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What I’ve Learned From My Miscarriage

In mid-May I shared Hadley Freeman‘s heart-breaking account of her miscarriage, with the plea that we talk more openly about women’s health, miscarriage, infertility. I had no idea that two days later, I would suffer a miscarriage myself at 11 weeks.

In the Jewish youth movement world, we have a concept called ‘dugma ishit’ – leading by personal example, or acting in such a way that allows others to follow your lead. It’s a core principle by which I lead my life to this day. After thinking long and hard, I have decided to be open about this because after the experience, I can categorically say that a culture of silence still exists around this common, natural but traumatic side of fertility. As a friend of mine wisely said, ‘It’s sad, but it shouldn’t be shameful.’ So, in the spirit of ‘dugma ishit’, ‘talking about miscarriage more openly’ and giving the finger to out-of-date taboos, here are three things I’ve learned from my experience.

NB Of course I can’t speak for Eyal, or other women, or their partners who have been through this grief. These are my own personal reflections…

1) I wasn’t prepared for the physical rollercoaster of miscarriage.

While the grief, sadness and anger were devastating, it was the physical symptoms and aftermath that floored me most. With various complications, it took me 8 weeks to make a full recovery and receive the all clear. That’s two months of fear, pain and medical uncertainty. (I should say that the care we received at St Thomas’ Early Pregnancy and Acute Gynaecology Unit was mostly excellent.)

I have never felt so exhausted, drained and imbalanced as during my recovery period. It tested my self-care practice to its limits. My biggest lifeline (hard to achieve in practice) was surrendering to whatever was happening at that moment, whether it was fear, pain, grief, tears, laughter or rage. I did a lot of art and crafting from my sofa, a physical practice which I could thankfully do even while I ached everywhere. I spent much of this time off work or working from home. While all experiences are different, I honestly don’t know how women who go through this can ‘push through’, go back to work and act normal. I know that not all workplaces are as understanding as mine was. It’s not right that women should feel they have to ‘keep calm and carry on.’ We need more understanding around the physical aspects of miscarriage and recovery, as well as the emotional ones.

2) No-one should have to go through this alone.

We had told a few close friends that we were pregnant, breaking with the common ‘wisdom’ that you shouldn’t tell until 12 weeks
– because heaven forfend you have to burden them with the news of a miscarriage! It’s always struck me that this was more for other people’s benefit than the expectant parents, who would need support if ‘the worst’ were to happen. When we went for that first scan and they told us I would miscarry, I decided from the beginning that I was going to be open with friends about what we were going through. As we shared our heartbreak, our friends and family rallied to support us. The visits, texts, calls, meals, flowers, sweet treats and words of support came thick and fast to remind us that we were not alone in this dark place. You wonderful people, you know who you are. I love you so much, and am forever grateful. Special mention should go to Eyal who supported me staunchly even as he grieved and struggled himself, and our family, my mum, brother and Eyal’s auntie in particular, who supported me amazingly with an apparent inability to be phased by even the goriest aspects of the process. I described the feeling at the time as being like crowd-surfing when I couldn’t walk. I also told people in a work/voluntary context where I felt it appropriate. It felt wrong to lie and say I had the flu, like being complicit in perpetuating the taboo.

Yes, sometimes people said things they hoped would be helpful which actually hurt. People often don’t know what to say to those grieving and in pain, and try to ‘make it better’ with platitudes and clichés, instead of just listening, being there and admitting things are shit. I know most of it came from a place of love and care.

I know that some of my friends have struggled with toxic narratives of blame and shame – even the idea that they should stay away from pregnant women in case miscarriage is ‘catching.’ Some of these narratives come from misguided individuals, some are deeply embedded in traditions and cultures. Of course, despite growing up in Turkish culture where the evil eye or ‘nazar’ is constantly referenced and feared, I know that my experience can’t be ‘transmitted’ to someone else. My nurses reiterated time and again that miscarriage is no-one’s fault, and nothing I had done had caused this. It makes me so sad that women are having to suffer this salt being rubbed into their open wounds. No-one needs that added guilt and humiliation.

Personally, I still don’t regret sharing while I was going through it. The result was definitely net positive – on us as a couple, and on the wider conversation about miscarriage. I recognize too that’s also a testament to the amazing, loving people Eyal and I have in our lives.

3) As a society, we are NOT talking about miscarriage.

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People tell you repeatedly, presumably as an attempt at comfort, that 1/4 pregnancies end in miscarriage. I couldn’t name more than three people in my network who I knew had had one before this. I felt so alone and singled out in those early days. ‘Why is this happening to me when everyone around me has had healthy pregnancies and children?’ And then, as I shared what was happening to me, slowly slowly, the friends to whom it had happened came forward in a multitude. Some with children, some still trying. Many of them I had seen soon after their miscarriages, and I had no idea what they’d been through until I now. With silence and shame comes the risk that women, even close friends, never find out about and share their common experience of miscarriage, that can serve to deepen support, friendship and solidarity.

