Sunday, February 07, 2016

Don't Look Now

The Sunday Times has launched a campaign to bring down the rate of stillbirths. As part of that they asked me to write a personal piece. This is the director's cut as it were. (If you read this and want to do something. Anything. Sign the petition here. It's not much but it's a start.

Among words certain to bring me out in a cold sweat is “stillbirth”. Another trigger is “dead” attached to “baby”, “son” and “child”. There’s a theme you see.

I should by rights have a 16-year-old wandering round the house, watching Youtube videos and stress-eating to cope with his GCSEs. Except I don’t.

I don’t, because instead of a gangly adolescent laying upstairs trawling Instagram, my baby son’s body moulders in a tiny white coffin in an Essex churchyard where we buried him 16 years ago. A shocking thought. To me anyway. But stillbirth is like that. Shocking. A whole life. A future taken away before the child draws breath.

When I read that the UK has the same attrition rate as Slovakia and Slovenia I despair. When I see that the UK has a higher rate of stillbirths than Croatia, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Korea I wonder what is going wrong.

What is Iceland doing right to suffer the lowest rate of stillbirth among 186 countries? What changes are they making in the Netherlands where between the years 2000 and 2015 they have seen an annual rate of reduction in stillbirths of 6.8% compared to our measly 1.4%?

Why aren’t we up in arms?

Are we such fatalists that we bury our babies and think “That’s life for you” and “Is it Call the Midwife tonight? Put the kettle on, will you?”.

My own son died in utero two days before his due date. I enjoyed a good pregnancy - ate organically, quit drinking, took up pregnancy yoga, avoided blue cheese, prawns, liver and bad influences. I bloomed with happiness.

The only problem: I could not sleep. One night though, I slept well and late. Almost at the moment of waking, I realised the baby was not moving. I had a hot bath, ate vanilla ice-cream - an instinctive part of me already knew, but the rational woman decided that I was wrong. Because I had to be wrong.

At Guy’s hospital in London, the room was dark as the midwife swept my pregnant belly for the heartbeat on the ultrasound machine. I waited for the grainy pulse, for the baby to move. In vain. She called in a more experienced colleague and my husband gripped my hand. Terror. Fear. Think of your worst nightmare. Then double down.

An older woman with a kind face and efficient manner arrived. Silent, she watched the screen as she moved the scanner across and over my stomach, pressing it to find a scrap of life, and finding instead death, horror and desolation.

When she left us, I sat up awkwardly on the hospital bed and my husband wrapped his arms around me. Screaming, I held onto him in the darkness. I know the exact sound a heart makes when it breaks — it sounds like a wolf. Both of us heard it.

Horrors knock one against the next when your baby dies. Your child’s dead — that’s terrible. Now give birth to him. Not by caesarean because of the risk of bleeding and complications with future pregnancies which leaves only the alternative. I was induced and 60 hours later, I gave birth to my son. That at least I could do for him.

He felt warm and wet and wonderful as I pushed him out. Nearly seven pounds and beautiful. Though don’t ask me what colour his eyes were, but his fingers still folded to hold my finger. The first and last time I held his hand in mine.

We washed him with soft cotton wool balls and dressed him in a tiny white new-born’s romper we had brought in with us.

You feel guilt when your baby dies inside - as if you have failed him in the most extraordinary and catastrophic way. My heart hurt – not metaphorically but physically - and lunacy beckoned. My baby buried, I was not safe to leave alone; where I had once nourished another life, grief and despair filled me.

The consequences are endless. I am convinced that for more than a decade, I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Trapped in the endless video loop labouring to give birth to a dead child. I also suffered spells of post natal depression after the birth of my other three children. Needless to say the pregnancies were tense.

I cannot guess what sort of mother I would have been had my first son not died. My children would probably be sounder sleepers. Sometimes an inconsiderate child will sleep so quietly, they scarcely seem to move; I have to tiptoe in and check they are still drawing breath. Occasionally, I poke them.

There are no rules when you lose a child, you survive however you can: avoid those who are unhelpful; abuse the good will of those closest to you; a black sense of humour helps. “Let’s think outside the box,” I would say to my husband and my bereavement therapist would cringe.

According to the ONS figures which will be published this spring, ten babies are stillborn every day in the UK.

In 2014, 3,564 children were lost. Why aren’t those numbers falling? Stillbirth matters — to the children lost. To their bereaved mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers. To the families and friends and colleagues all of whom are caught up in the devastation that accompanies the death of an innocent. To every woman who wants to bear a child. To every man who stands by her.

My husband and I weren’t a given a reason why our son died. There wasn’t a mistake to point at and say “If only.” Sometimes a cause emerges such as pre-eclampsia, congenital malformation or infection. In around 10% of cases, such as my own, it is entirely unexplained. Doctors told me at the time that in the case of a middle-class woman going to term who has had an unremarkable pregnancy, a stillbirth is virtually always unexplained. How is that acceptable in this age of Google where everything is searchable?

If you are lucky, you reach an accommodation with tragedy. You swallow it up and take it inside yourself. If you are lucky, you have more children – other beautiful, glorious children. You do not so much “get over it” as get through it. People ask: “How many children do you have?” I say: “Three.” I think: “Four.”

Sixteen years ago, we lost a child. Nothing changes. Every baby’s stillbirth is a small tragedy for that family. For the country though that sits back and lets it happen, time and time again, it’s a national disgrace.


Tracy Glover said...

I'm sorry to hear this. It must be a terrible trauma for you. More should definitely be done to prevent stillbirth and to support women that experience them.

ADDY said...

So sorry. Childbirth is not easy at the best of times. To have to go through it knowing that there is a dead child at the end of it must be heart-breaking. There have been so many medical advances in the last 60-70 years and yet this is one area that still needs a lot of research.

Penny Pincher said...

I really don't know what to say . . . A very moving piece . . . The statistics are shocking.
Signing the petition now.

Anonymous said...

You have done the right thing in writing your piece which will raise awareness and hopefully bring improvement in the care of pregnant mothers and babies even though I am sure it will have been very hard for you to write it. I have signed the petition

merry weather said...

Signed. X

Anonymous said...

What a terrible, beautiful story. What incredible writing. Thank you for sharing.

dipali said...

Utterly and absolutely heart-breaking.
My mother lost a premature baby between my brother and my sister, some sixty-odd years before she passed away when she was over eighty one. She would search for that little baby during her terminal illness. I don't think a mother can ever forget her lost child....