Trigger Warning: This post contains references to baby loss, stillbirth, grief, reproductive rights, and medical termination.
Today is the 10th birthday of one of my sons. But he isn’t here to celebrate.
Instead today is a sombre and emotionally challenging day for my husband and I as it has been for ten years. Our son was stillborn. I have written before about what that experience of grief feels like for me, about how we cope with his absence. This year, however, as I approached the anniversary of our son’s birth and death, coping felt much harder than it has in recent years. It feels somehow heavier, more omnipresent. I think it may be because this year marks a decade and that feels significant. We make a fuss over our living children reaching double digits so maybe that is why. Maybe it is just because we often measure life’s experiences in decades. Maybe it is just because grief is bloody hard to live with.
I talk and write openly about baby loss and stillbirth because it is a subject that is still so taboo despite the fact that so many families endure it. There is one aspect of my loss, however, that I have not written publicly about before. This year I feel compelled to do so. While I am unsure as to why this year feels more difficult, I do know why I feel compelled to share something more about my experience of loss in a way I have not before. That is because the current political climate here in the US (where I have lived for almost 5 years now) has triggered another debate about reproductive rights and women’s access to safe abortions. So I am choosing now to be brave enough to share another aspect of my story in the hope that maybe it helps someone going through the same or that perhaps it reaches someone and prompts a widening in perspective on such a personal and emotive subject.
My son was stillborn a decade ago. He was stillborn because we made the decision to induce labour early. Starkly and frankly, my son’s stillbirth was the result of a medical termination. Maybe that shocks you. If you know me personally or have been reading my blog for long enough that you feel you know me, maybe that detail even makes you think differently about me. Certainly, in the immediate aftermath of his birth and our loss, I severed a friendship with someone who told me that, while she was sorry for what I was going through, I had “murdered” my child. Frankly, I choose not to accept or absorb the judgment of others because we are secure in the decision we chose to make.
Let me make clear from the get go that my son was a much wanted baby. As a family, we were excited to welcome another baby into our lives and expand our happy little family. My pregnancy was going swimmingly with far fewer complications than I had experienced in my previous pregnancies. For multiple logistical reasons, I travelled alone to the appointment for my anomaly scan. The hospital was over an hour away so it was a long drive but a pleasant one. I felt confident everything would be OK because everything seemed to be going so well compared to my previous pregnancies, the successful ones as well as the miscarriages. I was also excited for the opportunity to see my baby in so much detail.
It was during that scan, however, that my world came crashing down around me.
As a veteran of anomaly scans, I could tell when a sonographer was having to check something out in more detail. This time, however, I could tell the sonographer was worried by whatever it was she was having to explore in more detail. I actually asked her what was wrong before she told me. There was a problem with my baby’s renal system, that’s all she could tell me. She needed me to go right away to a hospital in the city for a doctor to have a better look.
I was in a daze as I was told which hospital to go to, which doctor would be seeing me, asked if I was OK to drive, could I please have something to eat before I left. I remember feeling like I was suffocating under some sort of gauze. Everything felt blurry, stifled. I honestly don’t even remember the drive between the two hospitals. I guess I had to stop thinking in order to concentrate on just the process of driving into the city and finding my way to the hospital. Somehow, goodness knows how, I arrived without incident. When I walked into the reception area, a nurse was already waiting for me. Her face was kindly but pitying. I felt instantly cold and numb and nauseous. Between her expression and the fact they were not even making me sign in or wait, I knew with sudden clarity that the news was just going to get worse.
And the news, of course, was worse. Much worse. The doctor confirmed that there was a problem with my baby’s renal system. His kidneys had not developed. Consequently, my baby was not able to process fluids. His tiny body was swollen with fluid. His lungs were being crushed and could not, therefore, develop properly. There was nothing they could do. His condition was incompatible with life.
Incompatible with life.
I felt like I was falling or sinking. I had set out that day with so much excitement and hope for the future and now …. Now the future I had envisaged was going to be different. The doctor explained those possible futures but I was not absorbing the information at all. I was suffocating again, still sinking.
I was taken to a private room by the kindly nurse. She sat me down in a comfy chair, ordered me to eat some shortbread that she forced into my hands, and told me she was going to make me some tea. When she returned with the tea, she explained to me what the doctor had said and checked I understood. I did understand. I had choices but none of them were real choices. None of them were the choice I wanted which was to have my baby and take him home and love him and nurture him and raise him. All of the choices resulted in an outcome I did not want, could not accept. I had never felt more alone and lost. The nurse cupped my hands in hers and told me I had time to make the decision, I didn’t have to decide now, shouldn’t decide now. She told me to go home and talk things through with my husband and to phone her when we had made our choice. Our choice that wasn’t a choice.
That drive home felt like the longest and loneliest drive of my life. I drove through the mountain glens and around the lochs on autopilot because my mind was lurching between buzzing and being numb. And then I was home. And I didn’t really want to be. Because now I had to tell my husband the news and we would have to discuss it and make a decision. Because now I would have to tell my children that their new baby sibling would never be coming home to them. I did what I had to do because, in a time of personal crisis, all we can do is take a deep breath, put one foot in front of the other, and take the steps that propel life forward as best as we can.
