It happens to one in four pregnancies and is more likely to have an effect on a woman’s life than breast cancer and ovarian cancer. But miscarriage is rarely, if ever, discussed openly.
It is Mother’s Day this Sunday in Australia. Across the country, while many families will be celebrating, there will be more women than we realise mourning the loss of a baby that was never born.
I’ve been working around diversity and inclusion for nearly 25 years and I’ve witnessed significant progress in workplace support for parents and potential parents.
All primary caregiving working parents now have access to the government-funded, 18-week paid parental leave scheme. And many new parents can access employer-funded paid parental leave as well.
Best practice workplaces have sophisticated pregnancy, breastfeeding and lactation support policies and programs.
Childcare is widely regarded as relevant in the workplace, worthy of investment and support, and the business case is very clear for the need to create and enable flexible working careers to attract and retain staff.
There has been tremendous progress made by Australian workplaces in seeing their employees as whole people. Inclusive leaders are most likely to be leaders that create and retain engaged, productive and profitable teams. More best practice organisations are learning that diversity isn’t enough. If you are not an inclusive workplace, then you are not benefiting from the diversity across and among all your employees.
Workplaces are recognising things that make one person different from another. This includes gender, age, cultural identity, ability or disability, sexual orientation or gender identity, Indigenous status, family responsibilities, and any other out-of-work obligations. It also includes an individual’s values, desires, career potential, life experiences, unique skills, abilities and talents.
In our quest to make workplaces an environment where individuals can bring their whole and authentic self, the reality of setbacks, sicknesses, physical and mental health issues, short and chronic illness need to be taken into account.
But what of the isolating and devastating experience of miscarriage?
In Australia, miscarriage remains taboo. Many women – and men – don’t talk about the experience with their closest friends and family, let alone in the workplace.
New South Wales Health describes miscarriage as the “loss of a baby during the first 20 weeks of pregnancy”.
But miscarriage is much more than the death of the foetus. What of the living, breathing human vessel that is providing the life support for this would-be baby? The mother, shrouded in conditions of absolute secrecy, the announcement unable to be said aloud until the security of the 13th week, lest anyone actually discover that the embryo did not survive to the second trimester. No one must know …
I have experienced this first-hand.
My first pregnancy ended with an ectopic rupture requiring the removal of my left fallopian tube, a blood transfusion and a lengthy stay in hospital. Fortunately, at only seven weeks’ gestation, the term “medical condition” sufficed on my sick leave application form.
My third pregnancy was uneventful, much less dramatic than the first one and even shorter, only six weeks.
Pregnancies four, five and six are all happily smiling at me from an ageing picture stuck next to my computer, their hearts still beating and their futures eagerly anticipating them. I adore them. They are my own living treasures.
It was my second pregnancy that could neither be neatly tucked away into first trimester secrecy nor celebrated as a cute bundle of joy. Her story ended just shy of the 20-week mark that would have required her birth and death to be registered and certified. She had been announced at work at 13 weeks and excited questions and comments ensued. These had all closed down on my return to the workplace after she had vanquished into nothingness. Taking my cue from others, I also said nothing.
The reason I am now sharing this experience, cathartic as it is, is because there is no understanding of where miscarriage fits in the lexicon of pregnancy and baby language in any of our workplace policies around parental leave, pregnancy, sick leave or illness. This absence of dialogue only serves to continue to keep the social and cultural taboo of miscarriage and other pregnancy loss alive and well.
Under the Fair Work Act, employees have access to special maternity leave. This provides unpaid leave where a woman’s pregnancy ends after 12 weeks because of a miscarriage, termination or stillbirth. But most employees don’t realise that special maternity leave exists. And many women still fall outside the definition.
Given the massively shared experience of miscarriage, its impact on prospective mothers, fathers and other members of the family, pretending it does not happen is a blight on truth. Reporting is hugely under-represented because of the many pregnancies that statistically don’t count or are nature’s way of explaining a very late period.
Until only recently, we also felt this way about having conversations about family and domestic violence. And even though the statistics are still horrific, the experience still too frequent and the process of finding solutions and changing behaviours still overwhelming, due to the outstanding bravery of a few victims, their families, and the silent majority, steps are being made in many workplaces to lighten the shadows where the horrors of domestic and family violence have been lurking.
We now need to also find the courage to start talking openly and with sincerity about the physical and mental health impact that miscarriage and its related losses are having in the workplace, where real humans front up each day regardless of whether the double blue line of happiness has disappeared into one flatline in a moment or slowly over many days.
I don’t have all the solutions for how workplaces can recognise the impact of miscarriage. I only know that if a successful pregnancy is something you are longing for, having a few days or a week off work to recover physically is not the same as having had the flu.
Maybe workplaces can start with recognising miscarriage, thinking about how to better include pre-20 week losses into parental leave, and understanding the longer-term impact that miscarriage can have on an employee’s short- to medium- term performance, mental health and wellbeing.
Maybe then the sharp pang of loss felt when a colleague brings their perfect new baby into the workplace for morning tea can be softened just a little.
Lisa Annese has been Chief Executive Officer for Diversity Council Australia since June 2014.
This article first appeared in Guardian Sustainable Business on 29 April 2016.