I wasn’t prepared for the grief of miscarrying. I was even more shocked that I wasn’t entitled to bereavement leave, but legally had to take sick leave instead. What I was feeling wasn’t a sickness. It was physically painful, yes, but the overriding feeling I had was grief.
It was a deep sense of loss of hopes, dreams and mourning a future snatched away with a baby I never got to hold. And it is something that happens to up to an estimated one in four pregnancies. Two and a half years after my last miscarriage, I can’t believe this gross unfairness is justifiable in 2021, yet that is what the law currently is for anyone who loses a baby before 24 weeks.
I knew I was miscarrying during my first pregnancy. It happened at work. I was due to speak for the first time to the executive of my trade union. I had looked forward to this opportunity and wanted to show the difference we were making for our members in ensuring their concerns in the workplace were being reflected in politics. Protecting and improving workers’ rights is something I have actively campaigned on for most of my adult life, so it was odd that when it came to my own rights at work, I was perhaps more sheepish than I should have been. But grief can rob people of their normal selves.
Rather than speaking out and saying what I knew was happening to my body at that time - the tell-tale tummy cramps and spotting – I stayed where I was, googled ultrasound clinics nearby and booked myself in for lunchtime. I sat there devastated that there was nothing I could do to stop a miscarriage this early in the pregnancy, at the same not wanting to believe it was happening. I focused on my report, giving solid and robust answers to the questions thrown at me. No one would have known what was really happening to me.
Then I walked back to the office in pain and alone. I have never felt more alone than in that moment – going back to my desk and waiting for lunchtime to have the scan which confirmed my fears and pains. Looking back at it now, if I had stomach pains or bleeding from my body caused by anything other than a miscarriage I would have said, “I’m sick, I am an unwell and need to see a doctor.” My colleagues and dear friends that I worked with would have been there to support me, but for some hard-wired reason I stayed quiet.
Although important initiatives such as Baby Loss Awareness Week, and seeing more people speaking out like my brave friends Olivia Blake MP and Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP, helps break the stigma of miscarriage and baby loss, the law is still too slow to change. Although my previous employer gave me time and space to recover, I was still sending in sick notes from my GP.
Yet, a few days after the pain had subsided, I wasn’t ill, I was grieving. I couldn’t eat or sleep. It took time and the support of good people around me. I can’t imagine going through all that without a supportive employer, yet thousands of women do and that is why the law must change. It is why I am introducing a bill on Tuesday 19 October to extend paid bereavement leave to people who miscarry before 24 weeks. It has cross-party support, but I know that bills of this kind do not get far without government support.
I’d like to see it longer than the two days seen in other countries, but it would be a start. Reddit in the US offers up to eight and a half weeks’ bereavement leave following miscarriage. The first time, it took me two days to completely miscarry.
The second time, I carried the little ones around with me for nearly a week until I went under general anaesthetic to have them removed. During the time I found out the twins had no heartbeats and going to hospital, I tried to work. It wasn’t the smart thing to do but I pushed on until a heavily pregnant woman joined a meeting. Again, I did the meeting, staring at her perfectly round belly knowing that mine would not grow like that this time. No woman should feel compelled to stay at home or stay in work – they should have the space and choice how to grieve.
Being forced to take sick leave wrongly reinforces a woman’s feeling that her body has failed her or that she is somehow at fault when miscarriage is a part of pregnancy.
The law urgently needs to catch up with society to allow the time to grieve and heal. Miscarriage can make you sick, but it isn’t an illness; it is time the law stopped treating it like one.
Sarah Owen is the Labour Party MP for Luton North