I am sharing these experiences both because they are ones that I believe that, as a society, we need to talk about more AND because it’s part of my own healing to speak out. This post includes details of my miscarriage that may be difficult to read.
Please take care of yourself, first and foremost, and read only what you feel able to. If you are looking for support, you might want to try the Miscarriage Association or SANDS (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity).
How hope became an unwelcome houseguest
I started this article trying to write about the day I found out Space Baby had died, only to realise that I did not have a landmark moment to articulate. There was no definitive scan, no blood and no kindly professional sitting me down to tell me of our loss. I do not know when our baby died, only that I accepted their death in small increments with each consecutive appointment. The day hope left, more than a week before the physical miscarriage itself, I remember leaving Joel at the train station and heading up to Manchester to speak at a mental health conference as if everything was OK. That night I sat in isolation amongst friends and allies, drinking my first beer in months.
After weeks of obsessing over measurements and the shape of Space Baby’s sac, my mind was numb. I just didn’t know what to think anymore, or what to say (unusually for me).My body was betraying me – the signs that demonstrated the strength of my pregnancy only a few weeks before were now some kind of sick and immensely painful joke.Click To Tweet
Nausea, the restless legs, the tiredness. Each physical sign served to remind me of what I had lost. Unable to speak to my friends because it felt ‘too much’ to load on to others, I tried to lose myself in a world that didn’t even know I was pregnant.
In contrast, the day I found out I was pregnant rings clear in my mind. Wandering through a Cornish town, passing time the day before a conference, I popped into the pharmacy and brought a pregnancy test. I can’t explain why. Joel and I had been trying for about 6 months and I had passed the phase where I was so aware of my hormonal changes that I was convinced I was pregnant each time I had a stuffy nose or tender breasts. Something in my body felt different. I took the test fully expected a clear ‘no’, only to be confronted by two clear lines. I felt my mind leave my body as I watched myself try the second test, muttering ‘it’s OK, this is what you wanted’ to calm myself. Despite unreservedly wanting a baby, it became clear that the idea of actually having one came as a shock.
Fizzing with a heady combination of excitement and nervousness, I video-called Joel and waved the positive tests back and forth in front of the camera. I walked up and down the coastline in the dark, battered by wind and rain, speaking non-stop to my closest friends and family. Talk of the future, of possibilities, bubbled through the phone lines between us. At the same time Joel, I found out, was mostly speaking to the cats. We shared our joy generously with those we loved, luxuriating in an array of potential futures. Would we have a boy or a girl? What would they be like? It felt like everything had changed.
We all knew that a pregnancy test does not equate to having a baby. The statistics on miscarriage are clear, after all. As the days turned into weeks, and the tiredness and nausea took hold, I began to feel a little safer. I stopped expecting to see blood each time I went to the toilet and allowed myself to scour the internet for information about looking after a baby. I wanted to be prepared and, as my body doesn’t sleep well during pregnancy, I had plenty of extra time to spare.
The two things I found on the internet that scared me, the possibilities that fed into my voices and my legacy of trauma, were a ‘blighted ovum’ or a ‘missed miscarriage’. In the first, my body would seem pregnant without a growing embryo. In the second, my body wouldn’t realise when the pregnancy failed. Both triggered deep worries about me being bad on the inside and unable to nurture a growing life. So, when we saw the tiny flickering of a heartbeat on our first scan I could barely breathe. It felt like we had crossed an important threshold. It was objective proof – a little one was growing inside me. I used that certainty to calm the voices. I was fertile. I was becoming a mum.
That certainty was stolen from me in a routine appointment when my obstetrician casually offered to take a quick peek at our baby on an old machine in his office. Unable to find them, he tried to reassure me that everything was probably OK – but it reignited embers of fear that my husband did his best to soothe. After a blood test that showed my hormone levels were fine, he tried again a week later on a better machine. Yet again, despite searching, he couldn’t see anything. Those embers became flames, burning my insides with a bodily panic that is hard to articulate. It felt as if my baby had been stolen when I wasn’t paying attention. I desperately wanted someone to find them.
A few days later I lay on an examination bed as a skilled sonographer searched my womb, trying to not think about the mechanics of an internal examination that was in no way comfortable for me as a survivor of trauma. We breathed with relief as she found them, but the measurements weren’t ideal and – worse still – she couldn’t find the heartbeat we had witnessed only weeks before. With different people taking each scan, and the embryo being so tiny, there were concerns but no certainties. We embarked on yet more scans with yet more people, some giving us hope as the little one grew. Still, with each week and no sign of the heartbeat, it didn’t look good. Then, when the sonographer told us to wait for one more week as there was more growth, Joel and I saw the sac had changed shape and knew in our hearts that Space Baby was gone. The hope that at first felt so comforting was becoming toxic, infecting a wound that we needed to begin to heal.
