Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Quit while you're ahead

On 31 October 1996 I lost a baby.
There, I’ve said it. The stark, immovable fact. I shall never forget the bewildered desolation which engulfed me when the radiologist finally stopped clicking her mouse and swirling the gunky monitor across my swollen abdomen and turned to face me. No turning the screen around like the last time so I could look at the image.
“I’m sorry. I can’t detect a heartbeat.”
I stared at her, nonplussed. What rubbish. That’s impossible. There must be a heartbeat, if there wasn’t…
Across the room my husband put his head in his hands. That was when it sank in, or started to.
My baby’s dead.
What followed was something of a whirlwind. My son had to be delivered, so we were taken to the delivery suite where, to the raucous accompaniment of women screaming in labour and grumpy infants stretching their lungs for the first time, my dead baby slithered into a world he would never see.
We called him Jack, a name hastily conjured up in those frantic, other-worldly, grief-stricken hours. He was tiny, very, very tiny, his little coffin no bigger than a shoebox when he was buried two weeks later. Only my husband and I attended the burial, which was the way we wanted it. Completely private. But I know both of Jack’s grandmothers turned up there later in the day and left flowers.
There was never any satisfactory explanation for our loss. Nothing to blame, no dangers to avoid next time.
And there was always going to be a next time. I decided that as I lay on the bed in the delivery suite, surrounded by kind midwives and a sympathetic consultant. This should have been a happy, exciting occasion, full of smiles, optimism, enthusiasm for a future about to unfold. Not this tragic, traumatic, inexorable fall off a cliff. It wouldn’t do, wouldn’t do at all. It needed to be fixed. I felt like a failure and I was determined not to settle for this.
Baby Jack’s conception was a total accident, a contraceptive failure. We’d been blissfully child-free up to then and I doubt we would ever have changed our minds. Life has a habit of upending your carefully laid plans, of course. I also realised that you don’t become a parent when your baby is born. You become a parent the moment you know the embryo is there, living, growing, striving for life. Any other details are just a matter of geography really.
My next conception was planned meticulously, and from the moment I knew I was pregnant again I was in a constant state of anxiety in case the unthinkable happened. Once was bad luck, awful, horrible, soul-crushing bad luck. Twice would have been beyond grievous. I don’t believe I could have picked myself up again.
I counted the days, then the weeks, then the months. Every new dawn brought me – us –  closer to retrieving what had been lost, improved the chances of success ever so very slightly. The first three months came and went, so far so good. The next month, then the next. The day my unborn baby reached the point the medics would call viable I was elated. Now, even if my body let us all down, others might be able to step in and save my baby.
That pregnancy went to full-term. I turned up again at the delivery suite, and this time they didn’t quickly scoot the cot out of the room and replace it with a television set. This time, it was for real.
My daughter came into the world screeching at the top of her lungs. Twenty years later, I can safely say not much has changed.
We still visit Jack’s grave on the anniversary of his death. We always will, and although he was so briefly known, if he had never existed I doubt I would have gone on to have my wonderful daughter. He remains part of our family, part of what makes us ‘us’.
“Are you going to have any more children?” We were often asked that when our daughter was small. “They do better if they have company.”
Not in this lifetime. I got over losing Jack, just about. Learned to live with it, at least. And I love being a mother, no achievement has ever made me as proud as that one. I lost something indescribably precious that awful night in 1996, but eventually found something else to treasure just as much. I’m not pushing my luck.
If ever there was a case for quitting while you’re ahead, this was it.


  1. Thank you for your bravery in sharing this! I'm so glad you had the courage to try again. I have two sons, but I can't imagine what I would have done if I'd lost the first one like that. I'm shaking just thinking about it.

  2. How personal, poignant and yes, as Sacchi says, brave.

    This is one of the major reasons I never wanted to have kids. (Momma wasn't able) Not only the fear of the pregnancy, but also the number of things that can go wrong throughout a life. We weren't brave enough to face life's wheel of fortune to the degree where we were responsible for another human being.

  3. I think there are places in a woman there are hard or impossible for a man to go. We know about being father's, but we will never have the experience of carrying a fellow traveler inside out bodies. In the end love isn't so much about the passion we enjoy describing for others as the act of standing by each other in hard moments.

  4. This is the most personal piece I've ever read by you. I'm so sorry. On the other hand, you might never have decided to have your daughter if you hadn't lost Jack.

    My mom had two miscarriages before I was born. Apparently it's quite common--as if a woman's body needs to practice the process of pregnancy.

    Damned painful, though.

    Thanks for sharing your loss with us.

  5. Thanks from me too, Ashe. The writer Christopher Rice had a similar origin. Anne Rice (now famous as a horror writer, but fairly unknown in the 1970s) and her better-known poet husband Stan Rice had a daughter named Michelle who died of leukemia, 2 months before she would have turned 6. Apparently Anne felt as if she would literally lose her mind, so wrote her first novel instead (Interview with the Vampire) in which Michelle appears as a beautiful child vampire who isn't allowed to survive. Later, Anne and Stan had a son, Christopher, also raised as an only child. Apparently Christopher never knew he had an older sister until he grew up! He followed the family tradition by becoming a writer. Like his mother's favourite vampire characters, he is gay.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.