Not last summer but the one before, I woke up to a curious feeling that something was different. My husband and I had been married for just over a year at that point and had planned to go into town for a long lazy weekend brunch (because: bonuses of being child-free). Since our wedding, we hadn’t been trying to get pregnant, so much as we’d just stopped trying not to get pregnant. It wasn’t a priority but it was a possibility.
Holding hands that day in the Saturday morning sunshine, walking through the sleepy little town where we lived, deciding which place to hole up in for some yummy grub, I said:
“I’m just going to nip into that chemist to buy a pregnancy test.”
“Why? Are you late?”
“Not particularly. I’ve just got a funny feeling.”
Had I been in the habit of doing pregnancy tests all the time and getting frequent bouts of funny feelings – I’m sure he’d have tried to talk me out of it, but this was unheard of for me. So I went into Boots to get a test and he went into Bill’s to get a table.
I’d done a few pregnancy tests before, years ago, but back then it was always with the heartfelt hope that they’d be negative. This time, as I washed my hands and waited in the dimly-lit ladies room of Bill’s Restaurant, I wondered what it would be like to see two blue lines when I actually wanted them to be there. When I was ready for what they meant. When the man I was with, was the man that I loved, and he was ready too.
I stood there and watched as one blue line appeared; the one that’s meant to appear to indicate that the test isn’t faulty. But I couldn’t see anything else. I dropped the test into my bag and made my way back to my husband.
“Negative.” I said, plonking myself down opposite him, crestfallen.
“Nevermind. Have you kept the test? Can I have a look?”
“Yeah, sure.” I said, slipping it from my bag and surreptitiously passing it to him beneath the table, because, you know, let’s be honest – it’s a piss-soaked stick.
So he looked at the pregnancy test and I looked at the menu.
“Is it meant to have two blue lines?”
“Yeah, when it’s positive, it is.”
“This does have two blue lines, Jen.”
He thrust the wee stick towards my face, (which under other circumstances might be regarded as rude) and he was right. It was faint, but it was positive. There were two blue lines. I was pregnant!
We were both pretty stunned throughout the rest of that brunch and kept putting down our cutlery to pick up the pregnancy test. Holding it up close, then at arms length and up to the light. Walking it over to the window to get a better look, even asking the waiter’s opinion at one low point. (By now decidedly brazen about brandishing a urine-covered object in a public place.)
“There’s definitely two lines there, right?” We’d say, squinting at it, smiling.
Over the next few days and weeks as the news sank in, we realised how much we wanted this baby. We were so ready for this baby. We couldn’t have been more ready for this baby. We were over the moon, couldn’t-stop-smiling, giggly, grinning and giddy for this baby. We were madly in love – with each other and with the thought of having this baby together.
Len, my husband, is a natural born father. I knew, from the moment we met, that if we did ever have children, he’d be the most amazing Dad. I had absolutely no worries there. He is so insanely good with children. Better than me. I don’t have his patience with kids, or his mental age, and I’d never felt any significant maternal longing until recently. Throughout my twenties and most of my thirties I was always more interested in my career and having fun and keeping my vagina intact. I’d seen most of my friends become parents and didn’t envy their lifestyle choice. In fact, the idea of having a baby used to completely baffle me. The severe sleep deprivation, the endless nappy changing, the constant crying, the red raw nipples. No thanks. Not for me. Not just yet and maybe not ever. ‘I’d like them a lot more if they weren’t quite so bloody needy’ I’d think, as I handed the latest wrinkled, wailing newborn back to its owner.
When I celebrated my 35th birthday – the age that female fertility generally starts to decline, I found it as liberating as I did unsettling. The decision of whether or not to have children, would be taken out of my hands within a few years. It would probably be a relief. (And no monthly shark week either? What a time to be alive!) I knew a few people who’d actively chosen child-free lifestyles. They were proof that, despite what society tries to ram down our throats – reproduction is not the ultimate achievement. It’s not the only way to feel happy and fulfilled. There is more to life than breeding. And, although most people can reproduce, not everyone should. Not every person is cut out to be a good parent. And all children deserve good parents – I think that’s the very least they should have. Coming from a broken home and being born to parents who had children too young, I had always vowed never to have a baby at any cost. If the circumstances weren’t right – I wouldn’t allow it to happen.
Anyway, that summer two years ago, when I found myself pregnant in the 35-40 y/o bracket (the official start of ‘advanced maternal age’ in medicine). And was long-term happily hitched to an amazing man, who was a great husband and I knew would make a fantastic father. And we were stable and settled and financially pretty sorted. And we were emotionally mature and in love and completely committed to each other – the circumstances were more than good enough. I was in a position, for the first time ever, to allow myself to believe that I could become a mother. And to my surprise, I found that day by day, as my belly swelled, I couldn’t wait for that day to come. I was ready. It was the slowest, surest, sweetest softening. “Grow, little one, grow.” I’d whisper to my tiny bump. “We love you so much already and we’re so excited to meet you.”
