Our miscarriage experiences need to be spoken about, and our stories deserve to be heard
TW: Graphic descriptions of the medical process of miscarriage
‘Wait twelve weeks before announcing your pregnancy’, everyone advises. ‘After that, the risk of miscarriage drops sharply.’
I was already twelve weeks pregnant when I saw the blood.
It was my first pregnancy and I didn’t know if the sudden spotting was normal. Henry and I called the pregnancy advice line at midnight, who told us to go to A&E if there was still blood in the morning. We waited at the bus stop in the misty sunlight. We waited in A&E for five hours.
I text my friend to let her know that I wasn’t going to make it to her little girl’s birthday party. It was the first apology of many over the coming weeks.
We waited in a windowless room for a further two hours. A smiley doctor said I could have a scan first thing the next morning, and to go home. No one suggested anything bad could happen in the meantime.
We planned on telling everyone I was pregnant at Christmas. I couldn’t wait for every window in our street to start framing cosy, twinkling trees, beckoning me into their warm glow, the background to our big excitement. For the first time since I was a child, I was counting down the days before we even reached December. I wanted to tell my parents at our family Christmas Eve meal. I thought about writing them a card, imagining their faces when they saw it was addressed from their first grandchild. It was going to be the best Christmas present ever.
We knew the statistics, that one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage. We never spoke about ‘the baby’. We said ‘if this pregnancy works out’, and talked about ‘the fetus’. With every passing week I was a little more confident, a little more certain. Facebook knew I was pregnant, and offered me glimpses of the crib I might buy or the breastfeeding class I might attend. We didn’t really talk about the baby, but more and more the silence brimmed with expectation. There would be other kinds of silence later.
A few hours after coming home from A&E, slow, crunching pains began to roll through my lower back and belly. I arched and twisted back and forth on the bed, and eventually decided to get into the bath. The pain ebbed and flowed. By the time the water was cold, it had gone quiet inside of me. I noticed then that the water was turning grey, like a dirty cloud dissolving around me. Two steps out onto the bath mat, and the blood started to pour. I took one more step and shouted to Henry that we needed to go back to the hospital, now. As I was shouting, I felt something, formless yet solid, fall to the floor. I just managed to cross the room before another surge of blood and slurry was sharply expelled. My body was working in slow, stuttering contractions, and had decided without my involvement when it needed to push.
Henry came in and uncharacteristically burst into tears. He kept saying he was sorry, over and over. He told me don’t look, and don’t move, because the fetus was there on the floor, next to my foot. I held onto him while he sobbed against me, obediently not looking, knowing I couldn’t look and hating myself for letting Henry carry the burden of seeing alone. Days later, he would tell me it looked like a tiny grey baby, with arms and legs and umbilical cord — and the beginnings of a face. Months later, he said this was the worst day of his life.
We put a square of toilet tissue as a shroud over the tiny baby, a paper thin wall between ourselves and the grief. What the hell do you do with a miscarried baby? Who do you call?
Henry called his mum while I called mine. Who else but our mothers?
I decided I needed to try and clean up the blood. There was so much blood. I needed something practical to do. I stood shakily under the shower, trying to rinse myself off while more kept coming. Something came out, the size of my fist but slicker, and shiny as a liver. I thought, with the calm detachment of someone having a near death experience, that I needed to lie down now, as I was probably going to faint, and could hit my head. Henry tried to stop me sitting down in it all, but I told him I felt sick.
‘Are you going to be sick?’
‘I don’t know.’
Then I leant forward and vomited my entire stomach contents onto myself. Henry said later that at this point, he couldn’t believe the situation was somehow getting worse. But to me it seemed to make sense, that my body had eaten itself from shock, and turned inside out.
Our mums both arrived to help. When Henry’s mum arrived, I was still naked in the bath covered in blood and vomit. I’d stood up to wash myself only to lay back down several times, and the situation was becoming farcical. She had brought a small box lined with cotton wool. Gently, she took the shroud off the bathroom floor, and spoke softly to the baby.
‘Hey there, little guy. Poor little guy. I’m so sorry.’
Henry had been a twin, originally. His mum miscarried the other baby at fourteen weeks. We sometimes made jokes about this, about Henry killing his twin in the womb. No big deal, right? It was thirty years ago and his mum has four great kids.
We were so incredibly callous and stupid.
The next day, Henry and I took the box and buried it. It’s easy to just say it like that, but we had to decide on the right spot, get a spade, dig the hole. Who buries their own child in this day and age?
We chose a place close to our hearts, close to where we had scattered wildflower seeds in the spring and watched poppies bloom in the summer. Now, the ground was very cold and hard. When we had made the hole deep enough, we placed the box gently inside, and both said some words. I think it was the first time either of us had spoken out loud to the baby, but it didn’t feel strange. I put my fingertips gently on top of the box one last time before we covered it over with soil, as softly as we could.
