I am pregnant.
The day I’m writing this, I am exactly 4 1/2 weeks pregnant, according to one of the many fertility apps I have littering my phone. I’m sitting on my sofa alone, trying to collect my thoughts. While it’s wonderful news, it is news I am struggling with because I suffer from recurrent miscarriage, and this is my seventh pregnancy.
I have a daughter ― my husband and I, we have a daughter. She is coming up on her second birthday and is the joy in our hearts. Our gratitude for her knows no limits. She is at the front and centre of our everything. We are lucky.
But I am sitting here to write about the precious ones that didn’t make it.
While miscarriage is only just coming out from under the shadows, recurrent miscarriage — defined as losing three or more consecutive pregnancies — still lurks in the background. In the United Kingdom, where we live, it affects about one in every 100 couples trying for a baby.
I produced “Woman’s Hour” on BBC Radio 4 for many years and, despite this, I realise I apparently hadn’t absorbed much about fertility before I met my husband. I suppose I didn’t feel I really needed to. I had periods, they were regular, and there were no signs that I needed to worry, aside from the old warning of the “ticking clock” of age.
I had always wanted children — three of them, and the first one before I was 30, thank you very much. This idea was firmly kiboshed after my fiance of 10 years left me when I was 29 years old. Then it took me another nine long years to meet my husband, the great love of my life. We met and knew within weeks that we were meant to be together. We examined our ticking clocks and we wasted no time. I mention this now because I have often felt the cocked eyebrow of “if you hadn’t waited so long ...” But the problem with age and fertility is that life does what life does sometimes: We were older when we met.
And in fact, to our enormous shock, we got pregnant the very first time we tried. Having been advised that it would take us ages, we were taken aback ― but also very happy and excited. We told our families and friends immediately, as we knew instinctively that whether it went well or not, we would need those close to us to know what was happening so they could support us along the way — which, oh boy, they did.
I watched my body change. I felt the exhaustion ripple through me in waves and started to ready myself (with Bovril on crackerbread ― don’t judge me) as the nausea bubbled up, until I woke up one morning and there was a great sense of emptiness ― I hesitate to write it, but peace ― in my body. I waited a few days, wanting to believe I was misreading it and attempting to will myself to get the feelings back. A trip to the Early Pregnancy Unit gave us our first taste of loss: the out-of-body experience of undergoing a transvaginal ultrasound while a stranger tells you that you’re no longer carrying a second heartbeat in your body.
What we didn’t know was that it was going to be the first of five similar experiences and one incredibly tough, risk-filled, highly medicalised, but of course ultimately joyous pregnancy that reached full term and resulted in the birth of our daughter.
This kind of loss is so much more than the experience of loss itself. It feels important to talk about the paraphernalia around miscarriage, because these are things I really wasn’t ready for and we don’t talk about it enough. Perhaps if you’re reading this, or you have a friend or know someone or are that person, you will find this useful.
Miscarriage is a great deal more than the experience of carrying and losing a baby. It can be the overpowering, shivering-on-the-floor, big things that one can perhaps imagine. And it can be the small things.
I live in London, and when someone is pregnant here, it is not uncommon for them to wear a badge that reads “Baby on Board.” This signals to people — specifically on busy trains and buses — that you might look just a little tired and distracted, but you are actually in the middle of the most wild and magical journey of creating another human from nothing inside your body, and you might need a seat. The thing about losing a pregnancy is that you wear that badge for weeks and then, suddenly, you don’t have the need or right to anymore. And taking off that badge and then getting onto a busy tube or bus, your body still filled with pregnancy hormones ― quite possible still full of pregnancy ― and reeling with trauma, but invisible trauma, you find yourself fighting once again for a seat because there are no badges that can even begin to describe your situation. That is indescribably tragic.
“And yet, with each pregnancy, I have found it utterly impossible to resist those tiny glimpses of possibility that find me this very morning reaching for my calendar with a quickness in my heart. Each time, I think maybe this time, this pregnancy ― these hopes, these dreams, these dates ― will stick.”
