Breaking the Silence

This week marks Baby Loss Awareness Week, and it’s made me think about the fact that two of the three novels novels I’ve written feature women losing their babies through miscarriage or stillbirth. 

I’ve often wondered why I should have been drawn to research and write about these issues – having been lucky enough never to have experienced them personally. Family history briefly mentions that I was a rainbow baby – born after my mother had a miscarriage – and I’ve always been grateful to the baby who came before me. Also, in a previous life I co-founded a baby swimming company, and in 2006 one of my franchisees, Tamsin Brewis, suggested we fundraise for Tommy’s, the baby charity. 

I rang her to hesitantly check my estimate that Water Babies has since raised nearly £2million for the charity. ‘No Jess, we’ve raised over four, and as of the end of this month it will be £4.5million.’

Wow. 

And then it came back to me, the conversations we had with the staff at Tommy’s when Tamsin and I originally went to see them: the woman who’d had 18 miscarriages over six years, before she finally managed to give birth to a healthy baby. The women who easily fall pregnant, only to continually lose their babies; or those who find it impossible to conceive. Then there was the devastating cruelty of the phrase, ‘It’s nature’s way’ – clearly still an attitude today, given that one of the first things you see on Tommy’s home page is the sentence, ‘Losing a baby should never be ‘just one of those things’’. And on another, the hashtag #breakthesilence.

Tommy’s was started in 1992 to challenge the lack of answers surrounding premature birth. Since then it’s grown to be the UK’s largest charity researching the causes and prevention of pregnancy complications, miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and neonatal death. Thanks to the charity putting research into practice at specialist clinics across the UK, the rates of heart-breaking losses are falling year on year – and it aims to have halved them by 2030. 

When we visited the organisation in 2006, people just didn’t talk about miscarriage. And the strange thing is that now, in 2021, people still don’t really talk about, nor write about it. Just like I remember being hugely irritated by the attitude of a major childbirth organisation who told me, ‘We don’t want to publicise how potentially difficult breastfeeding can be’ – meaning it can hit new mothers like a sledgehammer when it turns out to be really hard – miscarriage and stillbirth are still something that women have to suffer almost in silence, despite it affecting every part of their life, often for the rest of their lives. 

I was extremely grateful to be able to interview one of my former colleagues, who sadly lost her baby at twenty-one weeks. We spoke for over an hour, our voices low amongst the chatter and clatter of the café where we met, and I was shocked to discover the depth of pain she’d experienced, but so impressed by her strength and resilience, as well as the love woven into her story. 

Next, I spent days scrolling through websites and chat rooms – women’s (and men’s) grief shading every page. I now know that a hospital can organise a full funeral, with a hearse, a tiny coffin and bearers to carry it, should you want. I watched a heart-breaking documentary, ‘Still Loved’, learning that 7,000 babies are stillborn, across the world, every single day. I read that if a baby dies after 20 weeks the mother will be encouraged to have a ‘natural birth’ – and I couldn’t begin to imagine the trauma of having to go through that. 

It was like I’d entered a completely hidden world – reading page after page on a subject that remains taboo, yet affects so many.

For in the UK, it’s estimated that one in four pregnancies end in loss during pregnancy or birth.

One. In. Four.

That’s just so much grief that’s just not being talked about, nor depicted in the stories we read and watch. Thus creating a vacuum; when really women should be able to see their experiences reflected back at them, should they want.  

I think I now understand why I’ve written my novels: because the memories of walking around the wards in Tommy’s have stayed with me. Fifteen years ago, I was privileged to see the tiniest of babies thriving under the hospital’s care; and the scores of cards lining the hospital walls, sent by grateful parents who’d never believed they’d one day carry their baby home. And it became deeply embedded in me how lucky I’ve been. For not only was I fortunate to give birth to two healthy babies, but I thrived during both pregnancies; never knowing the acute anxiety of ‘what if it goes wrong again.’ 

I have debated and deliberated over the cover of my first published novel, Shoot the Moon – executed, admittedly, in a bit of a rush. I find myself handing the book to people, saying, ‘It actually contains much deeper themes of attachment hunger and miscarriage than the cover might imply.’ Which is ironic, for I’ve always remembered Jojo Moyes expressing her frustration that, “So many women who write about quite difficult issues are lumped under the ‘chick lit’ umbrella. It’s so reductive and disappointing.” I for one was delighted when the term lost its traction in the UK – although interestingly it’s currently enjoying a strong resurgence in the US. 

Yet numerous people in publishing have reassured me that the cover is right for the genre – and admittedly the novel does also contain doves flying amok, jaunts on borrowed horses and the traditional love story arc necessary for a contemporary romance. But I remain uncomfortable – and will one day change it for something less ‘lightweight’. 

For being unable to conceive is heart-breaking, just as the loss of a child is deeply traumatic; leaving women (and men), as one mother described it, ‘being left grasping at something permanently just out of reach’. 

Or, as my colleague told me, quietly, leaning over the table in the café, “The majority of the time I’m totally fine. It is what it is. She was never a person, I don’t have a memory of her, I’m totally fine. It’s just three days of the year when I crack and go into the ‘I should be inflating a balloon tonight’, and instead I’m sat there crying.”

So you see, to me, my cover feels a little too much like the phrase, ‘just one of those things.’ Just one of those things: like difficult breastfeeding, caesareans and miscarriage, all things that women are expected to cope with – quietly. Dismissed as ‘not that important’ by society – just as the research Tommy’s now carries out was also deemed unnecessary, thirty years ago.

I am immensely proud of the money Water Babies has raised for the charity – money that’s paid for the creation of a research centre in Warwick. It’s ten years since I stepped away from the company, but if I can still do one thing to help #breakthesilence it’s by continuing to write honest novels that reflect the depth and breadth of the hardships so many women experience, yet rarely hear being spoken about. Although, in the future, I’ll aim for more complex covers. Ones that pay proper tribute to lives which demonstrate the courage of the extraordinary ordinary; as opposed to being ‘just one of those things.’

This piece originally featured on Linda’s Book Bag and I’m very grateful to her for asking me to write it.

Published by Jess Morency

Feature writer, teacher and brand consultant

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