When I walked in to the obstetrician for a routine scan at 8 weeks, I was excited. I was expecting to hear my baby’s heart beat for the first time. The doctor scanned my belly with the ultrasound, and was quiet for a moment. Then she spoke in a tone that could only mean one thing. “When was the last time you had a positive pregnancy test?”
My pregnancy had been unremarkable until then. At the age of 30 I had conceived with no problem, and was going through the usual symptoms – fatigue, tender breasts and nausea – but my husband and I were so excited about the impending arrival. We had told a few friends and family members and were having early discussions about moving into a new apartment. As a journalist, I’m always online, and had done plenty of research. I knew that, on average, one in five pregnancies of women aged 30 and above, end in early miscarriage. But I’d never heard about it happening to anyone else, and I thought that being strong, fit and healthy, it would never happen to me. But I was wrong.
I knew that, on average, one in five pregnancies of women aged 30 and above, end in early miscarriage. But I’d never heard about it happening to anyone else, and I thought that being strong, fit and healthy, it would never happen to me. But I was wrong.
I answered the obstetrician after a moment. I hadn’t done a pregnancy test since the first one, at around 3.5 weeks. She told me that the pregnancy sac was there but it was empty – there was simply no embryo. This is called a blighted ovum, which happens when the cells that would have become the embryo, fail. This is due to too many or too few chromosomes during fertilisation. The placenta and membranes keep developing, so your body thinks it’s pregnant. Sometimes it results in bleeding, but often – as was my case – there are no untoward symptoms.
The obstetrician recommended dilation and curettage (D&C) surgery the next day to remove the sac. It involved general anaesthetic, during which time my cervix was mechanically dilated and an instrument used to scrape out the uterus to ensure there was nothing left to cause infection. The doctor advised me to go back on to the pill for a few months afterwards, to rebuild the lining of my womb.
As I absorbed all of this, I just numbly nodded, made arrangements and focused on the practicalities. I called my husband and he ran out of his meeting to come and find me. We bought a bottle of Champagne (I thought, I might as well get drunk now!) and took the Star Ferry to watch the light show over Hong Kong Island. We talked about how sad we felt, after all the planning, dreaming and tracking the baby’s size according to pregnancy guides, from a poppy seed to a lentil to a kidney bean (we had bet she was a girl and even named her Poppy). That night we drank Champagne, had a good cry together and said goodbye to our little Poppy.
When I woke from the operation the next day I was in agony. My cervix had been mechanically dilated, so I suppose the pain was a little like childbirth. After some morphine I felt OK, and my husband was there holding my hand the whole time. The next week or so was fine, but when I went back on the pill for the next two months, the hormones made me feel very depressed. Almost all of my girlfriends in Hong Kong were either pregnant or had babies, and I couldn’t bear to be around the baby chat. So I booked holidays every weekend and made excuses not to see them. It was even worse when I came off the pill. All I wanted to do was get pregnant but my cycle was all over the place. I wasn’t sure when I was ovulating, or if I was ovulating at all.
But the most unpleasant surprise was people’s reactions. One friend said “Oh, it could have been an oyster there or a glass of Champagne here, you just never know.” Another said it was because I did too much exercise, while another implied I wasn’t careful enough to avoid coffee. The people who should have been a crutch were making me feel I was to blame. And quite apart from how bad they made me feel, all of these statements are categorically untrue –around 98 percent of early miscarriages are down to chromosomal defects, and unavoidable. When you have a miscarriage you feel bereaved, but there was a general lack of compassion. Before the operation, one close female family member said: “It’s nothing to worry about. They stick a hoover up you and hoover it out.” Others simply couldn’t understand what was bothering me, as miscarriage is common. And of course many people had no idea about my grief, as I hadn’t told them I was pregnant in the first place.
But the truth about miscarriage is that it is still very much a social taboo. We’re supposed to keep it a secret until 12 weeks in case our pregnancy ends in miscarriage, but why? If you go through a miscarriage you desperately need support, maybe more than any other time in your life. If you miscarry in secret, you put yourself in the awful position of having to go through it alone. And pregnancy itself is one of the most exciting and nerve-wracking things in your life, especially for first-time mums. Shouldn’t you share that, rather than feigning hangovers to avoid booze or shunning social occasions just in case people guess you are pregnant?
If you go through a miscarriage you desperately need support, maybe more than any other time in your life. If you miscarry in secret, you put yourself in the awful position of having to go through it alone.
This self-perpetuating negative cycle is incredibly damaging – but unfortunately women themselves are responsible. If we keep our pregnancy shrouded in mystery until the 12th week in case of miscarriage, people come to believe a miscarriage is to be ashamed of. And because of this misconception, more and more women keep the 12-week secret. And then when you do have a miscarriage, like me, you feel totally alone with your grief with no-one to confide in.
After a while I decided to break tradition and told pretty much anyone who asked how I had been. My honesty prompted some amazing reactions. So many women and men opened up and shared first or second hand stories about miscarriage. In fact, almost everyone had something to say on the subject.
It made me realize that the taboo surrounding early pregnancy and miscarriage is something we, as a modern society, need to shake off, once and for all. Now, if someone tells me they are four, six or eight weeks pregnant, I wholeheartedly applaud them. I was lucky enough to conceive soon after I came off the pill, and I am now 4.5 months pregnant, expecting our first son. This time around, I told many people in the early days – because why shouldn’t I? Pregnant women are endlessly preached to about what they should or shouldn’t do, and this taboo takes away the most fundamental right of joy. Women must feel it is acceptable to announce their pregnancy whenever they want, and share the joy early on, if they choose. Equally, if something goes wrong, grieving parents need support of friends, family and society. A problem shared is a problem halved.
Tara Loader Wilkinson is a Hong Kong-based journalist and now happy mom-to-be. The original version of this article was published on Mumfidential.