Early pregnancy: Like the X-Factor, and not in a good way

Post written on 8th January 2015

At the time of writing this I am 5 weeks pregnant – so not very pregnant at all. My period is late, my breasts are sore and the blue line on the test leaves no doubt, but it is early days and I am 39. I don’t know what the risk of miscarriage is but I know it will be much higher than when I lost a pregnancy at 31. I have not looked it up. What good would it do? But I am worrying, all the time.

I cannot stand the worry of the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, that time when you know something is inside you and that that something could be everything or nothing. The alternatives could not be more extreme. I could have a baby before the year is out or I could be empty-handed. There is no consolation prize – perhaps a niece or nephew, or a cute kitten. Nothing could replace the loss, and the risk of losing is so high.

I have developed various psychological ruses to try to make early pregnancy more bearable. I am not yet “mummy” to this thing inside me (currently the size of a sesame seed). I pretend it’s like the X-Factor. I am not “having a baby”; I have merely entered a competition that involves many, many stages. A positive pregnancy test is just getting through the judges’ auditions (trying to conceive being the producer trial run). Right now I’m nearing the stage where the heartbeat may or may not start; I look at my stomach and hope for a spark that I’ll be unable to see or feel. Getting that spark is being chosen for boot camp, then a positive 12-week scan is a trip to a judge’s house. Only after 24 weeks do you make it to the live final. I am exaggerating the odds deliberately. There is far more chance of me having a baby than there is of me winning the X-Factor. Yet pregnancy is unknowable and capricious. Like Simon Cowell.

And so the worry continues, with every twinge being a sign that it’s all gone wrong. That said, my miscarriage at 10 weeks was not heralded by stomach cramps (at first); it was the loss of hardness and sensitivity in my breasts. I simply no longer “felt” pregnant.

“But you’ve never been pregnant before!” said my partner, trying to be reassuring. “How would you know?”

But I just knew. Then again, I’ve “just known” it had all gone wrong during what turned out to be perfectly healthy pregnancies. Right now, for reassurance, I spend a lot of time prodding my breasts, hoping no colleagues on neighbouring desks notice. Then I worry that my breasts are only sore now because of all the prodding. Plus I don’t yet feel sick and I want to feel sick, just a bit (nothing too dramatic, obviously, but just so I know).

Sometimes I am afraid to move. I need to keep reminding myself that the following things do not, in all probability, lead to pregnancy loss:

  • Sneezing / coughing / “over-exertion”(which could of course mean anything)
  • Decaffeinated coffee which your body “thinks” is caffeinated
  • Tempting fate by feeling happy about being pregnant
  • Tempting fate by telling people that you’re pregnant
  • Tempting fate by telling yourself “no, it’s nothing” every time you feel one of those “pains” which, a week ago, you wouldn’t have noticed at all

I tell myself that if it was that easy to end a pregnancy, women wouldn’t still be fighting and dying for basic reproductive rights. An unwanted pregnancy could be solved by downing a couple of espressos and jumping up and down on a trampoline while eating brie and yelling “I’M PREGGGGNAAAAANNNNT!” (in much the way Noddy Holder yells “It’s CHRISSSSTMAAAASSS!”). It is more difficult than that. When an embryo wants to stay put, it does (unfortunately you cannot persuade a reluctant one to remain in place by double-bluffing fate by pretending you don’t want to be pregnant at all; yes, I have tried).

There are of course some things which do cause miscarriage: chromosome abnormalities; placenta defects; sheep (I think – I vaguely remember something to do with sheep, but I am too scared to check and just remain thankful I don’t live in Cumbria any more). And there are things which increase the probability of having one: being over 35 (can’t do anything about that); having had a previous miscarriage (ditto); caffeine consumption (I’ve given up my daily dose, but what if the embryo doesn’t realise that Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Decaffeinated Columbian Fairtrade Ground Coffee isn’t the real thing? What if it “thinks” I’m not showing it sufficient respect and decides to sod off anyway?). The thing is, I just want you to stay, invisible sesame seed thing! And I don’t know what to do to make it happen! Please?

I do not want to feel this way. I want to feel like an all-powerful fertility goddess, brazenly creating new life, not some fear-filled failure, just waiting for it to all go wrong. Since I already know that pessimism does not lessen the pain of miscarriage, why not just cherish the hope while it lasts? Somehow I just can’t. Instead I’m counting down the days till I reach the judge’s house, hopefully not alone.

