What to expect when you’re no longer expecting

In the cold minutes and hours that followed our loss this was the thing I was most grateful for: that the road ahead was not entirely unknown. 

I knew there would be a trip to the hospital to remove the placenta, that there would be an internal exam, and that for all of this I would be sent to the maternity ward – where one of the first things I could expect to see was a new mother holding her baby in her arms, whilst I held mine in a box. I knew that the nurses would be kind but that I would still feel the emptiest I had ever felt. A grief I will never find words for.

And I knew this not because I had been there before, but because in the weeks following her heartbreak an extraordinary friend shared her worst experience.

And I know now that everything I said to her was wrong.

It is a peculiar taboo, this business of procreation. For all that society would have us believe – that women’s bodies are public property – till the end of those first three months a cult of secrecy remains. We go through nausea and sickness, bladder and bowels that develop sadistic ideas of their own, breasts that painfully and persistently increase in size until we wonder why we ever envied women with ample chests. Sleep evades us and then, when finally caught, punishes with hyper-realistic dreams that lay bare our every neurosis. We endure blood test after blood test- until the iron supplements they told us weren’t necessary begin to feel like they are- and medical appointments that end with: “you can expect constipation and piles“. And our partners (for the most fortunate) endure us.

For so many, the story does not go on. There is no proud pregnancy reveal, no sonogram Facebook profile pic – only the emotional enema of “bumpies” on your phone that you now have no idea what to do with, and an overwhelming conviction that somewhere you must’ve screwed up.

Was it that day you forgot to take your supplements? The sip of wine you had on your birthday? The deli meat you ate before you knew you weren’t supposed to?  Was it your doubts? – the fear that you weren’t ready, how angry the idea of an episiotomy made you, how much you resented men for getting to have children without sacrificing their careers or their bodies, how much you hated getting larger. Was it because of all the times during that long first trimester that you complained about your symptoms. Every thought and deed that betrayed anything other than perfect love and selflessness.

So we stay silent. We lie on the floor in the pool of our guilt until we work out how to get up. We dress the bodies that betrayed us in clothes that are still the wrong size. We go to work and pretend that nothing has changed. That the baby you knew nothing about was never there. For weeks we wipe away the blood. We keep wiping away the blood. And we try not to think about why.

I don’t know if that makes it easier. If not having to tell people it happened is kinder to you or just to them. But every woman is different and every miscarriage is too.

For us, the choice was out of our hands. Second trimester losses are rarer, but no more or less devastating than those that occur in the first thirteen weeks. I don’t know if I’d have preferred a less public experience, but I do know that I wish I could’ve been a better friend. For every one of the women who has subsequently told me about the baby they lost. But most of all, for the friends who’d confided before I joined this saddest of secret societies.

So here are some of the things I wish I had known – and that we were so fortunate our friends and family already understood:

  1. How long a pregnancy lasted tells you nothing about the scale of what has been lost
    • So many of the miscarriage stories I subsequently heard were preceded by the words “I wasn’t as far along as you”, as if there was some sort of pecking order to the right to grieve. We are all aching for our children that we will never see grow
  2. You have no idea what a couple’s journey to get to here looked like
    • – whether it was preceded by months and months that felt like failure. The growing fear that they might never have what they so desperately dreamed of. To be told “well, you can always try again” is an ignorant flippancy that overlooks how depleted that hope-chest already was
  3. “At least now you know that you can get pregnant”, is not as comforting a phrase as I once thought
    • Getting pregnant is not the same as staying pregnant. Staying pregnant is not the same as getting to watch your child breathe easily on its own
  4. The immediate wake of a miscarriage is not the time to speculate about why a baby did not make it
    • In the majority of cases, an explanation will never be given, and being told that your child was anything less than perfect will only make the guilt worse and the grief harder to bear. There will be time to ask questions later, when you can make it through a day without sobbing uncontrollably

  5. Terminology takes on surprising weight.
    • No matter how early, no matter how small, you are talking about someone’s child. If they say baby you do not say foetus. This is not just another too-sadly-common medical incident you can overcome with cool technicalities

  6. When words fail, a silent hug is the perfect symbol of support
    • The people most worried about saying the wrong thing are usually the ones you need the most

  7. You are not alone in this.
    • In addition to your friends and family there are specialist support groups
    • We are indebted to Sands for providing the beautiful wicker box we brought our baby home in, and to the nurse who was thoughtful enough to give it to us; To the volunteers who take the time to think about these things that none of us want to. It was a surprising comfort to have a blanket to tuck around our tiny son and a miniature cotton teddy bear to lay him to rest with.

We miss you.
You were so wanted
and so loved.

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4 Comments

  1. hi Jen i just wanted to say that you hit it in the mark! and from a personal experience it is always something that sticks with you for the rest of your life! you constantly think about the what if’s and continue to remember your child forever and always. My heart goes out to you Jen you are a strong young woman that has spoken for many. Thank you and all the best for your future. xo
    An ear!

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  2. I’m so sorry. Thank you for giving voice to this; I am sure one day one of your friends will find themselves in a similar place and remember this and realise that they are not the anomaly they feel themselves to be.

    On a personal note, this was well timed: the following day at work I found myself assessing a woman who thought she was miscarrying (I thought so too but my senior who reviewed her was much more positive). I felt pretty lost and uncertain of what to say but your post was in the back of my mind. I hope she’ll rank me as one of the forgettable parts of her experience not a further antagonist to her grief.

    With love and hope for the future, Hx

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    1. Thank you, Helen – and thanks for taking the time to share your work story. I’m so glad to hear this has been useful. As patients, we so often unfairly assume that doctors should know everything about absolutely everything -without really questioning why we believe this. It’s good to be reminded that they are as human as the rest of us – and that behind the scenes there is so much hard work and compassion and consideration going on – that we take for granted. As the Americans would say: “thank you for your service”. She won’t know it, but she was lucky to get you that day x

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