Pregnancy during a Pandemic: How New and Expectant Parents are being Left Behind

Pubs are back open, #ButNotMaternity
Pregnancy in a Pandemic: How New and Expectant Parents are being Left Behind - #ButNotMaternity - The Cardiff Cwtch

“Nervous?” I ask my husband as he steers our car off the A470 and makes the turn towards Nelson.

He frowns into the rear-view mirror.  “…I’m having some serious concerns about her nose.”

I take a breath and catch my own reflection in the passenger side mirror. I wrinkle my own nose – the nose that’s made me cringe at every side profile photograph ever taken of me since my teens.  “…Yeah. Between yours and mine, she’s screwed.

We’ve driven half an hour to see the tiny, terrible schnoz we’ve joked about for years – ever since Sunny and I first got together and wondered quietly what a much smaller version of the two of us would look like. The drive’s been relatively quick but the journey’s been much, much longer; I definitely didn’t expect to go through two miscarriages along the way, and I definitely didn’t expect the one that stuck to happen in the middle of a global pandemic. Since piddling on that stick back in March – on one of those final days of blissfully ignorant freedom before the whole world locked down – it’s been a strange, frustrating and lonely few months to be pregnant. So far I’ve attended all my NHS scans and check ups alone – from the terrifying 12 week scan that brought back painful memories of last year’s empty, silent screen, to the 20 week anomaly scan, where I fizzled with excitement alone when I found out I was having a girl. Of course Sunny came to every single appointment and scan but he had to wait outside with all the other hopeful soon to be dads in their cars at the curb, nervously shuffling their feet waiting for updates via Whatsapp – good or bad. Now I’m 28 weeks, and the only way Sunny can actually see his baby before she arrives is to fork out for a private scan – a luxury not every couple can afford.

And there are so, so many out there just like us. It’s only now, 6 months after the Covid-19 Pandemic interrupted all our lives that the struggle new parents have been through during this time are being reported in the media, with questions finally being raised at PMQs, and NHS Trusts beginning to consider relaxing the strict rules that were slapped on antenatal and maternity services way back in March. Rules that have forced women to attend important screenings, scans and appointments alone. Rules that have relegated important face to face appointments to phone calls. Rules that have suspended longed for IVF cycles. Rules that have left women to be induced, prepped for caesarians and labouring in hospital all alone – separated from their support network and chosen birthing partner until they reach established labour. Rules that have kept parents away from their newborn babies during those precious first few days – treating partners as the lesser parent. Rules that have seen vital postnatal services and health visits vanish into thin air.

Pregnancy in a Pandemic: How New and Expectant Parents are being Left Behind - #ButNotMaternity - The Cardiff Cwtch - Cardiff Bloggers

Worse still, it’s because of these rules that some women have been forced to go through the anguish of miscarriages and still births completely on their own. I remember my own miscarriages in vivid detail – the long and painful wait in A&E the first time clutching my belly in one hand and my husband’s in the other, and the weird crack in the ceiling of the scanning room I chose to stare at as I went through a third uncomfortable internal scan to confirm my second. The thought of having to go through all those moments without Sunny by my side holding me together when I was ready to crumble and listening to the important advice and instructions on medicinal management when I simply couldn’t is difficult to imagine, and yet so many women have been forced to do just exactly that over this strange and surreal summer.

Rules are easing, but sadly it’s an inconsistent story across the country as it’s down to individual NHS Trusts to decide how they manage their Covid Restrictions. So, while a new Mum in Bristol might have to labour in full PPE while her partner waits outside in the car, her counterpart over the bridge in Newport may find that she’s actually able to hold her partner’s hand from that very first contraction right through to the last. And that’s all without considering the threat of a second wave taking us straight back to where we started (in fact, not five days after my private scan up in Nelson, Caerphilly became the first county in Wales to go back into Lockdown). It’s utterly baffling that while we’re being encouraged to eat out in pubs and restaurants alongside total strangers, a couple from the same household can’t be together during some of the most terrifying and challenging moments of their life together. When I’m asked in the next few weeks where I’d like to give birth, I’m seriously considering putting “Local Pub” down on my birth plan with a request for an ice cold lager shandy and curry half and half on standby for when I finally pop. At least my husband would actually stand a chance of being there, and I reckon that pint would go down a treat.

