Rachel Parris: ‘There is no grave. No baby photos. I only have my story’

Losing her longed-for first baby halfway through her pregnancy was devastating for comedy star RACHEL PARRIS. In these brutally honest extracts from her diary, she reveals what she had to go through – and the bittersweet joy of getting pregnant again

A few years ago, as part of one of my comedy shows that I took on tour, I asked the audience every night to contribute their personal life advice on little scraps of paper.

Rachel Parris

Little did I realise that there were times in the next year when I would desperately need advice as I lived through the uncertainty, fear and grief of losing a longed-for baby. One of the pieces of advice that I found in my collection, from an unknown audience member, stayed with me: ‘What’s for you won’t pass you.’ But as I veered between deep fear that I wouldn’t ever have a child and longing for the one I had lost, I began to question it.

What if things that are meant for you do pass you after all? That’s true for me – and for anyone who doesn’t have something they know, for certain, should be part of their life.

‘THE HORROR DIDN’T  KICK IN TILL THE NEXT MORNING’

3 October 2020: I got pregnant back in spring – during that first proper lockdown. The baby wasn’t conceived in a spirit of panic or boredom or ‘Why not, there’s literally nothing else to do?’ It was very planned and hoped for; we’d been trying for a while and I was so excited. It was my first. I was about to turn 36.

When I was 18 weeks pregnant, I had some bleeding. I felt fairly complacent about it – I’ve got what my husband [comedian Marcus Brigstocke] and I have darkly termed ‘a bleedy cervix’ (this got a mixed reaction from the midwives, quite a tough crowd).

So I was surprised when the doctor told me I had to stay in hospital because it wasn’t a ‘normal amount’ of bleeding. I flipped 180 degrees from complacency to the assumption that I might be in the early stages of miscarrying. Suddenly I was paying incredibly close attention to what emerged from my vagina – as was everyone else. I got used to midwives and doctors asking to view the sanitary pad I was wearing – I’d whip down my pants and they’d stare, with high curiosity, mild surprise and, later on, occasional pleasure, like it was a bold new artwork by Damien Hirst.

After a week, the bleeding stopped and I was allowed to go home. For the next ten days, I fell back into confidence in the pregnancy. I thought we had experienced the scary bump in the road, and it was over. But then the bleeding started again – this time with sharp pains, which I found out later were early contractions. I went for my 20-week scan and there were several problems– the pain, the bleeding, a shortened cervix [another sign of labour].

I was readmitted to hospital. I knew all the midwives now and they greeted me cheerily, and I greeted them cheerily back because what else can you do? ‘Hello again! Yes, bleeding again haha – what am I like? ’I didn’t want to be there, but as I was, I was very glad to be cared for by people I already knew.

I saw a different doctor every day and was told alternately that either it might be OK – they’d seen mothers bleed this much and still go on to have healthy babies– or ‘this is very worrying; you are likely to lose your baby’. The certainty of either outcome changed constantly over the next week. On and off– hope and despair, hope and despair. Crying and sleeping and not moving – not an inch, moving might hurt the baby, just stay still – taking iron supplements, laxatives, painkillers, going for twice-daily health checks with hours of emptiness in between, scans, infrequent toilet trips, changing pads, bad news, good news, well-meaning cleaning ladies telling me that they were praying for the baby, and hope and despair, and hope, and despair.

It was August 2020: visitors were not allowed in hospital due to Covid, so that week was spent alone in the hospital bed, endlessly FaceTiming my husband, who was with me, in every way he was allowed to be, heartbroken to be kept away.

I started to feel cautiously optimistic, having been in a week; the baby’s heartbeat remained strong, and it seemed possible that, with bed rest, it might just be all right. I was now 21 weeks. But that night, when the midwives came to do the routine monitoring, they couldn’t find the heartbeat. ‘This happened yesterday,’ I said, ‘but they found it eventually – the baby’s just hiding.’ They smiled and kept looking, then left to fetch a doctor. I’d never met this doctor before, and she came in and said, ‘I’m very sorry to meet you in such sad circumstances.’

That’s when I realised what was happening. And everything changed.

She explained that the scan showed that my waters had broken, not suddenly, but gradually over the last few days. She explained that I would go into labour and would give birth – but that our baby couldn’t survive.

When labour started, I would be put in a special delivery room for exactly these circumstances. Until I was in there, Marcus wasn’t allowed to come in –I was supposed to spend the next night and day alone, knowing the baby inside me was dying. In tears and shaking, I asked the midwife if they would make an exception. Thankfully, they agreed, and Marcus came that night.

The next two days were surreal, hard, powerful, painful, awful, intense, sad, loving. We were cocooned in this web of people whose job it is to be kind and extraordinary. Midwives, bereavement specialists, consultants and nurses quietly descended to explain, comfort and help. Even at such a busy time, they never once made it seem like they were in a hurry: when Marcus went for a breath of fresh air, a specialist midwife literally ran after him to show him an alternative route, so that he wouldn’t have to walk through the maternity ward and hear the cries of healthy babies.

The day of labour I was full of oxytocin and felt more powerful than sad. Marcus and I distracted ourselves by listening to songs by Flight of the Conchords and watching Fry and Laurie sketches between contractions. When the baby came, we held hands and cried. The midwife, who had been with us all day and who delivered the baby, cried with us. A little later, we saw and held our baby and said goodbye.