Dates ― dates are hard. Anyone living any kind of experience of fertility will know that the ability to plan ― to start to visualise, to shape the months ahead ― is a fundamental part of the journey. While running the full out-of-control gamut of growing a human inside the body, you reach for what you can control: the best time to leave work, the latest time you can get away with taking a plane, the cleverest way of making career decisions that will still be realistic without losing ambition. With recurrent miscarriage, dates slip through your fingers into an abyss. They become not just unpinnable ― they become sarcastic. They are tough reminders of all the ways you thought your life would be. I fight with the sensation that it is futile to make plans. Futile to imagine time ahead. For people trying to conceive, life moves in two-week cycles ― sometimes for months or, like in our case, years on end. For people with recurrent miscarriages, you have concurrent time paths ― the two-week ones, and the nine-month-and-beyond ones. It is draining. And yet, with each pregnancy, I have found it utterly impossible to resist those tiny glimpses of possibility that find me this very morning reaching for my calendar with a quickness in my heart. Each time, I think maybe this time, this pregnancy ― these hopes, these dreams, these dates ― will stick.
Then there’s dealing with all of the advice you get. This one is hard, and I feel instantly guilty writing it because our friends and families have been nothing but supportive, but there’s something that I began to notice but didn’t ever have the strength to speak about at the time. Often, the consolation I received when I shared bad news came in the form of supportive advice, which in turn frequently came in the form of imperatives: “You must ...” “You mustn’t ...” “You’ve got to ...” “You shouldn’t ...” All of it was meant with love and care and concern, but still, it was bruising because I knew deep down through the waves of grief that I didn’t need to do anything that I wasn’t doing. What I needed wasn’t to be told to “be positive” or to “not give up” ― I knew all that and, in time, I knew I would get there. What I needed, but was too numb to ask for, was to be allowed to grieve, to sit in the space and acknowledge ― and have it acknowledged ― that what we were experiencing was terrible and sad and worthy of grief.
Losing a pregnancy is an intensely personal experience. Losing more than one becomes confusing. You lose a sense of who your tribe is. When you lose a pregnancy, you join a group of people who have a uniquely acute understanding of the precariousness of desiring a baby. When you have lost multiple pregnancies, in my experience, you begin to lose the sense of even being a part of that group. With each lost pregnancy, I fell even further behind. The tragedy ― digging deeper into the soul each time ― becomes outwardly more commonplace: It has happened, simply, again. “Another miscarriage.” You begin to lose count of which one happened when ― the dates, the weeks, the order. But regardless of whether or not your broken head can make sense of it, your broken heart records every moment of it.
There are mirror babies — the babies who are due when yours were due. Some friends of ours were due the same week our very first pregnancy was due, and their beautiful baby girl ― whose third birthday is two days from now ― is a constant marker in the sand of what might have been. As I write this, a baby who was due the same week as our fourth pregnancy has been born. Three ― three ― friends currently have babies due the week that our fifth pregnancy would have been due.
Each time, this gets harder. At first, I was OK with seeing people who were pregnant because I had a lot of hope and pragmatism. But now I’ve been avoiding certain friend groups because despite ongoing and welcome therapy, the sight of friends’ stomachs being the size that mine ought to have been is just too much. It is lonely ― and complicated, because it is a very separate feeling from the one of happiness I have for my friends. It feels absurd to have to say it, but it’s important: I don’t begrudge them for their pregnancies. I am objectively happy for them. But I am subjectively torn apart by the coincidence of timing.
My current pregnancy came as a shock. Because my husband and I know my body, my ovulation cycles and my hormones so intrinsically well, it appeared that the stress of moving into our new home ― and the stress of simultaneously researching expensive IVF options ― had caused me to miss an ovulation for the very first time. My daughter and I also had chest infections for a week during the pandemic, causing me to misinterpret signs that my body might have been giving me. At the same time, my relationship with my body has completely changed. Once, we were friends — we knew each other intimately and communicated beautifully with each other. Now, we are not on speaking terms: I don’t trust the contradictory messages I am getting from it, and it is exhausted from the trauma of growth and loss, growth and loss, and it lashes out with weight gain, bloating, stomach cramps and other issues.
I took a test to have belt-and-braces proof that I wasn’t pregnant so that I could begin an IVF cycle. But the various pregnancy tests I’ve taken ― and keep looking at for confirmation ― are telling me that I am pregnant. My husband and I are muted and tender about the news. But my 24/7 body scanning continues ― along with a positive mental attitude battling anxiety and joy battling realism. This could be the one ― the so-desired sibling for our incredible daughter. Or maybe it isn’t. And until we find out one way or the other, we as a family are holding our breath.
As I finish writing, my daughter bounces into the room, brandishing the plastic top of a milk bottle.
“Where are you going to put that, my love?” I ask her.
She is learning to talk: “o t tay-bel.” On the table.
She is thrilled. So am I. I smile at her, genuinely. I take in a deep breath and try to release it. But I can’t.