Postscript: I’m now at 20 weeks which, for some reason, feels like a psychological triumph, as though somehow the foetus and I have got here together by virtue of me thinking the “right” thoughts. The first trimester, which is always so grim, has finally come to an end (it is so much longer than 12 weeks!). I know that in truth I’m just lucky yet it always feels like more than luck – a moral test of sorts. I do think if we could find different, better ways of talking about this it might feel different.

Well, here’s hoping that publishing this doesn’t mess things up …


Royal baby watch: Yet more pregnancy propaganda

Should the royal baby be born with a uterus, I dread to think of the miserable pregnancies that await her. Given how intrusive we’ve been this time around — will Kate breastfeed?, is she too posh to push?, is it out yet, is it, is it? — I’m wondering how much further it can go. Perhaps by the time she marries we’ll be having a monthly day of mourning each time our future Queen has a period. The grim two-week wait known by all couples trying to conceive will be tracked by all major news outlets (graphs from the Daily Mail, complex CSV data files from the Guardian). Newscasters will solemnly inform us that since, by this stage, First Response has a 99% accuracy rate, once again we’re likely to be disappointed. Recourse to IVF would be a source of national shame, surrogacy a catastrophe. Actual infertility, or recurrent miscarriage, or stillbirth – well, let’s not even go there.

Today’s focus on the fact that the Duchess of Cambridge is in labour — but how far? How many centimetres dilated? Tell us, tell us! — has really freaked me out. I’m not a fan of the royal family — neither the principle nor the individuals — but I find the media frenzy *prim voice* rather distasteful. I imagine Kate Middleton (or Windsor or whatever she’s now called) doesn’t give a shit at this point in time. For all I know she’s high on pethidine, demanding Rage Against The Machine as birth music and telling William she only ever married him for the money and fame. Even so, this national focus on one woman giving birth seems to me wrong. It shows, not just how much how pathetically obsequious we commoners remain, but how far we trivialise the whole of pregnancy and labour, presenting it as one set narrative with a happy ending. It’s not.

I don’t know how hard the Windsors found it to conceive. I don’t know whether there were pregnancy losses along the way. I won’t ever know because it’s not part of the official plot. True, it’s not my business to ponder how much fruitless, passionless shagging took place in the quest for our third in line, but neither is it my business to know how long the Duchess has been in labour, or whether she’s having pain relief, or countless other things which are meant to be of national importance. We’re not just being fed royalist propaganda, we’re being fed sanitised pregnancy propaganda too. It sits alongside the whole morality tale that insists that those who don’t drink or smoke, take their folic acid, practice their breathing, don’t lie on their right side, make sure the bath water’s not too hot, have a loving, supportive (and ideally rich) partner etc. etc. will bring forth happy, healthy, bouncing babies. It’s this very narrative that makes the millions of people for whom this doesn’t happen feel so alone, while also feeding into the anti-choice lie that pregnancy and birth are mere stages in the pre-born lives of others, and not violent, bloody and potentially highly risky experiences.

When my partner and I lost a pregnancy we were knocked for six, even though we’d known the statistics and tried hard to prepare ourselves not to think too far ahead. This evening my partner commented that if something went wrong with the royal birth, it would be a tragedy for those most immediately involved, but might at least go some way to changing our rose-tinted, moralistic narrative regarding perfect pregnancies and risk. It’s hardly the way you’d want it to be changed, though. But labour can reduce you to your most raw and it seems to me strange that, at a point where (one suspects) the regal mask is most likely to have slipped, we’re doing our damndest to reinforce not just the myth of royalty, but the myth of birth as mere storybook ending.

Pregnant women: Disappointingly human

In Oklahoma, this month, Jamie Lynn Russell, 33, died in agony from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy in jail. Police, who were called to a hospital where Russell sought help for severe abdominal pain, charged her with drug possession after finding two prescription pills that did not belong to her.

Guardian report on ‘criminalisation of pregnancy’ in US institutions

When I turned up in tears at an unfamiliar doctor’s surgery, convinced (correctly, it turned out) that I was experiencing the start of a miscarriage, I have no idea what was in my bag. Probably the usual – money, phone, lipgloss, Prozac, half-eaten tubes of Fruit Pastilles. I leave stuff in there for months. There may even have been the remnants of my pre-pregnant life – Alka Seltzer, the odd cigarette butt, those stupid RU21 pills that were meant to prevent hangovers but never did. I didn’t live a pure life before I conceived, and I sort of muddled through afterwards. I’m relatively organised, on the grand scale of things, but clean-living would be an exaggeration. Continue reading

