Before I start, I want to acknowledge an assumption/bias that I’m not going to try to avoid when writing about something so personal. This is going to be extremely heteronormative, because while I abundantly understand that IVF is something gone through by gay couples, trans people, and perhaps most significantly, people on their own, my only experience is of being the man in a straight couple going through this. I’m writing about the experience of being the man in a straight couple going through a miscarriage, because that’s me.
Laura and I are going through our third miscarriage this year. And one sentence in, I already feel like I need to apologise, add disclaimers, defer, retract, sublimate… I feel like I should say, “Laura is going through her third miscarriage this year, and I’m here too.” Because when it comes to miscarriages, it’s fair to say there’s a lack of gender equality. But actually, I think the truth is somewhere between the two, with a pile of caveats teetering over me.
Miscarriages are cruel and hateful. And one of their cruellest, most hateful aspects is that while they rob both of us of the potential of a baby, they physically assault only one of us. I was there at 5am when we both stood over a white plastic stick, a pot of wee to the side, waiting to see if the IVF implantation had taken. I was there when it flashed “pregnant”, and was an equal part of the bleary-eyed conversation about how this barely means anything until we can get to a seven-week scan. I was a balanced partner in the fight against hope, against letting in glimmers of belief that this might become a baby, having twice suffered its not already this year. I put in the same amount of time and effort into doing everything I could to not think of this as a baby, at the same time as counting eight months from today to see when it might be born. I also was part of the process of accidentally picturing Toby clumsily holding his baby brother or sister, and wondering about names. But on Sunday morning, when Laura came back from the toilet with that look on her face, I immediately became a very unequal partner.
Right now Laura’s in all sorts of pain. She’s, on one level, having a really bad period. (Which, as an odd side-effect of our situation with PCOS, is an exception. For the first few years of our relationship, Laura didn’t even have periods. So this doesn’t really offer that notion of comparative ‘normality’.) But it’s not a period, because while it’s all but identical, this isn’t just a womb lining – it’s a womb lining with a microscopic bundle of cells inside it, that in another universe could have grown into a baby. Let alone the bizarre effect caused by having to continue taking the drugs that try to preserve the lining for the delusional ‘hope’ that it might not be gone. It’s gone. But IVF is such an infinite prick that it makes you have to pretend it hasn’t, just to fuck with you some more.
So Laura is cramping, bleeding and aching, while at the same time having to put drugs in both ends of her body, that she knows are only making it worse, while at the same time grieving, while at the same time physically containing everything that’s happening. Me – I’m feeling really sad. It doesn’t quite compare.
It still matters, of course. It matters a lot. It sucks so much. This feels awful in its own unique way, an awful unlike other awfuls. And I find myself without an idea of what to do with it.
When my dad died three years ago, I knew what to do: completely fall to pieces. I experienced grief for the first time, and it destroyed me, but it was all about me. It was my grief, and I was allowed to experience it as much as I wanted! (This is wildly untrue, by the way – I became such a mess that I was on the phone to the Samaritans, in NHS grief counselling, put back on drugs, and spent a year in therapy. I perhaps took it a bit far.) This isn’t the same grief. This is a lot smaller, because it’s not a death. It’s the failure to be a life. This isn’t losing a baby you’ve seen wiggle on a scan, or God forbid, after it’s born. It’s some cells without consciousness or meaning. But it’s the loss of potential, and it turns out that’s its own unique form of grief. So that doesn’t help.
Then because this is happening for me, but not happening to me, I have this expectation of myself that it’s my responsibility to be fine. (I realise this sounds like such a bloody cliche, but see the paragraph above to understand that I’m not exactly averse to experiencing emotions.) It’s just, when you look at the woman you love in both physical and mental pain, breathing in puffs and clutching her belly, knowing that she has to see that spiteful blood every time she wipes on the toilet, knowing that she doesn’t have the luxury of forgetting it’s all happening for the length of a TV show, the grotesque nature of the imbalance seems to suggest certain responsibilities. I’m not having to do any of those things, so of course I need to just get on with things and be fine.
But I’m not fine. I’m sad. I’m sad because of that peculiar side-category of grief, and I’m sad because I know that with one last embryo in the freezer we’re going to go through at least most of this process again. I’m sad because I want my little boy to be a brother, and that hurts in an existential way that feels too big to grapple, like a cloud that stretches through time. And I’m sad because I’m watching someone I love so much be so sad too.
So I get on with things. I take on the bulk of looking after Toby, because that keeps me busy and gives Laura a break. I go to work as usual, and I make stupid jokes with my colleagues in Slack as usual, and I write articles with gags in them as usual because it’s my job to do that. And then, as is the case today, I reach a point of sadness when I can’t do those things for a moment. I’ve taken the day off work, Toby’s in nursery, I’m hiding in a hole. (Coffee shop.) That’s not even true – Toby was in nursery, but as I write this sentence Laura’s taken him to his gym class, and I feel rubbish because I didn’t do that instead. I’m checking in on WhatsApp. She’s fine. She’s not fine.
And I know it’ll pass. Really quite surprisingly quickly, in some ways. We’ve done this twice already this year, and we know by next week we’ll be getting back to normal, and by the week after we’ll forget we’re getting back to normal. But it doesn’t go away. Like different grief, it changes shape, settles down, stops being a thing happening to you, and becomes a thing that’s part of you.
We are, in so, so many ways, just so incredibly ridiculously fortunate. We have a kid! God, to do this without Toby. I cannot imagine the version of this for those unable to conceive their first. Toby didn’t come easily – three years of drugs and operations and more drugs (all for Laura, because of course) – but still we got there before reaching the point of IVF. And we’re doing miscarriage on Easy Mode. The truth is, what’s happening to us is what happens to five out of six fertilised embryos! Without IVF having got us here, we might not have even taken a pregnancy test yet, just figured Laura’s period was late, then arrived. But another of IVF’s dick moves is to require you to see that “Pregnant 1-2 weeks!” on the little digital screen. (Which is the pale cousin of it’s uber-dick move, when it forces you to take a test and see the same after you know you’ve lost it, because the hormones stick around.)
This isn’t losing a baby. We are so blessed that we’ve not experienced this. But you know, breaking your leg isn’t as bad as dying of pancreatic cancer, but it still really bloody hurts to break your leg. This still really bloody hurts.
So is this our miscarriage? Yes. It is. Because it would have been our baby. And because I know Laura considers it as such. With all those caveats.
I feel like I should somehow have some advice for other partners in my position. But I don’t. Maybe I need some. I think to myself, “I don’t have anyone to talk to about this! At least Laura has her network of mum friends!” But that’s absolute rubbish, because the moment a good friend texts me to say they’re sorry to hear the news, my reply is a dumbass, “Thanks.” Not, “Argh help.” Because I don’t want any help. But I do. But I don’t.
I just want to move on, let this become another sedimentary layer of sadness at the bottom of my self, and get on with living the utterly brilliant life I have. I have a wife, and a kid, and I adore them. I already won. And who wants to ever be that tired again, or change twelve nappies a day? Phew, what a narrow escape! Etc.
But today I feel sad.