In the waiting room, waiting to take the results of the scan to our nurse, we found ourselves in a situation I had never imagined. At first, we barely dare speak it aloud – but as we waited, the words became clear and powerful. Trapped in limbo and unable to grieve, we needed her to acknowledge the certainty of our loss and help my body let go of this pregnancy. No more scans. No more hope.
It felt surreal to sit in a waiting room gathering the strength we needed to demand medical help to miscarry the baby we already loved, especially with my voices saying I was a murderer. Yet I knew at my core that I needed to take the initiative to evict hope from our house.
Fortunately, the nurse agreed. We left that meeting with a heavy heart, some leaflets and an appointment to receive Misoprostol (a drug that would begin the bleeding). I felt like an automaton at that point, going through the motions to do something I knew was necessary but was unable to connect with on a deeper level.
Helping my body let our baby go: the physical miscarriage
Over the next day or two, I searched online for people’s experience of Misoprostol, keen to prepare myself as much as I could. It sounded terrifying, inducing hideously painful and bloody miscarriages. I read heart-breaking stories of women left deeply traumatised by this experience, some left huddled over alone on their bathroom floor. I shared these with Joel as we approached our appointment with growing apprehension. The only way we had of regaining some sense of agency amongst this was to try to clear these images from our mind so we could approach it in our own way.Together, we decided that the night my body released our baby would not be marked by pain, grief and isolation.Click To Tweet
Whilst it was my body that carried our baby so well and now had to let them go, Joel was clear that he wanted to be by my side all the way if I’d let him. Before going to the hospital for the pessary, we made plans. Painkiller schedule? Check. Pads? Check. Towels? Check. Chocolates? Check. Wine? Check.
Back at home, I sat on the sofa watching sugar TV waiting for the bleeding to start. Full of nerves, I couldn’t help but listen to my body intently to try and hear the tiniest of changes that might announce the beginning of the contractions. I kept a record on my phone, noting down each change helped me fake a sense of control that I knew was absent. This, plus the painkiller schedule that Joel was keeping track of, gave us something tangible to hold on to.
When the pain arrived, it was intense. At times I was doubled over, and for the worst of it I was stuck on the toilet for fear of leaving blood around our house. It was intense. It was gross. But, most importantly, it was manageable. Manageable because Joel was by my side. Manageable because I didn’t grieve the life lost that night, but tried to remember that this was simply my body catching up with what we had already accepted.That night, of all nights, I tried my best to be gentle with my body. I tried to recognise its strength in trying to hold on to our child, even when that child was gone. I tried to soothe it, reassure it – and all the parts of me inside that were afraid – that it was time to let our little one go.Click To Tweet
Here is the strangest thing, something that I never expected and feels almost sacrilegious. When I remember that night, what comes to mind is not the pain. It’s not the blood. It’s not the fear, or the guilt I felt at passing my little one without seeing them and saying goodbye. They are part of my story, as are the tears on my face as I write this, but they come wrapped in a handmade blanket of warmth, humour and love. Sitting on the toilet, doubled up in pain, I remember Joel pulling up a chair next to me. I remember him comforting me. I remember him pouring me wine and make sure I was topped up. We used our best glasses, a wedding gift that never fails to make a glass of red feel like a special occasion. We sat there for hours, sharing wine and chocolates. Being together.
We half-jokingly refer to this night as the most luxurious miscarriage we could imagine. A fly on the wall would be forgiven for mistaking our smiles for denial, especially if they noticed the way my nose sometimes cries when my eyes can’t find any more tears. We did not drink wine and eat chocolates because we could not face our grief, we chose this path because we needed a night of love and connection to help us face the days and weeks to come. We chose to gather our strength and honour our experiences in a way that is true to ourselves. I didn’t realise it at the time, but we were making memories that we could return to for sustenance when our grief pulled us in different directions. This night became an anchor.
Another memory that sustains me is also a cautionary tale to anyone who, like me, has an impressive ability to separate from their body and occasionally mistakes themselves for superhuman. A day or so after the bleeding had stopped, Joel and I arranged to meet my parents* for dinner at one of my favourite pubs. Yes, I was late. Yes, I stopped to stroke the neighbourhood cat (who was super-cute). But, as the contractions re-started I learnt that the idea of jogging to the pub so soon after a miscarriage is downright absurd. Fortunately I was OK, but I think Joel gained a few extra grey hairs as he helped me get home again. The part I focus on isn’t so much the pain as how on earth I thought it was a good idea in the first place.