In the scanning room up in Nelson, our daughter’s nose finally appears on screen. It’s absolutely massive, but lovely all the same; it’s ours. And even though I know Sunny’s laughing just like I am, I don’t get to see it because of the mask he’s been forced to wear. As moments go, I’ll take it – even though the truth is that I’ve been dying to watch his reaction to seeing his daughter for the first time for months, years even. And while I’ve been really lucky so far compared to most – during a time where people have lost so much – for me and for many other mums to be it’s the loss of those first special moments that are going to stick in my throat, as well as the thought of what other less fortunate parents to be are going through – the loss of an experience shared for better or worse.

Head to ButNotMaternity.org to find out more on how you can help get NHS Trusts to update their rules and allow partners to attend scans, appointments and births, and tweet your own experiences of pregnancy and birth during Covid using #ButNotMaternity. If you’re in Wales, sign the Senedd Petition here.

Pregnancy after Loss: Third Time Lucky?

On being pregnant again after two miscarriages

“Just so you know, I’ve only had miscarriages so far, so my expectations are pretty low,” I say to the sonographer as I unbutton my jeans and slide onto the bed. It’s the peak of the CoVid19 Pandemic and she’s wearing a mask, and while I can’t see a sympathetic look I can definitely hear one in her voice as she gels my belly and kindly suggests I look away from the screen for just a moment while “we have a look and see what’s going on in there.”

Probably not a lot, I reply in my head.

I’m cynical and pessimistic by nature, but after two miscarriages my expectations aren’t just low, they’re practically non existent. I’ve become so cynical in fact that the two days leading up to the scan have been spent cleaning the house from top to bottom and planning quick and easy meals for the rest of the week, convinced that I’m going to be spending the rest of it in bed, because yikes, is there anything worse than miscarrying in a messy house with dog floof all over the floor and anything more complicated than beans on toast on the menu? I’ve planned out my miscarriage with military precision; I even get my husband Sunny to pick up a massive pack of sanitary pads when he pops to Costco to bulk buy baked beans , bog roll and cider. When I leave for the hospital I find the clean floors and lack of clothes slurping out the side of the washing basket oddly reassuring – at least that’s one thing I can actually control in this crazy situation – one where feeling overwhelmingly helpless is the norm. Plus, I don’t want Sunny to have to worry about any of that stuff – he’ll be in for a tough few days too. Men might not go through the same physical struggle when it comes to miscarriage, but the emotional struggle’s much the same – and in some way, worse.

My first miscarriage happened back in the summer of 2018 after what can best be described as a honeymoon pregnancy. After a long weekend with my in-laws where I’d felt more knackered than I usually did hosting, I missed my period and was so excited to take a test that I did it at four in the bloody morning. Giddy at seeing those two blue lines, Sunny and I ended up taking Bungle around the block for a dawn walk – talking vividly about what colour we wanted to paint the spare room that would finally have a purpose other than for piles of ironing, what names we liked and what life was going to be like in eight months time when we suddenly had what everyone has eight months after peeing on that plastic stick, right? A baby. So blissfully convinced were we that we actually stocked up on eight months worth of Pregnacare right off the bat and even cancelled a looming dream holiday to the Far East because of the threat of Zika. So I was shocked and completely caught off guard then when suddenly, I started bleeding two weeks later – so shocked in fact that I didn’t really process it all until months later (and you better believe that I’m pissed off to this day that my uterus is still somehow ruining holidays just like it did with badly timed periods when I was a teenager – typical).

