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|8 Out Of 10 Mums Say|
The thing about miscarriage is you go to pieces....
During the eight months Valerie and I had been together I had always seen her as the strong one.
She was assertive, insightful and intelligent. But when she rang me that afternoon, she was on the edge of hysteria. She was sobbing so hard that it was almost a scream. Her words barely made sense. I caught something about an operation, a baby, they needed her in overnight, she didn't understand...
How could she understand, how could either of us? She had gone to the GP that morning because of a bad period. It had gone on for over a week, she was bleeding far too heavily and the pain was excruciating. We thought that her coil had somehow become dislodged. It was the only explanation we could think of. When she called me to say the GP had ordered a taxi to take her to hospital, we were worried but nothing more.
I worked on "Tomorrow's World" at the time. There was a live studio show the next day. I was busy. I thought of her every half an hour or so, but I knew she'd call when she could. Time passed.
It must have been about four in the afternoon when she finally rang, incoherent and clearly panicking. My editor, bless her, waved me out of the building and into a taxi without a question asked.
'Visiting someone?' the driver called over his shoulder.
'My girlfriend. She...' I had no words. None of this made sense to me, not yet. It must have shown.
His eyes assessed me in the mirror. 'Oh,' he said softly. 'Understood. Man in a panic.'
He drove faster, and I began to cry.
I now know what had happened. At the hospital, they had scanned her, prodded her, tested her blood, all without explanation. Then a doctor had come, sat beside her, and very gently explained that they were very sorry but she had lost her baby. The pregnancy had been ectopic and now they had to operate to remove one of her fallopian tubes.
What baby? We were taking precautions. Ectopic? Lose a tube? In the course of half an hour, we were introduced to a whole new vocabulary, the language of failed pregnancy.
Since then, we have had eight more miscarriages, including another ectopic. We have also had Daniel, our wonderful boy, now ten. Along the way, there has been hope, despair, uncertainty and grief. We carry the scars of them all. And yet we've been lucky. We have a child. Not everyone gets that far. Miscarriage is far from rare.
When it happened, we were still riding that first rush of discovering that we loved each other: evenings spent just staring at each other, sex at every opportunity, the jokes that no one else could possibly understand. But when I drove her back from hospital after the laparoscopy, I drove as though she was made of glass. Nothing was the same between us. I watched helplessly as Valerie's emotional strength drained away. She became fragile and unsure of herself, of me - of us. Truth be told, so did I.
We couldn't talk: not to each other, not to our friends. For Valerie it was all too raw. It was personal. I think that she felt that if she talked about it, she might just fall apart. For my part, I was too busy coping with her feelings to consider my own. The miscarriage raised so many questions about the future - but for now I brushed them aside. Valerie was hurting, that was all that mattered to me. I had to protect her. So we talked to no one. We hid in our cave and licked our wounds. Friends Valerie had known and loved for years quietly drifted away. And friends with kids... well, we just didn't see them at all. I stood guard over Valerie while she coped with her grief, feeling utterly useless because, actually, there was nothing I could do.
Over time Valerie's emotional wounds began to heal. But by then, it was me that was hurting. Sex had gone overnight from that fantastic first flush of a new relationship to an uncomfortable question mark. Was a cuddle just a cuddle - or a prelude to something more? We couldn't just make love with joyous abandon, because we were both aware of what that had led to before. It wasn't making love any more, it was a kind of negotiation around each other's feelings.
We'd only been together eight months. It was only three months since I'd grudgingly admitted a truth that was blindingly obvious to everyone but Valerie and me - that I loved her. In fact, after eight months. I could no longer imagine life without her. Did I ever say that to her in that exact way? In all honesty, I don't recall. But I do know that Valerie didn't see it that way. Our relationship had had a turbulent start, I'd been terrified of commitment. I'd been reluctant to accept my own feelings right from the start. Even though I had now declared undying love, Valerie couldn't trust that I really meant forever - although I did.
