On beauty and terror

Here is a sentence I almost daren’t write: In less than three months’ time, I will have a baby. My official due date is no longer a vague point on a hazy horizon but galloping into sharp focus. Not that you’d guess as much, were you to ask us how the preparations are going.

Dan and I have not decorated the nursery yet nor so much as looked at a pram. I have not made a birth plan or decided when my maternity leave will start. We’ve not even discussed names.

None of this is by accident. We are not one of those charmingly disorganised, go-with-the-flow sort of couples. Nor have we been caught off guard by a happy ‘surprise’. This pregnancy is something we have hoped for – longed for – for four years.

No, what we are is scared. Scared that this pregnancy – my fifth, after four previous miscarriages – will also end without a baby in our arms.

We are all too aware that a fully tricked-out nursery could still go unused, haunted by the image of an empty moses basket, deeply afraid of enacting our own version of the famous, six-word story, sometimes attributed to Ernest Hemingway, ‘For sale: Baby shoes, never worn’.

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For this reason, we waited until we’d passed 24 weeks before buying even a single baby-gro. Despite our fears, we at least wanted to mark this milestone. one we’d never reached before and which felt especially momentous, as 24 weeks is widely considered to be the point after which a baby stands a fighting chance of surviving outside the womb.

So, Dan and I allowed ourselves 20 minutes in John Lewis (pre-lockdown) in blissful, suspended reality; pretending we were like any other expectant couple, all innocent, excited smiles when the till assistant asked when I was due.

‘A summer baby – how lovely!’ she said, and we beamed.

Back at home though, our prize – an implausibly tiny, white cotton sleepsuit, embroidered with bunny rabbits – was swiftly consigned to a box upstairs, packed neatly away in tissue paper, along with our fragile hopes. Out of sight, out of mind.

Perhaps, to an outsider, this all sounds unduly pessimistic. Surely, we can see that things are different this time? Surely, we can relax a little, now that we are so much further along?

A couple of weekends ago, I officially made it into the third and final trimester – the home stretch (no pun intended). By comparison, all of our previous pregnancies ended before 12 weeks.

But if recurrent miscarriage teaches you anything, it’s that there are no guarantees. After some early bleeding in our first pregnancy, more than three years ago, we went to a scan and were shown a flickering but insistent six-week heartbeat.

‘That’s a really good sign,’ the midwife said. ‘The chance of miscarriage goes right down once we’ve seen the heartbeat.’ And so we let ourselves be reassured – only to lose the pregnancy six weeks later, in a rush of blood and panic on a ward in A&E.

Afterwards, we were told that although miscarriage is common, it was unlikely it would happen a second time. Or a third. After the third miscarriage, and tests that concluded there was no medical reason for my body’s inability to hang on to a pregnancy, the consultant we saw cajoled us by saying the odds of a healthy baby next time were still very much in our favour, if we would only keep trying… But after we struck fourth time unlucky, six months later, it was hard to know who or what to believe.

Even now, after multiple scans showing all is well (we’ve had six already, where most people would have had two) and two perfect ultrasound images pinned above my desk to prove it, not to mention the burgeoning bump, it is hard to feel truly reassured when you’ve had so much false reassurance in the past.

Being braced for disappointment becomes a habit. What was once dread that we’d fail to get out of the starting blocks has mutated into fear that we will fall at the final hurdle. (And that was before a global pandemic and potential hospital crisis contaminated matters.)

I am conscious our approach to this pregnancy can’t be easy for our friends and family. We still find it hard to talk in any great detail about our plans for ‘when the baby comes’ – words we never use ourselves, incidentally. It is always ‘if all goes to plan’, or ‘all being well’, or, even more vaguely, ‘after July’.

Relatives will say to us, ‘I know we’re not allowed to get excited yet’ or ‘are we allowed to say congratulations?’.

My mum knows to double-check before she texts me pictures of the things she’s been knitting and sewing for us (and, even then, she was under strict instructions to wait until after 20 weeks – the halfway point).

