Guest blog by Seetal Savla
My grandmother, mother and I have all had a miscarriage. 4 losses over 3 generations. Shortly before I moved to Berlin last year, my grandma’s 2 miscarriages came up in conversation. As she revealed more about her traumatic experiences, I reflected on the differences and similarities between our upbringings and what we went through.
My grandmother’s experience
Born the eldest of 13 children in a small village in India, the responsibility for helping her mother care for her siblings fell on my grandma’s shoulders from a young age. She was whip smart and would have excelled at school, but a formal education was unfeasible. Her destiny was to secure her future via marriage, have children and run the home. In the 1940s, prospective brides were not informed about periods, sex and procreation, so my grandma was woefully unprepared for what the role of a wife entailed when she married my grandfather in her early teens. She still recalls the intense bouts of homesickness, confusion and paralysing fear in vivid detail.
She was 18 when my father was born; 15 months later, my uncle followed. After the latter turned 1, she fell pregnant for the third time. But she knew something was wrong when she started bleeding heavily at home, my dad and uncle witnessing the upsetting event unfold. By the time the doctor had arrived, she had passed the foetus and the excruciating cramps had subsided. Her fourth pregnancy also ended in a painful miscarriage before she gave birth to my aunt.
On both occasions, my grandfather advised her not to mention it to anyone because they would consider her to be cursed. They both knew this was mere superstition, but her admissions would have been met with misunderstanding and judgement due to the lack of education surrounding miscarriages, and fertility issues in general. The fear of being the source of salacious gossip among their community, seen as ‘defective’ and the alienating repercussions of that label silenced them. It must have been a very isolating time in my grandma’s life because there was no space for her valid grief, and no possibility of receiving much-needed empathy from others. She wrongly blamed herself for something over which she had no control whatsoever.
My mother’s experience
4 decades later, my mother suffered a miscarriage. Although she was raised near Birmingham, after leaving Kenya aged 4, the expectations of her were similar to those of the previous generation: complete compulsory education then get married and start a family. She was the third of 4 children and marriage was an opportunity to finally enjoy some freedom. After being introduced, she married my father when she was 18 and moved to Leicester.
I was born 2 months after she turned 21. My parents were smitten with me, but I was the apple of my grandma’s eye, a miniature version of her in some ways. I was an only child for 4 years until my brother came along. Or so I thought until my mum later shared that she had had a miscarriage when I was 2.
Home alone with me as my dad and grandmother were visiting London, she noticed some bleeding and immediately called our GP. There was no pain, but since the bleeding continued, she headed to the nearest hospital after asking relatives to look after me. She miscarried in her first trimester a few hours later. This traumatic event was compounded by the fact that when she woke up the following morning, a D&C had been performed without her consent, making her feel violated.
She recalls being “scared in the moment and empty afterwards”. Despite the passage of time between my grandmother’s losses and my mum’s, the 2 experiences share many parallels. Her miscarriage also remained unacknowledged, forcing her to suppress her suffering and making her feel as if it had never happened. If their community had discovered that my parents had lost their baby, my mum probably would have been blamed and shamed for somehow being the reason behind this heart-breaking loss. Compassion was extremely thin on the ground in those days. Women therefore kept silent about their pain, which bred more shame and self-loathing.
Born in Leicester and the eldest of 3 children, my upbringing was world’s apart from my grandmother’s and mother’s childhoods. Education was widely encouraged, including extracurricular activities, like music and dancing. Unlike for some of my peers, there was no opposition when I expressed an interest in reading French at university instead of pursuing the societally accepted paths of medicine, law, pharmacy, accountancy, etc. Provided that I was sure of my decision and willing to work hard, that was all that mattered.
The expectation of marriage (preferably to an Indian man) and children was always present, but it was never enforced. I was given the freedom to work in Paris and Montreal for years and settle down in my own time. Which I did in my late 20's when I married my best friend from university (who happened to be Indian, which surprised everyone as they had expected me to marry a Frenchman).
Although my family never pressured me to procreate, others certainly did. Each intrusive, insensitive and unsolicited comment and question angered me; what did or did not happen in my womb was my business, not theirs. The more time passed, the less I felt that motherhood was for me. Then I fell pregnant in late 2015, and everything changed in a split second.
Dealing with loss and infertility
As soon as I started spotting a few weeks later, our hearts sank as we clung onto fading hope. My short pregnancy changed me. It made me realise how deeply I had buried my desire to be a mother by giving me a glimpse of what I could have had. It also forced me to confront the reality that this had been our sole pregnancy in 8 years and I likely had reproductive issues. This was later proven with a diminished ovarian reserve diagnosis, which led to five failed IVF cycles that have mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted us.
Breaking my silence and suffocating shame
While South Asian communities in the UK are more informed about miscarriages and infertility now, not all families can offer the compassion that those who have suffered baby loss or are struggling to conceive need to feel supported and understood.
The expectations of women, particularly married women, have remained the same over time: we are expected to achieve academic, professional, marital and parental perfection. As such, no-one wants to hear about our ugly difficulties in detail. Our fertility-related frustrations and fears make people feel uncomfortable, so they reach for platitudes, which sound insincere to us.
As one of the female interviewees in Netflix documentary ‘Period. End of Sentence’ explains, “Where there’s patriarchy, it takes time to talk about matters related to women. Even among women, we struggle to talk about it.”
I decided to share my story to help break this pattern. I want to use my experience to destigmatise miscarriage and infertility. Instead of quietly fuming at others for their lack of understanding, I hope that my words educate them, enable them to express their emotions and elicit genuine empathy. Unlike my grandmother and mother, I have the platform and privilege to articulate what they could not to change the narrative, and hopefully empower other South Asians to follow suit in whichever way they can.
You can follow Seetal on Instagram, and follow her journey on her blog.