'You dream of how you will cope with a baby but not how to cope with losing it' - the heartbreak of recurrent miscarriage
The language really hurt me. Non viable. No heartbeat. Empty sac. Not attached properly. Missed miscarriage. Incomplete miscarriage; not only could I not complete a pregnancy, could I not complete a miscarriage? Products of conception: does that qualify as a baby? If it has no heartbeat, then it has a heart, then it is a baby.
Miscarriage is so personal, so confusing, so devastating, and at the same time so common, so normal. I am sure that if I was better prepared, if I had known that one in four pregnancies results in miscarriage, I would have been better prepared for the tragedy than the complete shock it was the first time I got pregnant. And the second, and the third.
"We only conduct an investigation after three successive miscarriages."
That’s how common it is. So why don’t we know this? Why isn’t this a part of our biology lesson? And why don’t we talk about it? A big part of the devastation is the loneliness. And for me, the sense of failure.
My first three pregnancies never made it past the 12 week mark. One nurse attempted to comfort me; "We only consider you pregnant after 12 weeks."
How do you think I consider being pregnant? From the second you find out you’re pregnant your entire world changes. You dream of tiny hands and baby names and baby clothes. You dream of how you will cope with a baby. But not how to cope with losing it.
If it’s a mother’s primary role to protect her child then I didn’t make it past the first hurdle. I couldn’t even call myself a mom. Yet the hormones which are the exact same ones that course through your body all the way through pregnancy, were pumping through me. Making me nauseous, swelling my breasts, transforming me into a mother. And yet I wasn’t. I felt I had no right to feel like a mother or to say I had a baby or was losing a baby. I just had a scan on the screen with the “products of conception” and a nurse telling me that I wasn’t having a pregnancy, I was having a “missed miscarriage”. My body hadn’t realised the baby had stopped growing. Neither had I. But the words NO HEARTBEAT resounded in my head, beating me into believing it.
"Do you want to keep a picture of the scan?" she asked.
Do I want a picture of my dead baby? No thanks. I hated her for asking such a stupid question. Of course I just hated the situation. It so happened to be the same day my aunt passed away from MS. Yet that was clear grief. A death. A tragic but timely death. A dead body. The miscarriage was unclear, no body but so much blood. I entered a netherworld of grieving for something I could not hold. Or could not share. Most people around me didn’t even know I was pregnant.
And then the agonizing seven day wait.
"We need to scan you again in a week to confirm the miscarriage."
What? So there is a chance the baby could make it? Could it grow in a week? Could the heart start beating again? My head spun.
"Most likely not. But we need to be sure."
I needed to be sure. So it IS a miscarriage? Has there ever been a case where a baby HAS started growing again? That there’s some mistake and everything will be fine? I knew from her face.
"We need to be sure."
She gave me thick, medical maternity pads and said I would need more.
As I sat looking at the monitor a week later, it was confirmed. The heart didn’t magically start beating again. I was bleeding much more now and wanted to continue the miscarriage naturally. As if the pain of going through it physically would somehow pay tribute. The scan showed only a small piece left in my womb. A tiny bit of baby left to come out. To them it was medical but to me it was my baby. I went home again and continued bleeding, I was told not to consider flying on a work trip so I worked from home, telling as few people as possible. But then I hemorrhaged, and got rushed into hospital.
I never expected this much bleeding. They scanned me again and said that there was "just a small bit left." It should be over soon. One night my womb began the most excruciating contractions, trying to rid the remainder. A few days later I hemorrhaged again. The scan showed just "a small bit left."
It was hard to tell what was normal or not but when I couldn’t stand up for the blood leaking like a scene in a horror film I knew it was not normal. I don’t think they actually believed how much I was losing until I could show them the size of the blood clots. I didn’t care about going through it naturally anymore. I was scared and shaking as a nurse wheeled me into a ward. They figured out the “small bit left” was actually a piece that was stuck and had been causing my womb to hemorrhage in effort to flush it out. They thought I’d need a blood transfusion and scheduled me for a D&C the next day.
I like to think that a bit of the baby was holding on to me. A consolation for not attaching properly in the first place.
They gave me a D&C immediately at the second miscarriage. After the seven day wait.
I remember lying in the ward waiting for my third D&C. We knew the face of the kind cleaning lady by now. A girl came in, hysterical, and phoned her family to tell them she was having a miscarriage. "I was five weeks pregnant," she sobbed.
That’s nothing. I shocked myself at the cruelty of my thought. Losing a child at any stage of pregnancy is a spectrum of inconsolable tragedy, whether it’s the dream of conception, loss at full term, or anywhere in between. Not to mention anything beyond. It’s heartbreaking and we can never know exactly what it means to the other person. I honestly couldn’t see the day I would ever get past the 12 week mark. I felt stuck in a nightmare loop of getting pregnant and losing it.
I was lucky I had a husband who always hid his own grief in order to shelter mine. And intervened every time my mind wandered down the darker roads of guilt. Along with an inspiring doctor, they both had the conviction we would one day walk out of the hospital doors with a living, crying baby.
I remember the heartache we shared while waiting for admissions to sign me in for the third D&C. Gary’s work colleague was ahead of us in the queue with his wife, waiting to be admitted for a Cesarean. His congratulatory face quickly dropped when he shook my husband’s hand and realised I had no bump to give birth to.
I’m grateful for the kindness of people who cared, for the nurse who turned a blind eye when Gary wouldn’t leave me alone in the ward even though partners weren’t allowed stay the night. For the many friends, and friends of family who only then, shared their own stories of loss. For the awful leaflet the hospital gave us on "miscarriage" and the reminders of the memorial service which I had no intention of attending. But it’s the acknowledgment that means the world: This is real, this is sad, this is a loss. And I’m grateful for a doctor’s description of how it can be just like a rusty engine that "needs a few goes to start up." That cold analogy somehow made me feel better. And they were right.
I feel I can only write about this because we now have a healthy, beautiful toddler who is the love of our lives. From her first viable heartbeat on the ultrasound Gary said he knew this time she’d make it. Both himself and our doctor had welled up but I just stared at the tiny, glorious beating heart in disbelief. I held my breath before every scan after that.
Since she was born she was what’s described as a ‘velcro baby’. Basically, one that never let me leave her side. She mostly fell asleep on me or beside me and there was a long time I couldn’t have a shower without my husband holding her sobbing at the glass door while I scrambled to wash. People gave me tips on how to wean her off me, which I secretly ignored.
How did it feel to have a baby that was so attached to me all the time?
* INM has a dedicated section independent.ie/babyloss where parents of all ages can share their stories of miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal death. The section will serve as a testament to the women and men who share their stories, a memorial for the babies lost and as a resource for other people who have gone through or are going through the experience.
Your stories can be anonymous or on the record and nothing will be published in any format without prior consultation with you. If you would like to be part of this and tell your story, email Yvonne Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org