Pregnancy, risk and magic heartbeats: A post about abortion and life

Eight years ago my partner and I became addicted to “gritty hospital drama” Bodies. Set in the obstetrics and gynaecology department of a fictional UK hospital, the series tracks the moral descent of registrar Rob Lake, who becomes aware that his superior is bungling procedures and maiming the women he treats. Two years after watching the series I became pregnant for the first time and tried to forget I’d ever seen it. Of course, I knew that real life wasn’t like that. Your average registrar isn’t as fit as Max Beesley, for starters, plus you’d hope your average consultant wasn’t as incompetent as Patrick Baladi’s Mr Hurley. All the same, things can go wrong, just like on TV, and just like on TV, sometimes all you can do is watch. Continue reading

Early miscarriage: Does it even count?

Were you aware that, back in the day, early miscarriages never used to happen? Or rather, they did, but they were not remarked upon, ever. The average woman would get up in the morning and make her way t’mill, wading through cobbled streets knee-deep in embryos carelessly dropped along the way. Perhaps she, too, would deposit one as she went along. She wouldn’t notice, mind. These were the days before First Response and Clearblue would make pregnant women aware of their condition with such unseemly haste. And even if our olden days woman had noticed – missed periods, vomiting, tits as hard as boulders – she wouldn’t have paid any heed, not even when it culminated in a massive hemorrhage outside the local workhouse. Women were made of harder stuff back then.

It’s all different now, you know. I blame the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Now women get upset at the drop of a hat, or even a fetus. I should know; I did it myself when I had a miscarriage at 10 weeks. I mean, 10 weeks isn’t as pathetic as five or six, but still, it’s not great going. Indeed, sometimes I have been tempted to add on a couple of weeks, to at least make it sound like I had a scan and – sniff – saw a heart beating. Otherwise it’s a bit like the whole miscarriage trauma happened in my stupid, pampered head.

Modern sensibilities aside, I am nevertheless surprised that some people, when you tell them that you found your early miscarriage upsetting, still see fit to inform you that years ago, no one would have given a shit. I mean, it’s not quite the same as them saying that they don’t give a shit. But it comes close enough. Close enough to make you feel that if you’ve not actually had a stillbirth, you really should shut the fuck up.

The trouble is, I really have tried to manage my emotions on this one. I know the statistics and long before I even got pregnant I came up with a plan for expectation management, just so I’d avoid being one of those people who gets carried away and makes a complete prat of themselves. I’m not sure how to embed PowerPoints in blog posts, so here’s the bullet pointed version:

Trying for a baby: The competition metaphor

  1. Having unprotected sex = Entering the contest
  2. Missing a period = Getting longlisted for the Baby Prize
  3. Passing the 12-week mark = Getting onto the shortlist
  4. Getting into your final trimester = Reaching the final
  5. Having a live birth = Congratulations! You won!

In theory, this all makes sense to me. Best not get too excited – you’re not a mummy yet. Unfortunately, though, this never works in practice. As soon as I’ve had my first condom-free shag I’m in there, thinking “was that it? Could this be the one?? What’s the date 38 weeks from now???” It’s awful, and is precisely why trying for a baby, regardless of how much shagging it involves, ends up being totally crap.

Whenever I’ve been pregnant I’ve told people way before the 12-week mark. I know this is against “the rules”, but I don’t give a toss. The only people who really understood how devastated I was post-miscarriage were the ones who’d known how excited I’d been. As far as everyone else was concerned, it was a miscarriage, but never a potential baby. Responses to the loss included “I presume it was an accident” (my dad) and “had you decided whether to keep it?” (my boss). I guess it’s reasonable; they’d never had to think of me as a pregnant person. But sometimes, I can’t help thinking: when it comes to keeping quiet for the first twelve weeks, whose feelings are we really sparing? Silence doesn’t make a pregnancy less real for the person experiencing it, but it can let everyone else off the hook when it comes to engaging with miscarriage as a common yet painful reality.

I’m not suggesting that an early miscarriage is as heartrending as a stillbirth, or even that it needs to be distressing at all (for instance, if the pregnancy is unwanted, the Penelope Trunk response seems to me to be perfectly reasonable). I do however feel that a huge amount of stigma surrounds early miscarriage and how it can affect people if the pregnancy was wanted. I actually feel embarrassed that I couldn’t at least have miscarried later. How dare I get so upset! Who the hell do I think I am? But I was upset. I might have only known it for a few weeks, but the difference between a life and a nothingness is overwhelming.

