a sad tale

This post was written in 2006 shortly after I miscarried my second child. It was written on my old, now deleted blog.

This post is WAY long, and contains some icky bits. Don't read it if you don't want.

I've never really subscribed to the idea that you shouldn't tell. Like most things in life I think sharing makes things valuable. I'm not superstitious and I always thought that if I miscarried I'd want people there to support me, I'd want people to know I had experienced this, and to understand that experience was now a part of me.
My partner isn't the same. He subscribes to both the superstition and the privacy thing. Seems more common for blokes, maybe because they aren't chained to the very physical reality of pregnancy from the moment of conception. They don't have nausea and inexplicable exhaustion to hide, they aren't on the hormone rollercoaster that fills them with hope and then drops them in irrational despair. Seems more reasonable for them to wait. To contemplate the abstraction of conception in an internalised way. I respect his view even if I don't share it (and I thank him deeply for respecting mine in letting me post this stuff here).
When we conceived Amy we told. I could see no reason not to tell family - how could we not tell family?! - and after that friends and others seemed to somehow fall in too. There wasn't any way I could hide that I was hit so hard and so quick by morning sickness. At work I had to explain why I'd stopped coming to work at 7.30 bright eyed and bushy tailed and hanging around after work for a drink. Why I wanted to sleep at my desk and constantly nibble and complain about feeling green.
When it happened this time we were more cautious. Although I was pretty sure I knew about 5 hours after we conceived, we didn't get a positive test for two weeks. We let our immediate family know and a few people guessed or were told because of circumstances. And despite our temptations, we said nothing to everyone else. But one of the reasons I hate secrets so much is that no matter how genuinely people promise not to tell, someone always does. So a few others found out and the less said about that the better because it just makes me all the more sad.
When I started to bleed at nine weeks I didn't want to talk about it with anyone. I wanted to crawl into a cacoon and sleep until it was all over. Little did I know then just how long it would take before it would be all over. I didn't want to hear anyone say how sorry they were, or how sad it was or hear their voices catch in sympathy. I didn't want hugs or rational thinking or anything.
And I certainly didn't want to hear anyone tell me how much worse it could have been - if I had been further along, if I didn't already have Amy, if it had happened the week before or the week after or at a less convenient time. I just didn't want to deal with it. Not because I didn't think their concern was genuine, or that they didn't meant well, or were not themselves upset by such a sad loss. Not even because I wished they didn't know. I just didn't want to be at the coalface of the horror for a second longer than I absolutely had to.
And I feared that someone would say the wrong thing, like the horror stories I had heard from friends. I worried that if someone did this I might explode. Even though I know for sure I have said awful and insensitive things myself in the past and I knew it was no one's fault they didn't understand I worried it might provide me a tiny window of opportunity to unload the grief and anger and frustration I was feeling. Perhaps I was worried they might tap into something going on under my rational understanding, like a sense of guilt at waiting too long to have another child, or giving up hope too quickly, or my inability to have another, or perhaps even my reluctance to go through the whole thing again. I might do irreparable damage to a relationship because they weren't able to leave me alone when I was hurting. For just a little while I wanted it all to be about me, me and Dave, me and Amy.
But despite how I felt in the thick of it I still believe the cultural silence on miscarriage is poison. I hate that so many women go through it alone, and worse are so hopelessly ill-informed about how common miscarriage is and how under prepared they are for what happens. It is not a small thing emotionally or physically and it seems crazy that in the millions of books that teach you about every step of the pregnancy and birth process, miscarriage rates barely a mention.
I can't believe how many times I have told a women about my miscarriage only to be told straight back that it happened to them. And how many of them had this same experience of sharing their story and finding themselves members of this secret club. I understand much better now why people don't want to talk about it, and why I didn't either, but the collective silence also diminishes our ability to grieve for the children who are lost and for our hopes and expectations that are lost with them.
