'You took my joy and I want it back' - coming to terms with multiple miscarriages
Women's writing for Women's Day: Nuala Ní Chonchúir: ‘I think about my 30th birthday. That was the day I had my first miscarriage – I bled out my honeymoon baby. I had my seventh pregnancy and fourth miscarriage last year at 45’
Nuala Ní Chonchúir with her sons Cuan (left) and Finn and daughter Juno at home in Ballinasloe. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.
Today is my birthday. I am having one of my “I’d rather be elsewhere” days. The problem is there is no elsewhere to accommodate me. No matter where I go, there I am, as the Caitlin Rose song says. No presents so far – my husband “hasn’t had time to wrap them”.
“Do they need to be wrapped?” I ask. “There can’t be that many, can there?”
On his birthday there is special breakfast and present unwrapping with the kids. Today, I spend the morning in my bed crying, thinking about every horrible thing I have ever endured or done. Grumpiness over lack of birthday fuss is the least of it.
I think about my thirtieth birthday. That was the day I had my first miscarriage – I bled out my honeymoon baby. I had my seventh pregnancy and fourth miscarriage last year at 45
I think about my thirtieth birthday. That was the day I had my first miscarriage – I bled out my honeymoon baby. I had my seventh pregnancy and fourth miscarriage last year at 45. The pregnancy was unplanned but we were delighted. Who were we to argue with new life? When the pregnancy failed, it took much of my happiness along with it. You took my joy and I want it back, goes another song that rattles through my brain frequently.
The smallest of upsets pushes me far under since my latest loss and when I’m in this place, I can’t be with other people. I can’t even reach myself. Work – that is, writing – becomes difficult, like wading through treacle. I do it, because I know it’s good for me, good for my sanity, for my day, but it’s hard. I feel leaden and want nothing other than to be asleep. I don’t want to do school-runs, or talk to my husband over our morning cup of tea, or make dinners. I rehash a juvenile fantasy about running away. I’ll stockpile money and cut up my bank cards. I’ll work in a bar in some quiet foreign place – an island? – and be stoic. I’m a loner anyway, so I’ll be OK. Stoic, me? And, anyway, I have three kids and a man here that I love beyond reason. Traumatising their hearts by leaving them is not any kind of solution, no matter how bad I happen to feel.
My husband and I are planning a fourth child. I am 46. I know the risks but I’m determined. I am counting on one good egg, despite my terrible history. How this golden egg is supposed to exist, I do not know. I’m trying to relax and build a good internal environment, with nutritious food, light exercise and pre-natal vitamins but, really, I’m stressed by the whole enterprise. I wake up every morning with a sore neck, sore shoulders, sore arms. Even my thumbs hurt.
We were going to try for Baby #4 in December but then a summer conference in China hoved into view and, after two previous failed attempts to get to Asia, I want to go. And I don’t want to be heavily pregnant in 35C Shanghai heat. So we hold off. We’ll try in January. But, no, my husband has to be away with work at the favourable time so the opportunity is lost. February then, definitely February.
My Ma is amazed that five of my seven pregnancies were planned. “We just got pregnant; we were glad of a miscarriage,” she said after my second loss. But I find miscarriage extremely hard to get over – apart from the avalanching hormones, there is the anger towards my body and what I have begun to refer to as “my rotten eggs”
I hunt out my silver Sheela-na-gig pendant and start to wear it again. I put the granite Sheela, carved for me by a Wicklowman who heard me talk about fertility symbols on the radio, radiating towards my chair. I slip a rose quartz ring onto my finger and a bowl of uncooked rice under our bed. I order a silver and turquoise Kokopelli pendant online – it arrived today, on my birthday. Good omen?
I do searches for “positive older mother stories”. There is little good news. Firstly many “older mothers” are 10 years younger than me. Secondly, miscarriage is rife over 40. Thirdly, other issues present themselves: the chance of having a baby with chromosomal issues, for example, increases to 1 in 30 for women over 45.
My Ma is amazed that five of my seven pregnancies were planned. “We just got pregnant; we were glad of a miscarriage,” she said after my second loss. Perhaps a peculiarly Catholic response in a country where contraception was illegal until 1980. But I find miscarriage extremely hard to get over – apart from the avalanching hormones, there is the anger towards my body and what I have begun to refer to as “my rotten eggs”.
Ten months on and I am still not over last year’s miscarriage. No one notices. Apart from the grief, I’ve lost interest in most things. I sleepwalked my way through the publication of my latest novel, the book tour, the launch – all of it. A friend ignores me anytime I bring up the miscarriage. Another comes to visit but never asks how I am feeling, never mentions our loss. I send a long, heart-poury email to a friend who has had miscarriages and was devastated by them. I get a one-line email in reply. When I mention my sadness, it seems, I get discomfort that comes over as disapproval and impatience.
4pm and still no presents. Then I remember my sister gave me a package when I met her before Christmas. I had put it away for today. I retrieve and open it; there is a silver bumble bee on a chain. It is finely made and beautiful. Bees are a fertility symbol; the Greek fertility goddess Cybele was also a bee goddess. Another good omen?
My Ma texts me for my birthday. “Happy” is all the text says. I am tempted to reply “No”.
Five weeks on from my birthday and I get a BFP on a HPT. Translation: I take a home pregnancy test and it’s positive.
It’s Mother’s Day today and you’ll be glad to hear the presents were present with the breakfast: a beautiful cup and saucer, dark chocolate, a CD of fiddle music and a jasmine-scented candle.
