Miscarriages are rarely discussed openly in any venue — in the media, within families, or over coffee with close friends — despite the fact that a staggering number of pregnancies (one in six, according to a 2010 study by the American National Institute of Child Health and Human Development) end in loss.
For many women, a miscarriage is a traumatic and isolating experience, one that is worsened by feelings of shame and guilt. These women feel that their miscarriages were their fault (even though miscarriages are very rarely caused by anything the mother has done). Despite the statistics, they often feel that no one could possibly understand their pain. They might even feel an intense societal pressure to be a mother, and that if they're unable to naturally birth a child, they're somehow less of a woman
Combined, such feelings can be absolutely crippling.
Amanda Tapping knows the burden of these feelings all too well. Tapping — the Vancouver-based actor-director who starred on Stargate SG-1 and Sanctuary — had two miscarriages before the birth of her daughter Olivia, and six miscarriages after.
Like so many other women in our midst, Tapping has wrestled with feelings of shame and isolation — and has done so largely without sharing her story with others.
"I just feel like it's one of those taboo subjects that women don't feel comfortable talking about, and there were times where I felt downright embarrassed. Truth be told, I still do," says Tapping in an interview with Westender in the courtyard of a North Vancouver café. "You just don't know how to articulate it because you're struggling so much, and you feel guilty, like 'I must have done something wrong, and that's why I've lost this baby.'"
Tapping first told Westender about her miscarriages in an off-the-record conversation about motherhood back in January; it's a part of her life that she's never shared in a formal interview. But with Mother's Day approaching, we asked Tapping to consider speaking out about her journey through miscarriages and grief — and for the first time, she's doing just that.
"As hard as it is to talk about it, as scary as it is to talk about it, we have to talk about it, because how else are we going to support each other if we don't have those conversations? As soon as you give a voice to it, then it ceases to have as much power over you. I don't know if would I have the courage to do this if you hadn't asked, but I do realize how important the dialogue is."
Tapping always knew that she wanted to be a parent, not that she and her husband of nearly 20 years, Alan Kovacs, explicitly expressed this desire to each other at the beginning of their marriage. "I think this generation coming up maybe has that conversation more than my generation," she says. "My generation, it was just expected that you would."
The question then was not how or why but when. Once Tapping's career took off with her role on Stargate SG-1, her plans for motherhood were pushed to the backburner— until she realized she simply couldn't wait any longer. "There was this sort of 'A-ha!' moment of, 'wait a second, this show could go on for a really long time, I don't want to finish the show and had that opportunity pass me by.'" Spurred on by this moment of clarity, somewhere around the seventh season of Stargate SG-1, Tapping and Kovacs started trying to conceive.
Tapping had never entertained the possibility that she could suffer a miscarriage, so when she lost her first pregnancy two months in, she was completely bowled over. "I just always assumed I would have three children so it was a bit of a shock, but I thought, 'okay, it happens, a lot of women have miscarriages.'" The second miscarriage further rattled Tapping's confidence, and presented a startling question. "I started to think, 'oh my God, what if I cant do this?'"
Compounding the panic was the fact that there was no apparent reason for these recurrent miscarriages. A multitude of tests showed everything was normal. "I had absolutely no problem getting pregnant, unlike some women," says Tapping. "There's a difference between the fertility struggle and the miscarriage struggle, but the pain is similar because at the end you are still childless."
Besides the physical impact of pregnancy loss, Tapping also contended with grief and shame. "Every time it's like your heart's ripped out of your body and then you beat yourself up and you try to stuff your heart back in and move forward," she says.
And move forward she did, into a third pregnancy — the one that resulted in her now eight-year-old daughter, Olivia. "It felt different," says Tapping. "It was a great pregnancy."
Tapping relished every moment of new motherhood. She went back to work feeling not quite physically her best, but no matter: she'd always enjoyed portraying Sam Carter, and now there was there was the added bonus of a special little person waiting for milk and cuddles between takes. "I would run around and fire my weapon pretending to save the planet, and then I would go to my trailer and strip off my vest and place my baby against my breast and I would be Zen," says Tapping. "It's exhausting when you're working 14-hour days, but I loved it and I felt a sense of accomplishment. I was a mama."
It wasn't long before Tapping felt compelled to add to her family. Despite her best efforts — and then the support of the team at the Recurrent Pregnancy Loss Clinic at BC Womens Hospital — Tapping suffered miscarriage after miscarriage. "The first one after Olivia was frustrating because I was like, 'come on, I know how to do this, and I did it well,'" she says.
She was pregnant on and off again throughout the remainder of Stargate SG-1, as well as on Stargate: Atlantis and during the early days of Sanctuary. Tapping rarely let those around her in on her private struggles. "The producers on Stargate, I think I told them about one or two of the miscarriages, but I didn't feel like it was a place where I could talk about it," she says. Her work ethic was strong; she didnt want to let the team down.
Finally, after an eighth loss that culminated in a devastating scene in the clinic's examination room, the doctors advised Tapping to stop trying altogether. The traumas of pregnancy and miscarriage were taking too heavy a toll both physically and emotionally.
Through all of this, Tapping kept the grief of her lost pregnancies close to her bones ("You sort of go through the waves of guilt and then at one point, I felt like I had eight little baby spirits circling around me and I couldn't let them in"). She had her work; she had her spirited daughter and her husband; she barreled forward without giving herself the time and space to mourn her losses. "It piles up; every miscarriage becomes harder because it's carrying the weight of the one before," she says. "[If I could go back in time], I would have reached out to more of my women friends. I have a tendency to not want to bother people, so I go down the rabbit hole a little bit."
Though Tapping tried to shove her feelings aside, they were always present just beneath the surface. When Sanctuary went off the air in early 2012, for the first time, those feelings had the time and space to burst through. "I thought I had no ripples on my lake, the waves gently lapping on the shore, but then Sanctuary ended, and the full force of everything hit me," says Tapping. "It was a tsunami of grief."
Her journey to motherhood, and the healing of the last year, has given Tapping pause to consider the toxic emotions that women battle on an ongoing basis. According to Tapping, the guilt and shame that swirl around miscarriages and infertility are indicative of societal pressures on women that beginand don't cease with childbirth.
There is pressure everywhere, says Tapping: pressure to get married; pressure to be a mother within a certain age range; pressure to give birth naturally; pressure to have one child, and then another, and ideally children of both genders; pressure to breastfeed; pressure to stay at home and then pressure to go back to work. And every move is judged.
The judgment needs to stop, says Tapping. "Who are we to judge anyone elses choice, ever? Unless they're doing something that's physically harming someone or the planet, then who the hell are we?" she says. Once the judgment is pushed aside, says Tapping, the life-changing dialogue can begin.
For Tapping, this interview marks the beginning of a converstaion that she hopes will inspire women to give voice to their struggles and find the strength in each other that they simply won't find in isolation. "The intention is to feel comfortable about something that has been traditionally shrouded in shame," she says. "If it's not talked about, then it stays in the shadows. The more that we lift each other up and support each other, the better off we will be."
Photo: Dennys Ilic