I find it interesting that while in recent years several celebrities – Kelly Brook, Kym Marsh, Lily Allen, Amanda Holden – have discussed late miscarriage and stillbirth quite openly, very few women in the public eye mention early losses. And there must be loads more who’ve experienced these. Perhaps you’re just meant to dust yourself down and get on with it. But it doesn’t seem right, or helpful, to me (not that I’m begging for a Heat “miscarriage hell” exposé, complete with “how I lost my first trimester weight”. Just a culture which recognises that something very sad is happening to a lot of people every day, and respects their right to discuss it openly).

Anyhow, I’m thinking of all this because last night I was reading the Mumsnet Campaign for Better Miscarriage Care talkboard. Five years since my own miscarriage it is strange to be reminded of all the pain and uncertainty miscarrying women go through, and also sad to know how hard it is to say anything that can make these women feel better. But just as an initial suggestion, “we never had this in the old days” and “it’s down to all these early pregnancy tests” is not the best place to start.

POSTSCRIPT: This piece by Maggie Koerth-Baker is absolutely heartbreaking and brilliant. Really recommend reading, just to know you are not alone.

Remembering my rubbish toilet baby

WARNING: The start of this post is a bit graphic. Because I am sick of people thinking that early miscarriages are just like heavy periods. I, for one, can say that mine sodding well wasn’t.

When I had a miscarriage, most of it – whatever “it” was – went down the toilet in our flat. Some of it went on the bathroom floor and my partner cleaned that up. I don’t know precisely what it looked like. I didn’t look down. I could feel it leaving my body, not like a period, nor like giving birth. A mass of blood and clots dropping out of me. The most surprising thing was how much of it there was. I spent a whole night curled up on the living room sofa, watching, of all things, slasher movies. Every time I stood up to go to the bathroom, a new pool of deadness seemed to have collected, ready to fall to the floor. The whole thing was horrendous. The next day I went for a scan. The sonographer asked me how pregnant I was. I said “I don’t think I’m pregnant any more”. She looked at the screen and said “no, you’re not”.

A few months later my partner got into one of those typically pointless online abortion debates. At one point he told the anti-choicers that none of their stupid photos freaked him out, not after clearing up a miscarriage with his own hands. That surprised me. That thing I hadn’t dared to see – I hadn’t thought it could be that bad. I was only 10 weeks. But perhaps part of the horror came from how much we wanted the pregnancy, and how much it meant to us.

Thinking of the miscarriage makes me feel sad because it was a sad thing. I don’t now wish it hadn’t happened. The first pregnancy would have overlapped with what was to be me getting pregnant with our first son. I can’t possibly regret anything that led to him being here. I can’t imagine loving what would have been the other baby so much. I know, logically, that I probably would have, but that’s not how I feel. My partner and I talk about the pregnancy we lost as “the rubbish toilet baby”, the fetus so useless it couldn’t be bothered to live, so we flushed it away. That’s not a broad recommendation for how one should come to terms with a miscarriage; it’s just what we chose to do.

And it was our loss, and our right to respond in this way. One of the things that outrages me so much about the Michigan anti-choice law (as bravely challenged by vagina-mentioning Lisa Brown) is that, to quote Brown in the Guardian, it “would require doctors to make the equivalent of funeral arrangements for foetal remains, both in cases of abortion and of miscarriage”. I don’t know how this works in the case of toilet babies, wanted or unwanted. I’d like to think you’d get a free pass there, but who knows. I suppose you’d be more inclined not to tell anyone. But then, if you’re like me, without a scan, you’d still hope, despite the blood and gore, that the fetus was still there.

What the lawmakers are doing here is not just impinging on a woman’s right to choose. They’re impinging on her right to feel and manage her emotions in her own way. This seems to me an outrageous intrusion. The thought of some kind of formal recognition of what, to me, is a person whom I wanted but who never was, fills me with horror. I know people who’ve lost pregnancies and did choose some form of remembrance ceremony, but that was something highly personal to them. It is not for any state or law to decide.

The focus on doctors making arrangements suggests these “funeral arrangements” can, if appropriate, take place without the involvement of the person who once carried the remains. But you would know. You would know that other people were creating a person out of something which they’d never had within them, about which they’d never had to make choices, and which they’d never truly lost, regardless of whether the loss was intentional or not. You would know this and this is not right. No one has the right to regulate your loss in this way.

The sheer callousness of this astounds me. There are people who are so keen to make a lost fetus into a person that they don’t give a damn about the feelings of those who understood, more than anyone else, that this fetus could have become a person. A person who could have been too demanding, too draining, too terrifying to cope with. Or a person who would have been loved, but who never came into being at all. I really, really hate these people. Far more than I hate the rubbish toilet baby. Who would, of course, have been loved, but who could never have come close to being as wonderful as my son.

