Family Matters

George W. Bush, His Mom and Her Fetus: Not So Weird After All

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It’s America’s fixation with happily ever after that’s partially responsible for the uneasy silence with which we approach miscarriage. Yet it’s nearly as much a part of conception as happy endings are. At least one in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage; if a woman miscarries before she was due to get her period, some estimates say rates soar as high as 50%. It’s a miracle we get born at all.

Yet days after George W. Bush told NBC’s Matt Lauer in an interview to promote his new memoir, Decision Points, that he drove his mother to the hospital as she cradled a jar containing her miscarried fetus, people are still freaking out.

“She says to her teenage kid, ‘Here’s a fetus,’” Bush told Lauer on camera. “There’s no question that it affected me.” (More on Time.comLate-Term Abortions: Q&A With the Last Remaining Doctor Who Performs Them)

Many commentators criticized Barbara Bush’s behavior. The Daily Mail called the disclosure “astonishing.” The Daily Beast termed it “bizarre.”

Astonishing? Bizarre? Hardly. Deeply personal and heartbreaking? Very.

But Barbara Bush’s decision to store and transport the fetus for medical inspection will hardly shock any woman who’s undergone a miscarriage at home. I didn’t use a glass jar; I used a Tupperware container, which my husband mercifully disposed of — along with the rest of the Tupperware set, because seeing it, let alone using it, was too distressing — after my doctor analyzed what’s known in the OB/GYN business as “POC”: products of conception. I, like Barbara Bush, was not engaging in maudlin behavior. Women are typically instructed to bring the contents of a miscarriage to their doctor’s office or hospital for examination. It’s doctor’s orders, not a creepy scene from some prenatal horror flick. (More on A Photographic Farewell to Bush)

Bush remarked that seeing what would have been his brother or sister strengthened his anti-abortion position, and more than  a few abortion opponents took his comments as a shout-out to the anti-abortion crowd; that’s another topic entirely. But actually, Bush insisted, illustrating his “evolution of a pro-life point of view” wasn’t why he recounted the anecdote. He was, he said, trying to emphasize that sharing such a powerful experience with his mother served mostly to draw them closer.

In fact, the world’s largest study of couples who miscarry found — not surprisingly — that women want others to understand what they’re going through. Published last year in the Journal of Women’s Health and Gender-Based Medicine, the study tracked 341 couples who suffered a miscarriage to discern what interventions proved helpful. Women’s grief resolved quicker with counseling, “self-care” therapy involving videos and workbooks or a combination of both, researchers found.

“Let’s put ourselves in Barbara Bush’s position,” says Kristen Swanson, the study’s lead investigator and a nurse who is also dean of the nursing school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). “She’s home, bleeding, cramping and passes the fetus. She scoops it up, puts it in a jar and says, Drive me to the hospital. She says to her son, I’m in the middle of a miscarriage, and this is the fetus that I just passed. There is nothing sinister in this.” (More on Why are Anorexics More Likely to Have Unplanned Pregnancies and Abortions?)

Swanson also found that a third of couples who’ve miscarried feel more distant a year later, according to the women. Those who don’t report that are those women and men who talk about what happened.

Looking at the fetus, touching and holding it is healing, says Swanson. Yet it’s not socially acceptable. Who would dare take issue with a parent holding a sick, dying child? Yet looking at, let alone holding, a fetus makes society cringe.

Women who’ve miscarried aren’t repulsed, though. When Swanson has counseled them, she specifically asks whether they saw the fetus. They look at her, their eyes well up and they begin to describe what they saw — buds of limbs, miniaturized perfection — and then they start sobbing. “Every time this happens, you know they’ve invited you into a sacred space of something deeply personal that they get very little opportunity to talk about,” she says. (More on 5 Pregnancy Taboos Explained (or Debunked))

Regardless of what you think about the Bush family, this is one instance in which mother and son deserve neither scorn nor praise. They were just living life — and dealing with its loss — in the best way they knew how.

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