And if we shared more we might make some progress on how people can respond better to our experience. People might learn to never ever tell you how it might be worse, or how you can get over it, or why you should try and have another child. People might learn that even if you couldn't keep the secret of your own pregnancy, they should never break your confidence by passing on the news. People might learn that sometimes simply acknowledging the sadness of the situation is enough to make it hurt all the more. They might give up one feeling like somehow they should be able to ease your suffering and accept that there isn't a single good thing to say to someone so deeply in pain.
That's why I'm posting this. Not for your sympathy (I'm sure I have it), or kind words, or even because I want to talk about it. I'm posting it because I think it's important.
I always thought miscarriages were relatively quick. You'd start to bleed and then it would all be over in a matter of hours of perhaps a day. I understood you usually had a curette afterwards and that this was a fairly unfun if routine procedure. I assumed there would be pain, and a fair bit of blood. But like most things that haven't happened to me I hadn't thought through all that might happen between the first signs of trouble and the last. I hadn't imagined ambiguity or confusion, I'd never assumed there would be waiting.
But like most tragedies my miscarriage began quietly, so quietly I wasn't even sure there was a problem. Was that a little streak of pink I saw there? Last thing at night before I went to bed it was indistinct enough that I didn't even bother saying anything to Dave. I'd had cramps since conception, so I didn't think too much about that either. I was concerned enough to be on high alert, but I was also able to still rationalise it all away.
By mid morning the next day the streak of pink was a streak of red and I was on the phone to the obstetrician. It no longer seemed indistinct, and an ultrasound scan confirmed that things didn't look right. Despite a healthy heartbeat, the baby was too small and there wasn't enough amniotic fluid. The radiographer hedged his bets that while it didn't look good it was still too early to be sure. He had seen some crazy things before with dates and conception and sizes. He wanted me to have hope.
It was hours until I could speak to the obstetrician again and I had filled in the time working on my thesis which was due to be submitted in four days time. I knew enough about what lay ahead to know I had to get it done now, so I was still in the lab at uni when the call came at 6pm. She said pretty much the same as the radiographer. She said I would probably miscarry and it could happen any time but I should book the extra scan for next week. She was sympathetic about the waiting and how hard it was, but said we had to be sure.
I felt pretty sure from the start. There were moments over the following days when my mind would wander, when I would recalculate dates and try to imagine that conception had happened much later than we thought, but the hope never lasted. I was sure about when I conceived, and with hindsight I began to see all kinds of portents in my experience of the early part of the pregnancy. Despite the times when the morning sickness hit me like a brick, I never felt quite like I had when I was carrying Amy.
But the waiting was awful. I didn't know what to say to people - it hadn't happened yet, but we were in the grip of grief nonetheless, free falling through despair over our lost baby. Amy didn't have her usual sleep over with her grandparents, so I had a boisterous three year old to amuse in between bouts of crying, nausea and labour like cramps. I spent each moment expecting and checking, constantly playing out scenarios about going to the hospital in a hurry, getting Amy cared for, mentally writing checklists and making plans. And each day passed with a slow trickle of dodged phone calls and cut off conversations. The bleeding didn't get more dramatic, but it didn't stop either. The days seemed like weeks and all I wanted to do was sleep.
And then the bleeding really started and still we had to wait. Even when the repeat scan confirmed that the baby was dead, and the pain was so intense I thought I might pass out, still it wasn't over. The whole sac had disengaged and was just sitting on my cervix waiting to be expelled. My obstetrician offered a curette anytime I couldn't wait any more, but I didn't want to do that. For some reason I couldn't make that choice, I couldn't believe it could go on much longer. Despite the week already passed I couldn't give up on the idea that it might be over any minute without the bright lights of the operating theatre.
It was two more days before I 'passed the tissue'. Two days of pain and heavy bleeding, two more days of dodging phone calls and being withdrawn from the world. I felt a truly bizarre sense of elation when it happened, something probably linked to the same hormones that make you happy after giving birth. I felt like I had accomplished something. While I continued to bleed (in fact I bled a lot heavier for a while) I felt much better. I began to imagine life again and the unbearable sadness receded.
