Anne-Marie, 37, is a journalist who’s had multiple pregnancy losses. Here, she shares her personal story and outlines why she believes Meghan’s essay about miscarriage signifies an important change in the conversation and represents another step away from a longstanding culture of silence.
‘I knew as I clutched my firstborn child, that I was losing my second”. In the space of 24 hours these words have become synonymous with Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex from her now viral essay ‘The Losses We Share’ in the New York Times.
In many ways, these words could just as easily have been uttered by millions of other women around the world who, like me, understand the complicated pain and grief that comes with miscarriage. Except the reality is, in many cases, they have not. Instead there has mostly been silence as we continue to carry the burden of something that is deeply prevalent, but still misunderstood and left unspoken.
Miscarriage, or pregnancy loss as I prefer to call it, affects one in four pregnancies. So why is it something that (in Meghan’s words) is experienced by so many, talked about by so few? This is something I have been grappling with and only beginning to understand since I had my first of several pregnancy losses in 2016. At the time I was 33-years-old and having what I thought was a pretty straight forward pregnancy.
In the week running up to my 12 week scan, I remember being out for a summer walk with my husband and expressing so much gratitude that everything was running smoothly and the morning sickness had subsided. Little did I know this was my body’s way of telling me that it was actually calling time on things before they’d even had a chance to start.
Journalist and broadcaster Anne-Marie Tomchak
For some reason I’d decided to keep my first pregnancy a tightly guarded secret, not even telling my mother. I had visions in my head of sharing the happy news with everyone as soon as we’d gotten over the three-month line. Sadly, they only learned about the pregnancy by proxy – through learning about the loss. It’s a lot for any loved one to take in. And it compounded my grief.
At the time that I had started bleeding, I already knew the drill about what was going to happen next. But I still felt desperately unprepared. Pregnancy loss was a topic that I had encountered through my work as a journalist. Just months before my own loss I’d interviewed a lovely woman called Amy for a short documentary series. She had 4 losses in the space of a year and went on to have another.
She told me in pain-staking detail the sequence of events that comes with a loss: going to the hospital, being sent away and told to come back the following day; spending what feels like hours the next morning in the waiting room of a hospital reproductive medicine unit while your cramps get worse by the second; finally getting a scan; lying in a hospital room holding your partner’s hand tightly while you’re being assessed; being met with silence and a searching look from the nurse as they strive to find signs of life in the screen before them; and then the look of sadness on their face as they know they need to deliver an update.
I already knew the drill about what was going to happen next. But I still felt desperately unprepared.
“I’m so sorry,” the nurse said. “It’s not good news.” She really did look heartbroken for me which is quite remarkable given the number of people she is likely to have given this news to.
I looked at the disc of nothingness on the monitor before me and then turned to my husband to say: ‘What did I do wrong?” before bursting into tears. I’d given up running, stopped drinking coffee and done everything by the book to remain as well as possible during this time. I didn’t understand.
The next step is a blur. You get given lots of options by medical staff on what you want to do next: take a tablet so you can pass the pregnancy at home (which is supposed to be quite painful) or go for what’s called an ERPC – a medical procedure under general anaesthetic to remove the remains of the dead. I went for the latter. The nearest available appointment was almost a week later. What nobody warned me about was that in the intervening time, I might miscarry naturally at home. And that is what happened.
We were moving out of our house that weekend (it was a renovation project) so everything in our dilapidated home was packed up in boxes. The place was not what you would describe as comfortable. The discomfort of my surroundings was nothing in comparison to what was ahead. The physical pain of the loss happened in the middle of the night and it is still among the most excruciating and visceral things I have ever experienced. My husband helplessly tried to comfort me as I passed a 12-week-old fetus in a cold and bleak bathroom without any pain killers or forewarning by medical staff to have hot water bottles and ibuprofen at the ready. This may seem like a little too much information, but people need to know that pregnancy loss doesn’t come neatly packaged up in millennial pink, Instagrammable squares. It’s gritty and it’s painful.
By the time I’d got to the hospital for my medical procedure I’d already miscarried. The doctors proceed to remove whatever remains, and then you are left with nothing. Nothing but the loneliness of still feeling physically pregnant as your hormones rage and your body takes time to adjust to a new reality. You have to hardwire your brain into visualising a future that doesn’t include that little person you were hoping to welcome into the world. And you’ll have people saying things like “at least you weren’t that far on’’ or “it’s so common and you can always try again”.
It was only after my first loss that I learned that so many other people I knew were also part of this club that nobody really wants to be a member of. Unfortunately, as the years passed, it became a club that I couldn’t revoke membership of – no matter how desperately I tried. The pain and grief of the losses would return.