And now she wanted a baby. She had never wanted children before, but the miscarriage left her with a gap in her life that she could only explain one way. She wanted a baby, with me. But I was twenty-nine, and enjoying my life as it was. More than anything I wanted to go back to the life we'd had before the miscarriage. I wasn't ready for children now. I wasn't even sure if I wanted them at all.
That was a burden for both of us. Because now, my reluctance was the cause of her pain. And, because she saw my reluctance, she was unsure of my love. She didn't know how much it was safe to need me. And her uncertainty of me, if anything, drove me a little further away.
We took walks in the park, and I found myself watching the children playing with Mum or Dad. The parents' smiles, the fatigue, the confusion, the love: it was all there on their faces. Could that be me one day? I just wasn't sure.
After these walks Valerie was always withdrawn. I'd lie in bed next to her at night, wishing for some magical way to bring her back to me.
Every period was a reminder for Valerie of what she had lost, and to me, a reinforcement of my failure. I couldn't even help her find a way out of her misery - and I was causing it.
I can see now that this is the way miscarriage works. It happens to two people, not just the one who loses the foetus. You can never think of yourself or your partner the same way again. I am sure our own experiences were not unusual. Many couples' relationships must founder in the aftermath, and even fail.
We were lucky: instead, we married. For me, it was a first small step towards her. It was a thing I knew she wanted and that I could give her. I'd been happy as we were, and so had she - before. But that had all changed.
Love, they say, conquers all. Well, for us, it did; we were (and are) truly happy together. But we weren't quite the same people we'd been. That's life. Marriage was wonderful - but it didn't change the basic problem: there was still a sadness in Valerie, a part of her that I just couldn't reach.
But after nearly a year of living with Valerie's yearning, and watching those children in the park every weekend, I slowly began to see the attraction. I decided that perhaps this was something that I could give her after all. For her birthday, I gave her a wooden sculpture of a tall-necked bird that she'd seen weeks earlier. I looped a tea-towel around its beak, and hung a hot water bottle in it as though it was a stork carrying a baby.
That night, we threw away the condoms.
Seven weeks later we had a miscarriage.
In total, we had four or five miscarriages before we had Daniel. I won't go into the details, because they begin to blur together. I could even have the number wrong - but it was a lot. We entered a kind of daze: try, fail; try, fail; try, succeed; lose it. In bed, every night and morning, we faced the same unspoken questions. Do we want to make love? What's the chance of a baby? What about the pain if we lose it? Then we'd stop making love completely because it was just too emotionally damaging. It became harder and harder to approach each other with a genuine sense of arousal. There was a time when I thought that we'd never make love again. It stopped being about the baby. It was only about the pain. Which particular ways will this month find to hurt us? Perhaps the uncertainty of each other's sexual responses, or the fear of talking when the period's late - because if you talk, you'll jinx it. Perhaps the moment when the period comes - only, it's not a period because it two weeks too late, and far too heavy, and you know that you've lost another one.
We'd been together long enough now to trust each other. We both accepted the other's love and support. Talking made all the difference in the world.
We talked to other people, too. We'd learned from the first miscarriage that silence didn't help. We were honest about it, and we found the most wonderful thing; for the most part, other people understood. They might not completely 'get it' - but they saw the pain, accepted it, and moved on. They helped us understand that the miscarriages, and the desire for children were only part of us, not who we were. So, each miscarriage was grim, but manageable.
After perhaps five lost pregnancies, we got a cat. It was a poor substitute for a baby, but at least it was something to love. And that's what we did, we loved it.
A month later we were pregnant again.
We were regulars by now at the Recurrent Miscarriage Clinic at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington. There were blood tests once a month for both of us, and doctors who told us as gently as they could that they had no idea why we kept miscarrying. But this time was different. They were all over us - and our feeling that we were cared-for helped. A week after Valerie's period was due, we were in there for tests: yes, they told us, you're pregnant. Come back next week for a another test and a scan. They seemed so confident - and we felt the first beginnings of hope. We were more afraid of the hope than of anything else. We knew how easy it was for hope to turn into despair.
