On the 11th of January, 2016, we all woke up to the news that David Bowie had died. That very public loss and grief coincided with a much more personal one for me. It was the day that I learned that my pregnancy, which was a few days from reaching the celebrated 3 month mark, in fact had already ended almost a whole month before. My still strongly symptomatic body just hadn’t wanted to let me know that. Two days later I found myself in hospital being prepped for the surgical procedure to remove… I still don’t know how to phrase it… My baby? The loss? The contents of my uterus?
After being wheeled away from my wonderful rock of a husband I was taken on an almost farcical journey from brightly lit bay to brightly lit bay, where each time I was asked to repeat my name, date of birth, and what surgical procedure I was about to have, and why, to the point that I simply couldn’t find the words anymore and became a little hostile to the poor nurse asking (to be fair I had told him less than two minutes previously, in the previous location). Eventually, I was asked to walk from the trolley to the operating table. I was wearing just a surgical gown and my bright purple thermal socks. I padded over, shivering, and was helped up onto the table by a crowd of people. I noticed in horror that the leg portion of the table was jointed so that it would hinge outward in two separate sections, with stirrups, and I tried not to think about what was about to happen. I lay down and fought the urge to tell everyone to back off and kindly approach me slower, preferably one at a time. I made small talk about how cold it was in there, but I felt uncomfortably crowded - everyone was doing something different to a different piece of me, and I just wanted to be knocked out as fast as possible.
Two weeks later, I was back at work and trying to be normal. This was harder than I expected it to be. I became pretty depressed for about 3 months, but in quite a high functioning way - I dragged myself to work each day and work got done. I was desperate to get pregnant again as fast as possible, and I was not easy to be with. I withdrew inside myself and when spring finally came, I didn’t really understand what had happened to those 3 months. I felt like time had played a trick on me, and that David Bowie had only just died. It’s strange having a very private grief marked in time by a very public one - there are reminders everywhere.
I don’t think I quite appreciated the power of hormones until then. When my cycle returned to something resembling normal, the fog suddenly lifted, and I was back in the world. Bruised, dazed, and grieving, but back. It felt good to exist again.
We’d planted a magnolia tree in our garden to mark the lost pregnancy, and I noticed that somewhat poetically, the last flower head on that beautiful tree didn’t fall until I was pregnant again. Amazingly, this was in that first, almost normal (if very long) cycle. I found out when I was due to go on a hen weekend. I wanted to ‘just check’ that I would be able to safely drink. I thought it was early to be testing, although given the cycle length I couldn't be sure of anything. But I also knew I’d just be anxious about it all weekend if I hadn’t. So, in the bathroom, while my husband showered, I peed on a stick and stared at where the second line would be. He said I was looking too soon, and suggested I join him in the shower whilst we wait, but I couldn’t put the stick down - I couldn’t tell if the faint line was a line or a shadow - what did he think? Eventually we agreed that the shadow was actually the faintest of lines, and I went into a state of shock.
It’s not that I wasn’t thrilled, I was. But I was also terrified. I had just got myself back after the horribly messy aftermath of last time, and I didn’t know how I would cope with another hormonal roller coaster. Perhaps it was self-protective, to direct the intensity of feeling away from unbridled joy, so I’d not have so far to fall if/when it happened again. This time round, my joy was distinctly more ‘bridled’, and I had no time to process any of the other feelings that were surfacing alongside it, as I had a hen do to get to.
At the hen do I got round the not drinking by mumbling some story about anti-biotics, but I couldn’t avoid the spa. I carefully avoided the hottest parts, ensured that I remained hydrated, and generally felt terribly guilty for being there. It was a curious mix of lies, denial, and fear of harming that extremely fragile faint little line, that by this point I wasn't even sure that I believed I'd really seen.
Driving home, I was totally raw. I had exhausted my resources and a cocktail of feelings was starting to emerge. I sobbed my way up the motorway, never before feeling such connection to the soundtrack of Joni Mitchell’s emotive lyrics and chord structures reaching me from the car stereo. I was scared of the journey ahead, I didn’t feel nearly ready or strong enough to embark on it, I was terrified of losing myself completely if I lost this little bean too, and I felt so guilty for feeling anything less than sheer delight. It was exhausting.