After that first loss I made a point about talking about it in everyday conversation, especially upon receiving enquiries about whether I would like to have children. My blunt response: “I don’t have kids but I have been pregnant” was met with stunned, confused silence. People just don’t know how to react when someone is open about an issue that has not been normalised as a topic of conversation in the public domain. In 2018 I even went as far as talking publicly about the loss in a media interview in the Sunday papers in an effort to try to increase understanding about the issue. But I didn’t dare share that interview. It took six months before I could even tweet about it. What prompted me to eventually share it publicly was a chapter in Michelle Obama’s memoir ‘Becoming’ where she says “miscarriage is lonely, painful and demoralising.” To see someone like Michelle Obama speak so openly legitimised and validated my experience. It made me feel less alone and more brave.
During my most recent pregnancy at the end of 2019 I took a completely different approach to letting people know my status. My husband and I practically told the world and its mother in the very early stages, long before we were supposed to. It was a way for us to enjoy the moment of being pregnant and also an act of self-preservation where we could caveat the news with the context of previous losses. We found the burden was much lighter this way and it helped us mentally prepare ourselves for the loss that would eventually transpire… again.
Once again, after this loss, I made a point of talking about it. I returned to work (to an all female workplace) after a week away. It quickly became apparent that either nobody knew what had happened or they were uncertain if/how they could acknowledge it. So at a morning meeting, I told my team what had happened while struggling to maintain my composure. I was met with many sad looking faces from a group of very genuine and kind people. But again, no one really knew what to say. No one thought it appropriate to reach out straight away and give me a hug.
Later that day, I found a card at my desk from a colleague who had written a heartfelt note. I will never forget it. It really touched me. And later that week another colleague sent me a bunch of flowers. She really understood. What struck me about this, in retrospect, is that even in an all-female environment, the subject was something to speak openly about for a small minority. For others, it was deeply uncomfortable or deeply private and not to be confronted head on. With any grief or loss, silence, or even temporary inertia (as in this case) can have a more lasting impact than saying the wrong thing.
Fast forward to 2020 and I’m watching in real time the devastating loss that Chrissy Teigen and her partner John Legend went through. Seeing someone with such a huge public platform be so open in their grief made me reflect on my own losses and talk publicly about it again. I came to the realisation that the reason I’d had such difficulty sharing my experience was because I had internalised the stigma and shame I was feeling around ‘failed motherhood’ and the societal pressures of what it means to be a successful woman today.
As I read Meghan’s essay this week, it provided yet another opportunity to open the valve on a conversation that’s been happening inside a vault for far too long. It prompted me to speak publicly about it again on my social media accounts, on BBC News 6 and 10 o’clock bulletins and now in this feature. Dozens of women subsequently reached out to me (publicly and privately) to share their experiences. This is the domino effect that we need.
The language and detail in Meghan’s essay is very carefully considered: she doesn’t mention how far into the pregnancy she was – important as the number of weeks is often used as a way to reduce or trivialise a loss. Also of note, the reference to Harry’s pain. This touches on an element of pregnancy loss that is often overlooked. Partners need support too. And lastly the fact the Duchess has a child already. This does not diminish the ‘devastating grief’ she experienced.
Like her husband’s mother Diana, Meghan is breaking new ground in dismantling taboos on what should and should not be talked about rather than suffering in silence. Her essay is not saying that everyone needs to be vocal or public about grief, but if just a few of us are, it will change the status quo and help others find their voice or provide a forum for solace on something that has previously been in the abyss.
Like Diana, Meghan is breaking new ground in dismantling taboos on what should and should not be talked about rather than suffering in silence.
Initially I found ‘The Losses We Share’ a little bit triggering. But mostly I found it comforting. What the Duchess has achieved with that essay extends far beyond letting people into part of her personal life. By speaking directly to us she is telling her own story and allowing herself permission to be human, while also seeing and hearing millions of other women and their partners around the world at the same time. It’s acknowledgement on a scale we’ve not experienced before. It’s a call for empathy at a time when it is in a major deficit.
This isn’t the first time that the Royal Family has spoken publicly about subjects related to child-birth or pregnancy loss. Zara Tindall had two miscarriages, Sophie Countess of Wessex had an ectopic pregnancy and the Duchess of Cambridge experienced severe morning sickness. But something about the timing and manner of Meghan’s essay feels different. Her critics will accuse her of attention seeking, but it is nothing of the sort. It’s striving to be able to use your voice and give voice to others who have quietly carried the burden. This is a turning point in the conversation around pregnancy loss. And that means something for women like myself who have at times felt alone, isolated, unacknowledged, ignored and misunderstood. When all that was needed was a simple question: are you ok?