Kathy Donaghy describes the emotional devastation of miscarrying: 'It made me feel my body let me down'
One in five pregnancies end in miscarriage, and yet it remains something of a silent taboo in modern society. Here, in a deeply personal piece, writer Kathy Donaghy describes the emotional devastation of miscarrying - and tells how she learned to stop blaming herself and make peace with her body
I crossed the finishing line to the sounds of cheering led by my husband and two boys.
Tears of euphoria and relief sprang to my eyes as I ran to celebrate completing my first triathlon with my family. It was the culmination of six weeks of training for an event that had taken me on an emotional journey of rediscovery.
In reality this journey didn't begin six weeks previously. For me it began just over three years ago when I found out at a 12-week pregnancy scan that the baby I was carrying had died. His or her heart had stopped beating somewhere around 10 weeks. I was plunged into a grief that I had never known before. I had lost people I loved before but this was different. A very early miscarriage a few months earlier had left me shocked. But this was different. I had longed for this baby, felt it was a girl, named her and made plans for her in our little family. Now she was gone and I came undone.
I don't remember much about that Christmas just a few weeks later. I felt like I was under water, that I was in a kind of bubble away from everyone. I raged and cried and grieved unquietly. The demands of family life meant I had to pick up the pieces and for the sake of our sons - then aged four and one - pull myself together. And so I did, to the outside world at least.
In the summer of the following year, I found out I was pregnant again. Delight was mixed with anxiety. This time the early scan showed twin hearts beating at seven weeks. By nine weeks, their hearts had stopped beating. No little valves flashing on screen. Just a quietness that made my heart feel like it was breaking into a million pieces. I cried until I didn't have any tears left. I immersed myself in my sons. I let them comfort me when I cried. I went through the motions of my life in a distracted way.
This time the feelings of grief were stronger. The loss was magnified by the earlier losses. They combined to make me feel completely at sea. I didn't trust myself any longer. I raged against myself. How could my body do this? How could it fail to bring my babies safely into the world? I felt like I had failed them. It was the most pain I have ever felt.
Like every woman, I have my own hang-ups with my body. But up until miscarriage, I felt like I walked confidently in the world. I had always been athletic. I had run since college. I climbed mountains and I swam in the sea all year round. Now the same body that had hiked the Machu Picchu trail, run marathons and given birth to two children had let me down.
I felt disconnected from my body. I felt ashamed of it. And this shame was compounded by feelings of guilt. I had let this happen. I questioned myself constantly. Did I drink too much coffee, too much alcohol? Did I overdo it physically? Was I not eating properly? Were my hormones so all over the place that they didn't do their job?
I did lots of things to try and "heal". Things like meditation and yoga, walking and eating healthily. I read self-help books and I wrote. I had great support from my husband, my parents, my sisters and close friends. Their love and support was unstinting. Still, my step, once so full of bounce, was more cautious now. My confidence in myself had gone. I had crossed a personal Rubicon. Last Easter another very early miscarriage compounded everything. This time I had no tears left. I just felt empty.
As a journalist, I have asked people to trust me with their stories for more than 20 years now. Could I not do now what I asked people to do - to be vulnerable, to tell my story? I have written about aspects of my life and family but I never wrote about the miscarriages. I didn't want to share that part of my life with people.
So what changed? Time helped but I have begun to understand that even among women who have experienced it, there seems to be a societal taboo when it comes to talking about miscarriage.
I have come to understand that rather than brush it under the carpet, I have to own and accept the experience of miscarriage as part of the fabric of my life. By not writing about it, I felt in a way I was filtering it out and feeding into this idea that it is something that shouldn't be talked about. I also realise how lucky I am. I have two healthy boys, Dallan, now seven and Oirghiall, four.
Then, something did happen that helped me begin to feel confidence in my physical self once more. I went for a swim at Templemore Sports Complex in Derry. It's a 25-metre pool about 20 minutes from my home. I began to swim lengths. One after the other. I realised I'd missed swimming. Since we'd moved to Donegal from Dublin I hadn't been swimming much. I swam on both my successful pregnancies. I was swimming the day before my eldest son was born and I loved it. I had forgotten that.
