look like.
Privately, in our own friendship, it’s like we just try to support each other, professionally and personally. Sometimes, it can be very hard being a woman of color writer. Being a writer is hard anyway, and then if you come from a historically marginalized community, it’s just another level of difficulty, so we really try to leverage our resources and our knowledge and our connections, so I just also want to thank you, Kalia, for being this real light in my life and through this process.
And, Lara, thank you for having us on for this really important conversation. We appreciate you making the time.
Thank you both for joining me, for your honesty, for your advocacy for your book, and just for yourselves.