I consider myself a pretty rational person and I'm more a scientific thinker than an emotional or romantic one. I love technology, I love working things out, I love knowing why and how. I'm not someone who sees the olden days as a yardstick for everything that's good and proper, despite the many and varied problems progress has wrought. When people say we don't need so much medical intervention in birth I say you've never had a three-day labour followed by a distressed baby. Yes, for many generations women have successfully given birth in the fields or on their living room floors without a doctor in sight. But yes, many women have died in the process, or ended their lives as social outcasts when their bowels and bladders have leaked from the tears of difficult births. I'm not against natural birth, away from hospitals and the interventions of doctors, but I'm thankful to my obstetrician everyday when I look at my daughter who just couldn't make it through my birth canal.
When I was pregnant the first time around I loved having the ultrasounds. I have copies of them on tapes I have watched many times and I still remember the fascination of seeing our baby kick and swoop. I found it hard to imagine what pregnancy must have been like when it was just so completely unknown.
When we went for this scan at 9 weeks how different the experience was. My heart leapt to see the heartbeat on screen - for some reason I thought this meant everything was all right. I knew of others who had bled whilst pregnant and gone on to give birth to perfectly health little babies. I squeezed Dave's hand and wanted to cry with relief. I felt more emotional than I ever did the first time around. And then the radiographer started on the problems and bit by bit my elation faded away and the knowledge that the baby wasn't going to live took over.
But the real seal came when he held up the pictures he had taken - did we want to keep them? In a split second I had to choose between running away from what we'd seen and embracing it. Instinctively I said yes and reached for the pictures, but just as quickly the grief hit me full force. All I could see was that beating heart, that little creature trying to survive, photos of my not quite baby, doomed.
Afterwards we talked about whether we would rather not have seen it, whether it would have all been easier if I'd bled out in ignorance. That image is burned into my brain in a way that will never let me forget, that will haunt me, that can bring tears to my eyes at the drop of a hat when it snaps into focus in my mind's eye. No doubt too that it has changed the experience for me, though of course I'll never know exactly how.
Perhaps I would have been better off not seeing it. Perhaps I would have been better off relying on my intellectual capacity to understand, conceptualise and rationalise. I fully understand that making babies is an incredibly complex and fragile process, I understand there are about a million ways it can go wrong, and it seems like something of a miracle that it goes right as often as it does. I have always understood this, and was always pretty amazed that we got from woaw to go with Amy as easily as we did. I always suspected we'd hit a bump in the road somewhere, that it wouldn't be our fault, that the odds just work that way. I might have been able to say it's sad and hard but it's for the best for it to end if things have gone wrong. My sadness might have stood measured against this understanding.
But that little beating heart spoke a different language and nothing can buffer the depth of sadness it's voice brought.
Hope and giving up
I remember when I had Amy there was a battle going on between my focus on myself and my focus on my baby. The baby was a theoretical imaginary being for so long, whereas I was real. During morning sickness I remember the shock from other people when I described the baby as a parasite. But that was how it felt. My lifeblood was being sucked out of me in exchange for an idea of a baby. My hopes and dreams of motherhood didn't stand a chance against the grim reality of nausea, exhaustion and the discomforts of physical occupation. As the pregnancy wore on the reality of her existence grew, but still my own discomfort was uppermost in my mind.
I distinctly remember being handed a hastily bundled baby as I lay on the operating table and feeling terribly un-maternal that I was more concerned about my own gaping wound than my baby. I looked at the nurses and doctors and wanted to ask them what they thought I could possibly do with a baby in my present position.
It didn't take long for things to change. I have no doubt these days that if it came down to the wire there isn't much I wouldn't do to protect my girl, despite the consequences to myself. Now that I am a mother I feel very differently about the trade-off between my own well-being and that of my offspring.