And then, a few days before our 12 week scan, as Len and I were chattering away in our bathroom, brushing our teeth, monkeying around, getting ready for bed, I started bleeding.
Len called the emergency number that our midwife had given us and we were told to go to A&E. On the drive to the hospital I was calm and quiet. I was preparing for the worst; I suppose that’s how I cope best. Len was the opposite; he was chatty and confident:
“Don’t worry, baby. I’ve read about this. Spotting is really common in the first three months. Everything will be fine. We’ll just get checked out to be on the safe side, but I bet we’ll be back home and snuggled up in bed before we know it.”
The NHS staff were amazing. Within fifteen minutes of arriving we were in a room with a nurse, getting ready to be scanned. She smeared cold gel across my tummy and pressed the probe against my skin. As soon as I saw the image on the screen I knew. I looked at Len and my heart broke; he was smiling. He was just relieved to see our baby. He didn’t realise that it shouldn’t look like that at this stage. It should have been bigger.
The nurse smiled nervously and stood up: “I’m just going to grab a second opinion on something, poppets. Stay there, I’ll be right back.”
Len squeezed my hand and said softly: “See? It’s still in there. Everything’s going to be fine.”
I couldn’t talk. I just smiled back at him, blinking back tears, hoping I was wrong.
There was a knock at the door and the nurse came back in with a doctor, a kind-eyed gentleman who sat straight down and did the same thing the nurse had done just moments before. This part may have taken seconds, or it may have taken days. I can’t remember. All I know is that I held my breath. I didn’t want him to say anything. I didn’t want anything to change; I wanted to stay pregnant. I didn’t want to hear the words I knew he was about to say. And then he turned to look at us and said them anyway:
“I’m so sorry. There’s no heartbeat.”
The doctor and nurse politely excused themselves, said they’d give us a few minutes alone. My husband, a big, handsome, strapping man of six foot two, crumpled into my arms. He just dissolved. He was inconsolable. His sobs shook the hospital bed. His howls echoed down the ward. He hadn’t entertained the possibility that anything could go wrong, not until that very moment, and he was absolutely heartbroken. He pressed his face against my bare tummy and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.
The doctor came back a few minutes later and had to leave us alone again because my husband just couldn’t regain his composure.
Stroking my husband’s hair and with tears streaming down my face I found myself trotting out all the clichés* and hating myself for it:
“It just wasn’t meant to be.”
“It was nothing we did.”
“These things happen.”
“There was nothing we could have done.”
*We must remember that a cliché is a cliché because it’s a truism. And a truism is a truism because it’s true. So when you find yourself in despair, try not to make it even worse by expecting anyone to come up with new imaginative ways of offering comfort. There’s no perfect thing to say in these situations and certainly no new way of trying to say it.
We managed to calm down and when the doctor came back we asked him for a print out of the scan. ‘Of course, that’s the least I can do. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
That grainy little picture, tucked between the pages of a book about mindfulness, is so incredibly precious. The only tangible evidence that remains. Our little Bud; you were only here for a few weeks but you changed our lives forever.
We were given some leaflets on miscarriage and the three options we had to choose from:
Leave nature to take its course: Your body should fully expel the products of pregnancy in its own time.
Have a medical miscarriage: Take uterus-contracting drugs to speed up the miscarriage process. The drugs are administered in hospital then you go home to miscarry; the worst of the pain and bleeding should be over within 24 hours.
Have a surgical procedure under anaesthetic in hospital. All remaining pregnancy tissue is removed by suction in one go while you’re unconscious. You wake up, you go home and Bob’s your uncle – you’re not pregnant anymore.
I chose to have a medical miscarriage. (It was by far one of the worst experiences of my life and if I ever have to make that decision again, I would choose one of the other options, no question.)
With a miscarriage, once the worst of the bleeding is over. That’s when the real recovery begins. There’s no one right way to deal with a miscarriage. Every woman is different. Each miscarriage is different. The variables involved are extensive. You have to get through it however you can. Personally, I just wanted to be left alone for a while. I didn’t want to talk about it and I didn’t want to go out. Being quiet, being still, going at my own pace. Being given the space to feel what I was feeling was what I needed to do. That was how I got through it. My husband was my rock solid hero and told our closest family and friends what had happened but I just didn’t want to speak to anyone. I received some beautiful messages and some gorgeous cards and letters. Other women gently sharing their own miscarriage stories with me. Telling me that they loved me. That they understood. Promising that it would get easier. Asking me not to feel obligated to respond. Assuring me that there was no rush; that they would be there, to do whatever I needed, whenever I was ready.
I was sat in bed one night, trying to watch a film but mostly staring at the wall. When there was a quiet knock at my bedroom door. Unbeknownst to me, my older brother had driven over and my husband had let him in. He came in, walked over to me, gave me the tightest hug, then left, without saying a word. And he didn’t have to, he understood – there was nothing he could say. There was nothing anyone could say.
