‘Congratulations!’ my friend whispers, before bear-hugging me and then Dan. We smile and say thank you, but immediately follow it up with: ‘But it’s still early so, you know…’
Of course she knows. We all know the ‘rules’, don’t we?
Convention dictates that a pregnancy is not to be spoken of until the end of the first trimester, the 12-week mark when many women have their first ultrasound scan. It may be an unofficial rule, but there is more than a whiff of superstition around it, as if you’re tempting fate if you don’t keep mum. If you miscarry, you start to feel like you ‘shouldn’t have said anything’. ‘Perhaps we should have waited to announce until we were further along’ as Britney Spears put it in a quietly heartbreaking statement this week after losing her baby.
During our first pregnancy, Dan and I didn’t question the rules. Like most people, we kept our news as quiet as we could, because: ‘what if something happens?’
Something did happen. I miscarried, in A&E, precisely three days before we were due to have our 12-week scan. It was bloody and frightening and utterly devastating. Worse, almost no one knew. For weeks afterwards, most people have no idea why I was suddenly grey and subdued; monosyllabic with sadness. And I had no idea how to tell them. The internet is full of ‘cute’ pregnancy announcement ideas. It is less helpful on how to break miscarriage news.
Our silence, it turned out, did not protect us. If anything, it did the opposite.
After a miscarriage, the unofficial 12-week rule starts to feel like a cruel cosmic joke – you didn’t tell people out of some vague notion that this very thing might happen, and now it has you realise you’ve unwittingly cut yourself off from any sympathy or understanding. It keeps you quiet and confounded. It feels a lot like shame.
Why do we accept this as the norm? It might have made sense, back when reliable home pregnancy tests didn’t exist and a woman had to wait until she’d missed several periods before pregnancy felt like a distinct possibility. But in the 21st century it feels illogical at best and dismissive at worst, a coded message that a pregnancy somehow isn’t real before 12 weeks.
This isn’t to say I don’t understand why people don’t feel able to announce a pregnancy any sooner. Workplaces – and how they treat women who start families – have a lot to answer for. It can also be incredibly hard to announce a pregnancy once you’ve already had a miscarriage or other kind of loss. (I didn’t tell anyone but closest family about my fifth pregnancy until I was 16 weeks along. I didn’t post or write about it publicly until I was nearly 20 weeks). There is not right or wrong time to announce your pregnancy. Though it would help if we created a culture that makes it feel OK to be open about such things, secure in a collective knowledge that not all pregnancies make it, and with a shared understanding of what people might need when the worst does happen.
In an age of digital tests that work even before your period is late and private ultrasound scans that are offered as early as six weeks, a pregnancy – and your relationship with the child you believe is coming – can start a long time before 12 weeks. It’s no good grumbling that ‘women find out too early these days’ or that a miscarriage ‘is just a heavy period’ and expect us all to pack our grief neatly away.
Forget ‘perhaps we shouldn’t have told people so early’. If we didn’t have this strange ‘rule’, and the norm was simply to tell people when we find out we’re pregnant, it would quickly become painfully, plainly obvious just how common miscarriage is. This way, it might be taken more seriously. We might make more progress with research into its causes and possible treatments. Its impact might be better understood by society as a whole, and, rather than brushing it under the carpet, we’d instinctively know how to comfort the people it affects: men, as well as women. An estimated one in four people you know will have had at least one miscarriage, but how many have told you about theirs?
The facts are that most miscarriages happen before 12 weeks. But why does that mean they should happen in silence, too?
- A version of this post was originally published in 2019, for Femail magazine.