Week in, week out I drove to Templemore and I swam. When you're swimming, you're not thinking about anything else. You're not thinking about what you're going to make for dinner or if you forgot to pack the kids' lunchboxes. You're not thinking about the babies you lost either. I lost myself in lengths, in the pure movement of myself in the water. I lost myself in trying to improve my stroke and I met three women who asked me to join them in their sessions every Tuesday morning. We encouraged one another and we laughed and we got to know one another a little bit.
I also started a spin class. After I dropped the kids off to school and playschool on a Friday morning, I would head to my friend Diana's house and we would go for a tough 45-minute spin class. The teacher Gemma's mantra of "the weekend starts after spin" would ring in our ears as we left to go and drink coffee, chat and laugh.
And as my body got stronger, I started to feel happier. It wasn't just the exercise endorphins kicking in. It was the physical effort combined with the company of friends. I looked forward to my sessions in the pool and at spin class and the chats afterwards. I wouldn't have missed them for the world.
I signed up for a try-a-tri event. It's essentially a shorter version of the triathlon - you swim 10 lengths of a 25-metre pool, cycle 15 kilometres and run three kilometres. Seventy-six women from Derry and Donegal signed up. Two of the women I swim with every week signed up too.
For six weeks we cycled every Sunday morning at 9am and swam every Wednesday night for 30 minutes on top of doing our own training. The dark, cold evenings did not make the night swim the most pleasant part of the training. But there was joy and laughter as we all got into the water to go through our drills. It was the same with the cycle - we motivated one another through our sheer enthusiasm. I was never a cyclist - hiring a bike on holiday was the only time I got on a bicycle from one end of the year to the next. But over those six weeks, my confidence to handle the bike on the road and cycle in a group grew. Even when the elements were against us we didn't miss our training sessions. The weather on one Sunday morning cycle was so atrocious that when I took off my trainers, I could pour the rain water out of them.
As part of the training, as soon as we parked up the bikes, we'd go for a run. With the lactic acid biting and the feeling that you were going to topple over at any minute, we'd run for a few kilometres trying to build up the distance each week. We'd run and talk and encourage one another and laugh about how running after you had children was never going to be easy.
I had fallen out of love with running. In recent years I complained each time I did a run and then I just stopped even though it had been a massive part of my life for years. But I found my stride and my body started to remember how to run. Years of muscle memory took over and I didn't have to think about it.
There's something about being on this journey with this group of women that has made me happier in my own skin than I have been for a long time. Everyone has their own reason for signing up to something like this. Mine is a complex one. It has taken me on a journey back to myself. I hope that doesn't sound too much like self-help jargon but that's how it feels. I feel like the person I once was - a person who was quietly confident about what my body was capable of. I won't say it has allowed me to love my body again. I'm a woman and what woman can say that? But I can say I trust my body again.
I also realise that my body didn't fail me. I didn't fail my babies. Mother Nature knows best and there is nothing I could have done any differently that would have changed the outcomes. That's life and I accept what happened. Miscarriage is part of my life but it's not the defining part.
Through the experience of miscarriage, I know now my own strengths both physically and mentally. I am grateful for things in a way that grief makes you grateful. I look at my children and think how amazing they are every day. It's not that I don't think of the ones I lost. They are with me too - they always will be and some days I feel so sad. But nobody's life is perfect.
Sometimes what happens in life puts you on a different road to the one you thought you'd be on. Training for an event, pushing myself physically and mentally in the company of gorgeous women has been a pretty good place to be every week. In the run up to our try-a-tri event, the organiser Carmel Lynch posted a motivational quote to our group Facebook page. It said: "I admire people who choose to shine even after all the storms they have been through."
Yes, my heart is still broken. There are days when I feel the loss of my babies like an actual pain in my chest. But my heart is also still beating with love for the family I have. It's beating fast when I run fast and when I swim hard and when I get on my bike. It's been there beating all the time through the good days and bad. Like the rest of my body, it never let me down.
Pictures: Dave Meehan