By Maana Lindqvist*
Another game changing event took place last week; New Zealand Parliament voted to become one of the world’s only countries to approve legislation that will provide three days of paid leave after a miscarriage or stillbirth, without needing to use sick leave.
As the first self-governing country to allow women to vote in 1893, New Zealand has passed a number of laws that have been hailed by women's rights groups, from decriminalising sex work in 2003 and decriminalising abortion in 2020 (following 40 years of campaigning), to moves to reduce the impact of period poverty in early 2021 and now, on March 24, three days of bereavement leave for women and their partners following a miscarriage or stillbirth.
A member of the NZ Parliament, Ginny Andersen, highlighted that 20,000 women in New Zealand have a miscarriage each year. In other words, 1 in 4 women of reproductive age in the country are affected by loss of child annually. While some employers have offered paid time off for employees following a miscarriage, some employers have rather required the employee to use sick leave to recover from the loss.
Why We Need to Talk About Unborn Babies
Around the world, women have varied access to healthcare services, and hospitals and clinics in many countries are very often under-resourced and understaffed. As varied as the experience of losing a baby may be, around the world, stigma, shame and guilt emerge as common themes. Women who lose their babies are often made to feel that should stay silent about their grief, either because miscarriage and stillbirth are still so common, or because they are perceived to be unavoidable. Andersen suggested that the new law could help remove stigma that surrounds miscarriage and promote openness regarding pregnancy, childbirth and miscarriage:
"I hope that this bill will go some way in allowing women to feel more comfortable about talking about miscarriage and that they feel comfortable reaching out for support and for help in what is a huge physical and emotional loss," she told lawmakers
According to the WHO, miscarriage is the most common reason for losing a baby during pregnancy. Estimates vary, although March of Dimes, an organization working on maternal and child health, indicates a miscarriage rate of 10-15% in women who knew they were pregnant. Pregnancy loss is defined differently around the world, but in general a baby who dies before 28 weeks of pregnancy is referred to as a miscarriage, and babies who die at or after 28 weeks are stillbirths. Every year, nearly 2 million babies are stillborn, and many of these deaths are preventable. However, miscarriages and stillbirths are not systematically recorded, even in developed countries, suggesting that the numbers could be even higher.
A woman in a public position lost her second child. Fourth child. First child. Another woman lost her first, and second and the third and the fourth, and even the fifth pregnancy. We have experienced miscarriage within our team. Laura, our Co-Founder, lost a baby at 15 weeks. Some woman lost a pregnancy before ever knowing she was pregnant, while another lost a pregnancy at 20 weeks after intensive fertility treatment. These are just a few examples, but there are millions of these women. Maybe, dear reader, you have experienced a miscarriage. You exist.
Most women who experience a miscarriage want answers, but there’s no one known cause for losing a pregnancy. Sometimes the reason was something called a blighted ovum, pregnancy without an embryo. Sometimes it just happens. Issues with chromosomes are hypothesised to be the cause of many miscarriages but the reality is that sometimes there’s just no explanation for it. Most miscarriages certainly are not caused by something the mother did or did not do. And oftentimes the blame comes from yourself as thoughts of what you should have done differently or feeling betrayed by your own body. Sometimes the blame comes from society.
Emotional Impact of a Miscarriage Lingers
Losing a child during pregnancy takes an enormous toll on women. Many women who miscarry can go on to develop mental health issues that last for months or years– even when they have gone on to have healthy babies. And while factually most women are able to carry a perfectly healthy baby after miscarrying a pregnancy, the loss of one can stay on your heart for a long time.
It’s important that we can open the dialogue. In recent times, many celebrities have spoken out about the pain and loss of loosing a child. Kimberly Van Der Beek and her husband, actor James Van Der Beek, shared their story and pain of losing multiple pregnancies on Instagram. Chrissy Teigen braved the world of social media following the loss of her son Jack. And faced ridicule and rude comments beyond comprehend regarding her and husband John Legend’s decision to share their loss with the world.
Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, following long silence, opened up about her 2020 miscarriage in an opinion piece written for The New York Times, and highlighted the need for support. Her position as a member of the royal family, always under scrutiny of the relentless British tabloids, guaranteed her experiences were given front-page attention. Only, she was lynched in the media.
Grief is not a competition. It is an emotion, a process following a traumatic event such as the loss of child. It does not matter if you lost the pregnancy early on, or maybe you didn’t even know that you were pregnant. It does not matter if the baby was born alive or dead. The terrifying reality is the same; no baby. Being public figures does not mean the Van Der Beeks’, or the Sussex’s or Chrissy Teigen and John Legend’s suffering is greater than your own, but it does amplify their voice. When public figures decide to talk about the events that we have in common, the losses that we share, we all benefit. Only, they have to brace for the impact of relentless social media and tabloid shaming, name calling, and abuse. When the real issue at hand is something completely different.
It’s the coming home from the hospital without a baby. It’s the questions and comments people have when they know you were pregnant. “Where is the baby?” It’s the nursery you made up, the cradle you chose and the wall colours. They became useless. Not needed. Empty. It’s terror, maybe even shame.
It’s the relief you feel when you had unprotected sex and got pregnant. Maybe you were assaulted. Maybe you didn’t know you were pregnant but would have wanted the baby if given the choice. It’s the choice that was taken away from you. Maybe it was your first miscarriage. Maybe third. Maybe you are not able to have children – maybe you have gone through IVF and other treatments just to have another miscarriage. Maybe you were young, or old, or something in between. Maybe, maybe, maybe… Whoever you are, whichever your situation in life, whatever you might be feeling – it’s valid. You are valid and your feelings are valid. And you are not alone.
How to Go On After Losing a Pregnancy
Often in hospital settings the remains of a miscarried baby are handled as hospital waste. But what can you do with these babies who were "too young for a funeral but too old to ignore they existed"?
In British Columbia, in Canada, there is a garden. It is called the Little Spirits Garden and it is dedicated to the memory of children lost during pregnancy. Small, grey houses situated on long concrete plinths across the landscape commemorate lost children. Memorials for unborn babies can be found universally in most countries. They can be like the garden in Canada, dedicated for the little spirits of little babies, or maybe your local burial ground has a small section dedicated to remembering the unborn children.
Source: Debbie Balino "The garden helping to heal the pain of pregnancy loss" BBC Stories
Legislation-wise, New Zealand is only the second country in the world to introduce a bereavement leave for people recovering from a miscarriage: India allows women a six-week leave following miscarriage. Ginny Anderson calls for other countries to follow New Zealand’s lead:
"I can only hope that while we may be one of the first, we will not be one of the last, and that other countries will also begin to legislate for a compassionate and fair leave system that recognizes the pain and the grief that comes from miscarriage and stillbirth."
Maybe the time for breaking the silence is finally here. Maybe it isn’t. Regardless, if you want to take the Van Der Beek’s and Chrissy Teigen’s route and share your story, or you choose to stay silent like Duchess Meghan initially tried, that’s your decision and I support you. All of us at Lola&Lykke support you too, root for you, and cheer you on. Because we all get through grief and pain and loss differently. And we are women, mothers too. But most of all, we are human, and we have experienced loss and we have grieved.
If you want to talk, professionals specialised in miscarriage can help you. Peer groups can help you. Talking with your partner, friends, or family may help you. Talking to a stranger can offer some relief. Sharing your story on social media or getting involved with a charity or a movement can help you. Or maybe just carrying on helps you.
However, if you have specific questions, maybe we can help you too. Ask Lola&Lykke’s experts, free of charge!
*Maana is Lola&Lykke's Content Administrator. After studying Politics and International Relations in Scotland, she moved to London to attend the prestigious London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where she completed a Master's degree in Reproductive and Sexual Health Research.