I’d known what miscarriages were of course, I just didn’t imagine for a split second that I’d ever have one myself. Weren’t they really rare? And aren’t we taught growing up that if you have sex when you’re ovulating then – whoops! – you’ll get pregnant and – bam! – have a baby? No one bothered to mention that as many as one in five pregnancies end in miscarriage. One in five. With most occurring during the first trimester – before the world even knows that you’re pregnant. Because of that, they tend to happen silently and behind closed doors. Even worse, they usually happen for no obvious reason whatsoever. A string of doctors and nurses at the time told me that, “It’s just bad luck” , that “It just happens sometimes, we don’t know why”, but “don’t worry, you’re young; you’ve got plenty of time”, and “you’ll be fine! Most women go on to have a happy, healthy baby next time”. (“Next time”; exactly the words you want to hear slap bang in the middle of a miscarriage.) All well meaning of course, but wildly unhelpful – because when you’re left without anything or anyone obvious to lay blame at other than plain old “bad luck” you go hunting for something or someone else to lay the finger of blame at – and when you come up empty then inevitably that finger ends up pointing inwards. I immediately blamed myself; I must have done something wrong. There was no other way of explaining it. Maybe I’d worked too hard, or drank too much tea, or used some random skin product pumped with chemicals… or maybe there was just something fundamentally wrong with me. It took months for me to accept and to recognize that it wasn’t anything I’d done, and even longer for me to want to try again.

Almost a year to the day later, I had another positive test. This time there weren’t any early morning walks or discussions about names, just nervous looks, shrugged shoulders and a collective “Well, let’s just wait and see”. For a little reassurance, we booked an early private scan and were surprised and excited when – although it was way too early to detect a heartbeat – there looked like there were not one but two eggs developing. Twins! Despite being told we’d have to come back in two weeks to confirm a heartbeat, Sunny and I went away feeling like we’d clacked all the way up to the highest point of a rollercoaster and were about to breeze down the other side. Phew!

But that’s the thing about miscarriages, they really are a rollercoaster – lots of breathtaking highs followed by stomach lurching lows. Two weeks later the scan confirmed that nothing had developed; I was experiencing something called a “missed” miscarriage, where the embryo had stopped developing but my body hadn’t quite clued in to what was happening yet. I had to wait another month before I actually miscarried – a month of phantom pregnancy symptoms and trips back and forth to the EPU at our local hospital to reconfirm what we already knew (side note: in The Heath EPU waiting room there’s a completely horrendous bit of waiting room art that Sunny and I titled “Tulips in Hell” and had us laughing through all those long waits in between scans – because laughter really is the best medicine in my book). Instead of a happy 12 week scan snap I took home a DIY at home miscarriage kit and spent the next few days in and out of a towel-lined bed with Bungle curled up beside me (at least I still had my fur baby). Again, I blamed myself. What the hell did I do wrong this time? I’d been so careful. And so I decided that there must be something wrong with me. One miscarriage could be put down to bad luck, but two? That was a pattern in the making.

I watched other pregnancies happening and seemingly perfect flat pack families popping up all around me with utter bewilderment; why was it as easy for them as heading to IKEA and whipping up a Billy Bookcase in the space of an hour, while for me – for us – it was impossible? The thing is that it’s not just the immediate loss that hurts with a miscarriage, it’s the loss of what could have been – and that echoes long after the actual event. You grieve for the future you were planning that was within arms length, now suddenly taken away, and – even though it’s no one’s fault – you’re constantly reminded of that on a daily basis, surrounded by it. It slaps you in the face when you’re least expecting it – a character in your favourite TV show falls pregnant, someone you follow on social media posts a scan snap or pregnancy announcement… or some absolute bellend asks you if you’re ever planning on having kids (can we just agree right now that that’s NEVER an okay question to ask someone???). It’s a difficult subject to bring up in a conversation even with your closest friends (“Oh hey, how are you?”, “Not bad, had a miscarriage – wbu?”) – and because of that, it tends to be an incredibly lonely experience – where you feel like an utter failure but have absolutely no idea how to make it right other than to keep on trying.

I was desperate to know why it felt so difficult for me and seemingly so effortless for everyone else; either it really was just that easy and I was full of scrambled eggs, or no one was really talking about how hard it actually – secretly – was. Where were all the miscarriages and missed miscarriages? With a one in five statistic they must be out there somewhere.

