The unbearable envy that comes with pregnancy loss

Femail miscarriage piece 2017.jpg

‘Clear your diaries, get the time booked off… I’m not sure how much news this really is, but anyway, it’s April.’ With these wry words the BBC’s Simon McCoy announced the due date of the Duchess of Cambridge’s third child.

April. I took a deep breath. Why did it have to be April? My baby was supposed to be born in April.

I watched the words tick along the breaking news bar on the telly; each one like a nail being hammered into my already splintered, brittle heart. No need to clear my diary, thank you Simon, it’s already conspicuously empty.

Because two months ago I had a miscarriage. My third this year. Just three days before Kensington Palace first announced the Cambridges’ happy news I’d been in hospital for an ERPC (which stands for evacuation of retained products of conception — I’m not sure they could think of a more horrid, clinical term if they tried) essentially, surgery to remove a pregnancy that has failed.

I had been eight weeks pregnant, by all accounts very close to Kate’s dates. But at an early scan no heartbeat could be found, and that was that.

No coy announcement for us, no beautiful, blobby ultrasound pictures to pin to our fridge. Just half-whispered condolences from hospital staff; paperwork to fill in for the op two days later; a consent form for the ‘sensitive disposal of pregnancy remains’. Our baby: annulled to a series of administrative tasks.

I was recuperating at home on the sofa the day the royal baby news broke. I texted my husband Dan a link to the story, accompanied by a two-word message: Bloody typical.

I’m so sorry if this sounds churlish. But deep in the complicated grief that follows a miscarriage, any pregnancy announcement is almost unbearable — let alone one as high profile as the Duchess of Cambridge’s. It’s hard to imagine a gestation that will be more pored over, commented upon, photographed.

It’s bad enough when it’s the baby news of friends, family or colleagues. Even Beyonce and Amal Clooney’s mega-pregnancies earlier in the year seem mere warm-up acts compared to the fanfare of a royal baby. And those hadn’t exactly been easy in the aftermath of my first and second miscarriages, in January and then May.

The thought of watching as one of the most photographed (and beautiful) women in the world hits the pregnancy milestones that should have been mine, almost to the day, is nothing short of psychological torture.

It’s already begun. When I saw the pictures of Kate at her first public engagement since the pregnancy was announced, radiant in baby blue Alice Temperley, I couldn’t help myself — picking over the comparison; unscabbing the fresh wound.

What would my bump have looked like now? (Not as demure as Kate’s, I’d bet) Would I still be so tired? As sick? Would we still be to-ing and fro-ing on whether to find out baby’s gender or not?

Burning away under all these painful questions is, of course, white-hot jealousy. Why isn’t it me? Why not us? I don’t know if that’s an acceptable thing to admit to or not, but then you so rarely hear the unvarnished truth of how people feel after losing a pregnancy.

However, envy is a very common emotion after miscarriage, according to Dr Ana Nikčević, a psychologist at Kingston University with an interest in women’s reproductive health.

‘When you’re no longer pregnant, it can be difficult to see people who still are,’ she says. ‘But it’s natural — you’ve lost something, and someone else is getting that thing you wanted so much.

‘It’s just gone — sometimes in what feels like a mere moment —and it’s quite a painful thing to be reminded of that.’

And it’s compounded, she says, by the fact that women often don’t let on that they were pregnant in the first place.

Despite miscarriage being incredibly common — one in four women will go through it — it is still not the done thing to talk about it openly and for some couples it is, understandably, too hard to share the happy news with the bad in the same breath — that you had been pregnant, but aren’t any more.

Most miscarriages (more than 80 per cent) occur before the 12-week mark, when the first scan is typically done, and tradition has it that no announcement is made before this ‘safe’ point. If you lose a baby it can feel as though you’re expected simply to keep quiet and carry on. Try again. Swallow your sadness.

Certainly, it takes you to some dark places, which can be hard to share with other people.

A 2015 survey by Tommy’s, the baby charity, found that out of 5,500 women, two-thirds felt they couldn’t talk to their best friend about their loss, while more than a third felt unable even to speak to their partner about it. There is so much guilt attached to miscarriage, despite the fact it is almost never down to anything a woman did or didn’t do.

And then there is the fear that people won’t understand.

‘You would expect people to be equally empathetic whenever a pregnancy ends,’ says Professor Jacky Boivin, a health psychologist at Cardiff University, who specialises in fertility and reproductive issues.

‘But they don’t always appreciate how distressing early miscarriage can be. People tend to focus on trying again: “Don’t worry, it happens, at least you got pregnant” is a typical attitude.

‘Anything before 16 weeks is classified as an early miscarriage, but it doesn’t feel early for the person who’s been pregnant for three months. The biology is one thing, the psychology is another. It’s very much their baby.’

Accordingly, she says, a miscarriage can bring with it all the feelings you would expect with any death: grief, anger, fear and loss of control.

And then there is envy. Broiling, molten, complicated envy. It’s not dog-in-the-manger syndrome; it’s not that you can’t have something, so therefore no one can. It’s not even that you can’t be happy for someone else, at least on some level. It’s just that you so, so wish it was you.

Dealing with other people’s pregnancies has, for me, been one of the hardest things about my miscarriages — especially when their dates mirror yours; when someone is due around when you would have been. Should have been.

Because those dates and what-could-have-beens stick with you — the pregnancy maths as ingrained in your mind as your times tables. Unlike generations ago, when you might not have known for certain you were pregnant until you’d missed a couple of periods, the accuracy of modern home pregnancy tests means they can be done the second your period is late — and you are given a due date at your first appointment with the doctor after that.

