Image: bob al-greene / mashable

Welcome to Small Humans, an ongoing series at Mashable that looks at how to take care of – and deal with – the kids in your life. Because Dr. Spock is nice and all, but it’s 2018 and we have the entire internet to contend with.


“It’s measuring small,” the sonogram technician was looking at the screen for a few minutes before she spoke. “Are you sure you’re six weeks along? I can’t really see much. Maybe you need to come back in a week or so.”

A week later, she repeated the same, only this time something in her voice changed. A slight brevity, more awkward pauses between sentences. The nurse practitioner, reviewing my results, cautioned me to be ready for no baby. 

“It’s most likely a miscarriage,” she said not unkindly, but matter-of-factly, “If it were me, I’d prepare myself for the worst.”

When I found out I was pregnant, like many women, I downloaded a couple of apps—BabyCenter and What to Expect (the latter is owned by Mashable’s parent company)—to track my pregnancy. I loved learning that my baby was the size of a chia seed, and then a lentil, and then a blueberry. But I hadn’t considered the ramifications of updates when a pregnancy may not be viable.

Two weeks later, at eight weeks, the “worst” was confirmed. The sonogram technician typed on the screen that there was essentially “no fetal heartbeat.” Staring at that black-and-white image of my uterus with a cryptic-to-me blob on the screen, and realizing there would be no baby, was the hardest part of processing the news.

A week after we learned there was going to be no baby, I got an alert informing me of how big the fetus would have been

My obstetrician explained the bigger picture of miscarriage: how common it was, how it wasn’t an indication of anything to be worried about, what to expect, physically, with the miscarriage, and lastly, my options: surgical, medical, or natural. On the way from the doctor’s office, my husband and I talked about what we learned that morning—how I felt, how he felt, what we were going to do about it going forward—and then we steeled ourselves for the actual event. 

The next morning, I allowed myself to have not one, but two cups of coffee. I considered coloring my hair, since there was no risk to the baby. I spent a few days “grieving” for my unborn child, and then, after thinking my options over, I decided to let my body miscarry naturally, a process that can take a few weeks, depending on the circumstances. As a reward to myself (because, self care), I opened a nice bottle of wine. 

I had—in all manners emotional—moved on.

About a week after we learned there was going to be no baby, I got an alert from each of the apps informing me of how big the fetus would have been, what in theory it was currently growing (arms, legs, and the like), plus various other things to get excited about. Still in the pregnant-but-not-quite limbo, I got another alert about cravings, and one about possible morning sickness. And also an alert about possibly going up a bra size—or several. 

There was no option to label a miscarriage. I could either delete the pregnancy entirely or let the app believe I was still pregnant.

The alerts would pop up on my phone, invariably at inopportune times, like when I was waiting to check out at the grocery store, or when I was about to hop on a call. I’d vow to myself to turn the notifications off, only to forget and then be reminded next time they’d spring upon my phone.

After several weeks, I decided enough was enough and went into BabyCenter’s account preferences on my phone to change my status. It asked me for my password, which, of course I didn’t remember. The reminders kept coming and I kept getting annoyed. It wasn’t until I logged onto the app’s website on my computer that I discovered there was no option to label a pregnancy ending in a miscarriage. I could either delete the pregnancy entirely or let the app believe I was still pregnant. 

Surely, I thought it was just me struggling with it, unable to figure out something simple. But the women I spoke to, who had miscarried and used apps, reported the same frustration. Struggling with alerts, being reminded of the miscarriage by getting updates on baby’s would-be development, and then realizing that by finally figuring out how to record a miscarriage in the app, they would lose the record of their pregnancy all together. It seems that the algorithms that power these apps, as well as targeted advertising, can’t comprehend that getting pregnant doesn’t always equal having a baby. As Gillian Brockell wrote in the Washington Post, about being bombarded with ads for baby items in the wake of a stillbirth, even reporting that an ad isn’t relevant doesn’t solve the problem – she just got ads for nursing bras.

While What to Expect gave me the option of reporting “a loss” that didn’t require a lot of figuring out, when I went back into my user profile, where I was expecting to find a record of pregnancy that resulted in a miscarriage, I found nothing. Once again, my pregnancy had been erased, as if it never existed.

Considering about 20 percent of all known pregnancies end in miscarriage, and because these are apps geared toward women, you would think that some women would want to keep a record of their pregnancy, even if unsuccessful, to remember something important to them. I can imagine some women wishing for no reminders of a miscarriage. But some women might actually want those records. 

Erasing a pregnancy pretends something did not occur when it most certainly did.

Even if there isn’t an emotional reason to hold onto the information, there’s a medical one. Doctors will ask for total number of pregnancies, and their outcomes. They’ll want to know the date of miscarriage and the number of weeks gestation at which it occurred. Many women will also want to keep track of when their periods resume after the miscarriage. Erasing a pregnancy pretends something did not occur when it most certainly did.

The confusion spills beyond the pregnancy apps into cycle/fertility ones. I was also cautioned about apps that track your menstrual cycle, with friends telling me that when my own period returns, my app might get confused and reset my menstrual cycle to however it’s been since my last period (over 100 days and counting as of this moment). Somehow, the apps geared to tracking a woman’s period, don’t have an option of reporting an unsuccessful pregnancy. At least two, Clue and DOT, have the ability to ignore an outlier cycle, but DOT cautions users with recent miscarriages to wait until their cycle resumes to use the app. DOT users who have had recent abortions or births are counseled to reset the app entirely after three to four cycles, losing their past data. 

A number of women I spoke to told me they were unable to figure out how to report an unsuccessful pregnancy to their apps other than deleting their account outright. It seemed strange to them that an app tailored to track your pregnancy would make it difficult to record a miscarriage. Several of the women I spoke to shared that the push notifications served as painful reminders that their bodies have somehow failed, even if they knew that wasn’t true. 

A couple of the women shared that the apps and notifications reopened old wounds, sending them back down a spiral of sadness. Roughly half the women wanted to preserve the memory of their miscarriages and were unable to do so unless they were comfortable seeing updates of the babies that were never going to be born. Some were; some weren’t – all wanted to be able customize the app to be sensitive to their needs.  

One woman I spoke to, who lost her baby in her second trimester, didn’t want to erase the memory of her unborn child and thus was unwilling to delete her account. “While I wanted the notifications to stop bringing me sadness, there was also an element of not wanting to completely eradicate the memory of my unborn child,” she said. “It was as if the websites were proof of her [the baby’s] reality or her hope for existence, and at some points I was reluctant to cancel my account because of that.”

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