Amy Swales, contributing editor of stylist.co.uk, and her husband went through three miscarriages before telling anyone what they were going through. Now, having had five failed pregnancies in 18 months, she discusses the realities of recurrent miscarriage, what ‘going public’ taught them about grief and coping, and wanting to speak for those who, like themselves, are facing ‘maybe never’.
Nine weeks pregnant, we were waiting for a second early scan. We’d seen it already, six weeks young, signalling its presence with a rapid, flashing heartbeat. By then, we knew that meant nothing. But still. Nine weeks, all signs looked good. We waited.
A couple sat down opposite and a doctor followed, handed them a picture. Giggles, heads bent over. I felt panicky, cold. I searched for the scene I imagined often, the one where we were the couple given a picture, given relief, given the green light.
But there was nothing in me. I was in tears before our names were called. Before we found out our fourth pregnancy had failed.
We tell ourselves things over and over. Everything looks good. The symptoms are stronger. The lines on the tests have never been so undeniable. We try and fight the feeling of inevitability, even though the worst has always happened. But each time – and there have been five, now – you feel a bit more stupid, gullible. You fell for it.
My husband has started trying to protect us by tethering our excitement, keeping it low and quiet, peripheral vision only. But you’re never any less crushed. It’s easy to feel battered and swaying, to shut down, log out.
And we have at times. We’ve cancelled plans, locked the doors and cried. But we’ve also written publicly about our experiences.
We’d told no one but our parents and a couple of close friends by the time we’d had three pregnancies and three miscarriages. For a full year, we’d been silent. Then the dam burst and I had a piece published on a national newspaper’s website.
As a writer, I knew it’d happen at some point, but for a long while I couldn’t bear to face them like that, all lined up in a row. Then suddenly, it was time.
It was still terrifying, of course. But after a year of distance, of planting ourselves on an ice floe cracking away from the mainland, of conversations with friends lost in the wind, when the editor asked if I wanted anonymity, I didn’t consider it for a second.
All day, pinging, beeping notifications. I was sure everyone must have known, but we’d shut them all out so effectively most were stunned. I started parroting an apologetic refrain: “Ha, I know: tell nobody then put it in The Guardian.” The response was affecting. Friends, casual acquaintances, total strangers, colleagues we’d not spoken to in years, telling us of their own fertility struggles. Conversations sprang up under the Facebook posts of friends. People took the time to seek me out and say I’d helped them, say thank you, say I was brave. I wasn’t.
Really, it was cowardly, a way of telling everyone without really telling anyone and having them know straightaway what it means, how it affects a person. And perhaps that's the thing: it’s less about people knowing how common miscarriages are and more about knowing what they actually involve.
Even those few who knew were shocked to read the details. I knew a line about letting it “lump into my hand” might cause discomfort, but it felt necessary. People didn't know that could happen. We didn’t know that could happen. That you might need surgery, that you might be sent home to wait for it to leak away, that the grim physicality of miscarriage might take weeks. That when you’ve made something, of course it has to come out somehow. Of course.
Then beyond the immediate, all the rest. The slowness kills me. The world’s longest knockout punch. Having pregnancy symptoms disappear one by one breaks my heart every time. One day I realise I’m not knackered any more. That I haven’t felt queasy. That the new bra is once again too big. We use the little things as hollow comfort, petulantly order sushi and pour ourselves whisky. At least I can drink at that party. At least I can have a runny egg. At least that new dress will still fit. At least, at least, at least. And it is the least. It’s the very least, so bloody least that it feels like nothing at all.
I mourn the lost surprise of the first announcement when nobody knew you were trying. I mourn unfettered excitement. I flinch to think of the wary smiles of loved ones when we say we’re pregnant again, or remembering how we didn’t test the first time until I was four days late. Four days! We laugh slightly to think of it now. This morning I tested five days before I was due and snapped the test when it came up negative.
Sometimes I feel I must be saying it’s not enough to have this marriage, this life, this career, this dog. I know it’s more than enough, that we are and will be happier than anyone has a right to be whether children happen or not. I just have to accept there’ll be down days when it’s bone-deep. Days when I think of all this time frittered away waiting, for ovulation, for the period, for the test, for the scan – six weeks, 12 weeks. Then bleeding, hospitals, more scans, more tests, only this time in negative, winding back down to zero. It is so damned tiring, this merry-go-round.
So what have we learnt from our five, from going public? That it's a form of grief, for one. It took us both a long time to realise it was OK to be so floored. In the comments section, people told me to be kinder to myself.
And we’ve learnt that, like grief, people often don't know what to do with you. To ask or not, to risk you crying, risk causing you pain. Now I call out the elephant in the room myself and would strongly advise others to also. I filmed a short film for the BBC between the third and the fourth, in which I realised something only when it came out of my mouth: “There’s no strength in going through things alone.”
It felt right to speak at this point in our experience too. Reading other articles, viral Facebook statuses, watching another video I took part in with several other women, it hit me like a brick every time I got to “… and then we had our baby”. We wanted to speak for those of us still waist-deep, feeling more and more like we're just at the beginning of finding out something desperately difficult. We wanted to speak for the people in limbo, facing maybe never.
I can only tell those going through similar that however long they think it will take them to feel better, it’s longer than that. And if five have taught us anything, it's that you need that time. Don’t deal. Don’t rush. Acknowledge. And get others to acknowledge too.
The reaction to my article was largely positive, even, unexpectedly, the below-the-line comments. Only one or two stung a little. One simply said, “Just give up. Give up.” One day we will. That day in the waiting room, when my husband asked what was wrong, I managed to sob, “I just can’t see it. I can’t see it ever being us.” I still can’t really. But we’re not done yet.
For information and support, visit miscarriageassociation.org.uk
Amy's husband's article for stylist.co.uk can be found here
A version of this article first appeared in the Journal of Fertility Counselling