Chelsea Pitman couldn’t talk. Couldn’t stop the heart-pounding, palm-sweating, limb-trembling response to her ultrasound. She was waiting for some of the best – or most brutal – news of her life.
Would it be different to last time?
Hurry up with the results. Quickly. No, stop. Stop, please. Breathe, Chelsea. Keep breathing.
When the news came, it was devastating. Chelsea had to say goodbye to the baby that had so briefly glimmered inside her. She shattered into a kaleidoscope of pieces, not knowing if she could ever glue herself back together again, in just the same way.
Two hours later she was rushed into surgery. The ectopic pregnancy – a medical emergency – had to end, but the surgeon cradled her dreams in his hands. Ahead lay the delicate task of trying to preserve her sole remaining fallopian tube, and with it, her hopes of ever conceiving a child.
She remembered, “I begged the doctor to save my tube, and it was the first thing I asked when I came out of surgery. I was over the moon when I learned that I still had it, and so it wasn’t for a while that I was able to mourn my baby.”
It was the fourth pregnancy Chelsea had lost.
Motherhood is a strong urge in some women, a no-go zone for others, or a slowly emerging desire that takes years to burst into flame. Long before her core-shaking reality began, it was a blip on the edge of Chelsea’s radar.
She said, “However, in the past few years it’s been at the forefront of my mind, particularly as friends and family have been having kids. You meet the right partner, everything falls into place, and your body clock ticks. It won’t turn off. Motherhood is just so important to me.” And while Chelsea has “the perfect stepdaughter”, she wanted a baby of her own.
She grappled with the conundrum that many elite female athletes face. Their most fertile years clash with their peak physical prowess, and a time limit that’s firmly in place. “It’s such a conflicting experience. You can live and breathe your sport, and want to support your team however you can, but if you also want to be a mother sometimes you have no option to step away from the game. And with a number of major competitions on the calendar, there’s rarely a perfect time for that.”
Added to the challenge is that elite athletes can rarely play on past their first trimester. Chelsea explained, “In most careers you can keep working until you choose to take maternity leave. But we can’t necessarily do that. Elite sport can be very physical, and you have to be guided by doctors to make sure that both you and the baby are safe. So your absence from the sport can last for up to a year, and that’s a long time in a competitive workplace.”
Hoping to place her career on hold for motherhood, falling pregnant was the easy part for Chelsea. Carrying to term has defeated her so far. “I’ve had two miscarriages, and two ectopic pregnancies,” she said. “At the start, I never thought that this would keep happening.
“It doesn’t cross your mind that you might have a problem, because from the outside, you have a really healthy lifestyle. But it’s certainly been an issue for me.”
“I’ve had tests done, and multiple surgeries for the doctors to look at my reproductive system. It’s been a minefield, because everything inside looks great. Something is going wrong, but no one knows what the problem is.”
Chelsea’s first pregnancy happened accidentally during her former marriage. The embryo formed ectopically (outside of the uterus), rupturing a fallopian tube which needed surgical removal. She said, “The only way I was able to make sense of it was by telling myself later that it was almost a blessing in disguise, because the relationship didn’t last.”
Joining the elite ranks of senior netball in 2010, Chelsea played for the Australian Diamonds and a number of national league clubs, making a name for herself as a powerful and athletic wing attack. She joined the Adelaide Thunderbirds in 2017, and in the same year was selected for the English Roses, eligible thanks to her Yorkshire-born father. She became an integral part of the team that won an historic gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, and later bronze at the 2019 Netball World Cup.
After years of moving around for her sport, Chelsea settled into a blissful life in South Australia. She met Shayne Harris – whom she affectionately calls Harry – and the pair married in November 2019. After a honeymoon spent overseas, husband and wife flew home with an extra passenger on board. They were pregnant.
“I remember that first pregnancy test so well. It was such a shock to start with, but it was also such a happy time. We’d peed on sticks, had the blood tests done, found out our due date, and bought the books to read. I felt a little bit off, but for the most part I was well.
“We were in total pregnancy blindness. You find out what you need to know, plan your new life, you imagine what it’s going to be like, and believe that imagination will become reality. It’s exciting, it’s really wonderful.
“And then just a couple of weeks later I miscarried. It was like a bad period that went a little bit longer than usual. Everything changed so quickly, and I had to change with it – my body, my mindset, my emotions, our future.”
It was difficult, as most miscarriages are, but Chelsea coped by looking ahead. She said, “I was quite flat at the time. But I was starting pre-season training, and my mindset was to look forwards.
“I think it’s part of what you do as an elite athlete. ‘What way do I need to go? Roadblock? Divert, let’s go again.’ Whether that works in my favour in this journey, who knows, but that’s what I did at the time.”
The couple became pregnant again shortly afterwards, but their happiness was tinged with caution. Chelsea said, “We were over the moon excited, then almost immediately thought, ‘Oh shit, please don’t let it (miscarriage) happen again.’
“I remember feeling really unwell at times. I still went to every pre-season training session, giving it my all, but I’d get home and want to sleep for the rest of the day.”