My husband includes the lentil-sized foetus I am carrying in his Mother’s Day card to me, which is sweet.
The pregnancy is a worry for both us and thinking too far ahead makes me feel I will jinx it. And when you have lost a pregnancy (never mind four) it breaks your trust in the power of nature to do the right thing. Your own body becomes a site of mistrust. My symptoms are low key: fatigue, a churned-up stomach, bad skin, bloating and tender breasts. I am wishing for more – even the violent nausea I had on my successful pregnancies. My GP is sending me to the Early Pregnancy Unit for an ultrasound scan next week, which is both reassuring and terrifying. What if, once again, there is no foetal heartbeat? An ultrasound screen without a flickering pulse is a barren, gut-plummeting sight.
Scan day. We endure a two and a half hour stint in the waiting room. When we finally get in and the sonographer begins, she can’t see what she needs to because of my tilted uterus. Ah, yes, the tilted uterus that I am so often assured has nothing to do with my multiple miscarriages. I am sent out to empty my bladder so she can perform an internal scan.
Back in place on the bed, I can’t see the screen so I look, instead, at my husband’s face; he is sitting to my left, gripping my hand. The sonographer’s mouse clicks as she takes her measurements on-screen, but she is silent. My husband looks stricken; his eyes flick over the images. On and on the clicks go.
Eventually I ask the sonographer, “Can you see anything?”
“I’ll explain it all in a minute,” she says and, with that, I know. There is nothing to see.
I’m doing a reading at a literary festival in Dublin tomorrow. There is no way not to do it. My compromise to sorrow is not to travel to the hotel booked for me in Dublin tonight; I prefer to do my weeping in my own bed. I dream of babies, endangered ones. The image of the newborn being washed in a puddle in a Greek refugee camp haunts my night. In another dream, a baby is dangled, naked but for a nappy, in a shop, then it is thrown screaming onto a pile of groceries. There is nothing, it seems, but jeopardy for babies.
I get up and apply lots of make-up to disguise my tear-swollen eyes. The literary festival takes place in the coastal town of Dún Laoghaire and it’s a warm spring Saturday. But I’m frozen – I cannot shake the cold from my bones. From my seat on the stage in County Hall I can see a slice of the sea. When my fellow reader is answering his interview questions, I focus on that wedge of water but, like a phantom, the scan image of the empty pregnancy sac floats into view. The black, black hole of it. And the sonographer’s words: “Blighted ovum”, words I have heard before. Words that mean this foetus was, most definitely, made from one of my rotten eggs.
Part of me hopes she will tell us to stop trying, that she will say, baldly, that I am too old. Because here’s the thing: I’m not yet ready to let go of the idea that I might give birth one more time
It is the day after St Patrick’s Day and I have my second scan – the one to confirm that, one week on, all is indeed lost. This one-week wait is policy in Ireland because abortion is illegal, unless the pregnancy endangers the life of the woman. The scan is performed by a different sonographer. This one is less technician, more motherly midwife. My miscarriage is complete, the scan shows, and that’s a relief – I won’t have to have any drugs or procedures. The sonographer seems to read our minds about our hopes and pregnancy prospects, due to my age and fertility history.
“This is not the outcome you hoped for, obviously, but now you can move on,” she says. She is cheery, encouraging and, unbelievably, has us giggling as she ushers us out the door saying she has no doubt she will see us again.
It is another gorgeous spring day, with an aqua quartz sky and warm sunshine. Our kitchen is filled with daffodils and blue hyacinths. Yesterday, though equally bright, was difficult. I like St Patrick’s Day but I was weepy, tired and angry so I missed any and all celebrations. Today I go for a walk, glad I’m not trapped in the hospital undergoing procedures. I live in a market town and it’s friendly – people say hello as they pass. Today I notice that a regular greeting is, “Are you well?” I want to answer “No” but, funnily enough, I don’t feel as unwell as I think I should. The matronly midwife-sonographer has made all the difference.
Four weeks on and I have an appointment with the consultant. Part of me hopes she will tell us to stop trying, that she will say, baldly, that I am too old. Because here’s the thing: I’m not yet ready to let go of the idea that I might give birth one more time.
The doctor we meet is not my consultant but a member of her team, a stranger to me. She is matter-of-fact about my advanced age, outlining all the pitfalls. She tells us she’s had three miscarriages and “wouldn’t dream of going again” at her age. She is younger than me.
She says – and this I’ve never heard before – “You know, when the body has a few miscarriages in a row, it is primed for miscarriage. Most likely the following pregnancy will also fail.”
I feel angry with her. This sounds like personal theory rather than medical fact. It also directly contradicts the motherly midwife who told us that a woman who loses a pregnancy is extremely fertile in the months following, as her body is ready for pregnancy.
“The womb is waiting to do what it’s meant to do.”
Who to believe? And does it matter? I feel I’m too tired to want to go on. My rational self tells me to take care of myself, body and mind. Concentrate on the kids I have. But that annoying little thing called hope insists on flying in and out of my consciousness. At unexpected moments it spreads its wings and flutters through my mind. It drops its feathers. It perches in my soul. It lays its golden egg.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir also writes as Nuala O’Connor. Her latest novel is Miss Emily. This essay first appeared in the spring 2017 edition of The Ogham Stone, a journal of literature and arts produced by the MA Students of English and creative writing at the University of Limerick