Finding ways to share our grief, yet my body grieved alone
With the exception of our family and a few of our closest friends, my miscarriage happened in secret. Even those who knew it had happened knew little of its details. Whilst it’s OK to keep things private, my decision not to share was fed by the idea that talking about what was happening to me would be ‘too much’ for other people. The idea of broaching the subject with others felt akin to doing violence. As someone whose vocation involves sharing ‘taboo’ experiences around trauma and so-called ‘mental illness’, my silence felt deafening. It spoke volumes about the messages I had taken in about my role as a woman, a bearer of life and the shame of not fulfilling this. The shame of having what they call ‘an inhospitable womb’. The language surrounding our reproductive processes conveys our assumed dysfunction. I began to realise this shame does not belong to me, and like so many other unwelcome taboos I have tried to fight against, I decided one way forward was to talk about it.
The night I stupidly jogged to dinner, I also did something I feel good about – I wrote about my loss on Facebook and connected with so many people whose lives had been touched by miscarriage and abortion. I was stunned and humbled by the power of people’s stories, so many sharing their own losses that had been held tightly in secret for years. I was also knocked by the unhelpful offerings of those who seemed to want to fix things.If you’re considering telling someone who has had a miscarriage that they’d better start trying for another baby soon because you’re more fertile after a loss – please don’t.Click To Tweet
If you’re thinking of sharing how the miscarriage ended you and your partner’s relationship, please hold on to that because it’s the last thing I need to worry about. What fed me and nurtured me were the words of people who had experienced such loss and wanted me to know they were with me. What comforted me was knowing that I was not alone in my grief.The grief of losing such a young baby, one that the world barely acknowledges as a baby, is weird. I felt it so painfully and so raw, and yet I had no grave to visit and no slip of paper acknowledging my child’s existence.Click To Tweet
I was grieving the loss as it was, but also the loss of a future I’d spent my entire pregnancy dreaming of. Those times I woke up early, thinking of baby carriers and blankets. The images Joel and I had of snuggling up with our little one and our three cats, of our family.
We shared so much of the grief, yet there was a part which was mine alone.The body I had been so compassionate to during the miscarriage itself began to feel like my enemy. Some of the voices I heard played on my fears as I walked through the world with a body that felt barren. I felt my body was toxic, tainted. That it had killed our child.Click To Tweet
I felt the physical absence of my baby for the rest of the time I would have been pregnant, yet I found it hard to speak to Joel about it or even find the words. At times we would walk about the Creek and I’d open up, sometimes my words were tinged with anger and frustration as I knew he could never understand … I resented that it was a burden I carried alone. Yet as we talked I felt him reach to try and steady me as I carried my burden, and that – in itself – helped us come together at a time when we began to move apart.
Having worked with many children and families who had lost someone or something they loved, I had a toolbox full of ideas for processing grief. Throughout our journey my knowledge as a practitioner walked with me, even when I felt unable to connect with it. In the days after our loss I spoke with Joel about my need for us to have a ritual we could share to say our goodbyes and grieve together. We threw around different ideas, and our first attempt was full of pressure … with Joel feeling, I think, that he needed to perform rather than just be himself. Sharing a process of grieving when we each grieve differently felt too much in that moment.
But, the next morning, we tried again. We each wrote notes to ‘Space Baby’, sharing our memories of them. Starting with the moment we realised that they were with us, we each talked about our journey – the joy and the tears.Our memories were different … mine were embodied, but Joel’s were no less powerful. Equal and different, we recognised each other as we recognised the love we held for this tiny being that was in our lives for such a short time.Click To Tweet
The tears we shed felt healing. Healing and painful. I was profoundly grateful at having this opportunity, but still raw with the hurt at our loss.
Living in the ‘now’ to survive my second pregnancy
My grief lasted a long time, varying in intensity and form. Yet, after a year or so I realised that I felt strong enough to begin trying for another child. The words of those helpful souls who said I’d best start trying straight away rang in my ears, and I feared we would never successfully have a child in our arms … but we tried.
Within six months, when I was 39, I found out I was pregnant again. Once more, it was when I was travelling for work. Once more I rang Joel and my family to share my news. Yet this time I was bitterly aware that pregnancy does not equal birth, and birth does not equal having a living baby to hold in your arms.
I’ll write more about the process of pregnancy, birth and having a baby in a future blog .. but for now it’s enough to say I survived by simply saying ‘I’m pregnant’ and trying to appreciate that without focusing on what comes next.I remember laying on the hospital bed having a caesarean, not truly believing she would live until I heard her scream as my doctor pulled her out.Click To Tweet
I remember the tears of relief and joy as I held her in my arms. Tiny and perfect and alive. I remember feeling like I had always known this little creature in my arms – little Thea. Her presence in my life does not replace Space Baby. Yet she is magical, and I am thankful for every day I have her in my life. We both are.
* As a side note, I felt blessed that they so generously travelled to support us in a way that respected our need for space … fetching supplies and waiting for us to be ready to meet in person. The image of my poor Dad walking through Lush in Canterbury City Centre to try and find some smellies to help me feel better about my body is borderline-hilarious and harks back to the days he tried to paint my nails when I was an inpatient in my 20s.