In sharing this story, I do not wish in any way to negate or belittle the experience of anyone who has gone through miscarriage and is still grieving. My hope is that by sharing my story I can perhaps offer others hope or resolution.
Motherhood came later in life for me than it does for many women. In my twenties, I had no maternal urges. I was probably too messed up for various reasons, including the attack I’ve written about recently on Writing a River. Besides I didn’t have a partner who was ready for fatherhood. By my early thirties, I had met the man who would become my husband and the father to our two daughters and I had met my first niece. I was in love with both! My husband took longer to come round to the idea of children – and then an illness left me with fertility problems. By the time of my first pregnancy, I was creeping into late thirties.
That pregnancy went badly from the start, with bleeding every day. I was in and out of hospital. Then, at around two months, I felt intensely sick all day. After that the bleeding stopped, but few days later a scan showed no heartbeat. I had what is known as a missed-miscarriage, and needed an operation to remove the dead baby.
In my first novel, Drawings In Sand, one character has fertility problems and says she’s grateful for this. She says, “I used to think people who were obsessed with trying to get pregnant were selfish, and instead of squandering money on fertility treatments our taxes would be better spent teaching them to accept their lot. In my calmer moments like today I realise it’s taught me compassion.”
Drawings in Sand is not an autobiographical novel, but that bit was. That was me. Having fertility issues was humbling. I had become one of the people I’d previously judged. Now I knew the longing, the aching, the seesaw of raised hopes that were dashed month after month.
Losing the baby was something else again. I had been depressed before, but never so deeply. For weeks afterwards I felt as if there was a huge wall in front of me. My husband worked shifts and would leave for work early and I was generally still in my pyjamas when he got home mid-morning, if I was even out of bed. I didn’t want face the day alone.
Yet even in those darkest days, I knew that I would rather have gone through it than never have been pregnant at all. I knew that the experience had changed how I saw life, and in a good way. I wouldn’t say I was selfish before, but perhaps I was more self-absorbed than is ideal for parenting. It’s true I approached pregnancy assuming I would be kind to my children, yet I also had a sense that is hard to describe – perhaps it was what’s often called “entitlement.” I expected things to go the way I thought they should. We had moved shortly before the miscarriage and I was unemployed at the time, but I assumed that I would get a job and that children would fit round that. I totally believe it’s okay for mothers to have jobs, but for me back then it wouldn’t have been an informed choice but a reaction. I would have acted from unquestioned assumptions and beliefs, not from any sense of weighing up what was best for all concerned.
That first pregnancy was markedly different from my other two in many ways. I knew, long before I took the test, that I was pregnant. I felt a strong sense of connection to the baby, almost as if I could sense her soul (I was certain it was a girl.) I’ve often wondered if this was just my imagination. And I’ve often wondered if it was because the baby was dying from the start. I won’t ever know for sure, and that’s okay. Although I had grown up in a church-going family, for many years I had shunned that, along with the possibility of any God’s existence. At that time I would have described myself as an atheist. But in hospital, I read a friend’s copy of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. This book is part novel, part philosophy and was my first introduction to Buddhism. Gaarder’s description of how Buddhists see God in everything stuck a chord with me. I didn’t become a Buddhist, but I did begin to look at life with new eyes.
I see the miscarriage as a turning point in my life. It was not by any means the only turning point, but it was major one. One of the most profound lessons I learned was that even in the midst of suffering, there can be awareness of growth, and there can be gratitude. A few weeks after I’d lost the baby, I went back to visit friends where we’d lived before. One of my closest friends now had a three-month-old baby. She worried that meeting would be too upsetting for me, but actually it was wonderful to hold her baby. My friend had post-natal psychosis after the birth of her first baby and had to wait years before she could have a second, so all I could feel holding that baby was joy and hope.
And yet, bitterness could still creep into my being. For months it seemed as if all I did was buy baby gifts to a never-ending stream of new babies.
I went to visit my sister. When my four-year-old niece found me crying, she asked why. I replied that I was just sad over something that had happened. She said nothing, and went out of the room. A few minutes later she was back with a painting she’d done at nursery. I no longer have that painting, but I have the memory of that small person’s small act of kindness that was so hugely comforting.
What the miscarriage did for me was to rekindle my dormant spirituality. It was the beginning of my journey back to exploring the mysteries of life, the unknown, (unknowable perhaps.) It was the dawning of a realisation that I don’t have the answers in life, that often I don’t even have the questions. More importantly, it was also the beginning of a realisation that I don’t need to have the answers, that it’s okay for life to unfold as it does, without my opinion. Of course I still have opinions, but mostly I am aware that’s all they are, not The Truth. Mostly I am aware that the truth is a mystery that comes in glimpses and that can’t be forced or demanded.
After our second daughter was born very prematurely, one nurse said to me that these things happen to us only if we are strong enough to cope. I’ve since heard the same thing many times – life only gives us what we can handle. I don’t actually believe that – if it were true people would not develop psychosis and they wouldn’t kill themselves. But often I do think that some of the suffering we experience in life can be there for us to grow – if we are able to see it. I am eternally grateful that somehow I was able to see that in the midst of my depression. And often I think that my first baby’s very short life had a deep and meaningful purpose. I am eternally grateful for that.