Cleared by her doctors to compete, Chelsea headed overseas in January 2020, to play for the Roses in an international tournament against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. “I remember saying goodbye to my husband at the airport,” she said, “and saying, ‘What if something happens?’
“He said, ‘You’re so pregnant – you’re sick all the time, your boobs are huge, you’ll be fine. You’ll be okay.’”
Just a few people knew that Chelsea was expecting again, including the team doctor who was monitoring her closely, and teammate and confidante, Jade Clarke. Chelsea was devastated when she started spotting after arriving in England. She said, “A little bleeding can be normal, my hCG levels (a hormone secreted in pregnancy) were still doubling, and my first scan was fine. So I hoped that I’d be okay.
“But the second scan said that the baby was no longer viable.”
Miscarrying so far from home and her family was immensely difficult, and Chelsea sought out her coach, Jess Thirlby. “She was great,” said Chelsea. “She was very emotional for me, but also gave me practical help. For instance, I’d been rooming with Jade and didn’t want to change that because I was nervous of sharing with others while I was sick and having to use the toilet so often.
“But Jess told me we could keep sharing, and made sure that I was supported, but also that Jade was supported too. I couldn’t have managed without them – they were godsends.
“Jess left it up to me how much I wanted to be involved with the netball programme. I couldn’t change what was happening to my body, so I said, ‘I’m here to play, here to perform.’”
While Chelsea took part in matches, it came at the expense of her family at home. She explained, “In order to keep playing I had to cut out the emotion as much as I could. So I shut down from my family while I was so far away, because it made the miscarriage less real.
“I just couldn’t bear my husband’s heartbreak as well as my own. He understood that I wasn’t being bitchy, and it is a testament to how amazing he is. It was the only way he could help me from the other side of the world.”
Chelsea experienced a ‘missed’ miscarriage. Two weeks later she was still bleeding, and so back in Adelaide she had surgery to remove the last tiny fragments of her pregnancy. The whole experience left her traumatised, and she knew she needed some time away from netball. On leave from the Thunderbirds, she sunk into the maelstrom of emotion felt by many women who miscarry.
A raft of reactions – grief, loneliness, regret, anger, hopelessness and guilt – all swirled through her mind. “It was a very sad time. I felt an overwhelming sense of isolation, because I’d shut people out. I took the pain on myself, thinking, ‘This is my body, this is my heartbreak.’
“There were days when I just wanted to stay in bed, curl up and cry. My husband was beautiful. He’d let me have those days, but he’d also get me out of bed and doing the little things. Going for walks, getting some fresh air, going to the ocean which makes me feel happy.
“I also felt some guilt, wondering if I’d played a part in it by continuing to train and putting my body under stress. My doctors told me it wasn’t a factor at all, and that I hadn’t done anything to cause it. I kept asking, ‘Have I done this?’ and they had to reassure me over and over.
“I’d try to get on with life, and might feel good for a moment, but then it would hit me in the face when I’d least expect it. I’d see someone’s baby, or I’d go to the bathroom, and think, ‘Oh shit, that’s right!’ because I’d be reminded all over again about what was happening.”
Chelsea was upfront with the Adelaide Thunderbirds about her miscarriages. She said, “I thought I handled it really well. I didn’t stay away from training, didn’t bring my emotions into the team, and I worked my arse off throughout the long preseason and time in the 2020 hub.
As team co-captain, Chelsea had provided a wealth of leadership to the young athletes around her, as well as strong on-court performances at wing attack. After positive feedback from management, she was left shocked when the Thunderbirds didn’t renew her contract for 2021.
“In my earlier conversations with the high performance manager, the indications were that they wanted me to continue. I wanted to be a TBird – really wanted it – and I think I proved myself. But one of the things they told me was that they wanted to go down the path of youth, and I’m now 32.
“I hope it’s not the case, but I do sometimes wonder if my miscarriages and dreams of being a mother played into their decision. They wanted a commitment from me that I wouldn’t have a baby during the season, but you can’t really ask that of someone.”
By the time she was axed, there were no positions left for a wing attack in the Suncorp Super Netball rosters for 2021. She had offers to move away from her family to England, but was still grieving. With the uncertainties of a Covid-riddled world, and having experienced the away-from-home hub of 2020, she chose to stay in South Australia and play for a local club in Adelaide’s State League instead.
In a measure of her leadership Chelsea didn’t beat her chest about the unfairness of life, but looked forwards instead. She said, “I need to focus on my own fitness and performance, but more importantly, trying to help Garville and the athletes there take their netball to the next level that I know they are capable of doing. That will be an achievement in itself.
“It’s not the end for me, but it is a different path for me to get back to where I want to be.”
Chelsea would love to play for England again, and has spoken to Thirlby about her predicament. She doesn’t meet the selection criteria of playing in a top-tier league; as a former international however, she has the option of trialling in England at the end of the year. Covid permitting, it’s a commitment she’s keen to make, as others such as Clarke and Serena Guthrie have done in the past.
After her most recent ectopic pregnancy in late 2020, Chelsea and her husband are temporarily hitting pause on parenthood. She said, “We need a break, time to enjoy being with each other, and having fun, because it was a difficult year for so many reasons.
