A quarter of a million pregnancies in the UK end in miscarriage every year. Affecting over a fifth of pregnant women, there’s often little information available about what went wrong.
While researching this piece, I asked on social media if anyone would share their miscarriage experience with me. I had more than 70 responses in one evening. So many women were desperate to talk about something that convention forces us to keep tucked away behind platitudes and the ever-present suspicion of female bodies.
But, once given permission, there was an overwhelming desire to talk. Some told me of their late-pregnancy losses, giving birth to twins who they held on their palms, too tiny to survive, but named and loved and buried nonetheless. Others talked of kindness from nurses and doctors, the trauma and relief in medical procedures, or the blank faces of medics, friends and family whose lack of understanding made grieving all the harder.
The range of feelings was huge – joy, misery, love, grief, relief, anger were all mixed up untidily. Each woman’s journey so different from the last.
Antonia, 33, London/Germany, campaigner for a global civic movement
Just before I miscarried my first pregnancy at 10 weeks, I set off for Indonesia to observe a major election. I was feeling excited about the baby, completely carefree. My husband supported my decision to travel alone and I felt that if something was going to go wrong, it would do so whether I was abroad or wrapping myself in cotton wool in the UK.
In Aceh, I started spotting. I was nervous but told myself it would be alright. After all, I was 27 and healthy. Then, on election day itself, we were driving back from the highlands and stopped at a roadside stall for a drink. I could suddenly feel I was bleeding and it dawned on me that things were going seriously wrong. My team were all men and none of them knew I was pregnant. So I made a makeshift sanitary towel from toilet paper and sat in the car for another hour or so, crying as discreetly as possible and trying not to bleed on the seats.
At the hospital, they did an ultrasound. There was no heartbeat and the embryo was much smaller than it should have been. They wouldn’t manage the miscarriage medically as, shockingly, they needed the approval of my husband to take any action. In hindsight, miscarrying “naturally” was a blessing. I was in charge of what was happening in my body, rather than surrendering to a process where I was object rather than subject.
I didn’t really feel afraid and, taking a pack of maternity pads from the dispensary, I took a planned flight to Jakarta the next day. In the meantime, I talked to my mother (a doctor) about what I could expect and what the miscarriage would look and feel like. This helped a lot.
Once in the Jakarta hotel, the bleeding intensified and I squatted in the bathtub to pass whatever was left inside me. It wasn't comfortable, but it wasn’t painful either. There was a sensation of relief when I started passing the bigger stuff and I remember examining the blobs and chunks, half-hoping half-fearing seeing something human-like in there. It all just looked like liver.
I remember a lot of this vividly. Strange details are very fresh in my mind, like the laundry service of the hotel calling and saying, "Lady, there's a lot of blood on your trousers.” Above all, I remember a sense of loss and sadness coming from somewhere deep within, as though my womb and brain were wired up directly.
And that was it, although the grieving took months to get over. The subsequent six months I spent working in Nepal were very much under the flag of loss. It sucks to lose a child you've been looking forward to carrying to term and there's already a bond that's suddenly severed.
I am still sad about that miscarriage, but it's become a blunt feeling after two healthy pregnancies and amazing births. It’s also given me something positive. I was faced with a difficult situation and I got through it relatively unscathed, relying entirely on my own means. Much like giving birth, it puts things into perspective. I know what matters and also what doesn't.
Lara Jenkins, 34, London, works for the government
Last year, I had two miscarriages. They were my first two pregnancies and I still have no children. I felt anxious when I first discovered I was pregnant. I think I was worried about becoming a mother and how my identity would change. But when a routine 12-week scan showed the baby wasn't alive, I was devastated. I’d had some bleeding at about eight weeks, but an earlier scan had found a heartbeat where now there was none.
The care I got from the hospital felt totally administrative. I wasn’t offered counselling or any information on how to seek help. No one was listening to me. They simply gave me medication to force my body to expel the foetus and sent me on my way.
Four months later, I was pregnant again. This time, I was not only worried about having another miscarriage, but couldn’t help thinking about the poor care I’d received. Once again, I had bleeding and again there was a devastating scan with stillness instead of a heartbeat.
