Comedian Katherine Ryan escaped an abusive relationship and found her voice as a stand-up. In this exclusive extract from her new book, The Audacity, Ryan opens up about motherhood and heartbreak.
I’d known for a long time that I wanted to have more than one child and I was fine with the idea of doing it alone. I figured nobody comes to the end of their life and thinks, ‘Yeah . . . but I wish I’d had fewer children.’
I’d been investigating using a sperm donor, but then I was reunited with Bobby, my high-school boyfriend: I’d intended to have a one-night stand and accidentally married him instead. After we were married, the donor sperm I had carefully selected were either chucked in the bin or returned to sender.
In principle, it annoyed me that I had to film The Duchess before trying to get pregnant, as by now I was 36 – which I’m told is even more ‘geriatric’ than 35 – but it made sense. When I had been expecting Violet, I threw up multiple times a day in my first trimester and it wouldn’t be wise to have any distractions like that on set. Besides, I get pregnant the way Kim Kardashian gets pregnant – mostly in the face and boobs, so not easily hidden.
We wrapped filming on The Duchess on 4 December 2019 and I was pregnant the following week. I appeared on The Jonathan Ross Show a few days after that and ALREADY people were noticing, so I had to delete comments and messages on my social media asking how far along I was. (Why in the face?!)
I felt very fortunate not to have struggled, as so many people wanting babies feel the frustration and disappointment of seeing negative tests month after month, but something told me not to get too excited. Obsessively, I googled miscarriage rates and read blogs written by women who’d lost their early pregnancies. I felt more ‘out of the woods’ with each passing week, especially after our first, seven-week scan showed a strong heartbeat, but I couldn’t feel completely at ease.
I tried to brush it off and managed to convince myself that ultimately everything would be fine, so it came as a terrible shock when Bobby and I attended our ten-week scan and were told there was no heartbeat. They never use the word ‘dead’. I guess everyone feels more comfortable distancing themselves from the tiny life which has ended by discussing it in terms of cardiac activity. But the baby had died.
I’d gathered something was wrong as soon as the doctor started scanning me. Her eyes darted around the screen, which she had turned away from us, and she was taking too long to speak. When she gently broke the news of the absent heartbeat, I did the very British thing of comforting her: ‘Please don’t worry, that’s completely fine. Oh well,’ as though I hadn’t spent the last two months planning someone’s entire life as part of our family. I sat up and had a relatively chipper conversation about how to proceed over the next few days. Bobby didn’t say anything. The doctor offered medical management, where I would be given pills to expel the pregnancy; surgical management, where I’d be admitted to hospital for what is essentially an abortion procedure; or expectant management, which is the option of doing nothing and waiting to bleed.
I just wanted to leave the consulting room and get on the train to Liverpool for the gig I’d booked that evening. I remember feeling really stupid for having scheduled a comedy show immediately following an early pregnancy scan. Bobby and I quietly cried underneath our sunglasses on the short walk to the station and I rang the babysitter to ask her to stay with Violet so that Bobby could join me at work.
I fulfilled all of my bookings, TV recordings and work commitments over the next three weeks of failed medical management attempts. I’m not sure what else a person is meant to do. The collective grief of pregnancy loss struck me hard during that seemingly endless purgatory. One in four women, I now understood, could be working the tills at Morrisons, installing electrics, caring for the sick, policing the streets – whatever it is they usually do – while knowing that the once growing baby inside them was dead. Before this, I’d had no clue that there was a scenario where a deceased embryo wouldn’t come out.
In the beginning, I was angry with my body over what I’d concluded was its intentional murder of my baby. After several days of still suffering pregnancy symptoms while feeling like a walking tomb, I got even angrier that my body couldn’t even miscarry properly. It was like my mind was battling with a petulant teenager. I’d be telling it, ‘Listen, you’re having a miscarriage, so you need to respond to this medicine and just let it go.’ To which my body would reply, ‘I’m FINE. You need to give me as many gin and tonics as you can and get into a fight with a rapper in front of everyone at the NME Awards!’ I did that. Then I actually fell down the stairs. I did that accidentally because I’d drunk too many gin and tonics. But even then, it wouldn’t miscarry.
My mum’s 60th birthday was coming up and I’d made plans to join her in Mexico with Violet and my sisters. My doctor advised against flying, warning that there was an increased risk of haemorrhage if I finally did start to miscarry at any point, which was probably something that I wouldn’t want to experience abroad. We don’t take many holidays and I felt it was more important for my surviving child to see her family, so I asked Bobby to join us as a safety compromise and decided to take my chances with the Mexican hospitals.
