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Opinion: The problem with 'bereavement' leave after pregnancy loss

April 7, 2021. Summarized by summa-bot.

Compression ratio: 46%. 2 min read.

New Zealand's designation of paid leave following pregnancy loss is a welcome development for all who care about workers' well-being and workplace equity, says historian Lara Freidenfelds. But such policies need a different name, she argues.

Lara Freidenfelds, PhD, is the author of "The Myth of the Perfect Pregnancy: A History of Miscarriage in America" (Oxford University Press, 2020), and "The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

About 20% of recognized pregnancies miscarry, mostly in the first months of gestation.

Last month New Zealand broke new ground with a national policy of "Bereavement Leave" following miscarriage.

A language of "loss," not "bereavement," would better support the full range of experiences and understandings of miscarriage.

Putting the term into policy unnecessarily imposes a single interpretation, forecloses other possibilities that carry less emotional burden, and may even impose a new burden of guilt and shame on those who seek a different way to understand miscarriage.

For some people, this describes their emotions and their interpretation of the situation after an early pregnancy loss.

For others, the loss of a wanted pregnancy may be sad and disturbing, but not equivalent to the death of a child.

When a friend or acquaintance of mine suffers a miscarriage, I always say, "I'm sorry for your loss. " This phrasing, commonly used for condolence messages, appropriately acknowledges the gravity of the situation for someone who regards their miscarriage as the death of a child.

Historically speaking, regarding a first-trimester loss as the death of a person is quite new.

Until the 19th century, physicians generally understood early losses as misbegotten pregnancies rather than stillborn children.

A host of cultural and technological innovations have radically reshaped our experiences of pregnancy over the past century or so.

Ultrasound scanning of pregnancy became routine in the 1980s, creating a new pregnancy ritual of "meeting the baby" via scan, and in the 2000s, that ritual was transplanted onto a new routine scan at around 8 weeks' gestation, when the miscarriage rate is still high.

Home pregnancy tests, introduced onto the American market in 1978, have become more and more sensitive, catching so many unviable pregnancies (many of which in previous eras would have gone entirely undetected) that a person who tests at the earliest possible moment has nearly a 1 in 3 chance of miscarrying.

Some couples may accept this new cultural understanding of pregnancy and find valuable emotional support in understanding their sadness after miscarriage as bereavement.

Whatever a couple's experience, some time for self-care and healing after a pregnancy loss is valuable and important.

As governments and corporations consider following New Zealand's lead, they should create policies that provide "leave for recovering from loss," so that our legal frameworks do not trap us in just one definition of a complicated and difficult experience.

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