Of course, it’s every woman’s right to choose how they deal with their loss. But I would argue that in our culture, the choice is heavily weighted towards the default of ‘keep quiet, move on, try again’ (as if trying to conceive again is on your mind when you’re in the depths of that grief!). There are still lots of unspoken associations with miscarriage – shame, guilt, a sense of failure as a woman. I felt all these things in the darkest hours, but by bringing them into the light, I see them for what they are. A mixture of the natural emotions of grief, and some serious patriarchal bullshit around women’s value being associated with a) fertility, and b) outward perfection. Some of the specious beliefs that prevent people asking for the support they need in all kinds of grief come to mind- ‘I don’t want to burden people’, ‘I don’t want people to see me in this state’, ‘What will they think of me?’ When we say these things out loud, it’s clear what bullshit they are. I don’t know how I personally would have got through this ordeal without talking about it with people I loved and trusted.

I am deeply grateful to all the friends who opened up to me about their experiences, helping me gain perspective and retain hope when it felt like the ordeal would never end. I hope that if friends in my network are suffering with miscarriage and its aftermath, they know that there’s one more person they can reach out to who’s been there and can support them – not with platitudes, but with a listening ear, advice if they want it, holding a light for them in the darkness. I hope I’ve opened the way for others to be open about miscarriage in future, to the extent that they want to.

A word about partners, be they male, female or non-binary. They are going through the immense grief of losing a pregnancy/child, while watching their partner suffer devastating physical pain and grueling recovery. While it’s understandable that much attention is on the partner who physically miscarries, the supporting partner also has their own grief and struggle that needs to be allowed to air. A word to the wise – when enquiring how someone is doing after a miscarriage, do ask how their partner is too.

How am I now? Physically, finally back to myself more or less, thanks especially to my body’s amazing ability to heal and a wonderful holiday. Emotionally up and down, sometimes especially tender with news of pregnancies and births. But I have hope now, where I didn’t before. I’ll get there, with a little help from my friends.

Here’s Hadley Freeman’s article, still heartbreaking and affirming to read…

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/may/13/hadley-freeman-miscarriage-silence-around-it

The Miscarriage Association offers advice, resources and counselling:

https://www.miscarriageassociation.org.uk/

And I found this graphic artist’s story of her miscarriage very moving:

http://www.charipere.com/blog/miscarried

Post Script:

I put this post on Facebook, on 31st July. Although I expected (and hoped!) people would be kind, I was blown away by the stream of loving and supportive responses I received. And my PM box brimmed with yet more stories from friends… Some recent losses being mourned today; some which happened 20+ years ago or more and still left their mark.

The same themes emerged again and again from friends’ testimonies… isolation; shame; not knowing how to be around pregnant friends and babies; well-meaning sympathy gone wrong; discovering new bodily intuition through and after the process; handling the anxiety of ‘trying again.’ There are clear parallels with grief and bereavement – one friend told of how hurt she was when people crossed the street to avoid her, as they didn’t know what to say. Reading response after response, I thought to myself 1) It’s not just me, I’m not alone, and 2) How awful that this still happens! We have such a long way to go.

This has confirmed to me how needed communities like ‘She Speaks, We Hear’ are, which help women share their lived experiences and find support and solidarity at these difficult times – especially if they are living in a culture where miscarriage is silenced, misunderstood or maligned. Sisters, I see you and hear you. We’ll get through this together.

By Debbie Danon

Debbie is a freelance facilitator, trainer and leadership development expert, with life-long passion for building community and creating brave spaces for transformative conversations. After her degree at Cambridge University in Theology and Religious Studies in 2007, Debbie joined intercultural NGO 3FF (Three Faiths Forum), where she designed and delivered interfaith learning experiences for single-faith and community schools, and subsequently for other professional sectors. The programmes she designed grew to reach 10,000 young people and 800 educators a year, and won a UN Alliance of Civilizations Award. Debbie spent two years with award-winning immersive learning consultancy The Smarty Train, where clients included The Bank of England and Accenture. Until recently, she served as Director of Education for two youth leadership organisations, The Unreasonables and Blue Chip Leaders. Debbie volunteers with the Grassroots Jews community, and youth charity The Advocacy Academy. Her passions include arts & crafts, hosting (meals, discussions, games nights), meditation and dancing.

Image Credit: Debbie Danon
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.
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Breastfeeding shaming needs to stop

https://flic.kr/p/5uGfo8

Last week was World Breastfeeding Week, and yet again there are reports that the UK has the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world. Breastfeeding is one of those topics that any blogger should be terrified to write about. It is so controversial, so politicised, yet it really shouldn’t have to be so complicated.

It’s controversial because mothers are routinely shamed for “not trying hard enough”. But the reality is, women are just not supported enough. There is so much pressure to breastfeed without an adequate support structure in place. Breastfeeding seems to be about NHS quotas and targets these days; but, you can’t expect more women to breastfeed without supporting them properly.

