Shannon Gibney and Kao Kalia Yang
Miscarriage. Stillbirth. Neonatal loss. Fetal and infant death.
None of these words were new to us. We were writers. We were women. We were daughters. We were mothers, we were on our way to becoming mothers. And yet, our knowing the words could not prepare us for the experience of them. None of who we had been could have prepared us for who we would become in the wake of these words.
Grief is a lonely place we have all visited by ourselves, occasionally with others. Some of us have built homes to house our grief. Others shiver in the storms that break, unsure of where to hide, how to hide, whether they want to hide. Each of us, in our own ways and for many of us through our words, has encountered grief. All of us have awoken from despair only to find ourselves forsaken on its shores.
Six years after the loss of Baby Jules, a miscarriage at nineteen weeks, even in the years after when I, Kalia, had given birth to a living daughter and two living sons, I still feel the ghost of him swimming inside of me late at night and early in the morning when the world is quiet and dark. When the bigness of the sky enters through the window of our bedroom, when my husband is on his left side lost in his sleep, when behind the wall of our bed, I can make out the twists and turns of my sleeping children, my hands move high on my soft belly, so I can feel the force of life within me. In the space of quiet possibility, Baby Jules moves inside of me, no longer as low as he had been. In fact, less than in my womb, he now swims close to my beating heart.
Four years after my first daughter, Sianneh, died inside me at forty-one and a half weeks, I, Shannon, feel her everywhere. She never made it into this particular world, but she made a home of me for nine long months, growing and becoming. Cradling her long, thin body in my arms after she was born, I had a new knowledge of how love can cleave you from the inside out, waiting, dreaming, hoping for a baby to take a breath who can never take a breath. Waiting for the truth to become something living.
There is no recovery from the loss of life’s possibilities. We both tried, in our different ways, to make peace with what had transpired. I, Kalia, talked to my mother, who had been a warrior by my side through the work of bringing my quiet, transparent little boy into the world, a woman who had herself experienced seven miscarriages in her life. I, Shannon, spoke with my mother, who had been a neonatal nurse, caring for premature, sick, and dying babies for more than twenty-five years. Each of them, in their love for us, in the breadth and wisdom of their experiences, did what they could to try and piece together our broken hearts. We found solace and solidarity in our pain with our partners, our friends, and our communities. But it was the simple knowledge that we were not alone in the experience—we had never been and would never be—that taught us both that life would continue as if our babies had never lived if we didn’t do something to commemorate their existence, all of their existences. Although we would never do the work of raising them, we had to raise ourselves, do the hard work of living in the absence of who they and we could have been together.
In the days, months, and years after, we both looked desperately for answers in medical studies, statistics, in literature, and in life for some response to our experiences beyond the immense loss. We were doing what we had been trained to do as writers: finding meaning in human experience.
We looked near and far, but there were no satisfying medical explanations in our cases. In America, miscarriage and stillbirths are classified into three broad categories: problems with the baby, such as birth defects and/or genetics; placenta or umbilical cord problems, an unsustainable exchange of oxygen and nutrients from a mother to her child and vice versa; or the health condition of the mother, things such as uncontrolled diabetes, high blood pressure, and/or obesity—all health factors that are linked to class and race in this country. Like most women who experience pregnancy loss, fetal death, and infant death, we received no explanations from the doctors for what had happened.
Like the medical explanations, the statistics were not helpful in explaining what happened to us. In fact, they troubled us further. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in the general population of the United States, 15 to 20 percent of pregnant women will experience a miscarriage in their lifetime, and stillbirths affect about 1 percent of all pregnancies. This means that each year about 600,000 women in America experience losses, and about 24,000 babies are stillborn. In 2015, the overall infant mortality rate was 5.9 percent for every 1,000 births. This is already a high rate for a rich, industrialized country such as the United States. But the numbers become even more disturbing when disaggregated by race. Again, according to the CDC, in 2015 infant mortality rates per 1,000 live births were 11.3 percent for black babies, 8.3 percent for American Indian babies, 5 percent for Latinx babies, 4.9 percent for white babies, and 4.2 percent for Asian American babies. In fact, according to the CDC, a risk factor for miscarriage and stillbirth is “being of the black race.”
There is a growing body of research that confirms that the stress from racism that black mothers—and we can assume other women of color and indigenous women experiencing systemic oppression in this country—endure throughout their lifetimes makes it more difficult to carry their babies to full term. In a 2017 article for National Public Radio, “Stress from Racism May Be Causing African American Babies to Die More Often,” Rhitu Chatterjee writes:
In 2004, [Richard] David [neonatologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago] and [James] Collins [Northwestern University Medical School] published a study in the American Journal of Public Health in which they reported the connection between a mother’s experience of racism and preterm birth. They asked women about their housing, income, health habits and discrimination. “It turned out that as a predictor of very low birth weight outcome, these racial discrimination questions were more powerful than asking a woman whether or not she smoked cigarettes,” David says.
Other studies have shown the same results.
While the research is confirming what many of us women of color know about our bodies and our lives in a landscape where white supremacy’s reach goes far and deep, it also points to the historical and ongoing medical research gender gap.
We know far less about women’s health, including pregnancy, because women have been historically and persistently excluded from toxicology and biomedical research. Funding for studies focused on women’s health issues in particular are few and far between. All of these issues are critical and must be tackled in earnest if we are to get to the bottom of disproportionate infant loss and miscarriage among women of color in this country, much less have any chance of changing it.
Furthermore, in a country that had 23,000 infant deaths in 2015, there is little to no public talk of these babies, their lives in the world or in utero, or the dreams of the families they carried with them. In many ways, for the mothers and families who lost these babies, the inability and lack of public space to talk about them are a second death. The silence makes us feel as if there is something fundamentally wrong with wanting and needing to remember our children, no matter how short their lives may have been. But if there is one lesson that has emerged from these tragedies, it is that our individual and collective healing is intimately bound up in the process of remembering them and us when we were with them, even if it means we must also remember and survive once again the moments when we lost them.
In that spirit, in the course of each of our journeys of loss, we looked to what we both love for answers: literature. Alas, all that we could find for grieving mothers was written by white women and often reflected only their experiences, and thus without thought or intention marked the disappearance of our own experiences as grieving mothers, as women of color. Where were the pregnancies like ours? Where were the babies like ours? Where were we in this world of longing?
After the loss of our pregnancies and babies, we both knew we wanted to write of our experiences individually, but we had a suspicion that we needed each other’s strength to finish the work. Still, we couldn’t get ourselves to the page because we were not yet ready, so we let the days turn into nights, the moon orbit around the earth, the earth orbit around the sun, and we watched our stories of motherhood change and each other grow in the changes. We both had more children. We both came to a place where we knew the children we had were the only ones we would give birth to. Our stories of our childbearing years were playing themselves out. Finally, five years after the loss of Baby Jules, and four years after the loss of Baby Sianneh, we were ready to be found, to find ourselves on the pages—with our fellow indigenous women and women of color.
As storytellers, we wanted to dive into and recuperate the narrative gap. We wanted the women and families who experienced fetal and infant death to be able to represent themselves and their particular truths. We wanted the babies who have been lost to become embodied and to discard their ghostly presence in the larger societal narrative. We, lovers of language, wanted to journey into the landscape of loss with other indigenous women and women of color and to return from it, with a token of what could and could not be delivered in the promise of motherhood, in the living and the dying that we go through as daughters, sisters, and mothers. This project is our claim on our lives as indigenous women and women of color who have experienced infant and fetal loss, in its many forms.
What we found through embarking on this project was each other: two women of color writers who had experienced gut-wrenching loss that was nowhere in the public discourse. Kalia, as a Hmong American writer and refugee, had written about the struggles of being Asian American in a white cultural context before but never in the context of herself as a mother. Likewise, being a mixed black transracial adoptee, Shannon had written about how blackness and gender intersect in her fiction and nonfiction, but somehow the role of mother and the experience of loss in this area hadn’t made their way into her work. Both of us deeply respected each other’s work and had a sense that we had the opportunity to create a much-needed space for expression, exploration, and connection between and among indigenous women and women of color who had lived through devastating loss. Once we fully committed to the project, we put out a call for submissions, and as we started sifting through the many incredible pieces we received, we began to realize that this work was healing us, and that we were healing each other.
