I'm delighted to have been offered the opportunity to run the London Marathon in 2019 for Tommy's. Here's why it's a cause that means so much to my wife Juliet and I...
We met in 2006, married in 2011 and, in summer 2014, we decided the time was right to start a family. Easy, right? Not exactly. Between March 2015 and February 2016, we suffered three miscarriages.
We first found out that we were expecting in January 2015. I was on a golf course in Florida when Jules phoned me with news that she was pregnant with our first child. I’ve never enjoyed playing golf badly more than I did that day!
The next several weeks were the most exciting of our lives until we were confronted with the devastating news at our 12-week scan that our baby had no heartbeat. There had been nothing to suggest anything was wrong. It’s what they call a ‘missed miscarriage’. It’s rare – approximately one in 100 pregnancies end this way – and it’s crushing. Utterly, sickeningly crushing.
I can vividly recall looking at the screen in the darkened scan room, waiting eagerly to hear all about our baby. Instead, we heard this.
I’m afraid I have some bad news.
As it turned out, the baby had died approximately three weeks prior.
Words can’t describe that moment.
The grief is instant, overwhelming and excruciating. You grieve for your unborn child, for yourself, for your partner, for your family but, most of all, for all the memories you’d already started to prepare: phoning your mum and dad to tell them they’re grandparents; decorating the nursery; taking the little one home for the first time; even the bleary-eyed nappy changes in the early hours of the morning.
There are people who say you can’t miss what you never had. They are totally wrong. For several weeks, months even, we were consumed by intense heartache. We cried ourselves to sleep many nights. Many mornings started the same way.
Still, we regrouped, recovered and tried again. Life waits for no-one, right? We fell pregnant twice more, in November 2015 and in February 2016, both of which ended in natural losses around the six-week mark. It doesn’t get any easier. Each time stung like the first. The circumstances were different, sure, but the devastation was just as intense.
After the third successive loss, we were, medically speaking, ‘experiencing recurrent miscarriage’. Another one in 100 likelihood. That entitles you to some tests – to check for thing such as chromosomal abnormalities and such like – all of which we took and all of which came back negative. There was no obvious reason why we couldn’t have a successful, continuing pregnancy. We were, as one consultant put it, just experiencing terribly bad luck.
Neither of us particularly believes in things such as fate, destiny and dumb luck, so we did some research and found a private clinic in Coventry that we thought might offer some hope.
Based at the University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire, the NK Testing Clinic has undertaken research that has discovered some women who have miscarriages have an abnormally high level of uterine Natural Killer cells in the lining of their womb. In layman’s terms, these cells act as the body’s front-line defence against ‘alien’ entities in the body. Unfortunately, they aren’t sophisticated enough to distinguish between ‘good’ alien entities and ‘bad’ alien entities, so they attack them all with the same vigour. And when there’s lots of them -- well, the bigger the army, the shorter the battle.
Fortunately for us, the team in Coventry have discovered a way of limiting the impact of those extra cell in pregnancy, a steroid drug called Prednisolone. I should point out that the NHS doesn’t yet recognise the validity of this research but the conversations we discovered and engaged in, primarily on social media, gave us the hope we needed, so we travelled down for Jules to be tested.
Lo and behold, the test came back positive – a higher-than-normal instance of Natural Killer cells. The treatment plan was simple: Jules was to start taking Prednisolone when she next fell pregnant.
Until then, we were instructed to stay patient. Easier said than done. By this point, it was June 2016 – over a year since our first loss. No time at all in the grand scheme of things but the big picture is hard to see when you’ve got your nose pressed against the frame.
We went out of our way to keep ourselves busy as we waited for life – quite literally – to happen. We went on holidays, did up the house. I ran marathons and even wrote a book about marathon running. Anything to fill the persistent void.
You just do whatever you can. You find yourself ‘liking’ even the most distant acquaintances’ scan photos and pregnancy announcements on Facebook because even though you don’t believe in karma, you’re not prepared to take any chances. So, you over-compensate, hoping that nobody will notice and that the universe will reward you.
Your behaviour becomes obsessive-compulsive. Not in a ‘Look how quirky and interesting I am’ kind of way but in a very real and very exhausting way. We both, unbeknownst to one another, resorted to things like knocking on the door frame three times before going into the kitchen, lining up food ‘labels to the front’ in the fridge. It wasn’t an attention-seeking affectation but rather a full-blown affliction designed to invite good fortune.
Before long, I began to get paranoid. What if this is as far as we’ll ever get? It started off as an occasional and deeply unhelpful thought but soon became a recurring, constant fear that it gnawed away at me, decaying my confidence.
I also convinced myself that some people – including some close friends and family – were going out of their way to avoid us, lest miscarriage be contagious.
In my particularly desperate moments and feeling that we weren’t getting adequate support from health care professionals, I even started to fleetingly wonder if this was an example of Government-ordered population control at work. Don’t give miscarrying couples any help – the country’s already over capacity.
In the absence of a plausible, proven explanation for what you’re going through, it is absolutely amazing the things you can persuade yourself to be true.
I’m ashamed to admit I even felt a little emasculated by the experiences. I felt that, as a man, I’d failed because I hadn’t been there when my children needed me most. They needed me to save them and I couldn’t. Nobody could have, of course, but that was no consolation.