I do sometimes worry about being such a kill-joy; that it comes across as churlish, even.

Yet I also know we can’t be alone in feeling and behaving this way. After all, there are so many potential hurdles that can steal away some of the joy and innocence of having a baby.

As many as one in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage, one in every 90 pregnancies is ectopic (in which a fertilised egg implants outside of the womb, where it cannot survive) and one in 250 babies will be stillborn. Together, that’s a lot of people who may be embarking on their next pregnancy in the shadow of grief and fear.

Then there’s the one in seven couples who will struggle to conceive, potentially enduring the intimate torture of failed IVF cycles before they get a positive pregnancy test. For others, pregnancy might be clouded by a diagnosis of pre-eclampsia or gestational diabetes – or news their baby is unwell and could need serious medical treatment shortly after birth. Whatever the root of it, anxiety affects half of all pregnant women, according to a 2017 survey conducted by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

Yet this isn’t a side of the pregnancy story we hear very often. Instead, ‘cute’ internet pregnancy announcements, Pinterest-perfect baby showers and gender reveal parties hog the spotlight. Chirpy advice and breathless daily updates can be beamed to your smartphone via pregnancy apps that seem built around a naïve surety that two pink lines on a pregnancy test always adds up to a baby in nine months’ time. (I will never forget the sting of an ‘alert’ from an app telling me what size my baby was this week… a few days after our first miscarriage. I had forgotten to delete it.)

Ditto pregnancy books that talk about ‘empowering’ birth choices and making sure you get the blissful, midwife-led waterbirth you’ve meticulously planned, down to the last soothing whale sound. Don’t get me wrong, it is absolutely a woman’s right to give birth how she wants. But I absolutely cannot relate. However hard I try, having birth ‘preferences’ feels too much like pushing my luck.

After loss, you feel cut out of the normal pregnancy script. The expected lines feel uncomfortable and false in your mouth. ‘Is this your first pregnancy?’ is a question I’ve been asked countless times, by everyone from hospital receptionists to yoga instructors, and I still don’t know how to answer it: at least, not elegantly. Generally, I look at my shoes and nod dumbly. No need to fill in the gory details with relative strangers.

It’s trickier still with fellow pregnant women; women you hope might become friends, if and when you end up with babies of a similar age. An obstetric history like ours is not easy to bring up over cappuccinos (not that these are happening any more, obviously – this really hasn’t been the pregnancy I’d once imagined, in more ways than one).

At what point do you explain yourself? Is it ever fair to burden other pregnant women with this knowledge? And if you do, do you risk making yourself the ghost at the feast forever more? The subject of playdate whispers: She’s the one who had all those miscarriages.

No. Somehow it feels safer not to say anything. Even if it would help explain what must seem a little like a split-personality on my part at times: why I’m so neurotic about some things – decaf coffee, properly cooked meat, not dyeing my hair – yet apparently laissez-faire about anything that involves a modicum of forward planning, such as buying a cot or a car-seat, or signing up for breastfeeding classes.

Even so, keeping quiet comes with its own side-helping of guilt. Through this website and social media, I’ve connected with so many other people grappling with the invisible grief of miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, infertility or other diagnoses that make pregnancy more difficult to achieve, stillbirth, neo-natal death, SIDS, or termination for medical reasons. There are many versions of these stories and ours is a fierce community forged by a shared conviction that there is nowhere near enough knowledge or openness around these subjects. So my own tactical silences now can feel a little like hypocrisy. And I’ve often wondered, when chatting to other pregnant women, whether they, too, could be harbouring a story not unlike ours. This is how taboos fester.

(It feels awkward, too, being the pregnant one, when in the past you’ve known how it feels to be intensely jealous of other women’s bumps and babies, how it can sear and stab like a hot knife.)

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Rainer Maria Rilke 

None of which is to say there aren’t upsides to pregnancy after loss. It’s easy to focus on the difficulty, but there’s beauty here, too. Even amid all the trepidation and the angst and, yes, sometimes terror that something could still go wrong, there is also a delicate thread of pure, golden joy.

