Writer Anna Whitehouse has a three-year-old daughter, Mae. She had three miscarriages before her daughter was born, and has experienced two while trying for a second child
Growing up, I was always vaguely aware that my younger sister and I were not alone. I remember one bedtime after Mum had finished reading my favourite story, Curly Cobbler And The Cuckoo Clock, she mentioned two boys, Mark and Paul, who were lost before I was born. The way she explained her two miscarriages to me at seven years old, was that if the boys had been born, my parents may never have had my sister and me. That was typical of Mum to find something positive in such tragedy.
Today, aged 64, my mother Lucia (or ‘Mutti’ as we call her) is a powerhouse of optimism. It is entwined in everything she does – from warming our towels on the radiator to her catchphrase when we say we can’t do something: ‘Just snap the “t” off and you can.’
‘You happened when I had almost given up,’ she told me hopefully, on one of the darker days following my fifth miscarriage. While comments from friends like, ‘At least you can get pregnant’ felt insensitive, my mum’s glass half full outlook offered genuine solace. Perhaps it was because I knew her positive veneer masked her own scars. Like me, she had once imagined a name and a personality for ‘our newest recruit’, as my husband Matt would say.
It was on holiday in Menorca last year, as I was eating a limp salad niçoise that I felt the familiar blood between my thighs. I was seven weeks pregnant and, having been through three miscarriages before my daughter was born and one afterwards, I knew the warm, dark, wet sensation of loss.
Mutti was with me on that overcast Menorcan day, pierced with occasional squeals from giddy children in a nearby swimming pool, when I uttered: ‘I’m bleeding’. In the moment of silence that followed, I realised for the first time that I wasn’t alone in navigating the well-worn path of emotionally ricocheting between faux positivity – Googling all possible outcomes when bleeding – and crippling fear. The truth is that however supportive my husband, friends and sister were, you don’t understand the searing pain of losing a child unless you’ve been there.
Few words were spoken during the days that followed, but our communication would manifest itself physically – a gentle arm squeeze here, a furtive, protective glance when I’d returned from the toilet there. Mum understood from her own experience that no words can placate the numbing fear and lost dreams. She knew just to sit in the dark hole with me.
When I finally broke down a few days later, it was a deep-seated grief for all the five children I had lost, without Mum’s soft lily of the valley scent and warmth to shield me. She held me in a vice-like grip until I couldn’t cry any more and I knew something had shifted as we mourned both our losses; one woman holding the other.
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As I sit here at 18 weeks pregnant – the furthest we’ve got in a pregnancy since Mae was born – the haunting sense of those children gone remains with me. They are a part of our family, and probably the reason why I find myself holding Mae’s hand a little too tightly, until she has to say, ‘Mama, get off!’ It reminds me of when Mutti’s hugs would swoop in from nowhere and knock the breath out of me. The ones that made you feel as though everything was going to be OK.