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When his girlfriend of eight months had a miscarriage, the last thing Richard Burke wanted was a baby. But for his girlfriend Valerie, it was the moment when she realised just how much she wanted a child. It was the start of a long and difficult chapter in their lives. Miscarriage is one of the worst everyday events that can happen to a woman. But what's it like for a man?
The thing about miscarriage is, you go to pieces. During the eight months Valerie and I had been together I had always seen her as the strong one. But when she rang me that afternoon, she was on the edge of hysteria. She was sobbing so hard that it was almost a scream.
She had gone to the GP that morning because of a bad period. We thought that her coil had somehow become dislodged. It was the only explanation we could think of. When she called me to say the GP had ordered a taxi to take her to hospital, we were worried but nothing more.
It must have been about four in the afternoon when she finally rang, incoherent and clearly panicking. My editor waved me out of the building and into a taxi without a question asked.
'Visiting someone?' the taxi driver called over his shoulder.
'My girlfriend. She...' I had no words. None of this made sense to me, not yet. It must have shown.
His eyes assessed me in the mirror. 'Oh,' he said softly. 'Understood. Man in a panic.'
He drove faster, and I began to cry.
At the hospital, they had scanned her, prodded her, tested her blood, all without explanation. Then a doctor had come, sat beside her, and very gently explained that they were very sorry but she had lost her baby. The pregnancy had been ectopic and now they had to operate to remove one of her fallopian tubes.
What baby? We were taking precautions. Ectopic? Lose a tube? In the course of half an hour, we were introduced to a whole new vocabulary, the language of failed pregnancy.
Since then, we have had seven more miscarriages, including another ectopic. We have also had Daniel, our wonderful boy, now eleven. Along the way, there has been hope, despair, uncertainty and grief.
And yet we've been lucky. We have a child. Not everyone gets that far. Miscarriage is far from rare.
When it happened, we were still riding that first rush of discovering that we loved each other. Now nothing was the same between us.
For my part, I was too busy coping with her feelings to consider my own. The miscarriage raised so many questions about the future — but for now I brushed them aside. Valerie was hurting, that was all that mattered to me. I had to protect her. So we talked to no one. We hid in our cave and licked our wounds. Friends Valerie had known and loved for years quietly drifted away. And friends with kids... well, we just didn't see them at all.
I stood guard over Valerie while she coped with her grief, feeling utterly useless because, actually, there was nothing I could do.
Over time Valerie's emotional wounds began to heal. But by then, it was me that was hurting.
Sex had gone overnight from that fantastic first flush of a new relationship to an uncomfortable question mark. Was a cuddle just a cuddle — or a prelude to something more? We couldn't just make love with joyous abandon, because we were both aware of what that had led to before. It wasn't making love any more, it was a kind of negotiation around each other's feelings.
We'd only been together eight months but I could no longer imagine life without her. Did I ever say that to her in that exact way? In all honesty, I don't recall. But I do know that Valerie didn't see it that way. Our relationship had had a turbulent start, I'd been terrified of commitment. I'd been reluctant to accept my own feelings right from the start. Even though I had now declared undying love, Valerie couldn't trust that I really meant forever.
And now she wanted a baby. She had never wanted children before, but the miscarriage left her with a gap in her life that she could only explain one way. She wanted a baby, with me. But I was 29, and enjoying my life as it was. More than anything I wanted to go back to the life we'd had before the miscarriage.
Now, my reluctance was the cause of her pain. And, because she saw my reluctance, she was unsure of my love. And her uncertainty of me, if anything, drove me a little further away.
We took walks in the park, and I found myself watching the children playing with Mum or Dad. After these walks Valerie was always withdrawn. I'd lie in bed next to her at night, wishing for some magical way to bring her back to me.
Every period was a reminder for Valerie of what she had lost, and to me, a reinforcement of my failure.
You can never think of yourself or your partner the same way again. I am sure our own experiences were not unusual. Many couples' relationships must founder in the aftermath, and even fail.
We were lucky: we married. For me, it was a first small step towards her. It was a thing I knew she wanted and that I could give her. Marriage was wonderful — but it didn't change the basic problem: there was still a sadness in Valerie, a part of her that I just couldn't reach.
