After losing four pregnancies in quick succession with no obvious cause, Jennie Agg discovered that miscarriage remains profoundly misunderstood and under-researched. Her experience has changed her life forever, she writes
After a miscarriage, you learn two things in quick and quietly devastating succession. One: this happens all the time. “It’s really, really common,” the midwife, doctor, or sonographer will tell you, which is meant to be reassuring.
Two: no one is going to try to find out why it happened. “It’s just one of those things,” they’ll say, as they pat your hand and pass the tissues, before sending you on your way.
As I stepped out of our local maternity unit after what would be the first of four miscarriages in the space of 18 months, I didn’t realise that I wasn’t just exiting into the frigid, unforgiving January weather, I was crossing the threshold to a place where everything looks different; where everything you thought you knew about pregnancy now seems crooked.
Before my own miscarriage, I thought it was something that doctors largely knew how to prevent. That, I believed, was why women are given so many rules to follow in pregnancy: no soft cheese, no caffeine, no alcohol, make sure meat is well-cooked, don’t dye your hair, don’t clean the cat’s litter tray if you can avoid it …
I also knew that most people didn’t say anything about a pregnancy before 12 weeks ‘in case something happened’. But I’d assumed it was just a formality – a fun tradition, even. After all, I’d done everything right. Hadn’t I?
In this hall-of-mirrors new place I found myself, unceremoniously unpregnant, I was convinced there must have been a reason. Meanwhile, it felt as though the rest of the world was entirely indifferent. This was just how it was. It ‘just’ happens sometimes.
An estimated one in five pregnancies end in a miscarriage before 12 weeks. One in four women will experience it in their lifetime. Yet the UK doesn’t keep an official record of its miscarriage rate. It’s also rare for medical investigations to be offered until someone has had three or more losses. Such indifference, when you are grieving for the baby you thought you would have, is crushing.
I was met with the same indifference after my second miscarriage, just a few short months after the first. After the third, later that year, I was referred for tests, which – six months later – revealed nothing. We rolled the dice again. I miscarried again.
After four miscarriages, the light in the hall of mirrors shifts and darkens. For the first time, I had to seriously consider what my life would be like if I never got to be a mother.
I crossed the threshold to a place where everything looks different
Dan and I took a year off from trying to conceive. We began talking seriously about what we wanted from our lives, apart from a baby. I went freelance, leaving my job at a newspaper. We went on a far-fung holiday. We went dancing. I ate what I liked. I ran. I stopped taking my temperature every morning, monitoring for signs of ovulation. I started therapy. I got seriously, staggeringly drunk for the first time in a long time.
We looked for a house in the countryside and made every effort to fill our lives up with whatever brought us joy: friends, food, music, books, and long walks. Tentatively, I started to believe I could be happy.
And then we decided to try again. I got pregnant again. Fifth time lucky? Every week, for 40 weeks, I thought we would lose this baby, too. Previous miscarriages can make you giddy with gratitude to be pregnant again. At the same time, it makes pregnancy harder to truly enjoy. Right up until my son’s squalling body was placed on my chest, I never quite believed he would make it.
My miscarriages taught me about love and grief. They changed the direction of my life in many ways
As a society, we tend to treat miscarriage as merely a blip. Something that is easily forgotten once someone goes on to have a(nother) baby.
But for me it has been more than that. My miscarriages taught me about love and grief. They changed the direction of my life in many ways, well beyond the chronological facts of when I had my first child. My career, my home, my mental health: it has all been shaded and shaped by the loss of babies I never held, never named. I am a more grateful parent because of what happened. But I am also an infinitely more anxious one.
In some ways, I still wish I had never come to know the place on the other side of a blank, still ultrasound scan. But I have built a beautiful life here all the same.
Life, Almost: Miscarriage, misconceptions, and a search for answers from the brink of motherhood, is published by Transworld, February 2023
Main image: Alice the Camera