I was lucky in every way with my miscarriage, except for the fact that it happened.
It occurred very early in the pregnancy, required no surgical intervention, and was followed almost immediately by another pregnancy that went to term (although got harrowing right before I gave birth). By chance, I was in Boston, city of a thousand gleaming hospitals, on a holiday weekend with virtually no wait in the ER. Family was nearby to drive me home. There was tea and margaritas with girlfriends, a unwaveringly supportive partner—and a caring doctor who took my panicked calls from her own family vacation.
Ten days of discomfort, some blood tests and ultrasounds, and it was over.
But like everyone whose wanted pregnancy turns out to be a mirage, my quiet, small loss affected me in a permanent way. The few weeks my husband and I knew I was pregnant and no one else did are like a missing jewel. During those days I believed that the stars were aligned: I had a special secret, an amulet I could hold up and say: okay, everything in the world is bad, but this is good. And then it was gone.
I traveled back to that interlude of sadness recently when I watched Bojack Horseman character Princess Carolyn suffer her fifth miscarriage towards the end of the show’s most recent season. P.C, an anthropomorphic cat who is a big-shot Hollywood manager, has suffered many of the indignities that successful and professional women do—condescension, betrayal, sexism—and transcended them.
That’s one of the reasons her loss hurts so much. Like we do with a Peggy Olson or Olivia Pope, we can’t help wanting someone like Princess Carolyn to be as happy in life as she is unstoppable in the workplace.
We want her to get what she wants. And she can’t.
In the most wrenching sequence, Princess Carolyn, who has had a brutal day, goes to the doctor excitedly to check on the status of “Philbert,” her imagined future kid—and receives an offhanded and callous response: There is, in fact, no viable pregnancy because she’s had what’s called a missed miscarriage.
The reality of the miscarriage happening as it does on the show, by diagnosis in a sterile office, feels revolutionary in its realness. On TV or film, a miscarriage often means a dramatic fall down steps, weeping, bloody sheets. Similarly, an abortion is usually a fraught, tense decision— another trope that Bojack Horseman undermined last season by showing its other primary female character, Diane Nguyen, making a straightforward decision to terminate a pregnancy. And the subtleties go further: Diane’s decision annoyed Princess Carolyn. Now we know why. This, too, is honest: while the show stands behind both women, it’s human and understandable that Princess Carolyn, who has trouble staying pregnant, would be frustrated by Diane’s decision.
When Bojack shows these small bitter moments in women’s reproductive lives as exactly that, it makes them feel more profound.
What has lingered with me in particular is the way the lost pregnancy is revealed to Princess Carolyn on an already-terrible day—one in which a major client of hers fires her and her longtime rival sneers in triumph.
As it did for me, and so many who go through this, the miscarriage rewrites P.C’s entire self-narrative. If she had been fired that day but still had her cherished dream of Philbert, she might be able to say, “Hey, tomorrow is another day, up and at ‘em.” But without the hope that’s been bolstering her, she spirals—going from denial to anger to lashing out, pushing her boyfriend Ralph into a breakup fight.
The writers offer a cruel joke to help drive her to the edge. At dinner, before P.C. tells the truth, the restaurant is patronized by a series of famous “Carries” and “Careys” [Underwood, Mariah] who are introduced as “Miss.” The audible pun assaults our ears: Miss Kerry, Miss Carry, Miss Carrie. Princess Carolyn has to just sit there and hear it.
Because early pregnancy and miscarriage are kept so secret, there’s no recourse for Princess Carolyn to turn to everyone in her life and demand a break from it. As Peggy Orenstein wrote in a memorable essay on the subject: “Without form, there is no content. So even in this era of compulsive confession, women don’t speak publicly of their loss. It is only if your pregnancy is among the unlucky ones that fail that you begin to hear the stories... Women you have known for years — sometimes your whole life — who have had this happen, sometimes over and over and over again. They tell only if you become one of them.”
Orenstein touches on something else. For those of us who are militantly pro-choice, it can be extra difficult to articulate our pain publicly; to say, I don’t believe a life has been lost, but I’m still really sad. Because what’s been lost is a potential for my life, a pathway I was counting on.
In my own case, once my pathway disintegrated, I spent a lot of time sitting in Soho by myself and watching pregnant women go by, feeling satisfyingly bitter. I drank a lot of strong coffee and margaritas. I wrote tortured journal entries. A friend who had been through the same thing counseled me through the experience by text, day by day. Since then, other friends who know my story have reached out to me during their own miscarriages and I’ve comforted them the same way I was comforted: with emojis, and lots and lots of “I know”s. It’s a chain letter you don’t want to be part of, but lean on all the same.
Princess Carolyn doesn’t have any kind of sisterhood on the show, but her story makes her part of our sisterhood, the sisterhood of pregnancy loss. Instead, she replaces the dream of Philbert with two other somewhat pie-in-the-narratives: the story of Ruthie, a descendent of hers who will narrate this story in the future (in space!) and a script that comes across her desk called “Philbert” that she decides to champion without reading. The revelation at episode’s end that Ruthie is a construction devastates the viewer, but is a testament to P.C.’s strength of will.
She does get some reassurance towards the season’s end, from Bojack Horseman himself, cad though he is, who tells her she’d be a great mom—without even knowing what she’s gone through.
It’s a tiny redemption, in a season which riffed repeatedly on the mistreatment of women’s bodies over the generations. In the course of 12 episodes there’s a lobotomy, street harassment, neglect of the elderly and force-feeding diet pills. The way the male doctor announces Princess Carolyn’s miscarriage feels like the cherry on top, a reminder that callousness towards women’s needs isn’t a thing of the past.
Bojack Horseman, with all its sad animals, is in essence a show about human suffering. But because of its humor and good nature, it functions as a celebration of suffering, too, a reminder that our pain is what connects us, at least in the fleeting moments we allow it to. For me, Princess Carolyn’s story was both those things at its core: a reminder of my suffering, and also of the way it connects me to other women (and cats).