At least you’ve already got one was the thing I heard most after my miscarriage, and in the months of treatment, infertility and more treatment that followed. At least you’ve already got one became the refrain to the very worst time of my life.
It’s surprising for just how many people misery comes in the form of a single blue line in an oval window. Hope and despair neatly packaged up in a little white stick. Not pregnant. Again.
The official figures are that one in six couples in the UK experience infertility. It’s the numbers underneath that though – the ones not collected in any survey or census – that are rather more telling. The number of those sticks weed on each month, the number of excruciating, heart-pumping seconds waiting for those lines to appear, the number of tears shed as the stick is thrown in the bathroom bin. The number of times it’s been dug back out, just to check. Just to see. Just in case it’s different this time.
People don’t talk about infertility very much because it’s a very personal subject and a very private pain. And even more secret is the heartache of secondary infertility. Secondary infertility is what happens when a couple who has a child (or children) for some reason can’t conceive again – or can’t carry a baby to term. Worldwide, secondary infertility is now estimated to account for 6 out of 10 infertility cases.
And the very worst thing about secondary infertility is this: At least you’ve already got one.
It’s so awful largely because it’s TRUE. You do already have one. And you are so, so lucky and so, so privileged to have that little person in your life. Some people who desperately, desperately want to be in your position don’t ever get that chance.
But at least you’ve already got one is also complicated, as truth often is. Because underneath it really means several different things.
It means, look at everything you DO have.
It means, get some perspective.
It means, stop being so ungrateful.
It means, quit feeling sorry for yourself.
It means, your pain is out of proportion.
It means, you’re not allowed to be sad.
And it means you feel guilty for your ingratitude – and confused as to why you’re not happy with your wonderful life and wonderful family. At least you’ve already got one takes away your right to grieve. It drives it underground. It makes it a sordid, lonely, isolating little secret. It compares your pain with other people’s and finds it wanting.
The fact is that whether you’ve physically lost a baby or lost your ideal ‘image’ of your 2.4 family – you have still lost something important. Something real to you. Something you desperately wanted. It doesn’t really matter if you’ve already got a kid or not.
Society has an unhealthy obsession with comparing human hurt. Anguish is not a competition – there are no winners here. Only losers. You simply cannot categorise negative experiences on an arbitrary scale and then assign appropriate reactions to them. The death of a loved one does not ‘trump’ a miscarriage. A cancer diagnosis is not ‘better’ than a heart attack. It ALL SUCKS. Pain is pain. Shit is shit. Does it really matter how brown and sticky it is?
Yet for some reason we persist in making those judgements, and in continuing to judge anyone whose responses fall outside of accepted parameters. So you can cry about your Dad dying, but you need to get over your miscarriage? Who the hell is making these rules? And why are the rest of us following them?
At least you’ve already got one is mindfulness gone mad. You can be thankful, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ever be sad. That’s far too simplistic a view.
If you want simple, try thinking of it like this. Person A is drowning in a puddle. Person B is drowning in the Atlantic. There is a great deal more water in the latter, but both are still drowning. Dead is dead – no one is going to be any less dead at the other end.
And as person A takes their last gurgling gasp, I’m pretty fucking sure they’re not feeling grateful that at least it’s muddy rainwater and not giant volumes of sea filling up their collapsing lungs.
Now Person A is thrashing around wildly, and making a mess. Person B is taking it rather more on the chin. Who’s to say which one is having the ‘right’ level of reaction to their situation? Because really, we don’t know how either of them ended up in the water in the first place. Maybe Person B has been swimming for hours and doesn’t have any fight left. Maybe Person A’s head is actually being held under the water. You just don’t know what’s going on in someone’s life because you can’t see under the surface. You can’t judge what they’re going through or how they’re going through it.
For me, secondary infertility was so very raw (not by any means any worse than infertility, NEVER that, just raw) precisely because it was secondary. Because I KNEW.
I knew exactly what it felt like to have that secret flutter in my stomach, the shift of another life, the thump of feet and hands inside me.
I knew what it was like to hold that tiny, tiny body, push my finger into that crinkled palm, hear the first mewls of life and see that sticky sweep of hair and scrunched up, perfect face.
I knew the impossible weight of that small body folded into my neck, the smell of new baby filling my nose, my head, my heart.