The day of the scan came - and we saw our baby for the first time. Valerie was only six weeks pregnant, and he was the size of an eyelash. Amazingly, we could hear his heart beating. The baby was so real. It was something you could believe in.
It was the scans and blood tests that gave us strength. There were no drugs, no injections or special things to do. More than anything, I think it was psychological. We had scans once a week - and each time Eyelash, as we came to call him, was still there. It felt different - and it was. Morning sickness wasn't a problem - it was exciting. So was the fatigue, the bloatedness, all the usual trials of pregnancy. By now we were both ready, so very ready.
Daniel was, is, always will be, a wonder to us. He's ten now: bright, complex and always full of something new. Sometimes the love between the three of us feels like a thing you could touch.
From time to time, though, he asks us why he couldn't have had a brother or sister. And the answer is - we tried. We would have loved to have more than one baby. After Daniel was weaned we began to try. With Daniel asleep in the next room, we were full of confidence and expectation. And we did indeed conceive.
We lost it.
It was the first of four more miscarriages. The last of them was another firm pregnancy, just as Daniel had been - but ectopic. I was in America when it happened, for the last phases of a TV job. While Valerie struggled to hold onto a failing pregnancy, with a supportive but uncomprehending toddler in tow, I was on the far side of the world filming dolphins. For most people it would be a dream, but I was desperate not to be there. I only wanted to be with Valerie.
She went into hospital the day after I got back from the shoot. There was never anything I could have done to save the baby. That does nothing at all to stop the regret - or the guilt.
We both feel that this last miscarriage was the easiest to grieve for. It was the first one since Daniel that had really felt real. We were two and a half months in before we lost it. And it was the time when we finally began to think: never again.
When the woman in the clinic asked me if I was sure I wanted a vasectomy, I said 'yes' with more confidence than I felt. Did I really want to give up all hope of having another child? What if Valerie got run over by a bus? What if she left me and I met someone else who wanted kids? But I'd only ever wanted to be with Valerie. And if I couldn't conceive, then there could never be any more doubt. There could be no more discussions about whether, perhaps, we should try just one more time...
I nodded to the woman, and the operation went ahead.
I think I have learned something through the pain of so many miscarriages. You are who you are now. It could be you that gets run over by that bus. I have a wife I love, a son I adore, and there isn't enough time in life to spend it jumping at shadows.
Instead, these days, I talk. I'm still not good at it, but if something saddens or confuses me, if I feel like I'm drowning and adrift, then I try to say so. I would like to think that watching Valerie suffer, and her watching me, has taught us that we all have troubles. Trust the people you love, even with your pain. Talk to your friends, don't lose them. Let them reach you.
It's not a coincidence that there is a miscarriage at the heart of my most recent novel, "Redemption". The two central characters have suffered one, and now she is pregnant again. It's not a story about the miscarriage - far from it: it's a psychological thriller, and what happens next is that the woman is abducted. But for me, it was an emotional book to write. And I only realised after I had finished writing it that the reason was miscarriage - and that, in the aftermath, Valerie was taken away from me for a while, too.
Every day when Daniel wakes up and slips into bed with us for a quick snuggle, I count my blessings. But the grief never leaves you. The trick, if there is one, is to accept the grief as part of you and to be open about it with the most important people in your life - your family and your friends. Our own redemption, Valerie's and mine, came through trusting each other. Through that, we finally found the courage to accept that there were people who loved us just the same, whether we were happy - or grieving for an unborn child.
© Richard Burke
Richard and Valerie talked about their experiences recently on Woman's Hour. You can listen to the whole interview (13 mins) here.
Woman's Hour Interview
Miscarriage can be a very frightening, lonely and distressing experience.
The Miscarriage Association provides support and information for those suffering the effects of pregnancy loss.
Buy Richard's books here....