Pregnancy After Loss
This month marks the one year anniversary of my first pregnancy – and also of my subsequent miscarriage.
I remember at the time, I worried obsessively about how I would get through these anniversaries: the day I found out I was pregnant, the day the baby would have been due, the day I found out I’d lost it. When got back from the hospital after the ultrasound that confirmed it was gone, I took that year’s diary, which was already filled up with midwife appointments and the date of what should have been the 12-week scan, and I threw it into the bin, without even opening it. The dates, though, were already engraved on my brain, so the damage was done, and, for me, August would never be the same again, filled up as it was with all of those anniversaries, all of those memories waiting to be re-lived.
“How will I survive next August?” I asked Terry.
“You’ll survive it,” he said, confidently. “You’ll get pregnant again, and by this time next year, we’ll have a new baby to focus on.”
He was only half right.
I did get pregnant again – just two months later. That pregnancy, though, was already different from the first: I couldn’t allow myself to feel happy, or optimistic about it, and I was right not to, because that pregnancy turned out to be ectopic.
It would be fair to say that 2016 wasn’t our year.
When I found out I was pregnant again this May, I didn’t write any of the midwife or scan appointments down in my diary: I worried that yet another month would be forever ruined by looming anniversaries – little black marks on the calendar just waiting to ambush me every single year.
Pregnancy after loss is very, very different.
The first time I was pregnant, I knew there was a risk of miscarriage – I even knew how high that risk was. Somehow, though, I just couldn’t let myself believe it would happen to me. The decision to even start trying for a baby had been such a hard one for me in terms of my health anxiety and general fear of hospitals and childbirth, that, as ridiculous as I know this sounds, I felt that, having made the decision to do something filled with so much risk, the universe would somehow conspire to make the rest of it easy for me.
Stupid, huh? I mean, as if the universe has nothing better to do than make sure a middle class white girl gets exactly what she wants, right? I don’t actually believe that, obviously, and yet I still couldn’t quite shake off the idea that deciding to try had been the hard part, and that I just couldn’t be so unlucky as to take the risk anyway, and then have my worst fears come true.
Well, my worst fears came true.
Is it any wonder I didn’t want to try again?
Of course, after the miscarriage, I DID want to try again: more than anything, in fact. I just wanted to get back those feelings of hope and excitement that I’d had the first time round, and even although I knew the second time could never be like that, I still felt that it was the only way I could fix this thing that had gone so horribly wrong – the only way I could make this coming August bearable.
After the ectopic, on the other hand, I felt totally different: in fact, I think the first thing I said to Terry after I was diagnosed was, “I am never doing this again: not ever.” In the hospital, they told me my blood type was rhesus negative, and that they’d have to give me an anti-D injection, to protect future pregnancies. “There’s no need,” I said tearfully. “This will never happen again, I can guarantee it.”
The nurse gently suggested I have the injection anyway, because, “You never know what might happen.” I went along with it, because I was too broken to put up a fight, but I DID know – and what I knew was that I could not go through the same thing again: that it would kill me to even try, and that I’d reached the end of this short but painful road, which we’d started out on just a few months before.
Famous last words, huh?
I changed my mind because of Rubin. When he died, back in March, I once again felt like nothing would ever be the same again: that he’d left a hole in our lives that could never be filled. I also, however, felt that the best days of my life were now behind me, and I didn’t want to feel like that any more. I wanted to have something to look forward to – some kind of future – and so, although the thought of getting pregnant again absolutely terrified me to my core, once we’d gotten through the three-month wait that you’re advised to take after being treated for an ectopic pregnancy, we decided to try again.
And this time has been different, too.
When I first found out I was pregnant again, this May, I was absolutely terrified. There wasn’t even a single moment of joy or hope, like there was the first time, or even the second: instead, there was just the crippling feeling of, “Well, here we go again: I wonder what it’s going to be THIS time?”
My biggest fear, of course, was of having another ectopic. Once you’ve had one ectopic pregnancy, you have a greater risk of it happening again, and so those first few days were filled with fear: with obsessively checking for any signs of spotting (Which had been the first symptom of both the ectopic and the miscarriage), and with worrying that every little twinge meant that the nightmare was about to begin all over again.
There were a lot of little twinges in those first few days. I’ve since learned that it’s very common for women who’ve had ectopic pregnancies to have some pain around the ectopic site, and that it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s happening again, but at the time all I knew was that if it WAS happening again, I would not survive it – and I was scared out of my mind.
Thankfully, I didn’t have too long to wait to be able to rule out that particular fear, first of all with blood tests (You can’t really read too much into early blood tests, because things CAN look normal, but still be ectopic: in my case, though, I was told my hormone levels were so high that it would be “almost impossible” for the pregnancy to be ectopic – which gave me some degree of comfort, right up to the point where I started worrying about it being a molar pregnancy instead…), and then with a very early scan (at 5 weeks, 4 days), which revealed a tiny, flickering heartbeat, in exactly the right place.