The myriad women who courageously sent us their stories of unforeseen tragedy, of the often not-so-hidden racism and sexism of the medical establishment, of the small and sharp and sometimes even blunt words and actions of people after the fact that only made things worse, buoyed us and let us really feel the import and urgency of this work. Although their mode of expression was words, what they were really doing, what we were really doing, was expelling, processing, and addressing trauma. This was further reflected in the time revising that many of these women tirelessly put in to make their already resonant pieces stronger. “I’m sorry I’m behind schedule. This is harder to revisit than I thought,” was a message we received often. “I just seem to sit in front of the computer and stare. I can’t seem to get it out,” was another. In response to an editorial note that we needed an author to slow down and linger in a scene longer, she said tearfully, “I just realized I wrote it like that because I didn’t want to acknowledge how violent that experience was—the way the hospital staff treated me as a black woman. I didn’t want to see that and feel that again.” Throughout the course of a long winter, lit by the fires inside our wombs and our hearts, we journeyed together far and deep into ourselves, across generations of mothers and daughters, to deliver to each other our most honest, poignant, and precious experiences of miscarriage and infant loss.
For the two of us, holding and helping to shape these stories, creating a vessel to adequately carry them and share them with the world has been an honor and a privilege—one that we are so grateful for, as it has brought us much closer together both professionally and personally. There are not many stories of black and Asian American women coming together through loss in American popular culture, but we know through the process of putting this book together that our lives have been forever transformed by each other’s. We experienced how indigenous women and women of color connecting through loss and storytelling can create lifelong friendships that anchor us and foster power and community among each other.
The title for this collection, What God Is Honored Here?, comes from Lucille Clifton’s quotation of a lyric from The Gospel at Colonus in her poem “eyes,” collected in her book Quilting: Poems, 1987–1990. Clifton, who herself experienced miscarriage and wrote of it beautifully in a piece called “the lost baby poem,” which we share in the pages that follow, was no stranger to the faith and the fears of women and mothers. In the meeting of life and death, each of us, in our own separate worlds beneath our own separate skies, has asked the question, “What God is honored here?” When the doctor looks meaningfully at the lab technician and in the still cold of the air utters words that make no sense, still now, years later: “I’m sorry. The heart has stopped. Your baby is dead.” When you ask yourself and those around you who are supposed to be medical experts what the best path, or any path, forward is, and there is no answer. Alone in your bedroom in the small hours of morning, the hollow in your belly growing with each inbreath, you may well ask the mute wall: “What God is honored here?” And what you may find, while reading through the stories contained here, is that paradoxically in your aloneness you were actually in community with women you couldn’t see or hear but whose knowledge of loss lay as deep in their organs as their/your babies once did.
This anthology is a collection of voices from indigenous women and women of color who have experienced those words that so many of us were familiar with but only in the aftermath of what happened realized where their meanings live, words that now pause our hearts: miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal loss, fetal and infant death. This is a collection with award-winning writers and poets as well as women who are first-time writers. These women are writing of matter that barely became babies, of babies that they carried for weeks and months, to term and past term, of complex medical procedures to remove “tissue,” and of vaginal births. Some women’s experiences are deeply intertwined with their cultural and spiritual backgrounds, while for others, these issues are immaterial. We raise our voices together, indigenous women and women of color from across the expanse of this country, across the generations of women, to speak to our experiences of miscarriage and infant loss not simply to fill a void but to build bridges of hope and healing from that void, to say to each other: we are here.
Here, where we are important and our children matter profoundly to us, in the space where they were and where they continue to be.
Chatterjee, Rhitu. “Stress from Racism May Be Causing African American Babies to Die More Often.” NPR. https://www.npr.org/sectionshealth-shots/2017/12/20/570777510/how-racism-may-cause-black-mothers-to-suffer-the-death-of-their-infants. December 20, 2017. Accessed on April 1, 2018.
Danielsson, Krissi. “Making Sense of Miscarriage Statistics.” VeryWell Family, March 21, 2018. https://www.verywellfamily.com/making-sense-of-miscarriage-statistics-2371721. Accessed on April 2, 2018.
“Infant Mortality.” Centers for Disease Control. https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/maternalinfanthealth/infantmortality.htm. Accessed on April 1, 2018.
“The Medical Research Gender Gap: How Excluding Women from Clinical Trials Is Hurting Our Health.” Guardian. April 30, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/apr/30/fda-clinical-trials-gender-gap-epa-nih-institute-of-medicine-cardiovascular-disease. Accessed on April 1, 2018.
Quinn, Molly, and Victor Fujimoto. “Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Assisted Reproductive Technology Access and Outcomes.” Fertility and Sterility 105, no. 5 (May 2016).
Statistics Brain. “Pregnancy Statistics.” September 2016. https://www.statisticbrain.com/pregnancy-statistics/. Accessed on April 2, 2018.