Why working women keep quiet about miscarriage

Women shouldn't suffer in silence - at work or otherwise - when they miscarry.
Women shouldn't suffer in silence - at work or otherwise - when they miscarry.  Photo: Michela Ravasio/Stocksy

When Louisa*, a primary school teacher in Sydney, miscarried for the second time in her early thirties, she was working in a busy inner city school. 

"The world is carrying on around you and you feel a little bit slower, a little bit more numb, a little bit shell-shocked," she recalls of the moment, in 2014. "I told my supervisor because I was quite teary, but other than that, I carried on. When it is happening - the gruesome bit - it's not a nice feeling, but sitting at home feeling miserable wouldn't have helped me."

Her first miscarriage two years earlier was harder to process, she says, but after a brief procedure in hospital, she immediately continued with her masters degree studies, sharing the news only with her husband and immediate family.

Tara Moss has written about her two miscarriages.
Tara Moss has written about her two miscarriages.  Photo: Gary Schafer

"Nobody understands it unless they have had one. It is impossible to compute unless you have been through it, just like any grief," she says. 

She is one of a low estimate of about 150,000 Australian women who miscarry each year - the vast majority of whom keep their anguish to themselves and, if working, continue as usual through the ordeal. 

Revelations of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's loss of a pregnancy in 2011 at the age of 40 - on a day on which she went to work and dutifully attended the Ibrox memorial service to mark the anniversary of Scotland's worst football disaster - have thrown a spotlight on the fact that in the UK, as in Australia, the subject of miscarriage remains a private, even taboo, matter. Women rarely take time off work to recover or grieve for their loss and may feel they are unable to share their experiences with bosses. 

Sturgeon's decision to keep her miscarriage private and continue working raises questions: is this a reflection on the extraordinary pressure on women in employment (high-powered or otherwise) to keep quiet about personal anguish, or does keeping quiet amplify the pressure on women and their partners to swallow this underrated grief?

Social psychologist Dr Petra Boynton is wary of the assumption that "having big discussions" about miscarriage at your workplace is the way forward. "It's a way forward," she says, recalling her own loss. "I didn't tell anyone at work I was pregnant, I didn't tell them I was miscarrying. I had a day working from home, a Friday. I was in hospital. I went in on the Monday and didn't tell anyone. The second time it happened, I did tell one colleague, because if I keeled over, [I felt] someone ought to know. But it wasn't a workplace where I felt I could speak up. If you're scared of losing a job, or not getting promoted, because people suspect you're going to be leaving, you won't talk about any of this."

Though Dr Boynton adds that if she had explained, she's sure people would have been very sympathetic, she notes that many women think it's wiser to "hold it together at work, then go home and break down there". Part of this is feeling that "if someone's nice to me, I won't cope. You work out the pathway of what's least painful for you".

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In Australia, a handful of famous women have spoken out about their experiences of the loss of an unborn child, including media personalities Lisa Wilkinson, Georgie Gardner, Kerri-Ann Kennerley, Mia Freedman and Tara Moss, a contributor to Daily Life.

Moss, like Louisa, worked through her way two miscarriages, as detailed in her autobiography, The Fictional Woman - which she was writing when she miscarried for the second time. 

"I had to be on stage at the Opera House during the tail end of my second miscarriage and I didn't cancel as I wasn't in physical pain at that point, and I felt I could handle it. I have a family to support, and while I always look after my health and wellbeing, that doesn't necessarily involve not working," she told Daily Life. "I felt better within myself by being able to rise to that challenge, and in a way it helped me to feel like myself, to feel like I could be strong enough to get through." 

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, had a miscarriage in 2011 and continued to work throughout.
Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, had a miscarriage in 2011 and continued to work throughout.  Photo: Rob Stothard

"Each woman needs to do what is appropriate for them and their situation. Sometimes time off is non-negotiable, and sometimes a short amount of downtime is all that woman needs," she says, hopeful that speaking out will help break what she sees as a taboo around miscarriage. 

"For such a shockingly common experience, there is still very little understanding about miscarriage and how to support those women or couples experiencing it."

As another professional Sydney mother who has had four miscarriages puts it, "I do wonder why I didn't feel justified in taking a day off work. It just feels like miscarriage is in a grey area in that it doesn't fall in any traditional category of sickness; and you don't really want to tell your boss about it either."

It is a sentiment with which Anna Whitehouse may be familiar. 

The British blogger at Mother Pukka, had three miscarriages in her late twenties before the birth of her daughter, and has suffered two more this year. She feels that keeping silent at work was partly in response to a still-pervasive attitude that miscarriage is a "blip". She says: "There was no 'woe-is-me' story. You just carry on."

She believes that some still regard wanting children as a lifestyle choice, rather than "a huge, physical, mental, financial, emotional decision, whether it works out or it doesn't. So often, women are brought up to think that miscarriage is one of those things. Suck it up."

The Catch-22, says Whitehouse, of not informing employers of your pregnancy until 12 weeks, so as not to freak them out, meant that, following her losses, she had to keep going. "I hadn't told anyone I was pregnant, so why would I say 'I've miscarried'? I had one day off sick. Not only did I fear it would impact my working relationship," she says, "it is very British not to talk about something so intimate. It didn't seem appropriate."

But, says Whitehouse, "if you're grieving, your company needs to know. It's on our shoulders to educate employers."

With one in four pregnancies ending in miscarriage, Whitehouse feels for those women who return to their desk at 9am Monday, having been pregnant on the Friday. "The foundations of who they are have shifted," she says. "They're grieving for a life, for a nursery they've started planning, for a future they had in their mind. They'd started thinking about names - they are saying goodbye to someone.

"Looking back at the five times I didn't say anything, the person I was really damaging was me."

*Not her real name.

-with the Daily Telegraph, London

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