I still had to have the scan the hospital arranged. I called and apologetically explained the situation, as if I was telling someone I’d spilt coffee on their rug, and wanted to see about getting it cleaned. The people at the Early Pregnancy Unit were sympathetic, and put us in a cubicle off to the side, so we didn’t have to sit with excited couples ready for their first scan photos. Behind the curtained partition to the next cubicle, I could hear another woman crying.
When we were called for the ultrasound, the technician was cheerful and businesslike, having me hop up on the bed and making jolly small talk. She obviously hadn’t been told about the miscarriage. When Henry pointed this out, her demeanour changed completely, and she asked me if I wanted the screen switched off. I said yes, even though I knew there was nothing to see. I didn’t want to look at a hollow chasm, filled with darkness and static. I also had a thin hope, which even then I knew was too pathetic and improbable to raise. When Henry’s mum miscarried, he had survived while his sibling died. My dad is a twin, perhaps it runs in my family. Who was to say there wasn’t still a baby alive in there?
‘Yes, I’m sorry. It looks like everything has cleared. There’s nothing there.’
Then Henry said ‘Can I see?’
He looked at the screen for a couple of seconds, as if searching the void inside of me.
‘Did you pass any large clots?’
‘The whole — the whole fetus came out.’
Surely they must know that?
‘And how do you feel, do you think you need any counselling?’
‘I’m okay but I think it might help my partner to speak to someone.’
‘Yes…sometimes it can be upsetting for the partner, too.’
The nurse said this as if it was most odd and inconsiderate of partners generally. She didn’t give me any further information. Not about counselling, not about bleeding, not about what we still had to go through.
The whole purpose of not telling anyone until you are twelve weeks pregnant is as insurance in case you have a miscarriage. That way, you don’t have to break the sad news. In fact, I desperately wanted to announce the miscarriage. With no one knowing, that was the only thing I could think of that would make the pregnancy real, and acknowledge the baby we lost. Because as soon is it was gone, it stopped being an abstraction. Henry and I didn’t talk about ‘the fetus’ any more. When I cried uncontrollably, I said ‘I’m sorry the baby died’.
I went back to work. My manager was sensitive and kind — but also visibly pregnant, which was awkward and upsetting. I was still having pain, sometimes mild, sometimes like being slyly stabbed in the side. Everywhere started to put up their Christmas decorations. I felt like I was being blinded by the lights in the street. Everywhere was anticipating celebration. I decided it was too soon and stopped going to work for a while.
I couldn’t understand where all the art about miscarriage was. Grief, love and heartbreak are some of our most enduring themes as humans and as artists, and yet I couldn’t think of a single artwork dealing with miscarriage.
Eventually, I found two notable exceptions. Frida Kahlo’s paintings, showing her bleeding in her hospital bed, attached by ropes of love and pain to dreamlike babies and harsh anatomical diagrams; and Beyonce’s song about her first pregnancy, ‘Heartbeat’. In an interview I read, Beyonce called the sound of her unborn baby’s heartbeat ‘the most beautiful music I ever heard in my life’. These are the stories of the most famous female artist of all time, and a musician so famous and iconic we call her a Queen. How are these stories so common to live and so rare to hear?
Two weeks after the miscarriage, I was still bleeding heavily. I wanted to finally feel clean again. I wanted this gone. I called the pregnancy advice line.
‘I can’t seem to find your notes’ the midwife said.
‘I had a miscarriage two weeks ago?’
‘You must have been taken off the system since you aren’t pregnant any more.’
She paused. ‘You shouldn’t really be calling this number.’
Wiped clean, gone. I went to the GP about the bleeding.
‘You’ve probably just started your period again’ she shrugged.
‘It definitely isn’t that.’
She didn’t elaborate further. She did an infection swab and told me I’d hear back if there was a problem. As I left, one of the receptionists started to hang tinsel around the waiting room.
After three weeks of bleeding, I suddenly started passing more clots and gushing blood, like the miscarriage was starting all over again. I called the pregnancy advice line a final time, and this time they didn’t tell me I shouldn’t be calling them. They told me to go to the hospital immediately.
This time we waited in A&E for nine hours, all through the night. I asked if I could just go home and come back in the day time, but the receptionist said I’d have to start waiting all over again. About five in the morning, a woman limped through the doorway in jogging bottoms, clutching her stomach. I heard her say she was twenty weeks pregnant. She went through the door to the triage nurse and never came back. She didn’t have anyone with her at all.
Eventually, someone came with a wheelchair to take me away. I protested briefly — if I was well enough to stay in a metal chair for nine hours, I was well enough to walk down a corridor — but I got in the chair. A cool breeze ran across my face as I was whisked through the hospital, as if I was flying in a dream.
