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I lost my baby 30 years ago

Shelley writes about the need for empathy, understanding and sensitive language.

I lost a baby 30 years ago five months into the pregnancy, and it’s surely one of the loneliest and bewildering experiences I’ve ever had.

I was sad to hear this week that Amanda Holden, actress and Britain’s Got Talent judge, had lost the baby she had carried for seven months after suffering a miscarriage earlier on last year. I was also struck by an article in the Daily Mail by Bel Mooney, who lost her baby 35 years ago, because her point was that the word “lost” is a misnomer. As she puts it the devastated couple did not lose their son “like an umbrella left on a train”, but that the “space in the womb is matched by a vast chasm in the mother’s heart…it seems nothing in the world will ever fill”.

I knew exactly what she meant. I lost a baby 30 years ago five months into the pregnancy, and it’s surely one of the loneliest and bewildering experiences I’ve ever had. All those years ago “mental health care” hadn’t been invented, and I very much felt that my unborn dead child and I were treated as though we were nothing more serious than a spot on the chin. Words like “no heartbeat” and “missed abortion” were vaguely referred to in a clinic that had clearly never heard of patient confidentiality. Indeed, I’m sure some of the mothers in the waiting room, and I use that term loosely – we were separated from the waiting room by billowing curtains, glared at me as I left to catch the bus within a few minutes of having that bombshell dropped, because they’d heard the word “abortion” and thought I’d deliberately done away with my baby. Or that’s what I thought at the time.

In the following months I still couldn’t quite take in what had happened and still half believed that when the due date came round my baby would put in an appearance. But it came and went and no baby appeared, and I had to at last face the awful truth. The baby blankets, cuddle and wrap robe, baby brush and comb that had been presents from family were still in the top of the wardrobe waiting. I couldn’t bear to touch them or move them out of sight as that would have been the final admission it was all over, and I was afraid the emptiness would envelop me and eat me whole. Which it did anyway. At this point I discovered all my friends were pregnant, as was my brother’s girlfriend. They muttered their news quietly, suppressing their natural joy, while I could see the relief in their eyes that it was me, and not they, who was in this position.

The hospital sent me away to see if I would “lose it” myself, but I didn’t. “It” had to be removed, because by now “it” had started to be reabsorbed into my body. Or so they told me. In February I was given an anaesthetic, and when I woke up “he”, which they briefly referred to him as, was gone. I asked the consultant whose “care” I was under what had happened that I had a live baby at one scan and not at the next. He patted me benevolently on the head and told me not to “bother my pretty head about it. Just give it six weeks and try again”. Like a failed tomato plant. He also told me there would be other babies. But I wanted that one. I certainly felt like I had failed though. I couldn’t even look after my own baby after all.

The expectation from everyone was that “you must be over it by now” when I also failed at that. But I didn’t know what to do with the love I had grown for that tiny little thing. Unfortunately, it didn’t disappear along with the pregnancy, and I found myself unable to face friends, who by now had their little bundles of joy. The only person who said anything that made any sense to me was a woman I worked with at the time. Her mother had died while I was in hospital, and when I next saw her I told her I was very sad for her. She said “Och, but sure I had all those wonderful years with mum. You’ve lost your wee baby and you never got to meet him”. She too had lost a child many years before, although it was after the birth, but she had put my problem into a nutshell. I felt so robbed, so useless and my arms ached to hold that baby I’d been looking forward to. Trouble was no-one else had grown to love him. He wasn’t even a “him” – just an “it”.

So months later I found myself sitting with a psychiatrist my doctor had referred me to. She told me I needed more support, and perhaps she made other suggestions that I can’t remember. Anyway, it didn’t help. But somewhere I came across the address of the Miscarriage Association, and I wrote to them. They sent me their publication, and it was full of stories from women who were experiencing the same feelings as me, and I started to realise that what I was suffering from was grief. Their motto was “Into every desert a little rain must fall”. For some reason those words were comforting.

For years, and to some extent even now, although I went on to have children, when I was asked how many I had I always felt I was betraying “Oliver”, as I came to call him in my head, if I didn’t give him a mention. It’s so strange that we can talk at length about almost every affliction under the sun nowadays, but still not about miscarriage and stillbirth.

So Amanda Holden won’t be able to see any sense in what has happened to her right now. In fact, it doesn’t make sense. It’s just uncaring nature doing what it does, and us sensitive humans providing the emotion. But someday, a long time from now, like Anne Diamond, the newsreader who lost one of her baby sons to cot death and started an awareness campaign that was thought to have saved many lives, Amanda Holden may turn her experience into a force for good and get us talking freely about one of these last taboos. I have never understood why, in a country where abortion is illegal even at the very earliest stages, we don’t have more to say about one baby in four being “lost”, sometimes a number of weeks or months into the pregnancy. And as if that’s not bad enough we don’t talk about it to the mums and dads who suffer. If it’s just an acceptable statistic why is abortion illegal? After all, if a child dies unexpectedly after birth there is an inquest, yet if it dies in the womb it’s somehow seen as less of a death.

I texted a dear friend lately, who lost many babies in her attempt to have a child, when a programme about a woman whose baby died brought back memories. She answered “We never really get over it”. Bel Mooney is right when she says “the words “get over” must never be used in respect of this or any other bereavement. Whoever imagines that the end of life – no matter how small, how unformed – could be something you “get over” as you “pull yourself together” and “move on”. After 35 years she has finally decided on a memorial for “Tom”. She has a piece of slate in her garden engraved with the words “Love’s stillness forever moves”. Forever moved by her stillborn baby.

I have always had a place for my little one, who never opened his eyes in this world and exists now only in my memory. I’ve never put words to it before. Until now. It simply says: “My first wee son”.

Shelley Leggett

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