At the beginning of my first pregnancy, I joyously downloaded the ‘what to expect’ app, and eagerly devoured each week’s information (how the bean had turned into a tube, which would become the central nervous system, etc., etc.). I excitedly showed my husband the diagrams of what our little one looked like now, and matched my symptoms against the lists provided.
This time around, I didn’t do any of that. Instead, I read up on miscarriage statistics, the numbers surrounding risk levels week by week, and the psychological after effects of miscarriage. Not that I found much in the way of new material - I’d already consumed most of it in the previous few months when my entire world had been grey fog. The first 12 weeks felt like an ice age. Every trip to the toilet felt like a threat and so many times I was fully expecting to begin to bleed. Eventually, our scan date came, and I was convinced that it would be a repeat performance of last time. I knew the lines by heart: ‘I’m sorry, but it’s not good news - I can see a baby but there is no heartbeat. I just need to get my colleague to confirm what I can see. I’ll be back in a moment.’
But, by some miracle, this was a different play entirely. Instead, the line was: ‘I can see a baby, and there’s the heartbeat - would you like to have a look?’ I gasped and stared at my husband, and then we both looked at the screen to see a lively little creature shooting backwards and forwards as if on a pilates reformer machine, earning herself the nickname ‘frog’.
I simply could not believe it, and I simultaneously felt like a weight had lifted… and been replaced by a different kind of weight. Now that I knew that this baby was an actual possibility, there was so much more to lose, and I had to worry about her as well as about how I would cope if I lost her.
I began to relax a little and allow the positive feelings in over the next couple of weeks and it felt really good. I was excited and could think about little else. We began to tell some people, but asked them to keep it quiet as it still felt quite vulnerable.
Then, at 14.5 weeks, when my husband was away for work, I got up in the night to pee, and began to bleed heavily. When I looked into the toilet and realised what was happening I became detached from reality. A bit of me knew that this meant that I’d lost the baby, and I knew that there would be a huge mountain of emotions that I couldn’t face right then. I also knew that I needed to do something about this blood loss, because I was alone and it was pouring out of me, and I didn’t know at what stage it was dangerous. I began to panic. To cut a long story (involving many phonecalls with husband and out of hours medical staff) short, I ended up going to hospital in an ambulance and spending the night there, utterly convinced that our frog was gone. It was a pretty terrible night. But a scan in the morning revealed, to my utter amazement, that in fact, she was happy as Larry, seemingly oblivious to all the drama! Once again, I simply could not believe it, and over the next couple of weeks I became hypervigilant to every twinge, every sensation, and obsessed about statistical risk of miscarriage week by week.
As the weeks rolled by and felt more and more undeniably pregnant, I gradually settled into believing that this one might just go all the way. But I’ve restrained myself from broadcasting it widely. As I’m now 35 weeks, it’s extremely obvious to people I see on a daily basis, although it still shocks me when I catch sight of my reflection and realise just how obvious it is! I find it really surprising when strangers give up their seat for me, but it’s a good reality check for just how pregnant I now look.
We’ve not put anything on facebook, so we have some friends who we don’t see very often who have no idea we are expecting a baby fairly imminently. If and when we announce the birth of our daughter on facebook, we fully anticipate a fair amount of surprise at our apparent secrecy. The reasons for not broadcasting it are twofold. The obvious one is my lack of confidence in the pregnancy, and fear of losing our baby. This haunts me still, and I have to work fairly hard in my head to keep that fear at bay.
Another reason is that I have a very visceral understanding of the agony that other people’s pregnancy and birth announcements can cause when one has experienced a loss, or is trying to conceive. I’m sure that many people handle these things a lot better than I did, but for me, each new announcement (and it seemed there were so many on facebook) and each time I saw someone heavily pregnant, or with a new baby, it was a painful reminder of my loss. It’s not that I didn’t want other people to have what I wanted, I just wanted to be able to have it too, and the absence of it made me feel so hollow and so empty. So each time I wonder about posting some kind of pregnancy or future birth announcement, I think about the potential impact of doing so on those going through similar experiences, both those I know of and those I don't. I think of how seeing it could make someone's day just a little more difficult, and I can’t quite bring myself to do it.