All around you: the not-quite pregnant

One of the many ways in which I seek to enhance the crapness of my concentration skills is to chat with friends over email when I’m meant to be working / taking care of the kids / throwing kittens into wheelie bins.* Only this morning a group of us were discussing how long we’d been in our respective jobs, and I found myself confessing that this was the longest I’d ever been in one position without either switching companies or going on maternity leave. Now this happens to worry me a great deal; it seems that in the past I’ve always managed to sneak off to do baby stuff just as the shit was about to hit the fan. Not so this time; I’m here indefinitely (or until they find out about the kittens), and next time it all goes wrong they’ll realize that it was me all along. “So”, I typed away cheerily, “I’d just better get preggers again.” Then I clicked “send” and immediately felt like a complete and utter cow.

The reason for my guilt (beyond the usual, low-level guilt I experience all the time for happening to be a bit of a tosser) is that one of my friends on the mailing list is trying to get pregnant. Or I think she is. For all I know, she’s in the early stages of pregnancy already and just not saying. I have no idea. But I do know how shitty trying to conceive can be. Witnessing someone who already has kids merrily quip about “just getting preggers again” could be the thing that makes it that bit shittier.

The trouble is, people don’t talk about trying to conceive, or all the crap that happens along the way. Or rather, they do, all the time, but rarely beyond the context of DON’T LEAVE IT TOO LATE CAREER WOMAN OR YOU’LL REGRET IT! or LOOK AT THOSE PEOPLE HAVING IVF! AREN’T THEY ALL HORRIBLY MIDDLE-CLASS! What bothers me is that on a daily basis, in your workplace and amongst your friends, you could be surrounded by people going through the monthly misery of waiting for that blue line to appear and you wouldn’t even know it. You might babble away about pregnancy and babies as though anyone who wants them can have them. But it’s obviously not true, and even if it happens for most people in the end, in the early stages it can feel like it never will. Hence the sheer presumptuousness of others – “well, I can always squeeze out another one!” – can be incredibly painful.

After my first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, I remember reading an article in Pregnancy and Birth about “how to talk to your friend when you’re pregnant and she wants to be”. I will admit that I was a bit, well, sensitive at the time, but even now just the memory of that piece makes me bloody furious. The “advice” essentially ran like this:

  1. Poor, poor barren friend, how sad, we’re all so sorry <yawn>
  2. You are an exceptional friend for considering her feelings, what with you having your pregnancy and your wonderful fecund self to worry about
  3. Keep your distance “until she’s ready to come round” i.e. do fuck all cos it’s hardly your fault, is it?

Got that? Now fuck off, barren woman, and stop pissing on our happy pregnancy party.

While it’s true that Pregnancy and Birth isn’t always so crass and does at times include “specials” on infertility, miscarriage and stillbirth, the fact is that magazines such as this do not represent reality, and quite the level of suffering there is. A shocking percentage of wanted pregnancies do not lead to live births. And while you want pregnancy itself to be exciting – because it is – treating it as something which “ordinarily” goes well can have a devastating effect on those for whom it doesn’t.

I wish people talked about it more. Back when I first found out I was pregnant I was a right blabbermouth, not out of some wish to break the taboo, but because I’m just useless at shutting up about things like that. I broke the pregnancy law and told friends and colleagues way before the magic 12 weeks. But the strange thing is, I’m really glad I did. When it did all go wrong, people around me knew how much it had mattered to me. And while it might have been uncomfortable for them, it was hugely comforting to me, and yes, that’s selfish, but I think at those times you’re allowed to be. I’m glad I didn’t have to be the woman miscarrying in silence to spare everyone else’s blushes.

For that reason I also admire Penelope Trunk for tweeting about her (wanted) miscarriage (mind you, the way I’m getting with Twitter, it goes without saying that I’d like any woman who reveals things she shouldn’t at the mere sight of a hashtag). Miscarriage is really, really normal. Even so, it can hurt a lot, but only depending on who you are and what you want.

I don’t know if my friend is pregnant, or has miscarried, or is going through the long-drawn-out misery of checking for fertile days and finding that sex has become the grimmest task in the world.** She might not be going through any of these things. I don’t know, but it scares me that there’s so much not-knowing and so much risk of hurting people without realizing it.

Well, this is all getting a bit fucking worthy. Off to dispose of more kittens.

* Yes, that was me.

** Note to self: don’t drift into picturing friends having miserable sex.