One word beginning with the letter “M” that we hear constantly – “Motherhood”. Another is mentioned far less – "Miscarriage" – even though the two are inextricably linked. There are about 900,000 pregnancies in the UK each year. Approximately one in four of them ends in loss. Although miscarriage is often a natural and needed part of the reproductive process, the culture of silence that still surrounds it can make the pain far worse.
Today, as part of International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, a new documentary on Channel 5 lifts the lid on this heart-breaking experience. Miscarriage: Our Story features nine brave men and women, including broadcaster Natasha Kaplinsky and actress Lacey Turner, telling the deeply personal and poignant stories of the day they lost their babies.
I am one of them. In my own pursuit of motherhood, which included eleven rounds of unsuccessful IVF, I experienced multiple pregnancy loss. It’s hard to explain the pain of losing something you never had. But each positive test became my imagined and longed for child. Would it be a girl or a boy? Which name would we choose? What adventures would we go on together? When my dream was taken away, it was devastating. Yet it was a loss suffered in secret – I continued to go to work and social engagements as if nothing had happened.
The taboo of miscarriage is, in part, due to what is commonly known as the “12-week rule” – the accepted practice of not telling people you’re pregnant until the end of the first trimester. The logic of this is that the majority of miscarriages take place at an early stage but, at the same time, it diminishes people’s ability to empathize with the loss. It is further compounded by the historic insensitivity of medical terminology. What was “a baby” to you becomes “products of conception” which does nothing to legitimize the grieving process.
The lack of comprehensive fertility education in schools is also to blame. A determined focus on how “not to get pregnant” means that people don’t know enough about “trying to conceive”. There is minimal understanding of what to do when you have a miscarriage.
I will never forget starting to miscarry during the interval of a show at a West End theatre. I made a makeshift sanitary towel out of a wodge of loo paper, tied my coat around my waist and went back to my seat. Later I flushed the foetus down the toilet when it passed. I feel a fool writing this but I didn’t know what to do. Nor are we told what the process of recovery is. Should we go to the doctor? Should we take time off work? It’s shocking that this is happening to 25 per cent of all women (and men) who conceive and so many don’t know.
In recent years, I have started to see a shift. Brilliant books by writers such as psychotherapist Julia Bueno’s On The Brink of Being are illuminating an experience that hasn’t had its rightful place on what she calls “the map of grief”.
Bueno’s book brings together her own personal experience of losing twin daughters at 22 weeks with stories from her consulting room and interviews with medical professionals – acknowledging how far we have come but also how much further there is to go. Sheila Lamb’s recent book This is Pregnancy and Baby Loss comprises a vast selection of personal testimony from people across the world. It was as a direct result of their views that Lamb decided to remove the term "miscarriage" from the book’s title. Rooted in the words “mistake” and “failure," it adds to the sense of shame and blame that many people feel.
Connecting with the experience of others through films, books or other media is hugely helpful in the healing process. The writer and campaigner Zoe Clark Coates has also made an important impact through her “Saying Goodbye” remembrance services, which take place across the country (and now online). Publicly recognising and honouring your loss can be a comfort. Social media also plays its part in raising awareness and fostering solidarity – with initiatives such as Katie Ingram’s #NoWords campaign. And it’s crucial that men aren’t forgotten in the conversation. They experience miscarriage too but their feelings of grief are even more marginalised than women’s. The artist Foz Foster’s body of work dedicated to the three children he lost through miscarriage broke new ground in bringing this to the fore.
Real-life survivors of baby loss are leading the way in changing perceptions. My hope is that the medical profession continues to listen and learn. In 2017, the National Bereavement Care Pathway was established to set out best practice guidelines. It is now being rolled out in hospitals across the UK and provides guidance on things like the use of language and signposting to sources of support such as the Miscarriage Association and SANDs. This is undoubtedly good news but I find it difficult not to question why this work is only just getting done.
One of the biggest achievements of Miscarriage: Our Story is that by placing nine different heart-rending stories side by side, you can’t fail to see the parallels. It told me that I am not alone – this loss is real.
Miscarriage: Our Story airs 10pm on Thursday 15 October on Channel 5. Jessica Hepburn is the author of The Pursuit of Motherhood and 21 Miles: Swimming in Search of the Meaning of Motherhood