In early 2014, I was an excited first time parent eagerly anticipating the birth of my son Henry. I had no maternity background, I naively believed that after the 12 and 20 week scans, you were in the clear. I’d never heard of fetal growth restriction, and if you’d asked me what I knew about stillbirth, I’d have probably looked at you a bit awkwardly and tried to change the subject. You see, I knew it was a thing, but not something to think about or talk about. I’d have said it was something that happened in the third world or in the Victorian era. I’m embarrassed to say I had not the first idea it affected 10 families every day in the UK.
It definitely wasn’t the sort of thing that happened to people like me.
Until it did.
Two days before he was born, Henry’s heart silently stopped beating. Two days later, on Friday 2nd May 2014, he came silently into the world, stillborn at 38 weeks, weighing just 4lb 13.5oz.
But here’s what I want everyone to know. Henry may have been stillborn, but he was STILL born. A stillbirth is STILL a birth. The death of a baby is so tragic that it’s often easier for those one stage removed from it to try and mitigate it with phrases like “at least…” or couch it up in gentle language about babies being born sleeping. Let’s not downplay it, my baby died. But he LIVED too. Not the life any of us would have wished for, and I’ll always wonder what he’d have become, or what his laugh would have sounded like. But for 37 weeks and 5 days, he lived. There’s no “at least” that can downplay that fact.
That’s the interesting thing about the word ‘stillbirth’. It’s a clinical term designed to describe the physical reality of a baby born unmoving. But if we take a step back, and look at it from another perspective, it’s actually a reminder that actually, this is still a birth. This is still a child, a family, and an experience that made two people parents. And that’s an amazing thing.
Which brings me to the second thing I want everyone to know. Henry’s existence made TWO people parents. Maternity, pregnancy, and birth are often seen (not unreasonably) as a mother and baby thing. Family comes in, mother births baby, everyone goes home. The dad can feel a bit of a spare part, as they can in the weeks and months that follow too, back at work, out early, home late, missing out on many aspects of the early days of a newborn’s life.
But in this situation, please remember – I lost my baby too. I spent months after Henry died constantly fielding the question “how’s your partner doing?”, but can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times anyone looked me in the eye and said ”how are YOU doing?” Because we’re blokes. We’re meant to be strong. We’re meant to be the rock for our partners while they grieve the loss of their baby. British society doesn’t deal with death well. It certainly doesn’t deal with the death of babies well. Add in the concept of male emotions and, well, that’s an equation that simply doesn’t add up.
I’m really lucky. I refused to accept that this was the extent of my role in the process, and I talk about Henry. I talk about him publicly, loudly, often, and with both love and pride. Sadly, many fathers – both in Britain and the world over – don’t feel able to do that, restricted by the conventions of society that tells them their place is to be “the strong one”. I’ve realised I can be strong and broken at the same time, that that’s okay, and that I don’t have to do it silently.
I’m really lucky. I get to run a charity called Beyond Bea with my best friend Steph, Bea’s mum. We get to go all over the country, talking about our babies to health professionals and helping them understand how they too can better support families going through this most unimaginable of losses. That’s such a privilege and it fills us with such pride to talk about our babies. Talking about your babies with pride is a natural parental instinct, and that doesn’t go away when your baby dies. I don’t get to bore you all with stories of Henry’s first try at Rugby Tots, or clog up your Instagram feeds with photos of his first day at school. But I can still speak his name and share his story with pride.
So Baby Loss Awareness week isn’t about me. I’m well aware how many babies die. If you know a family whose baby died, this week ask them about them. Ask about their child, ask them their baby’s name, and when they tell you about them, really hear what they’re saying to you. That’s their parenting. And please – don’t forget the dads.
Henry and his best friend Bea may have died, but they were STILL born, they STILL lived, and they will always STILL be loved.
Henry and his best friend Bea may have come silently into the world, but their voices ARE being heard, loudly, proudly, and full of love.
Chris is a Trustee (Conference Lead & University Liaison) for Beyond Bea Charity, a charity which aims to raise awareness around baby loss and educate and train health professionals. You can read more about Beyond Bea here.