Some of you may have seen this from my Instagram (because, frankly, I would not shut up about it) but here is a piece I wrote for last month’s Red magazine on recurrent miscarriage and best-laid plans. I thought I would re-share here for anyone who might have missed it, or who’s new to my site (hello!)…
When the plan doesn’t go to plan
What do you do when the plan doesn’t go to plan? When the picture of what you thought your life would look like has not so much been re-drawn, as scrunched up and thrown out, along with any notion of a template or timeline you had to go along with it.
It is a curious position to find yourself in if, like me, you’ve always been a planner; a careful curator of lists and fastidious follower of rules. Even as a child, I guarded my colouring books jealously from my younger brother and cousins and their marauding Crayolas. I would agree to share only on the condition they let me shade a small border inside the edges of the pictures first. An extra margin of error; a safety net etched in the precise colours of my choosing.
So it is with some irony that, aged 32, I find myself script-less; scribbling frantically, way outside of the lines. Having followed a well-worn formula, somehow managing to tick off steady job, house and marriage, a baby was meant to be next on the list.
There were many factors and permutations my husband Dan and I had considered before deciding we were ready for children: money, parental leave, childcare, the possibility it might take a while to conceive – or that we might not be able to conceive at all. That we might face recurrent miscarriages – four, in fact, in the space of 18 months, with no discernible medical reason, the most recent last June  – was most definitely not in the plan. It wasn’t even in the back-up plan. Neither was it in any of the pregnancy manuals. No one gives you a book called What To Expect When You’re No Longer Expecting. And if one miscarriage feels like a false start, lonely and acutely painful in itself, four feels like an almost impenetrable detour off our chosen route.
By contrast, when I first found out I was pregnant, in November 2016, after months of trying, waiting, not-quite-knowing, it felt like someone had handed me a map, the road unfurling before me: first midwife appointment, first scan date, due date, first birthday and so on.
I thought I would be a mother by now. Albeit, the exact details have been recalibrated with each miscarriage and subsequent pregnancy. First, I’d assumed we’d be planning for Christmas with an 18-month-old this year. Then, after losing that pregnancy one steel-cold Saturday last January, and conceiving again a few months later, this was supposed to be baby’s first Christmas. After that, we thought we might have an eight-month-old to buy presents for. Finally, we’d dared to hope I might still be pregnant this Christmas – eight months gone, marooned on the sofa, grateful to have got so far (and so fat).
Instead, another year, another Christmas, and my uterus is empty – emptied. Our nights remain unbroken, our soft furnishings un-mussed by small, sticky fingers. Just the two of us, not three.
There is nothing quite like the swooping, sickening rush of the irrevocable as you realise you are miscarrying. A dizzying sensation, almost like vertigo, as you see that small stream of palest rose pink, trickling and traitorous; knowing you are powerless to stop it, forced to watch your status as a mother ebbing away. Your hopes and dreams quite literally in the toilet.
No better – as has happened to us twice – is a ‘missed miscarriage’, when your body divulges no physical clues, deep in denial that the baby has died, instead leaving the news to a sonographer, who will pause just a fraction of a second too long, squinting at the screen, then frowning. A breath that seems to suck all the oxygen out of the room, before: ‘I’m so sorry, there is no heartbeat’.
I have had to hear those words four times now, because even on the occasions where I’d already started bleeding, they do a confirmation scan. Just seven words that atomise your plans, indiscriminately, short-term, long-term. A wicked magician’s trick, really. Just like that – poof! – you are no longer going back to the office once you’ve wiped away the ultrasound gel, instead there will be decisions about surgery, pills, or ‘expectant management’ (just waiting for the inevitable, basically). And paperwork – forms with grim titles like ‘sensitive disposal of pregnancy remains’ – more blood tests, and more leaflets, the same leaflets you already have in the basket by the phone at home from last time.
Once again – poof! – you’re on the outside of parenthood looking in.