This reason is bound up with another ‘side effect’ of my miscarriage too. I think it rendered me, for a short while at least, much more sensitive to, and tolerant of others. My own grief made the fact that everyone has their own shit going much more salient. I was more aware of others’ potential silent or hidden suffering. I'm not making claims about being a changed or improved person or anything, just that I had a real connection to the idea that you never know what private tragedy people have going on in their lives - if someone is behaving like an arse hole, it might be that there's a damn good (maybe very sad) reason why.
Another interesting side effect was on my anxiety levels. In my job, I regularly have to speak to large numbers of people for fairly large chunks of time. I actually hate it doing this. I used to suffer from social anxiety quite badly, so the fact that I can do this at all is a real improvement, but it’s never been particularly enjoyable. However, in the grey fog months following the miscarriage, I found that I no longer got anxious about this part of my job. I just didn’t care anywhere near as much as before what people might think. The loss taught me that there are things so much more important (and difficult) in life, and public speaking felt easier in comparison.
But I digress…… Pregnancy after miscarriage is different, or at least it has been for me. The main differences have been that for every bit of wonderfully hopeful excitement, there can also be fear and anxiety and distress, even when nothing seems to be going wrong, and even at the same time as all the positive stuff. Anniversaries or notable dates might be really weird, too. I am hugely grateful that I got pregnant again so quickly, and that it meant that when the due date for my first pregnancy rolled around, I was already well on the way with this one. I know that many women find that date particularly difficult if that isn't the case (and sometimes even if it is).
I am now approaching Christmas with a bizarre sense of deja vu - I was pregnant last Christmas too. (And because it would have been obvious, despite only being 9 weeks, we told our families, in a slightly elaborate fashion involving a camera set up to capture their reactions, only to have to take it back a few weeks later.) In some ways it feels like I’ve been pregnant for over a year. My due date is pretty close the anniversary of David Bowie day, and I can’t quite put into words what that feels like yet, other than pretty damn weird. I’m kind of hoping that the actual date of our daughter’s birth does not fall on that day, but at the same time, part of me is fully expecting that it will.
Having had a miscarriage has definitely affected my experience of pregnancy this time, but I didn't realise until recently that it was also affecting my thoughts and feelings about birth. Fortunately, at some point during the second trimester, we got wind of a mysterious magic word from some of our friends, that had them very enthusiastically encouraging us to seek it out: ‘hypnobirthing’. Liking what we heard, we searched for local teachers and chose one who sounded warm, experienced, and interested in scientific evidence. We knew that this would make for a good match for the way we like to interpret the world. We were right, and our classes with the lovely Liz have been exactly what we were looking for.
Through hypnobirthing I’ve become aware of the impact of vivid images, of padding into my surgery in my purple socks, and the huge volume of blood that poured out of me earlier this pregnancy. I've done some work to acknowledge these, lessen their impact and make more helpful imagery accessible instead.
I wouldn't say I'm totally ready for the birth of our daughter quite yet, but I am certainly getting there, more and more each day. I could stare at my belly for hours, watching each lump and ripple as she wriggles and kicks, and we are very much looking forward to meeting her.
I'm aware that I've not said much about my husband in this piece, and this has been his journey as much as mine. We are very much a team, and I have not been an easy person to be with at times. He has never faltered or deviated from doing and being exactly what I've needed through all of this, and I’m not really sure how he has done this, nor can I put into words what it means to me that he has.
Photo by Lauren McKinnon, CC BY
I'm Liz Dew, founder of SheffieldHypnobirthing.com and I love a good chat about birth. This blog is where I explore some of the things that I find amazing, frustrating, or fascinating about birth and birth culture. Grab a cuppa and dive in.