Miscarriage, mental health and breaking cultural taboos

Yuen Kwan Li-Smith, 46, struggled with her mental health after suffering two miscarriages. She believes there is not enough empathy and information around early miscarriage. Yuen lives with husband Matt, 47, in London.
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We married when I was 40 and started trying for a baby not long after. Time passed and nothing happened, so we got referred to the fertility clinic at our local hospital. Matt was given the all clear and they were waiting for me to start my period so they could take bloods when, one night, I started getting really bad cramps which was unusual for me. Matt asked whether I could be pregnant but I dismissed it. It turns out that I was.

I miscarried at home the following morning

It was the single most painful and traumatic experience of my life. There was a lot of blood, so much so that I almost passed out. Later that night when I went to the bathroom to remove my tampon, some grey tissue came out. I was taken aback as I didn’t know what it was. I dialled 111 and the doctor said that I’d probably miscarried. I felt my body go cold with shock. I took the tissue to my GP appointment where a test confirmed that I was 10 weeks pregnant.

I don’t talk about my first miscarriage much. I still feel a lot of shame and embarrassment about it, because how could I have not known I was pregnant?

The local hospital only scanned at the weekends, so I went back a few days later and the scan and blood test confirmed our loss. Initially I took a week off work, but when I returned, I had a bit of a breakdown. I was signed off for another 2 weeks. It took me a while to recover both physically and emotionally and even longer to process the experience and trauma. I didn’t know anyone who had miscarried (that I could talk to), so I went to Google and that’s when I found Tommy’s.

5 months later, I fell pregnant a second time

This time, I knew, as I’d taken a pregnancy test at home. I was 5 weeks gone. We were really happy and I had all the typical symptoms: bloating, fatigue, sore boobs. I felt very pregnant. Although I was super anxious, I tried not to worry too much. Unfortunately, I lost my baby at 9 weeks and 5 days. This one hit me the hardest.

One day I had a scare when I went to the loo and wiped a little blood. I panicked and called the EPU who checked me out. The doctor said I wasn’t ‘actively miscarrying’ and sent me on my way. How I hate that term now. A few days later, I left work early to go shopping. When I stood up to get off the train, I felt wet. I gingerly reached down and touched the wet patch. It was blood. I realised it was happening again. I rushed into Debenham’s toilets and stripped off. There was blood everywhere.

Looking back, I think I was in denial as I’d convinced myself that bleeding during pregnancy can happen. But not this much blood, I told myself minutes later, so I called the EPU who told me to go in straight away.

Sat in the waiting room full of pregnant women, I started getting the same familiar waves of contractions. I remember struggling to walk to the reception desk as they got worse and I started feeling faint. After explaining how much pain I was in, I finally got moved into a separate room and given paracetamol. I messaged my husband who came straight way. When he arrived, I got up to go to the loo.

I don’t know why, but as I stood up, something told me to look into the toilet bowl. And there she was. I had passed my baby. I had to fish her out with the toilet brush and then carefully wrapped her in some tissue. The sac was intact and perfectly formed. Instinctively, I handed her over to the nurse. That’s the biggest regret I have – that I didn’t open up the sac.

I wished I’d got to see my baby. It would’ve meant that she was real, that she existed.

That was May 9 2019 and I’ve not been able to get pregnant since

The turning point for me was counselling at the beginning of 2020. I was really struggling and, though I wasn’t diagnosed, my counsellor said that everything she was seeing was symptomatic of depression.

I’d never suffered with my mental health before. Losing a baby really is the most lonely and isolating experience that you can go through.

I wanted to talk to people like me but, being Chinese and over 40, I don’t see many people my age, let alone my ethnicity, who have gone through this. Even the celebrities and influencers on Instagram who talk about loss and infertility are mostly white women.

I think there’s definitely a cultural thing

In my culture, we don’t really talk about our emotions and feelings. We celebrate a baby being born but when bad things happen, we don’t discuss it. I couldn’t speak to my family but I really needed to talk. It was eating me up inside.

I honestly think that, too often, there’s a lack of compassion and empathy around early miscarriage. My local EPU didn’t even give me a leaflet after my first, nothing, no follow up care.  

You’re left to deal with this grief by yourself. I can’t get my head around it because, as soon as you know you are pregnant, you’re a mum. To be treated as less feels like a kick in the guts, like it didn’t matter. It was only 10 weeks. It wasn’t a real baby. It’s a massive misconception and so very hurtful.

A loss is a loss at whatever stage; this grief isn’t just in our heads. The fact that it’s often not recognised adds to that sense of shame, like you’re making a fuss over nothing. You don’t talk about it because you don’t feel like you should and that makes you feel like your emotions aren’t valid. One gynaecologist actually asked me why I’d left it so late. It’s astounding really, that lack of empathy. We need to talk about this more, to break down this taboo and prevent more women suffering in silence.