The overall probability of a pregnancy ending in miscarriage in the UK is 25 per cent at four weeks; 5 per cent at eight weeks; 1.7 per cent at 12 weeks; and 0.5 per cent at 16 weeks (Datayze, 2016). More than 80 per cent of miscarriages occur within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
If you haven’t experienced it personally, the idea of miscarriage might well conjure up thoughts of sad, but short-lived distress – but in my own experience, that couldn’t be more wrong. It is sad, but it certainly isn’t short-lived.
For those of us for whom the statistics don’t fall in our favour, and our baby becomes one of the 25 per cent lost during pregnancy, it can feel like suddenly being thrust into a world that is no longer familiar – with a story few want to read. There is a huge misconception that if your baby dies before he or she is born, it somehow “doesn’t count”. The experience is swept under the carpet, because the baby never made it to the real world. The earlier in the pregnancy the baby is lost, the stronger this misconception.
The government introduced paid parental leave for the loss of a baby for either parent after 24 weeks in April 2020; but now SNP MP Angela Crawley has called on the government to give both women and their partners the legal right to take three days paid leave if a pregnancy ends before 24 weeks. At the moment, women who lose a baby before that cut-off period are entitled only to sick leave – or unpaid leave. There is no formal provision for fathers or other partners.
Crawley introduced a private members’ bill to parliament in June, which is due to have its first full debate in December. If it passes, while three days would obviously not give a couple long enough to come to terms with the loss of their baby, what it would do is give them both a chance to catch their breath; to hold each other physically and emotionally in the total darkness of the early days.
Experiencing baby loss through miscarriage is not an illness, and we should not be allocating sick leave to suffering couples – but instead validate their experience and suffering with dedicated, paid time off.
Because this experience isn’t often talked about in the UK – or taught. As a result, we often grow up with unrealistic expectations of fertility and pregnancy; our education restricted to “how not to” rather than “what if?”. When we reach our childbearing years, we are unprepared for anything deviating from what we have been told is “normal”. People often think of miscarriage as a rare taboo – or even an extremely heavy period, spoken of in private and moved on from quickly with talk about “replacement babies” and sighs of relief.
While the physical aspect of miscarriage can be both brutal and traumatic, often it is not the blood loss or pain that lingers and haunts so many baby loss sufferers. There are other emotional elements – the deep and frightening darkness we enter; the messy, exhausting headspace that we occupy, the “ugly” feelings we have and feel ashamed by, and the confusion about how valid our grief and sadness is – and how long is acceptable to feel it for.
The idea of becoming a mother is so intrinsic to our narrative as women that we often start the story as children; rehearsing motherhood as we roleplay, pushing our dollies round in prams. When we see the blue lines of a positive pregnancy test, these dreams and beliefs we’ve held since childhood become reality. But if a baby dies during pregnancy, our whole perception can suddenly alter.
When this happened to me, I came unstuck. I lost confidence. I started to distrust the world – after decades of social conditioning which had left me believing that my worth as a woman was dictated entirely by my ability to bring a baby into existence, I lost faith in my capabilities. I felt I was no longer living out the reality of motherhood that I’d expected, and that was expected of me – and I realised how little control we all have over our physical selves; how little knowledge we have of our own bodies.
For too long, miscarriage has been a taboo subject, shrouded in silence and misplaced shame. Because of this, we appear culturally to lack knowledge as to how to support individuals and couples who go through it. When confronted by baby loss – unless there is a common lived experience – all too often people seem to lack the emotional and mental resources to know how to deal with it; so say nothing.
But a lack of action or even recognition can invalidate someone’s suffering, and contribute to fears that our grief is somehow disproportionate to our experience. It can make us fear there is something wrong with us; that we are not coping. When this happens, we deny ourselves the space to grieve because we don’t feel entitled to the pain. This can, in turn, prevent our recovery – and often leads to longlasting negative mental health implications.
I believe that while baby loss cannot be completely understood at an emotional level unless you have first-hand experience of it, it can be understood at an educational level. What’s more, we can teach others how to react to those who have lost. People can learn what is helpful – and what is less so.
Miscarriage changes the course of lives forever, but it is still largely being treated as a minor illness; an event that requires “sick leave”. More workplaces must recognise the pain, isolation and trauma caused by baby loss at any gestation – as per Crawley’s bill – and then give couples the time they need together to grieve, to validate their heartbreak and to help them feel “seen”.
Bex Gunn is the co-creator of support platform and podcast The Worst Girl Gang Ever, for warrior women who have suffered miscarriage and pregnancy loss