At a total loss
First published in The Telegraph. All copyright reserved.
I was walking through the baby food aisle at Tesco when I felt the blood between my thighs. I was convinced it was happening – that I was miscarrying. We’d recently started trying for our second child, and somewhere between the gummy smiles of the babies on the Pampers packs and the Tommee Tippy sippy cups, I lost any sense of reality and left a laden shopping basket to run to the toilets. There was no blood – I wasn’t even pregnant – but I found myself uncontrollably sobbing.
One in four pregnancies is believed to end in a miscarriage – loss of a pregnancy during the first 23 weeks – yet so little is said about this lurking elephant in the room.
The very fact that it’s so common gives way to a sense that we should just soldier on into the reproductive unknown. “At least you can get pregnant,” is something that has been offered up to me by well-meaning friends and doctors alike, in the hope of offering solace, but it often has the opposite, almost isolating effect.
There is no silver lining, miscarriage is deeply traumatic. If you know what it is to love someone, you know what it is to lose someone.
Last week, doctors at Imperial College London reported that four in ten women who have a miscarriage go on to develop post traumatic stress disorder, characterised by flashbacks and nightmares. These may not start for months or even years after the event, the researchers said.
Those findings struck me deeply.
I had three miscarriages – at 7, 9 and 11 weeks – before having our daughter, Mae, now three. Each time, I went for the routine check-up afterwards to make sure all foetal matter had come away. It was clinical, it was purely biological and there was limited room for the emotional. Was it that stress-fuelled moment I ran to catch that Southwestern train? The glasses of wine I drank before realising I was pregnant? The post-miscarriage questioning is relentless, the guilt overwhelming. Yet I boxed this all up – other people seemed to navigate it without any public displays, I thought, and so should I.
My partner, Matt, was also faced with his own layers of grief and the broken fragments of a wife who was distant, irrational and ultimately distraught. Everyone in the family has at some point imagined that foetus as a sibling, nephew, niece, grandchild – a vision of the future that gives you all something huge to lose.
Having Mae seemed to fill the gaping hole of the three children I’d lost. I threw myself into motherhood with the gusto of an E colour-fuelled toddler, and any pain I’d felt before was lost in a world of Fisher Price and toothless grins – or so I assumed.
It was only when we began trying again for a sibling for her this year, that I realised I had merely Sellotaped over the cracks. The damage of those previous losses was simply lurking beneath the surface.
I began dreaming about leaving Mae behind in a car park, and frantically trying to find her to no avail. I’d dream of giving birth to nothing; it was all simply a figment of my imagination and the hospital were frustrated with me wasting their time, despite the fact I had a physical bump. I dreamt of giving birth to another child, and to wake up to that empty disappointment was galling.
The physicality of passing the embryo sack, housing that lifeless foetus, is something I had never dwelled upon in our first three miscarriages. Now that unmistakeable feeling came flooding back, vividly, at seemingly random moments, like that day in the supermarket. I couldn’t see that a visual trigger such as a pack of nappies had sparked an irrational, deeply traumatised response.
We’d been told that our risk of miscarriage remained high, and so I was fearing the loss at every corner.
And when we did miscarry again – for a fourth and fifth time – the original trauma was compounded.
“At least you already have a child,” said a particularly stoic auntie over Easter as we had to explain we’d lost another baby. But I couldn’t adopt that approach anymore.
Giving birth to our fifth ‘inviable form’ in the toilets of my daughter’s daycare was something that pushed me into PTSD terrain.
“Mama, why are you crying?” my three-year-old asked, as the cries of babies echoed around those primary-hued walls. I was crumpled on the toilet, weeping ‘black tears’ – as Mae calls mascara-laden sadness.
As we walked home, I explained to Mae that I’d lost a baby. She asked in a rather matter-of-fact manner, “Why did the baby fall out?”. It was perhaps one of the first questions that helped my route to some form of recovery or, at least, acceptance. Facing the trauma that you have gone through verbally – even if with a toddler – is the first step to understanding this is not simply ‘common’ and it is OK to grieve.
“Sometimes through no fault of your own, a baby doesn’t stay in,” I responded.
“Can the doctor put a new one in? Can the next one be black?” Mae earnestly queried. It was the first time I’d laughed in a week.
Some close friends and family were concerned we’d told Mae about our losses. But I realised this time that if I was going to accept what had happened, I needed to be honest with everyone – including the three-year-old who I spent most waking moments around.
I sought out private grief counselling soon after that. I knew if I didn’t take the steps to talk to someone outside of my family, I might start to drive us apart. My breezy approach to having a second child masked a deep pain beneath.
Last week’s findings reflect a need for better support for couples who experience a miscarriage.
“We have checks in place for postnatal depression, but we don’t have anything in place for the trauma and depression following pregnancy loss,” says Jessica Farren, lead author of the study. “Yet the symptoms that may be triggered can have a profound effect on a woman’s everyday life, from her work to her relationships with friends and family.”
Last weekend, I peed on the blue stick once more. The positive line was equally familiar, yet unfamiliar, filling me once more with that potent cocktail of dread and beaming happiness.
It’s early days and I don’t know if this one will stick around, but I’ve realized that it is OK to take a break before you actually break. That speaking to someone, anyone – even if it is your own three-year-old daughter – can help you navigate that heart-wrenching time ‘the baby fell out’.
Anna Whitehouse is the founder of the blog, Mother Pukka