Growing up, I was always vaguely aware that my sister and I were not alone. I remember one bedtime after mum had finished reading my favourite story, The Curly Cobbler, she explained to a seven-year-old me that if everything had worked out, they’d never have had me or my sister. So I don’t remember her story being a sad or traumatic one. Though of course it was.
Today, aged 65, my mother Lucia – or ‘Mutti’ as we call her because it seemed to fit her chirpy disposition – is a powerhouse of relentless positivity. It is entwined in everything she does; from warming our towels on the radiator when we’ve just showered to her catchphrase when we say we can’t do something: “just snap the ‘t’ off and you can”.
‘You happened when I had almost given up,’ she told me hopefully on one of the darker days following my fifth miscarriage.
While comments from friends, saying ‘at least you can get pregnant’ felt isolating and often (and never intentionally) insensitive, my mum’s positive outlook offered genuine solace. Perhaps it was because I knew she was bearing the scars of loss beneath that positive veneer – the same armour that would get me through the painful emptiness of losing a child.
I can’t truly remember if her sunshine-drenched outlook was always present – though sometimes I suspect not when I leave sodden towels on the bathroom floor. But the mum I know now is encouraging to the point of cheerleading in everything my sister and I do. My lunchboxes always had a little extra surprise from her – a little poem here or a good luck note ahead of a netball game there. Looking back after my own experience of miscarriage I think she perhaps held us tighter because she knew what it was to lose.
It was on holiday in Menorca in 2016 as I was eating a fairly limp salad when I felt the familiar blood between my thighs. I was seven weeks pregnant and having been through miscarriage four times previously, I knew the warm, dark, wet sensation of loss. I knew despite wild denial that it was happening again – I was losing a child.
Mutti was with me, along with my Dad, husband and three-year-old daughter. While we’d had a relatively close relationship throughout my life, I’d lived abroad for ten years in Dubai and Amsterdam so geographically we’d been separated. The first four miscarriages I went through, I only had her on speed dial and those aches for a bosomy maternal hug were never sated because of a continent or the English Channel between us. On that overcast Menorcan day, pierced with occasional squeals from giddy children in a nearby swimming pool, I calmly uttered the words to my mother that every pregnant woman fears articulating: ‘I’m bleeding’.
I think it was in that moment of silence that I realized for the first time I wasn’t alone in navigating this well-worn path of emotionally ricocheting violently between faux positivity – Googling all possible positive outcomes when bleeding – and crippling fear.
The truth is that however supportive my husband, friends and sister were, you don’t understand the searing pain of losing a child unless you’ve been there.
A name has been imagined, that foetus is a person, a member of the family – “the newest recruit” as my husband would say.
When someone loses a limb, you don’t say ‘at least it was a clean cut’ and so those seemingly supportive comments of ‘at least you can get pregnant’ or ‘at least you have a child’ felt empty and ultimately painful.
If you know what it is to love someone, you know what it is to lose someone.
My coping mechanism has always been curling up in a ball for a week and then writing about my experience. I posted a blog post entitled ‘miscarriage of (in)justice’ detailing the raw, physicality of losing a baby. The 1,345 comments was overwhelming; the connection to other mothers deeply cathartic.
There in my mother’s eyes was the exact same fear that was coursing through my own – only hers was masked by a protective maternal calmness. “We will take every day as it comes,” she responded in a voice I hadn’t heard since I was a child. It was a delicate mixture of fierce protection and innate calm. I felt that wing swoop over me and I instantly reverted to a childlike demeanour; foetal position helped both cramps and emotions.
Few words were spoken during the days that followed but our communication would manifest itself more physically – a gentle arm squeeze here, a furtive, protective glance when I’d returned from the toilet there. My mum knew from her own experience of loss that no words can placate the ebb and flow of the numbing fear and potential lost dreams. There was no pacifier or bedtime story that could take away the emptiness that was about to descend as the final thread of hope was flushed down the toilet.
My mum knew to sit in the dark hole with me.
On our return from that holiday she decided to stay one more night at our London home. I think she knew from her own experience that I hadn’t hit rock bottom – that I was still in no man’s land unable to accept reality. She was right. In an attempt to push my feelings away, I irrationally decided to retile the kitchen floor at 4pm. My husband protested and that’s when my Mum intervened: “we’ll do it together; it will be OK” before she set off to B&Q with the frenzied determination of a starved mosquito.
We sweated away until the early hours, mildly sunburnt from holiday and both determined to finish the somewhat daunting DIY task in front of us. Somewhere between unearthing a damp, mouldy 1976 Waltham Forest Echo that had been used as insulation on the floor and asking Mutti to pass me a chisel, I broke down. It was a deep-seated grief for all the four children I had lost without her soft lily of the valley scent and warmth to shield me from the devastation. She held me in a vice-like grip until I couldn’t cry anymore and I knew something had shifted. I was no longer alone in the maternal emptiness as we mourned both our losses as mother and daughter; one woman holding another.
The haunting sense of those children lost will never disperse because they are a part of me – they are part of our family. All I know going forward is that, whatever happens, I’ll look to my mum and know that I can snap the ‘t’ off and then, together, we can.
An edited version of this extract was published in Marie Claire Magazine.