As a young reporter 11 years ago, I wrote about an alarming trend: The number of miscarriages in Singapore was going up, up and up.
I got the statistics, spoke to a woman who had experienced a miscarriage, interviewed five doctors and probed a politician on possible ways to address the problem.
It was an assignment to me, a story to be done before I moved on to the next.
A decade on, the issue became personal. Within six months, I had not one, but two miscarriages.
In May 2013, I found out that I was pregnant. It was unplanned but my husband and I, after some initial adjustment, were thrilled.
After all, we had been married for four years but somehow life had got in the way of making space for children: I went overseas to do a master’s degree, then waited for a posting as a foreign correspondent. I was then 34, just a year from being defined as a geriatric mother – or what doctors call a woman of advanced maternal age.
We saw a doctor in Hong Kong where we were now based. He did a scan.
Congratulations, he said. There was a gestational sac – the first sign of pregnancy but no yolk or heartbeat. But that’s normal, he declared. It’s early days yet.
We returned to Singapore for a break and as a surprise to our best friends who had just had a baby. We popped champagne and I had an illicit sip, a toast to the new addition to our group as well as the embryo growing – I thought – inside me.
Back in Hong Kong, we went back to the clinic. The news was not good this time. The sac had not expanded, which meant the pregnancy was not progressing as it should. I’m sorry, said the doctor.
We were upset, of course.
But I sought comfort in research and statistics, including the ones I had cited in my own article from years before. One in five known pregnancies ends in miscarriage. Some of us, I told my husband and myself philosophically, just have to make up the numbers.
We decided I would have the procedure “to clean up” at the public hospital. Like many others who had miscarriages, we told few people. I explained to my office that I had to take a few days off work for a “medical procedure” and left it at that. In hospital, I finished Salman Rushdie’s new memoir Joseph Anton and kept tabs on the Edward Snowden saga then unfolding in Hong Kong.
But my husband and I had changed. Within just two short weeks of being pregnant, our world had shifted. We had begun to plan and dream, to think of what it would be like to be parents, from how we would dress the child to what values we would impart.
Two months later, I conceived again. This time, we were not so innocent in our joy. We waited till we saw the heartbeat on the ultrasound screen twice – a red dot pulsating amid a mass of variegated greys and blacks – before we told our parents.
On our third visit, when I was about 11 weeks along, I complained of slight abdominal cramps. Probably just ligament pains as the uterus stretches, the doctor – a different one – reassured me as she moved a transducer over my belly.
My husband, reaching out for his camera to take a photo of the screen, stilled. It was all darkness. The heartbeat had stopped.
This time, there was little bravado left in us. We opted for a private hospital where I would have a dilation and curettage operation that night.
We shared a room with a Hong Kong couple in their early 20s, who we gathered were there for an abortion and were placed in the awkward situation of having to listen to me tearfully break the news to my mum over the phone.
They went first. As they left, the young man whispered: “We’re sorry.”
Our turn came. In the operating room, my doctor, her pearl necklace shimmering from her surgical scrubs, loomed over me. Later, as I emerged from the haze of general anaesthesia, I blearily asked her: “Did you see if it was a boy or a girl?” She shook her head gently at me.
Silly me. It was all scraped up and sucked out.
Medically, recurrent pregnancy loss is defined as more than two miscarriages in a row. We were two strikes down, one more to go. But as anyone who has gone through miscarriage will know – and without meaning to diminish the pain for those who suffered even more loss – one is one too many.
So we went through test after test searching for causes. Nothing stood out. The only certainty, said the doctor, was my age. Fact is, old eggs are old, which means a higher risk that embryos with genetic abnormalities are incubated.
That there was all this uncertainty made it harder.
It was an invisible grief. We returned to work, looking the same on the outside but bereft within.
There had been no wake, no funeral, no body to be buried. We did not even know what to call our losses – technically they were not babies; the first was “just” an embryo while the second was “old enough” to be a foetus.
I grappled with my feelings. Somehow, society speaks of miscarriages in hushed tones – the word itself seems to suggest some kind of responsibility on the part of women who “mis-carry” their children. See how we use the word when we describe legal travesties as a “miscarriage of justice”.
The fact is, why miscarriages happen is often shrouded in mystery, and most times, say doctors, they are beyond one’s control. Yet, the secrecy surrounding it leaves much ignorance about the issue.
For many, what we know of miscarriages is what we have seen on television – a woman falling down and ending up with blood on her thighs.
Is it any wonder that many who have gone through it choose to keep silent?
I was fortunate to have family and close friends who gave us enormous support.
My husband and I certainly were not ashamed of what had happened. But we were in pain and we were not sure talking incessantly about it would help.
Furthermore, what could we expect people to say except an awkward “I’m sorry”? Unlike for other bereavement, there is no social ritual for coping with this particular kind of death.
Yet, I did feel an irrational resentment that not more people knew of our losses. It was not exactly sympathy I wanted. It was recognition, I think, that a loss from a miscarriage was felt as keenly as any other.
And, I wonder, if more speak more openly of their experiences, would those who have experienced the same pain feel less alone?
It is a personal issue, and different people will feel differently.
In all honesty, I began writing this only as my husband and I were waiting to welcome our daughter.
Kei An, weighing 3.25kg, measuring 49cm and boasting a nose like her father’s, finally arrived last Tuesday, six days past her due date.
Without the hope she represents, I am not sure I could write about our past losses.
But what I do know is that as my husband and I get to know this little one, we will also remember our other babies gone before her.