Living in the limbo between pregnancy and miscarriage I oscillate between being a protective mother who wants her child to battle the odds to live and a regular person who wants her own suffering to end. I can't quite return to that person I was before I became a mother, thinking only of getting my life back, of things returning to normal. The reality of that image on the ultrasound screen hits me differently. I see that beating heart as the beginning of a life, as Amy's sibling, as our younger child. I see the life that might have come from it in three dimensions, with photos and a soundtrack of laughter and tears. I grieve for that life, with a terrible sadness that it will never be.
At the same time I want to scream from the torture of waiting. I so want the experience to be over that I want them to do something to speed it up, even at the beginning when we have no confirmation that it's a losing battle. I feel shocked at how easily I can give up hope that things will turn out differently, that things will be all right after all. I can't bear the morning sickness for another second, I can't stomach the crazy pregnant hunger I have to feed a life that has no future. I am utterly outraged that I can feel first trimester morning sickness and labour pains all at once - the two worst parts of pregnancy and with no joy awaiting me at the end of my trial.
Life goes on
In a previous life - a life before Amy - I would have dealt with the miscarriage with lots of time on the couch, lots of holding hands with Dave and generally letting the world stop. I would have called in sick to work (because I would still have been a full-time worker right?) and taken the phone off the hook. And when it was all over I would have slowly re-entered the world and tried to get on with it.
But the presence of a child in my life changes everything, both big and small. Before heading off for a scan I knew might lead to hospital, I made dinner and put it in the fridge. I left instructions on how to heat it up on the bench. I did this because although I know Dave is perfectly capable of cooking dinner, I know the most important thing is making things OK for Amy, and me taking dinner preparations out of the picture will help him be able to spend time playing with her instead of figuring out what the hell to give her to eat.
I no longer feel comfortable leaving the phone off the hook when there is a childcare centre looking after my child, so I end up dealing with calls I would otherwise have never had to have. As I pace around through the pain of my contractions and bleeding I empty the dishwasher and hang out the washing. I know it isn't important to keep house, and believe me I let plenty slide, but I know these days the stuff you don't do just piles up and there's never enough time to catch up.
We didn't get any free rides in the ten or so days all this was going on. The day after the first scan, the head gasket and radiator went on the car, leaving us car-less and requiring Dave to spend lots of time in a far off suburb working hard with his cousin to fix it. I also had to hand in my thesis. This was quite achievable in theory, but it wasn't till Sunday afternoon that I realised I had forgotten to sign the declarations attached to each copy before I had left it with my supervisor on the Friday. This required me, during what turned out to be the peak of my pain to go back in to Uni and walk across campus to sign them off. I'm sure I could have postponed this, but to be honest I just couldn't be bothered dealing with the extensive bureaucratic requirements and paying the extra enrolment fees to delay it all. I was firmly stuck in the life goes on mentality.
My brother's birthday passed and for the first time in sixteen years I didn't call to sing happy birthday to him. (The last time I missed birthday wishes I was in India and even then I tried hard to send a telegram.) I just couldn't face it. I went to his birthday brunch and moved zombie like between conversations I couldn't really comprehend or remember. Dave and I had our thirteenth anniversary, but aside from a kiss and a happy anniversary it slipped by without ceremony. No presents, no champagne, no dinner at a fancy restaurant. Dave got bitten by ants and spent three days with a violent itch. Amy had some virus that made her vomit almost continuously for 24 hours. The oven AND the VCR stopped working.
It was easy to feel that rather than stopping out of respect for our grief the world had decided to shit on us from a great height, to teach us that life keeps on going and things can always get worse. To make sure we never take anything for granted ever again. I'm trying to learn this lesson, not like a mantra on a card I tell myself while I'm brushing my teeth, but in my skin. Trying to find space for the grief I am sure I will feel for a long time yet to sit alongside all the things I am so grateful for, and the countless ways I am so fortunate.

1 comment:

Mokcarthy said...

Hi Sooz, thank you for this. There is a piece of writing by a friend. It's kind of about responding to such deep pain. Don't feel you have to read it. http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=28776