We discussed our choices over time. All the while, the baby tumbled and kicked inside me. All those flickers of life. Incompatible with life. I felt like I knew this little being who was growing inside me, this little person who I already loved keenly, and yet I knew I would never get to know him outside my womb. I told him I loved him over and over. I wished I could freeze time. I needed those kicks and punches and tumbles to never stop.
The choices we had were for me to carry the baby until the point at which I spontaneously miscarried or to have labour induced and deliver the baby before I reached that point. There was no expectation that I would manage to carry to term and nor would it make a difference to the outcome anyway. All the choices resulted in the same outcome: “incompatible with life”. There was no scenario in which my baby lived. The doctor had made clear that there was some risk to my own life in waiting to miscarry naturally, especially since we lived so far from the hospital – almost 90 miles away. I had to think of my three living children. I couldn’t risk being incapacitated or worse and putting them through even more loss and trauma. So we made our decision. We accepted a choice that felt like no choice at all. We decided to induce labour and have the baby delivered early.
The way I choose to look at our choice is that I was switching off my baby’s life support system. It just happens to be that I was the life support machine. It was my body that was sustaining his tiny life and I had to disconnect my baby from the machine that was me in order to end his suffering. As much as I wanted to keep feeling his life inside me, I knew that with each passing week his fragile little body was being crushed by more fluid. I felt I was being selfishly cruel trying to keep him alive for longer. I had to be merciful and let him go. I had to switch off the machine.
Having taken time to really think things through, we were already at peace with our decision when we arrived at the hospital. Being at peace with the decision did not mean it was easy to walk through those doors. It really wasn’t, not remotely. It was the most complex, challenging, and searingly anguishing decision we have ever had to make. Nothing about it was easy. But we knew that we were making the right decision for our baby and, ultimately, for our family. Therefore, we were at peace with the decision and the choice that was not a choice.
It was a beautiful September day and the light was streaming into the delivery room. My husband and I always remember that glow of the Autumn light and the conkers on the chestnut tree just outside the window. What I also remember is hearing all of the other noises coming from adjacent delivery suites. All around me I could hear women yelling and grunting in pain and determination and then there would be the joyful noise of a newborn baby crying. It absolutely withered me inside, made my chest seize up with sorrow and despair, to know that I would labour like those women but the result would only be silence. My baby would never cry or yell. My baby would most likely not even breathe.
I will spare you all the medical detail. When my labour cramps started, I immediately wanted to resist them. Each contraction was taking me further away from my baby, was part of the process of separating us. As much as I had made peace with our decision to have him delivered early, I wanted to cling on ferociously to every single moment that he was still inside me. When it was time to push, I roared not with physical pain but with emotional anguish. It was time to part.
He was born and the room was silent.
He was delivered inside his sac, a caul covering part of his head. For my seafaring ancestors, this was a good omen. A caul was a charm against drowning. I felt the irony. The midwives removed him from his caul, informed me that he was a boy, and handed him to me.
He was tiny but perfect. His skin was pink but more translucent than that of a full-term baby. He had ten little fingers and ten little toes. My husband and I held him, kissed him, hugged him close, told him how much we loved him. My husband carried him over to the window so that the warm sunlight would touch his delicate skin. We were allowed to spend a lot of time with him but, no matter how much time we were given, it was never going to be enough. We wanted a lifetime with him. We were being denied a lifetime with our baby boy and we wanted as much time as we could have. We understood, however, that our time was limited. Parting with our son, this time forever, was an agony I absolutely cannot express in words.
Leaving the hospital empty-handed was utterly awful. Two of our three living sons had been born in the same hospital – our youngest would be born there eight months later. We should have been leaving the hospital with a newborn baby just as we had before. I was ordered to wait in the lobby area while my husband brought the car up from the car park, since I was unsteady on my feet. I sat in that lobby area waiting and watching, seeing new dads bound through the door with wide smiles, grandparents arriving with balloons and stuffed animals, and I watched parents leave through those doors with brand new, squishy, wrinkly little babies. I felt crushed. When my husband arrived, we walked through the doors together but alone.
We left that hospital as grieving parents. We have been grieving parents ever since. There was a before and there was an after. Our lives have never been the same since. We were shaped by that experience. Walking across the threshold of that hospital that day ten years ago was a dividing line between who we were before and who we have been since. As I have written before, the grief never actually leaves. The healing is about learning to cope but the wound of bereavement is never completely repaired. The wound easily reopens. That is why I can feel the loss of our son so keenly even now, an entire decade on. As painful as our navigation of loss has been, however, we have never once regretted our decision. Never. Not once. Do I wish things could have been different? Of course I do. But there was no realistic prospect of things being different for us. There was no path we could have chosen that would have led to our baby coming home with us. Every option available to us involved walking through those doors empty-wombed and empty-handed and shattered by grief. Our choice at least ensured that I was walking through those doors and returning home to our children.
So yes we have grief and we have pain that we live with. But we don’t have regret. We made our choice that was never a choice. And we remain at peace with that choice.
Thank you for reading.