Whereas I’d stayed quiet during the first miscarriage – silenced by my own shame and sadness – I decided that I was going to be honest and open about the second. I posted about it on Instagram and was encouraged and comforted when my phone lit up with other women sharing their own stories of miscarriage in my comments and DMs. Women who’d had one, four, more. Some who’d gone on to have happy, healthy babies, and some who had struggled naturally and moved on to IVF – some with success, some not yet. What I found was that – contrary to how I felt – I wasn’t alone. None of us are. We’re all on the same difficult road – just at different stages – and what’s more – as discouraging as it can be to hear it – it really is sometimes “just one of those things”. All those feelings of guilt and failure are completely normal but totally unfounded, and whilst I still couldn’t shake the cynicism or regain the positivity I’d held pre-miscarriage – knowing at least that I wasn’t alone or special in any way really helped. It baffles me that in 2020 schools are still educating young women about sex and their bodies simply by chucking out free samples of Always and frightening them off sex with stories of STDs and teen pregnancy – missing out massive chunks of vital, useful, and – most important of all – honest information about their own bodies. Perhaps if I’d known how common miscarriage is – how it’s often a very normal part of the journey to motherhood – then maybe I’d have been better prepared to deal with it emotionally. It was never going to be easy of course, but knowledge really is power – and for women especially, knowledge is never more important or valuable than when it comes to our own bodies.

Still, when I found out that I was pregnant for a third time – and just as the country was heading into the Coronavirus Lockdown – I was pissed off. “I’m having another miscarriage, yay!” I announced sarcastically to Sunny one morning back in March, practically throwing the test at him while he was buttering his toast (…eww). I regret that massively now – but what I said came completely out of fear for what I knew was probably going to happen next. Whilst going through the sickness and fatigue of the first trimester under Lockdown may have seemed ideal on the surface – it was a disaster for me. With everything closed and being actively told to stay at home, it meant there was literally nothing for me to do other than to sit around and wait for the third miscarriage I was absolutely certain was going to happen – and because of Covid, I wasn’t going to get the reassurance scan at 8 weeks that I’d been promised after my second miscarriage. So, I spent weeks on the sofa waiting and worrying. Even though my pregnancy symptoms stuck around most days I didn’t feel like I could rely on them; they didn’t mean anything – I’d still felt pregnant all the way through my missed miscarriage, after all. And on the days that I felt completely fine I became convinced that my symptoms were dropping off and I was about to miscarry, ala miscarriage numero uno. The only saving grace was that Sunny started working from home because of the pandemic, so I was never alone or allowed to wallow for too long.

When I finally reached my 12 week scan, there was a massive sense of relief. Either way, the waiting was over. Miscarriage Hat-Trick or Third Time Lucky – at least we’d no longer be in the dark.

I’d made up my mind to write this post just before I went for my 12 week scan – whatever the outcome. Really, I should have written it sooner – in the midst of my perceived “failure” rather than from the relative safety of “success” (and I use that word both reluctantly and very cautiously). No one was more surprised than I was when the sonographer – not two seconds after telling me to look away from the screen – tapped a button and said, “Yep, everything looks good.” For the first time ever I saw more than just empty static on the screen and didn’t have to have an awkward internal scan. Everything looked normal – heartbeat and all. The only downside was that – because of CoVid restrictions – Sunny couldn’t be there to see it. And as of today I’m 21 weeks and sporting a very shy baby bump. This isn’t a happy ending by any stretch – I’m still terrified that things could go wrong at any second, hence the question mark in the title of this post – this is just for now a tiny, baby step forward (…couldn’t resist that one).

If you made it through all that then you deserve the gin and tonic that I’m not allowed. If you’ve been through a miscarriage yourself or are going through one then I’m always here to listen if you want to talk about it (and I genuinely mean that), whether that’s here in the comments, privately via email or over on Instagram. 🙂 Failing that, The Miscarriage Association is a great place to look for help and advice.