One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage. Marking a new awareness campaign, Alex Galbinski talks to one affected couple and the organisations trying to help
Robert Kay and Angie, his wife of four years, were looking forward to sharing some exciting news. They were planning on telling their families that Friday night that Angie was eight weeks’ pregnant. They had even bought a T-shirt saying ‘Baby Under Construction’. Sadly, it was not to be.
“At about 5pm, Angie called me and said she was bleeding,” Robert remembers. “We went to A&E and they explained that until they did a scan, they didn’t know if it was a miscarriage or something else.”
After an anxious weekend, Angie and Robert had the scan on the Monday and were told that, although an embryo was there, it had stopped developing: there was no heartbeat.
“That’s the first stage when it’s difficult for the partner, because you’re trying to support your wife and you’ve both got expectations and dreams for this little baby to grow,” Robert, now 38, recalls. “You’re already planning for the future, whether it’s a boy or a girl, about names, and what sort of parent you’ll be… and then your world comes crashing down.”
Angie, now 37, took pills to expel the embryo, which Robert describes as a horrendous experience: “We just didn’t realise quite how painful and difficult a process a miscarriage is, even though the embryo is so small.” The couple had also been unaware of how unfortunately common it is – around one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage.
It was only after telling close friends and family about what had happened that they found out about other couples who had experienced it too, something that helped them realise they were not alone.
“The medical professionals were very matter-of-fact about it, yet we always assumed it was very rare,” admits Robert. “We didn’t expect it, we both thought that there was little prospect with us being young. Angie was under 30 and healthy.
“However, there were no inquiries as to why it happened. That’s also difficult to deal with – you don’t know what the future holds and whether it’s a blip. You shouldn’t have to feel like it’s just ‘one of those things’.”
After a couple of months, Angie fell pregnant again and the couple requested an early scan, at around six weeks. “At that stage, they said ‘There’s no baby there’,” says Robert. “It was a blighted ovum – an egg that doesn’t develop into an embryo. Then your mind is spinning. You’re thinking: that’s twice, do we have serious issues here, do we need to have investigations, do we need to think about adoption?”
Robert and Angie were lucky and they now have a daughter aged seven, and a five-year-old son. They are sharing their story as the Miscarriage Association launches Partners Too, a public awareness campaign to highlight the fact that partners of women who miscarry often feel invisible, ignored and side-lined during and after miscarriage, and unable to talk about their own feelings of loss and pain.
UCL researchers carried out interviews with partners, who reacted to miscarriage with emotions such as sadness (85 percent), grief (63 percent) and shock (58 percent). Forty-six percent of partners didn’t share all of how they were feeling with their wives or girlfriends for fear of saying the wrong thing or causing their partners further distress.
Ruth Bender-Atik, national director of the Miscarriage Association, says: “We want to highlight the needs and feelings of partners, too. We want to make sure they don’t feel invisible and that they have an opportunity to express their feelings.
“If they don’t want to talk, at least they know they’re not alone in how they’re feeling. Some people might be very sad and tearful, others might be more concerned about their partners, but the idea is to let them know that whatever they are feeling is ok and that there is support for them, too.”
While Robert did not feel ignored, he says it was sometimes hard to remain positive. “I was very conscious that I had to be supportive of my wife,” he says. “The focus, understandably, is on the woman.
“I was asked how Angie was, but you both have had a loss; we both had all those dreams and aspirations. You have to be upbeat and say: ‘It’s all going to be fine, don’t worry’.
“Inside you’re not so sure, but you don’t want to express those fears and you’re trying to deal with the fact that you’re going in a completely different direction from the one you envisaged.”
Rae Adler, community development officer for Chana, an organisation that gives emotional support to Jewish couples who are experiencing primary or secondary infertility, says: “Clearly both members of a couple experience the loss of a child, the loss of a dream and the loss of the future that they thought they were going to have with this child. It may be particularly difficult if they have waited a long time to have the baby.
“One of the reasons why we have both male and female support workers at Chana is to acknowledge that sometimes the men and the women need support and perhaps sometimes they need it in a different way or separately. Every time a woman comes to us, she would be asked if her husband would like some support too.”
Rae points out how family plays a central role in Jewish life, particularly related to Jewish holidays and festivals, which can make fertility problems particularly difficult to bear for couples.
“In the Jewish experience family is central, so obviously wanting a family is central and having difficulties in achieving that is potentially going to present a lot of distress to couples,” she says.
“That would be felt equally by men as well as women – certainly the issues will be similar and I think miscarriage is very distressing when they have high hopes of having a family as well as of having a large family, in some instances. We are aware it’s a real loss and we can help people through that loss and look at where they go after that.
“We work with couples for whom recurrent miscarriage is a big issue, and that’s regardless of whether they have child already or not – it’s no less distressing if you already have a child.”
Indeed, given the high status of children in Jewish life, couples can often be asked subtly – or even bluntly – when they are going to produce (more) offspring, or told to get on with it (‘Please God by you!’).
This is obviously something that can be very upsetting if they are having problems conceiving or holding on to a pregnancy. Robert says a new leaflet for partners (and another one for family and friends) by the Miscarriage Association, along with films of people’s stories, might now help partners realise they are not alone.
“Nobody can make it better for you, you realise that, but what does help is knowing other people have been through it and there are people you can contact. At the time we went through it, there was nothing like that.”
- For more information, visit: www.miscarriageassociation.org.uk/partners, helpline number: 01924 200 799
- Or www.chana.org.uk, helpline numbers: 020 8201 5774 and 020 8800 0018