There were exactly two weeks between finding out I was pregnant and finding out that I’d had a miscarriage. It’s hard to explain quite how much my world changed in those two weeks – my entire mind was taken up by the pregnancy and all I wanted to do was learn about it. I spent hours on Google, discovering that the bundle of cells inside me was first the size of a poppy seed and then a grain of rice, finding out when my morning sickness would ease off and trying to figure out why my already sizeable boobs were so swollen that if I rolled over particularly quickly in the night I was in danger of knocking my husband out cold with them.
Eleven days after the positive pregnancy test, my search terms abruptly changed. Instead of “what do I need to pack in a hospital bag”, I was googling “spotting at six weeks pregnant”. The day after that, when I returned home after being rushed to hospital with heavy bleeding and being told that there was still a chance my baby was clinging on, my searches were “signs of miscarriage” and “success stories bleeding early pregnancy”. And then, two days and another hospital visit after that, they changed again: “miscarriage support”; “what to expect after a miscarriage”; “why did I lose my baby”; “miscarriage what did I do wrong”.
Online advertisers had figured out pretty quickly that I was pregnant – my adverts on Facebook, Instagram and Google had gone from dodgy clothing brands to NCT classes and pregnancy vitamins within a couple of days – but it took them longer to realise that I wasn’t any more. Weeks, in fact. I’d scroll through social media, desperate to find anything that would distract me from how miserable I was, and instead be served adverts full of smiling mothers and babies, which would feel like a punch to the gut.
Eventually, 19 days post-miscarriage, I saw an advert from Not On The High Street that was too much: a card from an unborn child to the father of the baby, which ended with the line “I can’t wait to meet you, Daddy”.
It broke me. The adverts for the classes and the equipment and whatever were reminders of the practical things we didn’t need any more, now there was no longer going to be a baby to learn to take care of, but this was different. This was, in pretty pastel, a reminder of the searing joy we’d felt for those two weeks, of the dizzying, all-consuming love we’d felt for something that didn’t even have a heartbeat yet, and of all the hopes and dreams we’d had for the future that we had lost when I lost our baby.
Despite knowing the statistics – according to Tommy’s, one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, and one in every 225 births was stillborn in the UK in 2016 – I felt desperately, profoundly alone during my miscarriage. It is in no way a comfort to know that I’m not, or that other people have had the same painful experience with targeted advertising that I’ve had. Gillian Brockell from Washington DC had a stillborn baby at 30 weeks and has written an open letter to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Experian, which begs them to reconsider the way their targeted adverts work.
Despite knowing the statistics I felt desperately, profoundly alone during my miscarriage
In the letter, Brockell explains how she had done the same thing that I had and used the internet freely to research and plan for her pregnancy, clicking on a few of the maternity-clothes ads and using pregnancy hashtags on Instagram. However, like me, when her search terms suddenly changed to things like “baby not moving” and her social posts started to include keywords like “stillborn” and “heartbroken”, the adverts didn’t change. When she tried to click “I don’t want to see this ad”, the algorithms assumed she’d had the baby and served her with ads for nursing bras, prams and how to get your baby to sleep through the night. It was hard enough for me to see baby-related adverts after a pregnancy I’d known about for two weeks. I can’t imagine what it must be like to see them after half a year of planning for a baby that you’ll never get to see grow.
Facebook responded to Brockell’s letter by pointing out that Facebook ad settings let you block adverts that might be painful, such as those related to parenting. It’s true that Facebook does have these settings – after I saw that Not On The High Street card, I howled with incompetent misery on Twitter and someone replied showing me how to turn the ads off – but they’re hidden away, hard to find unless you know what you’re looking for, and it’s not something someone who is grieving after a stillbirth or miscarriage is going to be in the right mind to look for. Plus, turning them off doesn’t always have the desired effect – Brockell pointed out that after she followed Facebook’s advice, she was served an advert for adoption.
But more than anything, we shouldn’t have to do this. You can have one conversation about fishing within earshot of your phone and find yourself being followed around the internet by adverts for rods and bait for weeks to come. The technology brands use to advertise to us is smart enough to figure out that we’re getting engaged or that we’re pregnant before we know ourselves, so there is absolutely no excuse for it not to recognise from our online behaviour that those happy circumstances have changed, too.
The fact that protocols to stop baby-related ads when people are using terms related to pregnancy loss aren’t already in place can only be because it’s not been a priority for the brands in question yet. It needs to be. I can’t describe the pain I’ve felt in the month since my miscarriage, but it’s a pain that an enormous number of people will go through and one that’s made worse by this sloppy use of tech. Things need to change.
It’s been 32 days since my miscarriage. Sometimes, talking about it is sad but bearable. Other times, I reach for my feelings and find nothing but numbness, an empty space where a tsunami once raged. A lot of the time, the idea of there still being a world outside of all… this… feels impossible, but the wonderful and terrible thing about life is that it continues. I know that one day I’ll be OK, but I’m not right now and there are a thousand moments a day that remind me of that fact. Regardless, life goes on.