I can’t say that I loved the trip and I kept throwing up because my teenaged jerk of a body thought it was still pregnant, but I’m glad we went. There were fun moments as there always are, even in a crisis. On the third day, a stranger on the beach tapped me on the shoulder to say that she had just taken a photo of Violet, Bobby and me walking along the water and offered to email it to me. She said that, as a mother herself, she knew how rare it was to be included in a photo, so sometimes when she spotted families doing sweet things together, she’d capture the moment for them. I think that’s the only nice picture we have together from during my ‘pregnancy’ and I’m happy we have it.
The surgical procedure was booked at my local hospital for the week we returned home. Covid was just becoming a ‘thing’ in late February 2020 so I had to wear a mask and take a test. I figured that if I went first thing in the morning, I could be in the car and en route to work by noon. What I hadn’t considered is that on the NHS, arriving at 7am doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be in theatre any time before lunch. Luckily, I was placed fourth on the list of surgeries that morning and I woke up in recovery at exactly 11:45am. I sat up to leave but the nurse stopped me, explaining that she had to monitor my blood pressure and get the doctor to discharge me properly before I could go.
All I knew was that finally I wasn’t pregnant anymore and I didn’t want to hang around. In the politest way possible, I tried to convince the nurse that what I was asking for was NOT special treatment but in fact was an ABSENCE of treatment. I was glad to be unrecognisable, wearing a mask, so that she’d never be able to tell her friends that TV’s Katherine Ryan is a dick. After a bit of cajoling, she agreed. I practically ran out of that ward.
I suppose that one positive takeaway from this dark chapter in my life was that I gained even more love and respect for my husband. (I definitely thought I’d had plenty enough beforehand but I guess the universe disagreed and sent me a lesson just to make sure.) I watched the way Bobby processed his own grief from our pregnancy loss, but what surprised me to see was, despite his obvious pain from losing the baby, how much he actually cared about me. He handled the entire ordeal with a strength and grace that made it OK for me to be really sad some nights. For the first time in a while, I didn’t have to hold everything together in my life all by myself. I admired the way he showed great leadership even while he was struggling himself. After witnessing that, I implicitly trusted him as the person I could count on in every situation. I looked up to him and felt safe with him and, though it wasn’t an ideal scenario, it brought us closer together.
By May 2020, I was pregnant again. We were a lot more positive about this pregnancy as we thought, statistically, the chances would surely be low that miscarriage could happen twice, back-to-back. Also, I liked soothing myself with the logic that THIS would be our special baby that couldn’t have been born without the loss of the first one, so it all made sense. It felt better to tie everything up in a way that gave a meaning to our suffering. This baby was due on Bobby’s late dad’s birthday, which I also took as a sign.
We had an early NHS scan at nine weeks to check that everything was on track but, by then, Covid protocol was in full force so I went in alone while Bobby waited outside. Before the sonographer could begin, I asked that he please not turn the screen away and to say something quickly because I was afraid of silence from my previous experience. He agreed and as soon as he applied the ultrasound, I could see a flickering heartbeat. Something wasn’t right, though. He examined the screen for a long time, then said, ‘I’m going to ask my colleague to come take a look.’
The colleague confirmed that whatever the lead sonographer had seen was correct. I was promptly sat up and ushered through the main reception – away from the mothers of healthy babies – and into ‘the Crying Room’. I could tell it was the Crying Room by the bleakness of it: it was a little converted cupboard with a single window that contained just three pine chairs, a tiny table and boxes of tissues.
I stopped at the doorway, spun around and told the nurse that whatever diagnosis she meant to deliver in the Crying Room, I’d prefer to hear over the phone while sitting in the parking lot with my husband. ‘We’ve got our own tissues in the car,’ I said. Gently, she coaxed me into one of the horrible chairs and explained that she’d brought me to the private room – ‘CRYING ROOM,’ I corrected – to say that the baby might have a problem with its abdominal wall but that it was too early to confirm this, and it often corrected itself anyway, so I’d need to return for another scan.
I climbed into the car, where Bobby had already been diligently googling ‘omphalocele’, a condition where the baby’s organs don’t move from the umbilical cord back into the abdomen properly and is often linked to other genetic abnormalities. Nine weeks is really early to be able to diagnose something like that, so we’d have to hope for the best and see how we got on.
Once again, I had to work quite solidly over the weeks that followed. In between jobs, I went for a Harmony blood test to check for any genetic conditions that might explain the possible problem with the baby, but the results came back totally clear. I had no choice but to wait and will the baby to grow out of it.
We went for a few private follow-up scans (because they let your partner in the room if you’re paying) and, each time, the baby measured a bit smaller than he should have.
Meanwhile, the defect kept growing bigger. I hated those weeks but ultimately I feel they gave me a chance to accept that the baby wasn’t well and probably wouldn’t become well. Finally, in mid-August, right at the start of my second trimester, his heart stopped beating, sometime around 13 weeks.