Though, in a way, after one miscarriage, you never truly experience pregnancy the way another couple might – the way we did, that first time. While each new pregnancy still brings a small tiny tug of hope, we’ve never quite retrieved that pure, golden joy. The secret pride in each other, the almost giddy excitement, especially in those early days when no one else even knew we were trying for a family, apart from my mum and a couple of close friends.
We talked about names for our baby a lot back then. Whole car journeys would go by, challenging each other to think of increasingly absurd combinations. Names of Newcastle United players for Dan (which I’d veto) and Forties actresses for me (which he’d veto).
A large part of the sorrow we both feel now, stems from the loss of that innocence, I think. I mourn knowing I will never be able to tell Dan I am pregnant, test stick clutched proudly in my hand, and have him simply kiss me and smile. Instead, for us it is all matter-of-fact; a string of wait-and-seeing and ‘not getting our hopes up’, with the added complication of having to arrange appointments at the clinic, who monitor me more closely now when I am pregnant, with fortnightly scans. There is no more talk of ‘when the baby comes’. Instead, it is a grim waiting game, holding our breath between appointments, focused only on seeing those next few millimeters of growth, willing there to be a tiny, flickering heartbeat.
For other people, your baby lives and dies in a single sentence
What you feel after a miscarriage is a kind of grief, albeit you are often grieving something most people didn’t know existed in the first place. If you tell people at all, they generally only learn of your pregnancy once it is over – and so for them your baby lives and dies in a single sentence. There is no chance to get attached, it only ever exists for other people in a ghostly negative. This can mean it isn’t always easy for them to understand in the normal framework of loss.
But treating it as a bereavement is, I have found, the most useful thing friends and family can do for you. Not simply through saying ‘I’m so sorry’ or sending flowers (although these small acknowledgements do help) but by understanding that there is a pain there that may seem greater than the sum of its parts, that can’t be accounted for simply according to the number of cells or weeks of gestation. It’s about recognising that you have not only lost an 8-week old foetus, you have lost the baby that foetus would have become – and the toddler, the teenager, even the 20-something sheepishly boomeranging back home post-university. And it takes time to let them all go.
Dan and I are well-practised now in negotiating each other’s feeling after a loss. The biggest question is usually do we feel ready to try again (there’s no real medical reason you have to wait, once the bleeding’s stopped and you’ve done a pregnancy test that’s come up negative, confirming it really is all over, you’re good to go, physically at least). So far, we have been fairly in step, although I suspect he tends to be led by me more than he lets on, because, as he’s said many times, ‘it’s your body’.
After the first couple of losses, we simply felt determined to try again. After the third, we took time out for the suggested medical investigations. After the fourth – and with a clean bill of reproductive health – we couldn’t help but ask: ‘what if it never happens for us?’
It’s a frank and frightening question to introduce into your relationship. The sub-text being: Am I enough for you? Are you enough for me?
We have to be sanguine about the fact that after this many miscarriages in a row, the statistical likelihood of another is higher the normal. That said, our doctors say there is no reason we shouldn’t go on to have a healthy baby. As for exactly what we do next, because miscarriage is still a largely unwritten, unspoken experience, I don’t know what ‘the done thing is’ from here on in. And there is surprising power in that: a permission to shed some layers of expectation for how everything has to play out; a relinquishing of a little control.
There may be no guidebook for where we find ourselves now, no map to triangulate from, no manual and no script – yet there are also fewer self-limiting ‘shoulds’, ‘musts’, ‘best bets’ or ‘let’s be sensibles’.
With no option to trace the well-worn steps of other people, the only way through is to forge your own path, to breathe in deeply and listen to your own instincts, likes, fears, needs. A small point maybe, but I recently left my job as an editor on a newspaper to pursue a career as a writer, something I doubt I would have had the courage to do before – no maternity pay when you’re freelance, after all. I still don’t believe in ‘everything happens for a reason’ (please never say this to someone who loses a baby) but is it too much to hope that the unmaking of our best laid plans, can sometimes prove the making of us?
A version of this post was originally published in the January issue of Red magazine, 2019