Dr Nikčević agrees. ‘It’s difficult for women to deal with, both in the immediate aftermath and many months down the line, especially around significant dates, such as the due date,’ she says.

‘These feelings can also lie dormant for a while and then emerge much later around any relevant dates.’

We have three phantom due dates now; ghost birthdays scattered across our calendar. Right now I could have been on maternity leave with my three month old; or I could have been nearly eight months pregnant; or, like the Cambridges, we could have just announced an April due date, cautiously planning for our spring baby.

Although I have never dared have this conversation in real life, I do at least know I am not alone. Online forums are full of women grappling with losses like ours — and the green-eyed monster that comes along for the ride.

A typical post reads: ‘Sister-in-law was complaining again about how awful pregnancy is. I can’t stand it. They are due just before we were supposed to be and I hate how jealous I feel.

‘I know it sounds mad, but I feel like they are getting OUR baby.’

Or: ‘First day back at work after miscarriage, colleague announces she’s expecting. Feel like I’ve been run over.’

Pregnancy announcements like this have their own nick-name among women who’ve lost babies, or who are desperately, fruitlessly trying to conceive: baby bombs. It’s apt, because you do feel blown to pieces afterwards.

Social media is a particular minefield. You can feel perfectly fine for the first time in ages, only to be blind-sided by a scan photo posted by the idiot who used to sit three rows behind you in double maths, who you haven’t spoken to in 15 years. ‘Introducing the newest member of Family Maths Idiot… can’t wait to meet you little one!’

It doesn’t have to be someone you know, either. Sometimes just the sight of a pregnant woman — on TV, in the street — tenderly stroking her bump is enough to turn my insides to oil.
Last week, I gave up my seat for a lady on the Tube; she was only just starting to show, a ‘baby on board’ badge pinned proudly to her coat. As I stood up — to my embarrassment — tears pricked in my eyes and too much oxygen hammered in my chest. I quickly turned away, so the poor, unsuspecting woman wouldn’t see. I stood with my back to her for the rest of the journey.

I should say, at this point, it’s not only women who feel this way. Although it’s even less common to hear how they feel after losing a pregnancy, men go through it, too. Just the other day, my husband came home from work grim-faced at news that a colleague was expecting twins. Unplanned. We just stood and hugged by the dishwasher, the unfairness of it all filling the space around us.

I realise that there is no logical reason to feel jealous of other people. It’s not as if there’s only one vacancy for the role of parent, and someone else got it, so you’re out on your ear. And I certainly wouldn’t wish what has happened to us on anyone else.

Rationally, I know that other people successfully having babies, left, right and centre (as it can sometimes feel) doesn’t lessen our chances. And I know that even after three miscarriages in a row — the point at which it is officially known as recurrent miscarriage, affecting around one in 100 women — the odds are still in our favour, even if no medical explanation can be found.

Unfortunately, it seems, sometimes it really is just a case of try, try, try again… Even so, it is hard to quell that rising panic that you are being left behind. That our child has already come and gone.

You try to get on with things, of course you do. But other people’s pregnancies present an unavoidable, physical reminder. The hole in your heart made flesh. A little unwanted glimpse of Alternative Universe You.

It can make life uncomfortable even with close friends, especially as the number of couples we know without children is dwindling rapidly. What should be shared happy occasions can feel sour for us — baby showers, Christenings, children’s parties… I am painfully aware that friends who started trying to conceive around the same time as us have just celebrated first birthdays.

Several are on their second or even third children. We’ve been lapped before we’re even off the starting blocks.

And even the most brilliant, understanding of friends can inadvertently rub salt in the wound. ‘Oh, I really hope I’m not in labour on my birthday’. ‘He’s going to be a summer baby… not ideal — we’d been hoping for September.’ What can I say to that? How can we possibly relate?

‘Well, I’d just like to give birth to a live baby, never mind the date, hahaha!’ isn’t really acceptable brunch conversation. Or fair, for that matter. We can’t expect people to walk on (unfertilised) eggshells whenever we’re around.

Nor would I want them to. Some friends have been so incredibly, conscientiously sensitive it makes me feel not only jealous, but guilty, too. I don’t want them to have to hide their pregnancy from me — I hate the idea that I’m taking away even a tiny bit of their happiness.

‘Envy is a taboo emotion,’ says Dr Nikčević. ‘It’s difficult to admit it to other people — it’s not socially acceptable, in a way, even though we all feel it sometimes. And with miscarriage, it is also difficult to admit to yourself — women can think it’s something they’re not supposed to feel, because, of course, you feel you should be happy for other people.’

This, in my experience, can lead to intense guilt — especially with friends. As if the spectre of my jealousy is an evil omen. That by being so caught up in my selfish envy, I’m willing something bad to happen. After all, when you know so intimately what can go wrong in a pregnancy, it’s never far from your mind.

There is one thing that helps. And that is remembering that you never know what someone has gone through before they got their bundle of joy.

And since I started writing about our miscarriages — first in a newspaper article back in April, and later on this blog  — quite a few people we know have got in touch to say it happened to them, too. Or that they’d actually been trying to conceive for years. Or had been through IVF.

The same people I’d previously envied for having it easy. This is just about the one thing that placates the green-eyed beast. The knowledge that we are not alone; that we will get there. In a word, hope.

Something I will just have to remind myself of every time I see yet another picture of Kate in bloom. That, or take Simon McCoy’s advice and book a very long holiday.

Originally published by the Daily Mail, Femail, in November 2017.

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