But after nearly a year of living with Valerie's yearning, and watching those children in the park every weekend, I slowly began to see the attraction. For her birthday, I gave her a wooden sculpture of a tall-necked bird that she'd seen weeks earlier. I looped a tea-towel around its beak, and hung a hot water bottle in it as though it was a stork carrying a baby.
That night, we threw away the condoms.
Seven weeks later we had a miscarriage.
In total, we had four miscarriages before we had Daniel. I won't go into the details, because they begin to blur together. We entered a kind of daze: try, fail; try, fail; try, succeed; lose it. In bed, every night and morning, we faced the same unspoken questions. Do we want to make love? What's the chance of a baby? What about the pain if we lose it? Then we'd stop making love completely because it was just too emotionally damaging. It became harder and harder to approach each other with a genuine sense of arousal. There was a time when I thought that we'd never make love again.
It stopped being about the baby. It was only about the pain. Which particular ways will this month find to hurt us? Perhaps the uncertainty of each other's sexual responses, or the fear of talking when the period's late — because if you talk, you'll jinx it. Perhaps the moment when the period comes — only, it's not a period because it two weeks too late, and far too heavy, and you know that you've lost another one.
We'd been together long enough now to trust each other. Talking made all the difference in the world.
We talked to other people, too. We'd learned from the first miscarriage that silence didn't help. We were honest about it, and we found the most wonderful thing; for the most part, other people understood. They might not completely 'get it' — but they saw the pain, accepted it, and moved on.
Daniel was, is, always will be, a wonder to us.
From time to time, though, he asks us why he couldn't have had a brother or sister. And the answer is — we tried. We would have loved to have more than one baby. After Daniel was weaned we began to try. With Daniel asleep in the next room, we were full of confidence and expectation. And we did indeed conceive.
We lost it.
It was the first of four more miscarriages. The last of them was another firm pregnancy, just as Daniel had been — but ectopic.
We both feel that this last miscarriage was the easiest to grieve for. It was the first one since Daniel that had really felt real. We were two and a half months in before we lost it. And it was the time when we finally began to think: never again.
When the woman in the clinic asked me if I was sure I wanted a vasectomy, I said 'yes' with more confidence than I felt. Did I really want to give up all hope of having another child? What if Valerie got run over by a bus?
I nodded to the woman, and the operation went ahead.
I think I have learned something through the pain of so many miscarriages. You are who you are now. It could be you that gets run over by that bus. I have a wife I love, a son I adore, and there isn't enough time in life to spend it jumping at shadows.
The thing about miscarriage is, you go to pieces.' That was the first line of Richard's article. But you could replace the word miscarriage with cancer or stroke or HIV or any of the other many health challenges that life throws up. On malehealth we tend to think that talking about these things is good because it might help other men in the same situation. But does it really do the men doing the talking any good? Richard wrote the article above about a year ago, so was it a good idea?
'My wife Valerie had eight miscarriages between 1990 and 1997 so by the time I wrote it, it was already nearly ten years later. The passing of time helps but miscarriage is like bereavement, it never goes away. We hadn't talked about it much since we stopped trying. As miscarriages came and went, we both came to know how the other felt. We would talk briefly, then try to get on with life. But my writing the article meant that we had to go back to it.
'It was uncomfortable — eight years of my life crystallised into the forefront of my mind for a month. Reliving it was very intense but the writing was cathartic. I wanted to do it because most people go through it alone. We lock ourselves in a private room. Valerie and I both had phases of being withdrawn and lived some very difficult years but it made us stronger in the long term. Once we emerged from it we didn't have the slightest doubt about ourselves as a couple.'
Richard, a former TV producer/director, is now a writer. His 2005 novel Redemption is about a prison governor's wife who is abducted.
She too has had a miscarriage. 'Just as the character in the story loses his wife, I think I felt the miscarriage took Valerie away from me. The story is a metaphor for me in that sense. I only realised that afterwards. It helped me understand the book's painful creation process - the nine full rewrites.'
|This article reflects the experience of the individual. It is not health information from the MHF under the terms of the NHS England Information Standard. It was last updated in 2007.|
Page created on April 2nd, 2007
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