By Viv Groskop
There came a moment when time stopped. I wondered who would speak first, me or the doctor. The seconds dragged out. The doctor pushed harder into my stomach with the ultrasound. I heard myself say: “It’s not all right, is it?” I sounded very controlled. My heart was pounding and I could feel my body going cold. I knew from the doctor’s face that the baby had gone.
Eventually, he spoke. “Yes. I’m sorry. There’s no heartbeat.” There’s not much anyone can say after that.
Miscarriage is always horrible. When it happens to you early in pregnancy and not later on, you feel like you should consider yourself lucky. But it feels like the end of the world. I found out at the 12-week scan. No one apart from my husband knew that I was having another baby. I felt shocked, numb, cheated — as well as a bit selfish and ungrateful, because I already had two children. It was September 2009.
We were waiting to tell everyone that day.
Statistically, one in three to four pregnancies ends in miscarriage. Every woman who has tried to conceive, especially over 35 (I was 36 at the time), knows that off by heart. As I took the news in, a part of me was thinking: “Come on. You had two easy pregnancies. You know the deal. It was your turn. Bite your lip, get on with it.” It feels as if you’re meant to accept it as a rite of passage.
Miscarriage is a strange and frightening thing.
We’re so afraid of the subject that we often don’t even use the right words to talk about it. As the American author Elizabeth McCracken has pointed out, miscarriage can be a euphemism: after a certain point, it’s stillbirth or neonatal death. As McCracken writes in her beautiful and funny memoir about her own stillborn child, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, it can feel astonishing that these things still happen: “I thought stillbirth was a thing of history, and then it happened to me, and yet now when I hear of a baby dying I’m just as incredulous. You mean they still haven’t figured this out?”
I felt that way when I miscarried. You find yourself asking the doctor, stupidly: “Are you sure? Could you just double-check?” You cannot accept that there is nothing to be done. How can it be that everything is fine one minute but not the next? And there’s no explanation? This sense of mystery is perhaps why we feel so awkward discussing it openly. No one likes hearing about unsuccessful pregnancies. And so the oddest part of miscarriage is that it’s a supposedly everyday experience — that awful, commonplace “one in three” statistic — but it is one that really is not at all welcome in everyday conversation. It’s a very hard thing to tell people: “I was pregnant but now I’m not.” Most of all, no one wants to know the details.
Which is, perhaps, fair enough. But it’s a situation that breeds ignorance.
I was fairly clueless about what would happen to me after that scan.
I had heard of people having sudden bleeds, but there was nothing wrong with me. I expected physical pain or at least some sixth sense that something wasn’t right. But the loss of a baby is the same as birth itself: no two cases are alike. I had no symptoms at all, as I had what is termed a missed miscarriage. This is what happens when the foetus dies — in my case, at eight weeks — but your body continues to prepare for birth. I even felt healthier than in my previous pregnancies: I had had bleeding at seven or eight weeks with both previous babies (which turned out fine). But this time, when there really was something wrong, there had been no bleeding.
The worst was to come. It turned out that the medical protocol around miscarriage is quite odd.
Perversely, it is not considered an emergency unless the mother is having a haemorrhage. This is hard to deal with. When you discover that your pregnancy is over, all you want is closure and to move on. But because I was physically fine, I was told to wait until the next day to see my GP. When I eventually saw her, she referred me to the hospital. That took another day.
Meanwhile, I was told that I could go about life “as normal” and just wait and see whether I miscarried “naturally”. This could happen at any time or not at all. It was only when I turned up at the hospital in tears and begged them to do something that they brought the consent forms for the operation, the hideously named ERPC (Evacuation of Retained Products of Conception) under general anaesthetic. I went into surgery three days after I found out that I had lost the baby. It felt a long time to wait for it to be properly over.
I grieved and felt bad for a while. But something good came out of it too.
The miscarriage made me realise not only how very much I wanted a third child but also how precious my existing children were. I felt much more grateful for everything I already had. In the end I was very lucky: I fell pregnant again soon after with Jack, now five years old.
I cannot forget what happened, and it often occurs to me that I should have a baby six months older than the one I do. Since I’ve had Jack, people often say to me: “Oh, so there’s quite a big gap between your last two.” (My other children are aged twelve and nine.) I can never quite stop myself from replying, honestly: “Well, yes, that’s because I had a miscarriage first.” Sometimes they look embarrassed. And maybe I shouldn’t say it to avoid that. But more often than not they tell the story of someone they know who experienced exactly the same thing. Which, for whatever reason, really does help.
With thanks to The Times where this column first appeared.
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