I had an examination, and an internal scan. This seemed to involve a lot of cold metal and being told I needed to relax. The original ultrasound had been incorrect, and not everything had cleared. I had ‘retained products of conception’. I could either have surgical intervention right then under local anaesthetic, or have general anaesthetic and have to stay in over night. At this point, I hadn’t slept in almost thirty hours, and just wanted to go home as soon as possible.
I had to sign forms about what I wanted done with ‘the remains’. Whether I was happy to have the remainder of my pregnancy disposed of as clinical waste, or cremated with other miscarried babies at the hospital, or if I wanted to take it home like a doggy bag from a restaurant. For the first time, I was incredibly glad I’d miscarried at home, and Henry and I had dealt with our baby’s burial ourselves.
There were two nurses present during the procedure, and quite honestly without them I couldn’t have gone through with it. I must have seemed scared, because one said ‘If you want, I can hold your hand’ and the other said ‘It’s going to be okay, I’m going to tell you when to breathe and you’re going to get through this.’
Everything about it seemed like a birth. One nurse counted me down to each burst of pain, while I huffed gas and air and tried not to scream. The other nurse never let go of my hand, even when I was squeezing it so hard it must have hurt her.
The NHS website says of this particular procedure ‘you may experience some discomfort, similar to period pain.’ After it was over, I was so disoriented and shaky that the nurses literally had to help me get dressed. I kept saying I was sorry. I went back to my hospital bed and told Henry I was okay. A few minutes later, we had to call a nurse because I was sitting in a pool of blood. At some point, I stopped bleeding enough that we could leave.
After all this, the GP got back to me, and said actually I did need to come back, there was a problem. In the waiting room, a mother cooed over her tiny baby while I scrolled aimlessly through my phone. I had gone into my Facebook settings to specify that I didn’t want to see any ads to do with motherhood or parenting or pregnancy. It showed them relentlessly anyway. At that exact moment, trying to ignore the happy scene in the waiting room, I got an ad suggesting egg donation. It said: ‘For some women, Christmas is a tragic reminder of yet another year without a baby!’
When I was called in, the nurse asked me if I was here for my flu jab.
‘No.’ I said flatly. ‘I had a miscarriage. You asked me to come. I had an infection swab a while ago.’
It took about ten minutes of her dicking about on the computer to find out I had been asked back because they had lost my first infection swab. ‘So I’ll have to do another cervical smear.’
I wanted to say no. Get out of my uterus, get out of my womb. Stop pulling me apart at every opportunity.
I went home and cried. I was so angry I didn’t know what I would do. Eventually, I wrote a Christmas card to the nurses on the gynaecology ward, thanking them for everything they had done for me.
If you had asked me when I was pregnant how I would feel if I had a miscarriage, I would have said something like ‘very disappointed’. What I actually feel is grief, as if for a person I really knew. On Christmas Eve, the same day I had planned on telling my family they could expect their first grandchild, and exactly a month after the miscarriage, the bleeding finally stopped. It was the best Christmas present ever. But it was just a pause in the grief.
In the month that followed, two people I knew announced their pregnancies. They posted their scans without warning on Whatsapp and Facebook. Seeing their scans — due July, younger than my June baby, who would never reach that age — was horrendous. Celebratory photos of some other baby, at the exact stage in development that my baby had died. I was surprised how much jealousy I felt, and how much love.
The day after my miscarriage, after we buried our baby, I got into the same bath where I had almost passed out from shock the day before, and wrote a poem on my phone so quickly and completely that I felt scared to read it back. I didn’t know if I could handle what I felt set down in words, even if I was the one who had written them. The poem was called ‘Poppyseed’:
At four weeks
I read between the lines, they said
‘Your baby is the size of a poppy seed!’
And I could check
Because I’d taken each stem
And heard the pod for the sound within
The soft dry rattle
In the shaken cradle
I’m alive in here.
Changed so fast from blooms blood red
(Could form a bouquet between baby’s breath
Poppies wilt and tilt their heads
The minute they’re pulled)
To a womb on a stick
Brittle and full, each secret occupant
The size of a poppy seed.
In the end you only grew
Blurrily to the edge of my hope,
To fit in the curve of my hand.
Well beyond what I thought
Was the scope of my love.
No one had said
About what happens next
About the mucous and sludge
Or the dark, clotted grief
But at last, we trudged
Through the frosted grass
To the quiet, safe place
To rest you
Where the poppies will grow again next year.
Some days I don’t think about what happened any more. But some days I can’t think about it any less. Henry and I are together like always, and I’m so glad we have each other. I try to be in the moment with him. I try not to wait.