I had about 24 hours worth of relief from this, before it occurred to me that I was now headed into week 6 – which was when I’d miscarried the first time round. That week seemed cursed to me: I feel like I held my breath all the way through it, telling myself over and over again that if I just got through week 6, I’d be able to relax, and finally start enjoying the pregnancy. Instead, at my 8 week scan (I was scanned every two weeks, purely for reassurance), I found myself confiding in the sonographer that I’d almost been sick with nerves in the waiting room, and that these “reassurance” scans were the most frightening things in the world to me.
“But of course they are!” she said, much to my surprise. (I was expecting her to just dismiss my fears, the way so many other people do…) “Until now, you’ve only ever had bad experiences: why would you expect this one to be different?”
And that’s the crux of it, I think. I know people at roughly the same stage of pregnancy as me – or even earlier – who are out buying prams and decorating nurseries, while I’m still too scared to write my next midwife appointment down in ink. Those people, though, tend to be the ones who have not experienced loss: so, to them, being pregnant means that you’re going to have a baby – so why wouldn’t you plan for that?
For me, though, being pregnant only means that I MIGHT have a baby… or I might, once again, have to go through one of the most horrific and traumatising experiences of my life. So although I saw that heartbeat again at 8 weeks, and at 10, and 12, and although my genetic testing came back saying I was as low risk as it’s possible to be, I STILL couldn’t let myself relax and trust my body to know what it was doing. It had let me down twice now, after all: why would this time be different?
I told myself the 12 week scan would be the final line in the sand, and that once I’d successfully crossed it, I would FINALLY be able to relax. Instead, I felt worse than ever: telling our friends and family felt like indulging in some elaborate kind of lie, and when, at just past 12 weeks, a couple of people told me stories about traumatic late miscarriages, my confidence once again crumbled, and I found myself, not just marking off my own personal landmarks, but waiting to get past the points that other people had had miscarriages at – because only then would I be “safe”.
I told myself the 20 week scan would be the one to aim for: that, after that, I’d finally have all of the reassurance I needed. The weeks between 12 weeks and 20, though, were painfully slow. I’d gone from having scans every two weeks, to having nothing at all for two months. The midwife wouldn’t see me until week 18 to listen to the baby’s heartbeat, and, in the meantime, not a day went by without someone asking if I could feel movement yet – and looking horrified when the answer was always “no”. Online, people continued to insist on telling me their pregnancy horror stories. Offline, people repeatedly told me they just couldn’t understand why I was worried.
So, it’s been hard – and also lonely, because, the fact is that people who haven’t experienced pregnancy after loss really can’t understand how frightening it is – or how risky it feels to those of us who have. Again and again I’ve been told to just stop worrying, because there’s nothing to worry about: some people have even scolded me for not “enjoying” the pregnancy the way I “should” be: because everyone loves being told that their feelings are not valid and that they should feel totally differently, am I right?
Which brings me to 20 weeks: I’m now halfway through my pregnancy, which is a stage I never, ever thought I would reach, but I’ve finally accepted that I’m probably never going to reach that mythical time when I just suddenly relax and accept that all will be well. I don’t think that time even exists, really: I’d say that I won’t truly relax until the baby is here, but I know that will just prompt a chorus of “Oh no, it’ll be even WORSE then: you won’t ever be able to relax again now!” so I’ll just leave it at that.
(Honestly, though, I know I’ll obviously worry constantly about him once he’s here, but at least I’ll be able to SEE him then, you know? Right now, if I need to be reassured that he’s alive, it requires a trip to either the hospital or the midwife, which causes all kinds of stress in itself. It all just feels so RISKY to me right now, though. I mean, can you imagine if the baby was here, and someone said, “Tell you what: let’s put him somewhere you can’t see him without the aid of a sonographer!” You’d be horrified, wouldn’t you? That’s basically my life, every single day…)
Right now, though, I feel like I’ve been pregnant, not for 20 weeks, but for a year. I’ve been pregnant three times in that space of time, after all, and since this time last August, I’ve either been pregnant, recovering from being pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or worrying about the possibility of trying to get pregnant, without a break. It’s been kind of exhausting, really, and I guess my one comfort in all of this has been the knowledge that I’m not alone.
I know I probably sound absolutely crazy to most of you right now (I should probably say here that I use this blog as a kind of dumping ground for all of my thoughts and fears: it’s always really helped me to be able to write things down like this, and although I know it gives the impression that I’m permanently teetering on the brink of madness, on a day-to-day basis, I actually cope pretty well!), especially those who’ve never experienced pregnancy after loss, but I’m a member of a few Facebook groups for people who have, or who are going through it right now, and they’ve really helped me realise that my feelings are actually pretty normal. In fact, there are many women in those groups who don’t generally suffer from anxiety, but who are having an even more difficult time than I am right now: even with the added burden of health anxiety to deal with, I’m really not that unusual – which is as sad as it is comforting, really.
Does it ever get better? I’m told by the women who’ve been through it that no, not really: that I’ll probably always feel anxious about this pregnancy, even when things seem to be going well. I’m also, however, told that it’ll be worth every second: and I wholeheartedly believe that to be true.
So here’s to the next 20 weeks or so: and if you’re reading this now, or at some point in the future, and are also dealing with pregnancy after loss, then please know you’re not alone – and that I’m always here, should you fancy a chat.