I knew that surging crash of LOVE and awe and wonder. I knew the crush of fear and overwhelm. I knew the swell of joy that expands your chest and clogs your throat and chokes you to tears. I knew the tingle and pang of let down as all that emotion came out as milk.
I KNEW, and I wanted it again. I craved it. And I could feel it, a physical ache, a gap – a ghost.
Because I could feel the outline of another hand in mine as I crossed the road with my daughter.
I could feel the press of another small person in my arms as we cuddled up on the sofa.
I could feel the imprint of another soul on mine that was never really there, but left a gaping, jagged hole none-the-less.
Oh I’m quite sure it doesn’t make any sense. I’m sure half of the people reading this are running to call the little men in white coats. (That’s why this blog is anonymous. They’ll never take me alive!!!)
I’m also sure that the other half – the half that’s been there – will know exactly what I mean.
When the giant pulses of grief and rage would fade, in my more normal moments, there was still the nagging feeling of something missing, something not being quite as it should. The world slightly out of kilter. I would suddenly look up and feel sure that someone had put the wrong filter over the snapshots of my life.
Now I freely admit to being a supremely selfish being, but my sadness wasn’t all reserved for myself. Some of it was also for my husband and my daughter.
I fell in love with my husband all over again when I saw him as a father. His kindness, his gentleness, his patience – his love for the little life we’d made. And I wanted that for him again. For us. Four of us. One-on-one, two by two. It just added up to US.
Perhaps more though, I wanted it for my daughter. I would watch her, playing in the garden or on the beach by herself. I would remember my own childhood, shrieking and chasing my sister, and feel incredibly sad that wasn’t going to be part of her life. That she would be alone. That when we died there’d be no one there for her – no one to help arrange the funeral, to hold her, to reminisce about our family. To know the sayings and the songs and the silliness.
Not everybody has these feelings – nor should they. For some, their vision of the perfect family was only ever one child. For some three isn’t uneven or unfinished – it’s precisely the right balance. Others can summon some rationality and accept – perhaps with passing sadness – that another child simply wasn’t meant to be.
The point is only that I SHOULD be allowed to have these feelings. That it’s okay to feel them without feeling guilty. And it’s taken a long time for me to be able to acknowledge that to myself. Because of course in the background I was thinking – and I was repeatedly told – at least you’ve already got one.
Look, no one likes a wallower. But there is a line to be trodden between letting someone indulge themselves and letting someone grieve. I think we can all agree that there has to be a bit of space before ‘get over it’, ‘buck up’ and ‘at least you’ve already got one’. And it’s really not up to you to judge how much space someone else needs.
My particular secondary infertility tale had a happy ending, after a lot of heartbreak, strain, and surgery. And I am so very thankful that I finally got my beautiful second baby. The family of my dreams.
Not long after my second daughter was finally born, the Big Small Person fell over, and scraped her knee. And I caught myself saying, quite literally, ‘At least you’ve already got one’. In shock news, it didn’t help. It didn’t take the pain away. It didn’t make her feel better. And that got me thinking about what we should say instead.
As a Queen of social gaucheness, I fully appreciate that it’s not malice or lack of awareness that causes people to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. (God knows I’ve practically made it an art form). Mostly it’s simply a matter of not knowing what to say to someone. I can help you with that.
If you know someone who is drowning (in whatever body or depth of water – this isn’t just about infertility), please do throw them a lifeline if you possibly can. You don’t need to risk being pulled into the drama-lake if you’re not up for a swim, but you don’t need to make things worse either. Don’t throw them a guilt-trip. Don’t belittle their pain, their experience, or how their feelings manifest themselves.
Instead, just try this. Just say:
I’m so sorry this has happened to you.
Simple. Easy. If you can look in their eye and hold their hand for the briefest of moments, that’ll help too.
Because that acknowledgement, that moment of human connection, that stark truth, is sometimes just enough to keep someone’s head above water.
It certainly helped with the skinned knee, anyway.
If you’ve suffered miscarriages or infertility, there’s a lot of support out there. Sometimes it just helps to know you’re not the only person going through it. Sometimes it helps to know there can be happy endings, other options, or just life beyond all the awfulness. Best wishes to you.