Yesterday, it poured with rain. My heart was heavy and it was a fitting sound. As a child, my grandmother told me that the rain was cleansing and washed all the dirt out of our lives; yesterday I hoped that was true. There were many things Maami didn’t tell me though – like how susceptible Romani women are to miscarriage and how I would come to experience it in my life.
According to a 2007 study in the UK, “significantly more Gypsies and Travellers experienced one or more miscarriages: 43 (29%) Gypsy and Traveller women compared with 18 (16%) of the comparison group” [Health Status of Gypsies and Travellers in England – Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. 2007 Mar; 61(3): 198–204].
Two days after I found out I was pregnant, I dreamed I miscarried. Six weeks later I bled for the first time. I knew at that moment what had happened, but held out hope for the next six as the doctors tried to help me.
But, they couldn’t.
In Romani families, women don’t talk about these things. Menstruation, uterine bleeding, miscarriage, and still birth are all seen as unclean, polluting, negative issues. Even the process of giving birth to a healthy, happy baby is considered dirty. I found out by accident that Maami had four miscarriages and lost 5 of her 8 children (including my father’s twin brother) in infancy. My mother, aunt, Baba, and other female relatives all suffered multiple miscarriages, still births, and lost children. Not all of this is due to our history and experience of cultural trauma, alcoholism, and abject poverty.
According to a 2011 Guardian article, “Romani and Traveller women are three times more likely to miscarry or have a still-born child compared to the rest of the population. The rate of suicides is also significantly higher than in the general population, and life expectancy is low for women and men, with one third dying before the age of 59” [The Big Fat Truth About Gypsy Life].
But, no one is talking about this, especially not in our communities.
As a Romani woman I feel unclean, ostracized, and silenced. I feel that being honest about what has happened and my state of mind is simply not permitted. It’s a lonely, difficult time made even worse by the [outdated] rules that exist in our families and larger communities. At this difficult time in a woman’s life, she is to be avoided as she is seen as unclean and unlucky. It’s hard to say for how long – some consider miscarriage to be “birth” and the woman must be avoided for six weeks. Other’s say only until all bleeding has stopped [which could be more or less than six weeks]. Other women can be with her, but even then (in my experience) they tend not to talk about the event in any real, concrete way. There are many other issues surrounding obstetric care for Romani women – internal examinations, transvaginal ultrasounds, male doctors, and many others – which only compound the problems faced after a miscarriage.
Even in non-Romani society, a miscarriage is seen as something to keep quiet about – something to hide.
So, what do I do now? To whom do I talk? My female relatives are gone and society doesn’t permit me to openly discuss it. There’s no Tweet or Facebook status for this. Even this blog post is risky, as many Romani (and even non-Romani) will avoid the subject [due to its perceived uncleanliness and taboo nature] and subsequently, avoid me.
There are stories in our traditions about women, pregnancy, and loss – but they are framed as very loose metaphors and are often not easy for a young woman to understand. Our actions, words, and romanija are all believed to play a part in our ability to get and stay pregnant. Some would say that my baby was cursed, or that this was repayment for bad deeds, or that I am now an unlucky wife.
Baba Edita told me once that there are so many things that can influence a woman and her pregnancy – the colour and health of the spring flowers, or the summer hedgerows, or the colour of the fall leaves and how long before they fall; how happy a woman is – whether there are any negative women in her life, or spiteful people, or liars who sit too close and suck all the energy from the developing baby; or maybe someone brings an unlucky item into the house – which could be literally anything depending on the context and ownership of the item; the worst of course, is that someone has cursed the mother-to-be or that she is haunted by spectres of the past – literally mule (ghosts) or dujevodjengere (vampires). There is a tradition, at least within my people, of other women looking after the pregnant woman’s needs – emotional and physical – and protecting her from bad news, negative or sad images, and outside influences, and as such they are in part to blame if something should happen.
But, still we sit in silence, against the front walls of our houses, under the eaves, watching the world out there. We protect ourselves from Western medicine, the shame and impurity of male medical staff and invasive procedures, all the while suffering unconscionable losses and dying earlier.
No one is talking about it. The rates of suicide of Romani and Traveller women is frightening, and silence surrounding pregnancy loss and infant mortality isn’t helping anyone. It’s difficult for us to navigate all of the traditions and beliefs; it’s difficult to understand that discussing depression, loss, and mourning both inside and outside of our communities isn’t shameful, dirty, or taboo. It’s necessary to our growth and our survival.
It’s difficult to only remember half of the wise words my grandmothers said; the rest obscured by time and my own cultural trauma.
It’s difficult to be a Romani woman straddling the past and the future, both sit coiled around my neck like a noose – either way, I loose.
Right now, it’s difficult to breathe.