Grief isn’t straight-forward. It’s a messy, mercurial, unpredictable tangle of a process. But at some point, after the tears and the nightmares and the screaming and the shouting. After the sobbing and the aching and the wishing and the longing. There’ll come a day, or an hour, or a few minutes when the pain won’t be so hard to swallow down. When you’ll be able to keep the anguish at bay just long enough to think of something else. You’ll still be in a dark place, but it’ll be a lighter shade of darkness. The experience will become part of you, not just something that happened to you. You won’t go back to how you were before, because sometimes things can never go back to how they were before. But slowly, imperceptibly, almost against your will, you will get better and stronger and more hopeful. You will. I promise. And bit by bit, one teardrop at a time, it won’t hurt quite as much or quite as often.
I started trying to crack back on with things as normally as I could within a couple of weeks – but it was a new kind of normal. I was gentle with myself. I still didn’t want to talk about the miscarriage in much detail because I felt so fragile; liable to shatter into a thousand broken pieces if I put myself under too much pressure. My friends and family were all amazing. They understood that I was healing and grieving and that even if I looked fine, I wasn’t fine. I was smiling and chatting and sipping my cup of tea but I was also drowning in despair and devastation, desperate for life to feel bearable again. I was processing a trauma and I had to be handled with care.
Not everybody was told about it at the time. You don’t go through your phone’s contact list, calling everyone with the latest news. (“You’ll never guess what happened to me last night!”) You don’t update your fucking Facebook status. (Or maybe some people do, but I didn’t.) These were sad times and this was sensitive information, only shared on a need-to-know basis. Self-care and self-preservation came first.
I was mindful not to take on any misguided guilt too, something I’d sadly seen a lot of women do. (It can be hard not to when faced with misogynistic articles along the lines of: Why Do Women Think They Can Have It All?) I knew by then that one out of every four pregnancies don’t make it past the first 12 weeks. That’s a quarter of all pregnancies. (Some studies show that number as being even higher.) I knew by then that most of the women I know had gone through a miscarriage at some point. And I also understood first-hand why I didn’t know about it as they were going through it – it’s nothing personal. It has nothing to do with secrecy or shame. It has everything to do with how people cope.
Some people say that ‘nobody talks about miscarriage’ and ‘there’s such a stigma attached’ but I don’t see it that way at all. People absolutely do talk about miscarriage but they can only talk about it when they’re ready. You just don’t tend to talk about it as you’re going through it – because often you can’t; you’re too busy actually going through it. Too busy piecing yourself and your life back together, only without the future you’d imagined; and without the baby you thought you’d have.
When the cashier at Tesco’s asks: “How are you, love? Need any bags?” You generally don’t respond by blubbing: “I’ve got my own bag thanks and actually I’m profoundly depressed because I’m currently miscarrying a pregnancy and I’ve been bleeding and crying for three weeks solid now and I don’t think I’ll ever recover my hormones haven’t balanced out yet and I just feel so sad can you give me a cuddle please Karen.” No. It’s just not the way it goes.
You generally turn to the handful of people who are closest to you – geographically and emotionally. I have loads of deeply treasured friends, but I barely told any of them about my miscarriage at the time of it occurring because I just didn’t want to. If any of those friends are reading this blog, it could well be the first they’ve heard of my miscarriage and that’s fine. (Hey you! Welcome to this blog/surprise miscarriage announcement! How’s it going?) It doesn’t mean I love them any less. It just means that a) our paths didn’t cross during those few weeks when I was in the midst of it or I chose to not mention it for my own reasons if we did chat during that time. And b) I didn’t arrive at some magical ‘I’m over it now!’ post-miscarriage celebration point and ring round all the people I knew I hadn’t told. That would be bonkers.
If you’ve been through it or are going through it too, please know this: There is no shame in having a miscarriage. It’s nothing personal. It’s not because of anything you did wrong. It’s not because it’s what you deserve. It’s biology. It isn’t your body betraying you. It’s your body protecting you; it’s doing what it’s meant to do – spontaneously aborting a pregnancy that, for whatever reason, wasn’t viable. It’s nature taking its course. You’ll see other women seemingly sailing through their pregnancies and you might weep: ‘It’s not fair!’ And you’ll be right; it’s not fair, because fairness has nothing to do with it: miscarriages aren’t fair or unfair, they’re indiscriminate. They are, sadly, a natural, commonplace occurrence. A quarter of all early pregnancies will end this way and there’s nothing you can do about it. They have always happened. They will always happen. And they will never have anything to do with fairness. They will never mean that you have failed. They will never represent any inadequacy on your part. They are not some sort of punishment. They are just, like many everyday tragedies, an incredibly sad, but inevitable, part of life.
You will get through it, I promise. And you will, at some point, be able to talk about it without feeling like your heart is breaking all over again every time you do. You are not alone. You couldn’t be if you tried.