“We also need to do some legwork, because we don’t want to be in a position where my health is in jeopardy or I need major surgery again. That is scary, and I have enough physical and emotional scars already!
“We will be looking at ways to have babies more safely – particularly procedures where the embryo is implanted straight into the uterus. That might mean going down the road of harvesting eggs, as some other athletes have done. It’s difficult, and expensive and time consuming, but we do want to be parents so badly.”
Something that’s surprised Chelsea is the lack of formal emotional support after a loss. The Roses – coach, wellbeing manager and team doctor – check in on her, while she’s also received a ‘beautiful’ handwritten letter from her surgeon, but there isn’t a uniform medical approach to help grieving families.
“It’s pretty much up to you,” she said. “And when you are feeling so lost and alone, it can be hard to look for the support you need. It’s out there, but you have to search for it yourself. It would be great to have even just a leaflet.”
As a result Chelsea decided to open up about her losses on social media. It wasn’t a bid for sympathy, but a way of using her profile to help others in a similar situation. “I cut people out at the time, and it wasn’t right. So I wanted to start a conversation, hoping to help even just one person understand that they aren’t alone, and they can lean on other people.”
She was stunned by the amount of people who messaged her afterwards; women – and men – who’d also been struggling in silence.
People find the language of loss difficult, and news of miscarriages – which often happen before the pregnancy is announced – particularly hard to talk about. “What do you say?” said Chelsea. “Nice jeans, oh, and by the way, I had another miscarriage!”
And so the grieving process can remain internal, as it did for Chelsea, which added a layer of complexity to her grief. She’s come to realise that isolation is unhealthy, and hopes that people will listen to her message.
“Open up to the people around you, don’t keep it to yourself. If you are feeling like shit – and you will – it’s okay to tell people that. I shut my partner out at times, and that was wrong, as they are feeling it in their own way, so try not to exclude them. Talk to them, explain how you are feeling, without getting frustrated if their reaction is different to yours. Share your stories.”
“Those conversations with your family and friends can be confronting because people feel lost. They don’t know how to help. Sometimes they will make off the cuff comments, like, ‘It’s not meant to be,’ or, ‘You’re young, it will happen.’ Those words really don’t help at the time.
“One of the worst was when I was told about another woman who’d had a series of miscarriages and now has a wonderful family. I only had room for my own loss then, and I remember wanting to punch something.
“So if you are struggling with how to support someone after a miscarriage, say to them, ‘This is awkward because I want to help you, but I don’t know how. What can I do?’
“Be aware, be helpful and don’t instantly compare their situation to someone else’s loss. A cuddle goes a long way – a good, big hug.”
Chelsea also has a message for the broader community. She believes that female sport is often compared unfavourably to male’s – less athletic and exciting, less coverage or money. In speaking out, she hopes people will reflect on one of the most fundamental differences between the genders.
“As women, we are equally committed to our sport, to who we represent, and understand the role models that we can be. But many of us are also wanting to achieve something else pretty remarkable, which is being a mum.
“When we are in the public eye, the human part of us can be forgotten. So please don’t be judgemental if we look like our mindset is elsewhere for a period of time.
“Athletes have a limited timeline, and fertility has a limited timeline. We can want to be mothers, and still remain fully committed to our sport.”
While Chelsea’s losses have been heartrending, she’s found out so much about herself along the way. The untapped stores of resilience and courage. That family is as essential as breathing. Her ability to connect with and support others in a similar situation.
“I like helping people, but didn’t realise how much I would be helped in return. It’s been like having a massive weight of emotion lifted off my shoulders, and in some ways, that has helped set me free.”
FOR SUPPORT AFTER MISCARRIAGE, ECTOPIC PREGNANCY OR STILL BIRTH, CONTACT:
www.sands.org.au or 1300 072 637
www.miscarriageassociation.org.uk or 019 24200799
A FEW FACTS AND FIGURES ABOUT MISCARRIAGE AND ECTOPIC PREGNANCY
- The spontaneous loss of pregnancy before 20 weeks in utero, frequently in the first 12 weeks.
- Occurs in about 20 to 25 % of pregnancies (1/4 or 1/5)
- It most cases it can’t be prevented
- Symptoms may include abdominal pain, bleeding, and signs of infection such as nausea and dizziness.
- Once a miscarriage starts, it can’t be stopped. The tissue is expelled from the body.
- Treatment can include a “watch and wait” approach, medicine to speed up the process, and/or a D&C (dilation and curettage) done under anaesthetic in hospital.
- Occurs when the fertilised egg develops outside the uterus, most commonly in one of the two fallopian tubes. The embryo usually dies.
- Ectopic pregnancies are medical emergencies, as if the fallopian tube ruptures, it can be life threatening.
- 1 -2 % of pregnancies are ectopic.
- In an ectopic pregnancy, the fallopian tube ruptures in 15% of cases.
- Symptoms may include cramping, abdominal pain and bleeding.
- Surgery is needed to remove the pregnancy, along with an attempt to save or repair the fallopian tube.
If a woman has more than two miscarriages and/or ectopic pregnancies, medical investigations will try to diagnose the cause. However, in many cases, no reason is ever found.