This was awful enough in itself, but how I was treated made it a hundred times worse. I had recently returned from a work trip to Sierra Leone. Everyone in the hospital seemed very jumpy around me and, before they would take me through for my scan, I was taken to a separate room. I realised they had somehow (I believe through the sharing of confidential information) found out about where I’d been. I explained that I had already been screened numerous times for Ebola since my return. Two screenings by Public Health England had graded me as lowest risk and I had no symptoms. But they didn’t listen, didn’t think about my fear and upset about the scan I was waiting for, and instead tried to keep me isolated in the room.
Eventually, I was scanned and got the terrible news. Full of grief, I waited for a doctor to come and discuss my options, but instead a virologist was sent in to talk to me about Sierra Leone. I refused to speak to him. It was cruel and unnecessary.
I then saw a gynaecologist and was once again given a prescription and no support for my loss other than a follow-up scan to check that all “products of the pregnancy were removed”. I was then asked to provide proof of the pregnancy I had just lost and, when what I had wasn’t sufficient, was made to pay for my prescription.
It was an extremely traumatising experience – an awful situation was made even worse by being treated as though I was contagious. I didn’t feel respected or listened to, and instead was treated like a child. I did eventually complain and received an apology.
I had hoped to be referred to the recurrent miscarriage clinic, but apparently two miscarriages aren't enough to warrant that. So I went for a private scan and found I have a misshapen uterus, which I then paid £7,000 to have corrected.
But I now feel afraid about getting pregnant again. I can’t afford to pay for any more private treatment and, after my second miscarriage, I went into a downward spiral and it was hard to pull myself out.
So much should be changed about the way women are supported during a miscarriage. We need proper support, compassionate care and to be treated like individuals. I hope I never have to go through something like this again.
Maisie, 34, London, acupuncturist and doula
You’d think that someone who has attended over 80 births would know when she was in labour. But I didn’t. When I had a miscarriage last year (15 weeks in to my first pregnancy), I had all the classic symptoms of labour, but I didn’t acknowledge it until I actually gave birth.
Finding out I was pregnant on my boyfriend Paul’s birthday was amazing. I felt confident about declining the first ultrasound scan. It was really important to me that I learnt to trust my body, so I decided that it knew how to be pregnant and how not to be pregnant as well.
Weeks later, abdominal pain and spotting became cramping and bleeding. Our wonderful independent midwife, Andy, helped us arrange an out-of-hours scan. As the doctor moved the probe over my belly, he didn’t say anything and I knew it wasn’t good news. The pregnancy had not developed normally and there was no baby – just what looked like decomposing tissue. We later discovered it was a molar pregnancy: when an egg has an extra set of chromosomes after being fertilised by two sperm.
It was awful but, strangely, my love for Paul was overwhelming right then. It felt bizarre to think that this happened some time ago, and yet I’d still had signs of pregnancy. Suddenly, I understood why I’d recently had strong urges to push on forbidden acupuncture points that can bring on labour.
We went home that weekend and cried and talked. Then, on Sunday night, things intensified. I couldn’t get comfortable and shouted to Paul that, “I just want it out.” I was starting to feel that something was very wrong so, with Andy and Paul at my side, I set off for the hospital.
In the packed A&E waiting room, I was in so much pain that I couldn’t get off the floor. I was burning up, so started taking my clothes off and I didn’t care who could see. Bizarrely, it was stripping off that finally got the medics’ attention.
At first, we were left in the corridor and, when a room eventually became free, I remembered I could have gas and air. A short time later, I could feel something coming out of my vagina. It didn’t resemble a baby in any way. As it came out, it dawned on me that I had been in labour.
I felt amazing as soon as it was over and, despite not giving birth to a baby, I had an oxytocin rush that lasted on and off for days. Paul says my eyes were incredibly wide and I looked ecstatic.
Healing physically and emotionally has certainly been a complex process. When the due date came around, I had to take a week off work and I couldn’t stop crying. It was as if, almost unconsciously, my body was remembering what should have happened on that date.
Yet I am hugely grateful for the chance to experience labour and a kind of birth, despite being hard to go through it all and not have a baby at the end. I’m also thankful that we didn’t have the 12-week scan. Waiting for weeks to miscarry would have been awful and, if I’d had a surgical procedure, I wouldn’t have received this confirmation that my body sure as hell knows what it’s doing.
It sounds strange to some people but, above all, things this pregnancy brought us a lot of joy.
The Miscarriage Association runs a helpline for those dealing with pregnancy loss: 01924 200 799.
Maisie Hill writes a blog about recovering from miscarriage.