I had surgery the following day.
I’d decided to be very open about my first miscarriage, but I didn’t feel the need to repeat myself by talking about the second one. I hadn’t really told anyone that I’d been pregnant to begin with so there was little need to announce that I wasn’t any longer. The only reason why I had shared my experience initially is because I wanted to help people feel less alone and ashamed. It certainly wasn’t cathartic for me and actually made me feel quite vulnerable. It opened a floodgate of grief as women from all over the world started writing to me daily about their own pregnancy losses. I felt very privileged to have those conversations, but it also took an emotional toll.
The main deterrent stopping me from discussing the second miscarriage was that I worried women might find it disheartening. I hated thinking that I might make someone lose hope or steal their happy feeling – the one I had throughout my young, dumb pregnancy with Violet. I wished that I could feel that way again but the innocence of it had gone.
I’d had a few mini crying fits in the toilets at work, in taxis and in my hotel room between filming during the weeks that we’d known the baby was sick, but after he’d died, I panicked for only two days as the hormones left my bloodstream and then I got over it. I think your body briefly ‘looks for the baby’, like an animal would, before accepting that it’s gone. Having the surgery right away definitely helped my grieving process and that’s the route that I would recommend to any friend faced with the same situation.
By the end of September 2020, I was pregnant for a third time. By this point, I’d been pretty solidly knocked up for almost a full year. People on social media commented nearly every day for months that I looked like I’d either gained weight or had too much filler injected over lockdown. They must have been terribly confused by how I’d never seemed to make it past a certain threshold of fatness to indicate that I was definitely expecting.
It’s not in my personality to passively ‘wait and see what happens’, so I threw all the ammunition I had into protecting this baby. My agent, Kitty, had told me about a doctor who specialised in recurrent miscarriage who had treated one of her best friends. I was determined to try anything and made an appointment to see Dr Shehata in Harley Street. Kitty told me to expect tests for specific antibodies and overactive ‘killer cells’ that could be stopped by Dr Shehata’s treatment from attacking a growing embryo as a foreign invader. (The NHS doesn’t investigate miscarriage until a mother has had at least three and, even then, don’t offer real intervention during the first trimester.)
I gained two stone in a month. Yeah. That’s 28lb or 13.6kg, just so everyone understands. That’s in addition to the weight I’d already put on while being pregnant and recovering from surgeries over the past ten months. But being bigger didn’t stop me working in the way I had feared it would, and I started to value my body for its function rather than how it looked. Throughout my life, I’ve hurt my body by sticking breast implants inside it, and tanning, burning, lasering, injecting and waxing my sensitive skin. I’d cursed it in my 20s for not being small enough, not being cute enough, and not dancing well enough to be cast in a Sean Paul video. Now, I was asking my body to work the way I wanted after wasting so much time pushing it to look the way I thought other people wanted. I found it liberating. I focused all my attention towards accepting that the steroids were going to change the way I looked for a while, but also hopefully keep this baby alive.
In the event that you find yourself expecting a potential future child, I’d recommend that you never reveal your due date. It’s the first question people ask and it’s the last I will ever answer. Staring off into space and musing, ‘I don’t know,’ in response bamboozles strangers. They are unable to comment on your bump size and can’t offer quips like, ‘Where’s the baby?’, ‘Any day now..!’, or, my personal favourite, ‘Still pregnant?’ Even when a close family member asked how many weeks I was, I offered her my trademarked, ‘Not sure.’ Visibly offended, she accused me of mistrusting her and thought my worry was that she would go to the tabloids. ‘Not at all!’ I reassured her. ‘I just don’t want any texts from you on the day.’ I am an asshole, but I’ll be blissfully left alone when I deliver while you’re fielding phone calls all week long from your mother-in-law.
I can’t say for certain whether following Dr Shehata’s plan for the first 12 weeks was the magic ingredient or whether my third pregnancy of the last year would have been the one to ‘make it’ regardless, but I think alternative investigations are certainly worth looking into if you’re searching for a potential solution to recurrent miscarriage. Losing a baby hurts so much every time. Personally, I’m not sure I could have done it again and bounced back with the same enthusiasm. I’m very privileged to be able to afford private care and it infuriates me that alternative treatments aren’t available to everyone. Women are being made to carry their dead embryos around, then being casually advised to ‘try again’ as though they might not be walking the same gauntlet. If that can be somehow avoided, I firmly believe that’s worth exploring.
My second baby, Mr Fred Ryan Koostra, crashed into this world powerfully in June, just three hours after I finished editing the last chapter of my book.
This is an edited extract from The Audacity by Katherine Ryan, to be published by Bonnier Books on 30 September