One thing I hadn’t expected? The guilt (Picture: Amelia Jean Hershman-Jones)
Being told you’ve lost a baby hurts for many reasons.
Having been privileged enough to have a successful pregnancy for the first time on the first attempt in 2020 – I just didn’t think of miscarriage as an option.
The hope of a new life was suddenly extinguished in May 2021 and, although I hadn’t progressed far enough to see a heartbeat or feel the simultaneously reassuring yet terrifying flutters of first kicks, the grief I’d expected came thick and fast.
One thing I hadn’t expected? The guilt. It paralysed me. I apologised to the midwife for crying, to the obstetrician for vomiting and feeling lightheaded during a 9am blood test – and to my husband for allowing this to happen to the life that we’d made that I was supposed to be looking after in utero.
Deep down I knew I’d done nothing wrong. I exercise, don’t smoke, eat fairly healthily and, bar the odd glass of wine at the weekend, I don’t drink – I’d done everything ‘right’ (according to NHS guidelines, at least). And deep down I knew that. So why did I feel this way?
It’s the word ‘miscarriage’. Being a writer, I am one to analyse language. If you look it up in a dictionary, the prefix ‘mis’ means ‘ill’, ‘mistaken’, ‘wrong’, ‘incorrectly’ (think ‘mistrial’, ‘misprint’ or ‘mistrust’).
But according to the NHS website ‘the majority [of miscarriages] are not caused by anything you have done’ and most are caused by ‘abnormal chromosomes in the baby’ – something a mother has zero control over.
The guilt I felt was absolutely crushing (Picture: Amelia Jean Hershman-Jones)
In short: the ‘mis’ of ‘miscarriage’ isn’t accurate and is potentially harmful to grieving parents.
Being, white, straight and cisgender and, along with that, priviledged, my foray into pregnancy and motherhood are the first time I’ve felt attacked by language.
It had happened before – when I gave birth to my first child.
It wasn’t the birth I’d wanted but I’m aware that few birthing people have the magical, life-affirming experience they’d hoped for. Instead, after labouring for over 24 hours and not dilating more than 7cm, I was rushed down to theatre for a category-one emergency C-section when the baby was in distress.
The reason? ‘Failure to progress’. It doesn’t take a linguist to see why that one can cause offence – but you can’t voluntarily control uterine muscles and their reflexes.
Did I blame myself that I didn’t bond immediately with my baby and that the day after she was born she suffered a brain bleed? Of course. If I hadn’t ‘failed’ in what all birthing mammals have been able to do throughout history and dilated fully, then my baby wouldn’t have been ‘in distress’ in the first place, right?
Illogical and completely unhelpful (I’ve since been told by neurologists, paediatricians and obstetricians that my ‘failure to progress’ actually had nothing to do with her bleed), the guilt I felt was absolutely crushing as we were told our daughter may never walk or talk.
The research surrounding pregnancy doesn’t help (Picture: Amelia Jean Hershman-Jones)
And, yes, while my husband wept in NICU as lockdown unfolded in the world outside, I blamed myself and my having ‘failed’ my new family as I slowly felt myself being overwhelmed by PND and PTSD.
Later that year, following Chrissy Teigen talking about her pregnancy loss on Instagram, people took to social media not only to offer condolences and to thank her for helping to destigmatise speaking about the grief of losing a pregnancy, but also to discuss the way we talk about the topic – specifically the word ‘miscarriage’.
One Twitter user said: ‘For the record I think the term “miscarriage” needs a rethink. It feels like blame. A vessel that didn’t do its job properly. Words matter.’
While another tweeted: ‘I am going to use the term “pregnancy loss” going forward as I personally feel the word “miscarriage” contributes to the lack of empathy and compassion around the issue and implies some kind of failure on the part of the person expecting.’
And it’s not only semantics – the research surrounding pregnancy doesn’t help either.
With a study by Erasmus University Medical Center creating a mathematical model that tells parents when they should start trying for a baby to be successful.
The study stated that, if you want three kids, you should start trying at 23 years old (I hadn’t even started a relationship with my husband by that point), if you want two, consider trying to conceive from the age of 27 and if you want one child, do it no later than 32.
Sticks and stones can break your bones but language can have some pretty serious implications for birthing people’s mental health (Picture: Amelia Jean Hershman-Jones)
What’s more, Cambridge University’s Murray Edwards College is giving fertility seminars to hammer home the message to students that their fertility drops in the mid-30s.
No wonder single people in their 30s who want children report feeling inadequate, pressured to commit to relationships that don’t feel right, and birthing people feeling as if their uterus is a ticking time bomb.
It took me about six months – doing ovulation tests and pregnancy tests monthly – but I am now pregnant again, so I’ll be having my second baby at 34.
But this means, aside from being too late to try for a third according to the Erasmus University research, during a third pregnancy I would be deemed ‘geriatric’.
This outdated and insulting term seems somewhat premature when used to label women aged 35 and older.
And during a time when you’re perhaps feeling emotionally vulnerable – it stings – especially considering the term ‘geriatric’ usually refers to people over 65. Cue my vagina wrinkling and turning to dust like Walter Donovan after a sip from the Holy Grail.
This Morning’s Dr Zoe Williams recently called for the term to be scrapped after welcoming her first child, aged 41.
Appearing on Natalie Anderson and The Capsule podcast, Dr Zoe said: ‘It’s just so old fashioned and it needs to change… I think it is. People who work within the field are trying to change that term and use it less because it’s just so outdated, isn’t it?
‘Even if they said “older”, it would be better than “geriatric”, I don’t particularly like that.’
Dr Zoe also claimed that it’s now the ‘norm’ to have babies from mid to late 30s, adding: ‘I understand that once you reach the age of 40, your pregnancy has a higher risk of complications. That’s fair enough, but let’s come up with a term that is fair, kind and nice.’
So what should we be saying instead? There have been calls for the term ‘miscarriage’ to be replaced by ‘pregnancy loss’, the term ‘failure to progress’ to be replaced by ‘slow labour’ and ‘geriatric pregnancy’ is being commonly referred to by the NHS as ‘advanced maternal age’ and to reclassify it to 40 to reflect the rising average age of mothers – from 23.7 in the 1970s to 28.9 today, according to the Office of National Statistics.
The offence caused isn’t about raging female hormones – far from it.
The take home is that, as in all areas of our lives, sensitivity surrounding language is key.
Sticks and stones can break your bones but language can have some pretty serious implications for birthing people’s mental health.
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing [email protected].
Share your views in the comments below.