I’m writing this as a woman, who has one child who was formula-fed after two weeks and the second who went from combination feeding to eventually being exclusively breastfed. I don’t feel shame for how I fed my children because I know I tried my best both times around, and I don’t care about judgment from others because nobody knows my experience apart from me. But my experience of being a first-time mother was so different from doing it the second time around.

The guilt and shame started during pregnancy, when in an NHS ante-natal class, a group of nervous first-timers were fed the mind-numbingly stupid idea formula was akin to giving your baby McDonald’s. This is the last thing a first-time mother needs to hear; it is not helpful and most women know the benefits of breast milk versus formula.

The nightmare continues after birth: the midwife (who in some cases, has no real personal experience of her own) expecting you to feed, feed, feed all night without a break, and that’s after you’ve just spent a good few hours, maybe even days, bringing a human being into the world. It’s relentless.

Breastfeeding is hard. Let’s not pretend otherwise. When we are pregnant, we are often told that breastfeeding is a beautiful, natural experience that will come easily to us, that we were made to do this, and made to feel that it is our God-given purpose as women. We imagine ourselves as glamorous as the super-model, Gisele; feeding while glowing like a Goddess, while simultaneously being pampered by a team of hovering beauty experts. And then, our babies are born, and reality hits home. I’m not going to go into the gory details, but you all know what I’m talking about. We persist, and sometimes it works; other times, we try and try and it doesn’t. And that’s okay.

When I couldn’t breastfeed my first child, I went through a period of mourning because for a long time, I did wonder if I could have done more, even though I knew deep-down that I had made the right decision. I took time to read Suzanne Barston’s book, “Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn’t.” Barston is the writer behind the formula-centric blog, Fearless Formula Feeder. The book explains that for various reasons, not everyone can breastfeed, and women shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about it.

Like it or not, formula isn’t poison. Formula fed a generation, and many of us are here (healthy and happy!) because of formula. Let’s not forget that many women also had wet nurses, so clearly, not everyone was miraculously able to breastfeed a hundred years ago.

If women weren’t made to feel that feeding their baby was an exclusive choice between pure poison or nature’s golden milk, then maybe they wouldn’t put so much pressure on themselves to feed.

Breastfeeding is tied to hormones and stress. When you are anxious, you produce adrenalin, which can affect your production of prolactin, the hormone that is trying to help you to produce milk. Nursing can help to reduce stress, but there are also some studies which show that physical and mental stress can cut the flow of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for stimulation of milk ejection (milk letdown) . If oxytocin is low, this can affect your supply of milk.

In simple terms, relaxation is really important for a breastfeeding mother. So maybe, just maybe, if formula was presented as an option to fall back on, more women would be able to relax and try hard to breastfeed, without the psychological fear of not filling up their baby’s tummy.

Because many women want to breastfeed. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s just that they are human. Motherhood is bloody difficult. You have to do whatever it takes to survive, to get through one day after the next, to keep going, and pick yourself up every time your child doesn’t eat, or refuses to sleep, or throws the mother of all tantrums in public. If that means giving some formula to help you survive, so be it. If women don’t want to breastfeed, or want to mix-feed, let’s not shame them for their choices.

I truly believe that if a happy mum means a happy child. Motherhood is messy and complicated, and the happiness and intelligence of your child rests on far more than just the milk you feed them in the early years of their life.

But the real crux of this post is to ask why more women don’t breastfeed, and I think part of the reason is the overtly sexualised culture in the UK. We seem to have forgotten somewhere down the line, that breasts are intended for feeding babies and that is their primary function.

Why, in the 21st century, is there so much controversy about public breastfeeding? A couple of years ago, the luxury hotel Claridge’s came under fire for insisting that a baby breastfed at afternoon tea was covered up with a napkin. Yet, this is the same country where up to 2015, newspapers would routinely publish totally uncovered breasts on Page 3. The practice was only dropped two years ago. Lingerie models are on display in every public shopping centre that sells underwear, but God forbid, that we see a tiny bit of skin for a millisecond while a baby latches on. And you could always, you know, not look.

We need to remove the stigma around public breastfeeding, because this is partly the reason why women stop.  Because our society doesn’t prioritise the baby’s needs, and because there are some who would give more importance to their discomfort over the sight of a woman nurturing her infant. It is not always easy to find a private space, and although, legally you can breastfeed anywhere, women are often made to feel uncomfortable with public feeding.

As a society, we need to give more importance to the needs of the child and to increase the importance of the family. Not only are breastfeeding rates low, but England also has some of the unhappiest children in the world. Across the pond in Europe, the culture is centred much more around family life and the needs of children in particular. It’s something the UK could certainly learn from.

Breastfeeding has a whole host of additional health and social benefits for babies, and it would be somewhat naïve to deny this. But rather than judgment, shame and pressure, let’s make it easier, not harder. The culture needs to change to boost women’s confidence and give them the support they so vitally need to achieve successful breastfeeding.

Image credit: Breastfed graffiti, https://flic.kr/p/5uGfo8 – Eli Duke via Flickr
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.