The next morning, the real horror kicked in. I’d been high as a kite, too exhausted and in too much pain to take it all in, but waking up, with the drugs and hormones out of my system and nothing in my belly, I felt completely empty. My body felt pointless. I had nothing to show and nothing to hold.

When you lose a baby that you never got to know, you can’t look at a photo of them or treasure a memory. But in the months leading up to it, mentally and physically, you’ve started to become a mother. Yet, after you’ve given birth, if the baby doesn’t live, no one knows that change happened. People look at you as if you are the same person you were before. But you’re not. You are a parent. But no one knows.

You want to talk about the baby. You grew it and it came into the world, and it left, and what makes it worse is having no way to mark that. So, after some time, I talked publicly about it, not in some selfless act of compassion, but for me and for my baby: ‘Look, everyone –I had a baby.’ The impulse is still there, like any mother wanting to show off their baby. You have nothing to show people. No grave. No baby photos to post. You only have your story.

‘What’s for you won’t pass you’ is an old Irish saying. It seems hopeful on the surface of it – that something all-powerful has an eye on everything and that when something passes you, it was never meant to be yours anyway; don’t worry, something or someone else will come along.

But it works less well after a miscarriage, and yet people say things like: ‘It wasn’t meant to be’; ‘It wasn’t the right time’; ‘What’s for you won’t pass you.’

But it’s not true. Assigning a rhyme and reason to these things isn’t helpful. There is none. Some things are simply s**t and there’s no silver lining. Sometimes things that were for you pass you.

‘I’M SCARED SOME THING WILL GO WRONG AGAIN’

25 June 2021: I write this at 34 weeks pregnant with my second pregnancy. He is kicking as I write, and I feel glad every day that my son is such a lairy baby, even when he’s settled on my bladder and seems to enjoy Irish dancing. I love the reassurance. It makes me feel hopeful that in a few weeks I will have a baby. Hopeful but not certain.

In the last month, when people see my bump, they ask ‘Is it your first?’ I’m not sure what to tell them. Because, at present, he is not my first anything. He is the second baby I’ve carried; he has been in my belly for a few weeks longer than my daughter was. I have had two pregnancies and no children.

I am grateful that I have hope now and more confidence in the pregnancy than I did up until a month ago. The day when I was told, ‘If he came now, he’d survive’ was a huge relief; I had been holding my breath to get to that point.

I feel, in fact, so happy, so content, that it scares me. I am in love with my husband, I am pregnant and some days it feels so perfect, I’m scared something will go wrong like it did before. I feel I know my baby a bit already. His kicking and moving make me laugh – they’re so strange and strong. I find him eccentric, a bit of a character. The thought of losing him is so heartbreaking that I can hardly even think about it.

My husband worries that I am too aware of the statistics of late miscarriage, of stillbirth, but, when you have been that unlikely statistic, it is hard not to consider them again. It is a part of our journey: a heightened awareness. Our ears are pricked up, ready for danger.

In the past few months, I’ve felt more able to connect with my friends who gave birth around the time of our loss. I thought it would be hard meeting their babies but, once I did, it was lovely because they were lovely, and this isn’t my baby, it’s theirs. It was hard seeing my husband playing with our friends’ new babies. He should be playing with our baby, I thought; I haven’t been able to give him a baby to hold. There will always be moments that sting, but they are becoming less frequent.

I am already in love with my son and I am bursting with excitement to meet him. People over-use the phrase ‘I can’t wait’ but for me it is a daily effort: I count minutes and hours and days. I need him safe, where I can see him and hold him. I am hopeful. It has been a rainy, cold spring but the sun has finally come out in these early June days. I hope it stays until he arrives. I hope I am holding a hot, grumpy baby in the sweaty heat of August. I hope. I am happy, I am hopeful and I am grateful. I am ready.

Rachel Parris
Rachel with husband Marcus and their son Billy this Valentine’s Day

‘I CAN’ T BELIEVE I GET TO KEEP HIM’

17 September 2021: This morning, I was up at 3.30am, 6am and 8am.

I have been vomited on twice.

I have poo on my dressing gown. My tits hurt.

My head hurts. I’m starving.

And a demonic siren is going off inches from my head.

I am very lucky.

My beautiful boy arrived at teatime on a cold day at the end of July, all purple and covered in white goop. Summer never came this year, but our summer, our sunshine, came in the form of this little parcel.

From the moment he was handed to me, I couldn’t quite believe he was mine. I can’t believe I get to keep him. I know I’m biased, but he is the best baby of them all.

I am so exhausted some days I can’t move my face. Turns out there’s very little difference between resting bitch face and knackered mum face. ‘Nap whenever you can’, the advice says, but it doesn’t work – when they’re awake you’re looking after them, and when they’re asleep you finally get time to eat, wee and possibly, as a luxury, wash.

It’s tiring, it’s upsetting, it’s life-changing. It is the best thing in the world.

We were given piles of secondhand baby clothes and one of the baby-grows has ‘Little Miracle’ on the front. When I first saw it, before he was born, I thought it was mawkish. But I get it now. I saw him in it this morning and I thought, yeah, there’s something in that. He is a little miracle. He’s our miracle. I am his and he is mine. My baby, my boy, my Billy.

This is an edited extract from Rachel’s book Advice From Strangers: EverythingI Know From People I Don’t Know, which will be published on 17 March (Hodder, £18.99). To order a copy for £16.14 until 27 March, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937*

MAIN PHOTOGRAPH: KARLA GOWLETT. HAIR AND MAKE-UP: KATIE KING.

*FREE UK DELIVERY ON ORDERS OVER £20