I found myself becoming more withdrawn and introverted and my behaviour became increasingly erratic. Up one minute, down the next. I know that Jules felt the same about herself. And yet our commitment to each other never wavered. Not for a second. Individually, we were broken but, as a couple, we were strong and resilient. Perhaps stronger than ever.
Finally, we got our silver lining.
In February 2017, Jules fell pregnant again. It was terrifying. That’s something few people appreciate. After you’ve been through a miscarriage, becoming pregnant is not the exclusively joyous experience it once was. It’s wonderful, of course, but tinged with perpetual worry.
We held our breaths for the first 12 weeks. I dreaded going to sleep at night for fear of waking to the news I feared the most. We also invested in three private scans – at seven, nine and eleven weeks – for reassurance that everything was progressing normally.
Our 12-week scan went perfectly but the relief it provided was soon replaced by that rising fear again as the 20-week scan approached. It’s a strange thing to be scared – genuinely scared – of something the majority of people don’t think twice about. Again, though, it went well. We had another scan at 32 weeks and numerous appointments with our midwife. Everything was fine but we never truly relaxed. Not until 2.52pm on November 25, 2017, when we welcomed our beautiful little daughter into the world. Sadie Jane McEwan. All 9lbs 11oz of her.
She is, quite simply, a dream come true. Honestly. She is the best thing that has ever happened to us. Even that feels like an understatement.
As I write, she’s sleeping contentedly, which has given me some pause for thought to better reflect on the last few years.
For a while, I was bitter and angry about what we went through. Now, though, I think of myself as only one thing…
Lucky. So incredibly lucky.
I’ve got an amazing wife, a wonderful family and a beautiful little girl. Some people never get any of those things. I’ve got all three. I’m unbelievably fortunate.
Equally, I’ll never forget how we got here. The twists, the turns, the ups, the downs, the heartache. I’ll never forget it, nor do I think I should. To do so would be to pretend that those three other little lives never happened and that’s not something I’m prepared to do.
I think often about those three little ones. They’ll never know it but they’re my strength. They’re my compassion. They’re my drive. They’re my resolve. They’re my perspective. They are my determination to be the best dad and husband I can possibly be.
I guess that’s the positive I try to take from what is an otherwise hopelessly tragic sequence of events. I’m giving my absolute all to the little one I have because of the three little ones I’ll never hold. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I would have had as much to give had it not been for them. That’s their legacy (for lack of a better word) and I love them unconditionally for it.
A couple of things to conclude. Even though I’ve used it regularly here, I hate the word ‘miscarriage’. It’s awful. The prefix ‘mis’ implies error and, given that there’s only person who is capable of ‘carriage’, it unreasonably if unintentionally apportions blame. I absolutely hate it.
The other, more important point is this. Losing a baby in pregnancy can be a lonely and isolating experience. You’re left vulnerable and helpless. It feels as though nobody understands what you’re going through. The truth is that sadly all too many people can relate. As a result, they can help. Not by much, it must be said, but help is help. Losing a baby is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. So, if you can, talk. Talk to your partner, to a friend, to a colleague, to someone in your family, to a total stranger, to thin air – just talk. It’s vastly underrated.
That goes double for dads. It meant the world to me that Jules got a huge amount of support, particularly through various social media groups. They gave her the reassurance that I couldn’t. That’s not false modesty. She just needed to hear from other women experiencing the same things as she was.
Men, though, are different. As a rule, we distil our emotions whether through choice or because we’re programmed to believe ‘that’s what a guy’s meant to do’. Frankly, that’s a load of macho ****. For what it’s worth, my advice is to surrender a little to your instincts. That means talking, crying, shouting, screaming – whatever it takes. Grief is like an infection. Bandages won’t work and trying to ignore it won’t make it go away; it’ll only spread, intensify and become harder to treat. So don’t run from it; instead, run towards it.
It’s also worth remembering that there’s no manual or timescale for dealing with the grief of miscarriage . It’s individual to the individual and will test you to previously unexamined limits. But the best antidote to this? Never giving up on what you want. As somebody once said, it’s difficult to wait but even worse to regret.
Without the support of Tommy's, I'm not sure where we would be. It is a wonderful organisation, staffed by incredible people. I cannot praise them highly enough, nor thank them regularly enough. It is my absolute pleasure and privilege to run the 2019 London Marathon for them and to hopefully raise lots of money that they can use to keep up their great work.
'No one expects this to happen to them and no one can tell you how you’re meant to act. My pregnancy and birthing plan had disappeared over night and I had two sick babies who I was unable to care for. I felt totally alone with my own feelings and felt I had nowhere to turn.'
'Kolby’s Footprints will forever be helping others who suffer the loss of a baby or supporting where we can with babies that make an early appearance. I will make sure his memory lives on by helping others and leaving his little footprint on many hearts'.
1 in every 225 births ends in a stillbirth in the UK. That's 9 babies every day.
A preterm birth is one that happens before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Globally, more than 1 in 10 pregnancies will end in preterm birth.
Statistics about early miscarriage, late miscarriage, recurrent miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy.