The babies that almost were

I zip up the two cosy toes, pull down the plastic cover, and put my coat on quickly. Pushing it to the end of the road, I head for the cemetery. Long quiet paths, circuitous routes, birdsong. It's an obvious choice to get the babies to sleep. Babies. Plural.

I was a mum again, to two boys. Two babies, not one. A spare, an extra, a magic surprise bonus baby that I had not expected, had not asked for. Two babies feeding from me instead of one, two bums to change, two grumpy old man faces, two pairs of wrinkly hands. The maths of twins is simple, you just double everything. Everything was counted when they were born, nappies, poos, feeds, vests, sleep suits, packets of wipes, tiny fingers, hours of sleep, days since they were born.

Pregnancy is also a long list of little numbers. How many weeks late are you? When was your last period? Fill in the blanks, watch the midwife turn the magic wheel of prediction. The due date, burned into your heart forever with significance.

You are a countdown now, a great big Bond film clock, inexorably ticking away days until baby is born. Baby is not counting down, baby is adding up, multiplying. One egg plus one sperm equals one zygote. One zygote divided again and again equals one blastocyst, equals one embryo. By the time you realise you are pregnant, your body has been doing complicated arithmetic for several weeks.

How many weeks pregnant are you? Everyone says pregnancy is nine months, but it's ten if you count lunar months, which of course you do because you have done so since your first period.

So are you six weeks gone? Eight? Were you busy and didn't notice you'd missed a period?

Eight whole weeks where baby has been busily adding up, adding cells. Website widgets will keep you updated on what we suppose is happening inside you. Every week is an event, the addition of limb bud, or a spinal tube heralded with all the pomp of a graduation.

Every appointment brings more figures to remember. Twelve weeks of taking folic acid, twelve weeks till the dating scan, blood tests at ten weeks, glucose levels, blood pressure, BMI, and your age. Oh yes that's a big one.

“Pregnant woman” is not the only thing counting down, “woman” is counting down too, as even in utero, she has every egg she will ever produce inside her already. Her children share her birth journey like Trojans hidden to catch the world unawares. These eggs are there all her childhood, on every swing or slide, they are there. Maybe she will hang on to them until she is quite grown up, maybe fifteen, or maybe a smaller number, maybe she will start letting them go at only ten, or eleven.  Girls receive their biological clock as if retiring from childhood, the steady release of eggs and hormones a rhythm they have no choice but to go along with, to march or dance to, for twenty years or so.

I push the pram along the perimeter path of the cemetery, a route that takes in the oldest graves as well as the newest. The babies sleep, tiny fizzing balls of life within the tank-like pram. I read the graves as I pass them. ‘Beloved mother' ‘Dearly departed husband' ‘Wife of the above' and their dates. The numbers and words all that remain of that person, of that collection of cells.

I pass grand Victorian family monuments, and realise they show dozens of children taken in infancy, or toddlerhood, lists of names, some used over and over, as if maybe this newest Albert might survive, maybe he will become the only Albert, the one that would make up for all the others lost.

I scurry past, and I feel shame at my scurrying faced with what those mothers endured. The unending pregnancies, the fear of illness, and ‘failure to thrive'. Next to that, my expensive pram filled with extra magic babies seems to laugh in their face, an insult to all those little ones passed, and to their permanently grieving parents.

The regular stones stretching away from me on all sides, and the weight of their significance is suddenly too much for my hormonally chafed heart, and I regret my route, heading instead for the quick way home, the big path that cuts the cemetery in two. I find myself approaching a great white oblong, a marble stone of such size, it cannot be for a single person. Perhaps a family? Or a disaster commemorated? As I draw near, I see a pile of strange dull shapes heaped against it, muted colours, sodden lumps. They are toys, teddies of all sizes, left for babies the stone marks the grave of. I cannot figure whether they are children miscarried, or stillborn, but my proximity to it causes a visceral reaction and I shove the pram, as fast as I can manoeuvre it, away from the stone, and the sodden lumps.

One in three pregnancies ends in a miscarriage I am told by a nurse. It is February 2009, and I have come to the doctors because I am pregnant. I have just asked for an early scan, despite being only six weeks pregnant, because I want to know for sure that baby is okay in there, that they are growing and moving inside me. There would be too many, she explains. If everybody who asked for one got an early scan, they would be overwhelmed by the huge numbers.

It is September 2008 and I am in Matalan. I am leaning on the trolley in sudden and unexpected pain, hanging on, and just as suddenly the pain recedes, and I am able to straighten again. I have no explanation for the pain until next morning, when I begin to bleed. Rushing to the women's hospital A&E, I am asked to sit and wait, amongst the patients in the waiting room, on the plastic seats. I sit, worried that whatever is happening, will have already happened by the time my name is called.

Where is the urgency, I wonder.

When a young male doctor examines me, he cannot tell me more than I know. I may have miscarried, I may not have. I take a pregnancy test, and it shows positive, but it's impossible to tell if there is an embryo inside me still. My period was three weeks ago. I must be less than four weeks pregnant. Less than four weeks is hardly pregnant at all is it? Only days really, only a tiny zygote, not yet a blastocyst, not yet an embryo even. I am told to see my GP in a week or two for a follow up pregnancy test, and to come back if I have a fever.

Arriving home, I am divided.  I was pregnant, and yet I am not. My emergency over before it began.  By teatime the young doctor will have forgotten me, still only halfway through his shift. I did not have a child, I did not have a baby, all I had was the idea of one, but the taking of that from me is more, at that moment, than I can possibly bear.

As I push the pram away from the grave, my tiny loss seems so miniscule weighed against the tonnage of that marble block, of all those tiny numbers.

During my twin pregnancy I was asked if they were conceived naturally. By doctors, by passers-by, by women at playgroup, and I was offended, how dare they question my fertility? This gave way to guilt when I realised that at thirty-four, I may not have been able to conceive naturally, I may have needed IVF, I might have had two or three rounds before it worked. The words we use to describe the process make it sound a formality, as easily done as a dental appointment. We don't congratulate these people on getting out of bed despite miscarrying twice in one year. We don't marvel at the polite interest in our affairs, despite their own concerns.

I have seen some friends endure unimaginable pain through losing a baby, seen them pick themselves up and get on with things, and I marvel at them, their strength and courage.

My heart breaks for them, and hot tears spring up at the most random moments, but the oddest thing of all is the silence.

I did not, until today, tell many people about my miscarriage.

I did not feel talking about it would do either party much good. If they had lost a baby, my own seemed so early, so tiny, as to be irrelevant, but if they had never been through it, my telling them might just be awkward, and sad.

I am writing about it now, because I want to address all those tiny numbers, all those close together dates, and confront my own guilt and shame. Maybe I lost only the idea of child, and of course it could have been so much worse, but the idea of a lost child is what we all turn away from, and hide with euphemisms and jargon and medical speak.  

We count the weeks of our pregnancies and the percentiles of our babies because all these tiny numbers, these carefully plotted points on graphs and charts reinforce the idea that death is far from us, that we can cheat it by simply testing enough times, by measuring enough things. We tell ourselves that maybe if we had tested for something or not done something we could have kept that child, that we could have prevented their death, and that we are somehow responsible.

I do not know how the mothers of all those Alberts dealt with their loss, I do not know how anybody does, but talking about it, and feeling that you are not alone is a good first step.