Why we need to talk about miscarriage

We need to break the silence around miscarriage, particularly in schools, says this head of English. This is an extract from the 26-page 'Becoming a Parent' guide in the 30 March issue of Tes magazine

Rebecca Lee

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Last October, I had a miscarriage. Most of the people I work with, many of my friends and even some of my family will be surprised to read that sentence. It’s not something that’s easy to talk about. Yet it happened to me: I was pregnant and then I wasn’t.

One week, we saw our tiny baby on a screen and the next, in the very same scan room but with the screen turned away from us, we were told that I was in the process of losing it.

In the moment that my worst fears were being confirmed, I remember looking up at the ceiling tiles and feeling like the floor was being pulled out from under me.

Miscarriage, in the first 12 weeks in particular, is painfully common: about 25 per cent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, with 80 per cent of those occurring in the first trimester. You will almost certainly work with several women who have experienced it and several men whose wives or partners have been through it.

They will be people you speak to every day.

Unspoken trauma

Unless the miscarriage occurred at a later stage of pregnancy, it is unlikely you will know about the loss they have suffered. Miscarriage is not a topic you throw into conversation in the staffroom at breaktime.

But we do need to discuss it. Like anything left unspoken, not talking about miscarriage can leave you feeling isolated. Isolated because of your ignorance of what to expect when you’re losing a baby. Isolated because you’re unable to talk about your loss. Isolated because, in the silence, it is difficult to even acknowledge that it has happened. I don’t want to be complicit in that.

I moved back to Salisbury, my home town, two years ago when I separated from my husband. I was quickly appointed as head of English, and threw myself into leading a department and being a single mother to my two sons, now aged 4 and 6.

When my marriage failed, I didn’t expect to have any more children and I counted myself lucky to have two gorgeous, healthy boys. Then I met my partner and a whole new future of possibilities opened up to me.

Although not unplanned, I fell pregnant so quickly last summer that we were both taken aback. Thrilled and giddy with the idea of a new baby (my partner’s first), we immediately started discussing names and when I’d be going on maternity leave. We were so swept up in the idea that we started telling close friends and family straight away, which was unusual for me, as I’d kept both my previous pregnancies a secret, even from my mother, until after the dating scan at 12 or 13 weeks.

I was unusually sick, emotional and exhausted, which meant that I also informed my line manager far earlier than I might otherwise have done.

We went for a private scan thinking I was about two months pregnant. I wasn’t. The scan suggested that not only was I only four or five weeks pregnant, but it was suspected to be an ectopic or molar pregnancy. Very suddenly, I was overcome with a feeling of dread and sadness.

Changed situation

What followed were weeks of fear, blood tests and scans before, in October, we saw an eight-week-old tiny bundle with a fluttering heartbeat and were told that all should be fine. Following the anxiety of the previous weeks, I suddenly knew that the chances of losing the baby had dropped significantly because we had seen a tiny, beating heart.

It was less than a week after that scan when I began to miscarry – just as we had let ourselves hope. Things moved fast. We were about to go on holiday for half-term. We cancelled. Our personal grief was punctuated by clinical conversations about “management” and “tissue”.

On the Wednesday of half term, I had surgery. I was signed off for a week, which would have seen me returning to work on the Thursday of the first week back, but I had this extended by two further days so I didn’t return until the beginning of the following week.

My physical recovery was quick, but I was emotionally unsteady; I didn’t want to risk returning to work at a point where I might not be able to hold back my tears (which came unpredictably and without warning that first week). I needed to feel strong enough to keep a lid on things before facing colleagues and students. I didn’t want my grief to be a distraction for my students and I didn’t want to be distracted by it.

The truth is, I wasn’t capable of working that first week. The predominant feeling for me in the aftermath was not sadness, but listlessness. I struggled to do anything beyond the essentials and couldn’t motivate myself to do much other than getting through the day.

Difficult conversations

Because I had an “early” miscarriage, I have nothing concrete to show for my pregnancy: no scan photo and no baby. It’s almost like it never was, so that you’re robbed not only of what might have been, but also of what you did have for those few weeks. The things I lost, beside the baby, were abstract: more than two months of expectation, excitement and plans that would now never be fulfilled.

I immediately felt the folly of having told so many people I was pregnant – it felt foolhardy. But I wonder now whether the expectation to keep it quiet for so long is part of the reason we don’t really hear or talk about early miscarriages. It’s an especially awkward business telling people that you’ve had a miscarriage before they even knew you were pregnant, which is probably why so many of us don’t do it.

Upon hearing the words coming out of your mouth, my experience is that people can’t process quickly enough what they’re hearing, so their face first shows their happiness in response to the news that you were pregnant before quickly dropping. It’s a facial microcosm of early miscarriage: hopeful expectation quickly turned to sadness.

When I did return to work, I felt ready and strong enough. I’m thankful to my school for supporting me in the way that it did. I hope that other schools are equally understanding because miscarrying as a teacher presents some unique challenges.

Primarily, our job, by its very nature, means that you are surrounded by people – there’s little reprieve in the average teacher’s day from being “on show”, so you need to feel strong enough to manage.

And our job demands a lot of us, not just mentally and physically, but emotionally; I don’t think we should risk having teachers coming back into the classroom before they’re ready and before they have the emotional reserves necessary to deal with the challenges of teaching.

If someone in your school miscarries, however “early” that might be, I’d urge you to give them the time, space and support to collect themselves. Encourage them not to rush back as soon as they’re physically able, but instead when they’re mentally and emotionally ready.

Know that they probably don’t want to pretend that they were ill and probably don’t want to field questions from other members of staff. Consider ways to tell the people who need to know the truth and find out how the person affected wants the news to be handled. But most of all, know that silence isn’t the answer. It never has been.

Rebecca Foster is head of English at St Edmund’s Girls’ School, Salisbury

The 26-page 'Becoming a Parent' guide is in the 30 March issue of Tes magazine and features advice, tips and all your legal rights as a parent, including information on adoption, IVF and surrogacy

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Rebecca Lee

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