I am insanely, giddily grateful to be pregnant. Watching the needle on the bathroom scale nudge upwards each week feels like a pleasure, not an imposition.

Even morning sickness has been a cause for celebration at times. Although I’ve had roiling nausea in all five of my pregnancies, it was only this time around, in week 13, that I actually threw up (just once though). It was New Year’s day and it felt like a sign. I can’t say I exactly grinned as I hugged the toilet bowl, but I did feel a mad rush of happiness and hope.

Pregnancy isn’t uniformly magical, of course it isn’t. Even I struggle to put a positive spin on the constant reflux I seem to get now. (Who knew you could miss bending down?)

But other minor indignities, such as having to remove my wedding and engagement bands as my fingers started to puff up, have felt like small, triumphant rites of passage. When things unfold just as the pregnancy manuals promise, for a second you feel normal; your world safe and predictable.

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And sometimes, I feel I could happily lie awake all night, counting every kick and squirm, mesmerised as the skin of my stomach ripples and dints. A private, semaphored conversation between me and the brand-new person just below the surface: Hello, hello again, you’re really in there, I know you… 

It’s these tiny moments of grace that you have to hold on to, I think. And if I could look back and tell myself anything  it would be this. All those things you have dreamed of for so long, they will feel just as good as you’d hoped and then some.

If anything is going to pull you through the dark, fretful hours, the days that feel as long as a week, the weeks as long as a year, expecting to be bleeding every time you go to the bathroom, holding your breath for bad news at every scan and blood test – it’s the promise of these moments.

This is also what I would tell anyone who is where I was nearly two years ago, reeling from yet another loss, another disappointment, and feeling like you couldn’t possibly put yourself through it again.

Finally holding that scan picture in your hand, the hug of maternity jeans elastic around your waist, the first kicks… they don’t make it easy, but it does start to feel like it might just be worth it after all. There is always hope. And if you can’t find any right now, I am holding on to it for you.

6 Comments

  1. How does anyone give you any hope that this will be the one! This is the pregnancy that stays, the baby that sticks in there, the one that will make you a Mum! No-one can, but just be assured that this is the one, this is meant to be, this is the best you have had in your pregnancies so far, you will become a Mum, it’s just a few more weeks. My son is now 22!

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  2. So beautifully written as always Jennie. Spot on for how pregnancy after loss(es) felt for me. The ‘is this your first?’ question always threw me too. I’m so excited for what’s to come for you, because that thread of joy doesn’t go away xx

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  3. Bless you, I nodded right though this and we had success on our fifth and everything your write is true and real and how you should feel. I really enjoyed the last month when I let myself believe it was happening and was at home off work and finally letting myself do some minor nesting. But is didn’t relax until my baby boy was plonked on my chest! I did write it all down, the good thoughts as I went along, so the anxiety didn’t make me forget the memories

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  4. Oh gosh yes, this really resonated with me. Not getting prepared, not talking about it or telling people, not daring to say ” when the baby arrives”….
    Take care, sending strength, pregnancy after loss is SO HARD, you’re nearly there x

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  5. I just read your article in The Guardian and then check out your blog. I am sending you all my prayers and good wishes from far away Malaysia. What you have written brings back a flood of memories that have been long buried.
    I was unable to get get pregnant for the longest time and when I did we lost two babies in two years. One in the third trimester and one in the second. No doctor ever gave a reason why as to why I was loosing my babies at such a late stage. I was so devastated. We moved countries to get away from family and friends! But that was ten years back. I now have two beautiful boys. I gave birth to one, and your experience is very similar to what I felt when I was pregnant for the third time . I did not buy a single baby item till the baby was born. I decided to adopt my second baby, I just couldn’t go through the entire process and uncertainty again. I had a sense of closure and my family being complete after my second baby.
    I am sure you will have a wonderful healthy baby . Stay positive and happy. In ten years, you will look back at this time of your life and thank yourself for not giving up.

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