Sophie Morris on facing the bitter blow of miscarriage
“Unfortunately, we can’t detect a heartbeat.” I’ve heard that too often at ultrasound scans. Once is too often, but it still jolts you the second time. And the third. It’s the moment hope ceases.
Rather than looking forward to a new life, you’ve only got the bloody awful prospect – and this is a literal rather than a figurative description – of the remnants of that life being wrung out of you. For that is what it feels like.
As a political journalist, I have always been chary of using the personal pronoun, reluctant to make myself the story or impose my opinions on discerning readers who are capable of forming their own.
This is different. It’s an intensely personal topic and it’s one I know well. It’s also something that’s not talked about often, despite being incredibly common. Figures vary wildly, but an oft-cited statistic is that, among women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is 15 to 20 per cent. If it hasn’t happened to you, chances are it has happened to your girlfriend, wife, sister or mother.
Yet the first time it happened to me, about eight weeks into a pregnancy, I was blindsided. I had no idea of the risk of miscarriage, was consumed by an irrational sense of shame and failure and a raw but untethered grief. I wasn’t even showing, of course, and I felt foolish to have felt the loss so deeply at such an early stage. Now I know the grief is legitimate, but it is also a hormonal roller-coaster that can’t necessarily be controlled by willpower alone.
When I tried to keep working during the miscarriage, I ended up in tears on the phone to a politician who had, mid-interview, innocently asked when I planned to have kids. Years later, he still handles me with kid gloves and kindness.
As the cramps got the better of me, I sat at home reading countless heartbreaking stories on chat forums. It helped to know I was not alone. But I had no idea of these women’s lives, or even their real names, and thus found it hard to relate to them, even though their anonymous anguish reflected mine.
For a while, I threw myself into exercise in an attempt to reassert control over this wayward body that would not do what I wanted it to. That summer, I swam kilometres of ocean to show it who was boss.
The friends who said the only thing that would heal the hurt was having a baby were probably right, but I resented their comments, for I did not know if this salve would ever be attainable for me.
I am lucky. Since that first miscarriage, we’ve had two gorgeous girls, each pregnancy with complications that could have proved serious but were managed well. Each girl was born tiny; undersized but perfect. They are now four and almost two and a constant source of delight, mischief and infectious illnesses.
Had I experienced consecutive miscarriages, I suspect I would not have wanted to fall pregnant again and would have preferred to remain childless. I have friends whose lives have been shaped by such circumstances. I can well understand their reluctance to repeatedly put themselves through the emotional and physical wringer with no guarantees.
For me, there was a second miscarriage between the birth of my daughters, so when I fell pregnant again a few months ago, unplanned but not unwelcome, the first positive test brought a sense of trepidation. I couldn’t bring myself to tell the potential grandmothers. They are both wonderful and supportive women, but I hate raising their hopes only to dash them. Or giving them any extra reason to fret.
After losing a pregnancy, you never again get that unbridled excitement when the test shows two blue lines.
Here we go again. The voice in your head tells you not to imagine your family expanding. Yet as the nausea grips you, churns you, knocks you flat, you suspect there must be something sticking. This can’t all be in vain. Tentatively, you and your beloved begin to joke about gender, names and car seats.
At social outings, you devise lame excuses for not drinking and for leaving early. You pull out of some events at the last minute because you’re too darn tired.
You feel pathetic, but you hope that, eventually, all will be revealed as your belly swells and people twig to your subterfuge and approve retrospectively of your sobriety and your disciplined refusal of soft cheese and sashimi.
Then, when it abruptly ends, you want to block out those weeks, for there is no way of explaining them.
To the economist who, standing in the queue at the cafe in Parliament House recently, observed kindly and astutely: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you look exhausted”, now you understand what was keeping me up at night. And by the way, you owe me a coffee. (Now I’ll know if you really do read my stories.)
The waiting game
I had plenty of warning this time. A scan at eight weeks raised red flags, but wasn’t conclusive. We’d have to wait another fortnight to learn if it was a hiccup in the pregnancy or if it had come to a halt. “We like to give each pregnancy every chance,” the doctor said.
In the end, it was a gentle sonographer who guided me through it, a woman who has scanned my womb from multiple angles through past pregnancies. One of the perks of her profession must be showing parents the first images of their child. And one of the downsides would be breaking the news when there is no heartbeat.
I told her I was braced for bad news, that I had eaten a Magnum ice-cream that afternoon as a guilty pleasure so I could at least enjoy something that day. Scanning my innards, she charted the progress of said Magnum through my digestive tract. I laughed because I did not want to cry, yet the hot tears still welled up when she confirmed the pregnancy had failed.
This time, I needed the swift surgical end to it, rather than the drawn-out private drama of cramps and clots, and I have only good things to say about the nurses and doctors who got me there.
Some friends, colleagues and other readers may think this article self-indulgent. I don’t mean it that way. Far worse things can happen than losing a pregnancy in the early months of gestation.
If the writing is raw, it is because the anaesthetic is still wearing off and I’m under the influence of a riot of hormones that have triggered the worst acne outbreak I’ve had since circa 1992.
I am not writing this just as therapy, nor just as a roundabout way of telling my boss that my radar may be a bit skew-whiff for a few days. I couldn’t have written about it the first time it happened. It was too confusing. But I’ve learnt through several miscarriages that I am in no way to blame. It was simply not meant to be.
So, I am writing this in case there is one woman somewhere who is going through it for the first time, racked by an ill-defined grief and by a sense of failure, which is no less gutting for being completely irrational. Everyone deals with these things differently, but perhaps it might help her to put a name and face to someone who has been through it before.
There are plenty of reasons we don’t talk about miscarriage, but this silence allows it to become more scary and lonely than it already is.
Perhaps I am also writing for my daughters, in case they should some day discover this whole baby-making business is rarely straightforward. I could show them this and tell them miscarriage stinks, but it happens. Life will go on, but it’s okay to pause and grieve, even if the loss is hard to define.
It’s also okay to eat a Magnum or two, if that makes you feel better. I would tell my daughters, too, that each time I heard their hearts beat during an ultrasound, my own heart quickened with joy.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 4, 2015 as "Losing it". Subscribe here.