Stars shine as Street takes moving miscarriage tragedy to the nation
By Caroline Farrow
It’s not often that you’ll see me praising a soap opera, especially as I stopped watching them years ago, but it seems as though Coronation Street has done a sterling job in terms of a recent storyline involving miscarriage.
While this is not a novel plot line for a television drama, what has made this particularly poignant is that both of the actors involved have themselves experienced this tragedy. Kym Marsh, the actress who plays the bereaved mother, lost her own baby boy Archie at 21 weeks and 5 days into pregnancy, and Simon Gregson, who plays her partner, revealed this week that his wife has suffered 11 miscarriages throughout the course of their marriage.
Both actors have therefore put in extremely convincing performances, which are lent an extra dimension when you consider that they have had to draw heavily on their own personal experiences. They have been incredibly brave, filming must have been an emotionally draining experience, but nonetheless they felt that it was important that awareness was raised of an issue which affects thousands of women and men every year.
One of the reasons that I eschew soap operas these days is because I don’t tend to find much of the maudlin drama entertaining, but I would appear to be in the minority and at least miscarriage is likely to resonate far more with viewers’ lives and experiences than some of the minority and trendy niche issues that soaps seemed to have been obsessed with. Shows like Eastenders broke the mould and did an excellent job in terms of breaking down preconceptions surrounding HIV, to name one example, but even as an impressionable child, even though I appreciated the acting in various popular soaps, the storylines felt contrived and not entirely believable. The idea of a post-operative transsexual woman turning up on the cobbles, as Hayley Cropper did in 1998, almost 20 years before the issue went mainstream, stretched credulity, no matter how humorous the script.
The miscarriage drama, which looks set to dominate Corrie episodes over the next couple of months, works well, not simply because of the compelling acting which having watched, I concede ought to be up for an award, but because the scriptwriters have obviously done their research. When Kym Marsh’s character talks about how she went into hospital with a baby and yet came out empty-handed, that could have been me, a few years ago. One of the most painful times when we lost our baby was coming out of the same maternity ward, undertaking the same journey we had done three times previously with a newborn, but with our arms achingly empty.
We were acutely aware that we were missing the portable carseat that so often feels awkward and unwieldy as you gingerly and tenderly carry your precious cargo out of the hospital, and our pain was compounded by having to share a lift with excited couples taking their baby home.
The script also reflected the instinctive visceral guilt experienced by so many women, who can’t help but agonise over every minor action, wondering whether or not they unwittingly did anything to cause the death of their child. You feel as though you somehow failed as both a woman and a mother, in that you were unable to protect your child, despite the fact that the view is both irrational and unscientific.
Miscarriages are very rarely down to anything that the mother actually did. Healthy babies are incredibly resilient; in the overwhelming majority of cases, miscarriages occur due to circumstances entirely beyond the woman’s control.
Whether or not this was intended by the scriptwriters, the background of the actors has meant that the story has begun to generate momentum beyond that of mere empathy. Viewers have been enraged to learn that Kym Marsh’s character, Michelle, has been denied both a birth and death certificate for her baby son, which is exactly what happened to Kym’s real-life son. As soon as the episode was shown, social media was flooded with complaints about a law which refuses to recognise the existence of babies born under the age of 24 weeks, who do not get issued with either a birth or death certificate if they die.
Kym has said that she hopes that one day the law will be changed in this area. As she says, there will never be any official record of the son whom she gave birth to and kissed goodbye.
Naturally enough, the various calls to issue birth certificates have led to counter-petitions from those who can clearly see a threat to abortion laws, because it becomes very ethically problematic to abort babies while at the same time issuing birth and death certificates for other babies of the same age.
It would take an extremely cold and hard-hearted attitude to dismiss the very real grief experienced by women at whatever stage they lose their babies. You cannot claim that a baby born at 21 weeks is ‘non-human’ or a mass of indiscernible tissue.
Furthermore, there are heartless calls to distinguish between babies lost after 20 weeks as stillborn and reserve the term miscarriage for babies born under this stage. While the sentiment is understandable, extreme care needs to be taken with language, because too often the term ‘miscarriage’ is used to write off, what is to many, a tragic loss. It makes no difference to the grieving parent whether the baby is lost at 20 or 12 weeks. Furthermore, miscarriage is often mischaracterised as being akin to a heavy menstrual period, whereas the physical reality could not be more different, often involving painful labour contractions and sometimes medical intervention.
It is insensitive in the extreme to attempt to draw comparisons between babies lost at different stages, because all parents will experience grief and a sense of loss. Grief should never be treated as though it is a game of top trumps, everyone deserves sensitivity and compassion.
Saying Goodbye, a UK-based baby bereavement charity, welcomed the Coronation Street storyline because it is campaigning for the emotional and physical consequences of pregnancy loss to be better reflected in health and employment policy. The charity would also like to see a wider cultural acceptance of the actual reality of pregnancy loss, because the reality is so often misunderstood. When I lost our baby, it necessitated an overnight stay in hospital and intravenous treatment and surgery, followed by a few weeks convalescence as I was so physically debilitated. Nobody should be forced to put on a brave face and go back to work, pretending nothing has happened, because they cannot afford to lose wages.
The phrase ‘raising awareness’ has been used so often to be almost meaningless and hackneyed. Someone asked me recently what I thought it would take to bring the general public round to the idea that unborn babies matter as much as those who have been born.
In our post-Christian, secular age, the soap opera has become a moral authority.
• Caroline Farrow is a speaker for Catholic VoicesTags: Caroline Farrow, Coronation Street, Kym Marsh, Michelle Connor, miscarriage, Simon Gregson, Steve McDonald