After the birth of my daughter, we waited three years to try again (Lesson 1 – take nothing for granted). It took ten months to get pregnant but I miscarried in the first trimester. Another 9 months of trying, another miscarriage. And then another. After being referred to the recurrent miscarriage clinic at St Mary's Hospital in London, I was diagnosed with Antiphospholipid syndrome (or ‘sticky blood’) and later, an incompetent cervix. Here are a few things the experience taught me.
We need to revise the terminology
‘Miscarriage’ implies that the woman has not carried her baby well. Guilt often accompanies grief (could I have done something differently, if only I hadn’t…) so this is clearly unhelpful. As for ‘incompetent cervix’ – the technical term for a cervix that opens prematurely – don’t get me started. Then there’s the ‘silent miscarriage’ where the baby dies in the womb, unnoticed. For me this was the hardest. I’d gone alone to a routine appointment and the unplanned scan was far from quiet. A sound came from the depths of my being. A primal thing. A disbelief. Are you sure the scanner isn’t broken? There was a heartbeat – just a week ago. I can see him on the screen, he looks fine. No, dear, he’s dead.
Hospitals are remarkable places
It not only houses the recurrent miscarriage clinic but is the emergency go-to-place for anyone in the area suffering signs of miscarriage. The waiting room is full of scared women from all races and backgrounds. Some are alone, others are trying to stay calm because they have an older child in tow, some are with partners – the body language sometimes close, sometimes frayed or distant. Often the room is too hot, too crowded. Women shift about on plastic chairs trying to ease the cramping pain, but it’s impossible to be cross about waiting. You know if someone is in the scanning room too long they will come out ashen or weeping. On one sweltering afternoon, a woman in a hijab collapsed – from the heat, pain or grief, I do not know. I do know it’s a place where people hold their breath and hope against hope.
Mourning is tricky
There are no photos, no gravestones to visit. You are grieving what could have been – the potential of a child, the mother you hoped you would be. Carrying a dead foetus inside you for over a week is not easy. I couldn’t work, read or watch TV. Instead I played the piano. It was something about occupying my hands – creating movement out of stasis. When it came to the day of the procedure, I worried that the baby had resumed breathing. Sleep riddled with nightmares.
I would do anything for my children
Inject my belly daily with heparin? OK. My ‘blossoming’ stomach was a black and blue pin cushion and the more it swelled, the more terrified I became that I would stab the baby. Also not fun is having your cervix stitched to prevent it opening. ‘It’s only one stitch,’ they said, forgetting to mention it was a purse stitch: in and out, in and out, then pulled together like a drawstring. Once the epidural wore off it was agony. The next day I hosted my daughter’s fifth birthday party. I could hardly walk. But still you make the cake, wrap the pass-the-parcel, sing the song.
It’s difficult being the man
My husband desperately wanted to shoulder some of the burden, but he couldn’t be the one to puncture his stomach with a needle. We had to negotiate the different ways we grieved, the different ways we supported the growth and life of our child.
One tip for men: if there is a waiting room full of pregnant women who have been nil-by-mouth for twelve hours and are being forced to glug Lucozade to test for gestational diabetes, DO NOT wander in with a barista coffee and a croissant.
The miscarriages profoundly affected my sense of being a woman: a creator. I couldn’t get my novel to work and the two journeys intertwined. I was desperate for the words to spring to life, for my baby to survive. There was a sense of stillbirth – so many things craving to be born – my babies, my art – until eventually I channelled my grief into the story. Strangely enough, when wonderful things started happening with my book, a pregnancy stuck.
Put your hands in soil. Grow things. Lean into the earth. I spent a lot of time in Kew Gardens, writing on a particular bench, letting nature support me. Kew is one of the most healing places in the world.
It wasn’t an easy birth. My waters broke five weeks early. Scar tissue had covered the cervical stitch, making its removal one of the most painful things I have ever experienced. There was an emergency C-section and I almost lost my son at the last minute. He had severe jaundice which led to a six-day twilight zone filled with the blue light of phototherapy. But we all survived it.
Throughout the process, I was acutely aware that I already had one child while others around me didn’t. My heart goes out to anyone who wants to be a parent. I’m also aware that without access to modern medicine and the NHS this ending would be very different. When I watch my two children play in Kew Gardens, I know that my biggest lesson is gratitude. I am incredibly lucky.
First published in Red Online 16 June 2017