Today my dear friends should be celebrating their daughter's thirteenth birthday, just like they did for their eldest daughter's eighteenth birthday a few weeks before, and just like they will for younger son and daughter in a few weeks time. This is one anniversary that brings much empty, aching, sadness to my friends. There is no birthday party today, no welcome teenager facebook posts. Just a lovely dedication from my friend to her stillborn daughter. The raw pain still palpable. Life has gone on, but with cracks. There should have been a new teenager celebrating her life, not the rest of us celebrating her short but sweet presence on this earth.
I admire my friends for having the courage and conviction to openly speak of their lost loved child, and keeping her real for all of us. Her life may have been over before it began, but she was loved no less by her family. That she is remembered and spoken of fondly.
While I have never lost a pregnancy or child I have been around friends who have. I have also worked as a Birthing Midwife for much of my Midwifery career. While this is truly the saddest part of my work, I often reflect on some of the families that I have cared for with a stillborn baby, and they are fond and touching memories that I carry with me. While it is overwhelming trying to support a mother in labour, knowing that the child she carries will never breathe, and to keep doing my work amidst such suffocating sadness they weighs on the room with unbearable grief. The shifts of the family from quiet snuffles and sneaky tears that drip from corners of eyes and cheeks with no effort. From silence that is deafening to outright howling. The pain trying to escape from the mother's vocal cords. It rings in my ears for days to come. They why's, what if's, if only's that parents search for the answers to this desperate situation. There is a closeness that is developed between us. That I am allowed into a family's life in one of their most private and traumatic days of their lives. Our bond is unique and special.
The hospital where I worked when my babies were young, had a special few birthing suites that were dedicated to women who would labour with babies not expected to survive. It was the 1990s and even then the rooms where decorated differently, less clinical. Softer lighting and furnishings and a little away from the noises of labouring women who would take their lusty babies home.
This unit was run by amazing Midwives that knew their staff well. Not just their staff's Midwifery skill base, but their natural flair and expertise in different areas and what was going on in their personal lives. To be asked to assist a mother of a stillborn baby, was an honour, you were hand picked. Many staff were mothers themselves, some of us with young babies. It was generally left unsaid that staff with young babies were not asked to work with these mothers until their children were older and we had become a little more resilient to loss again. I had arrived at work, tired and a bit frazzled from caring for my won baby who barely slept. I had been struggling with his sleep for many months and was not enjoying motherhood and being at home nearly as much as I had expected or hoped to. I was exhausted, but looked forward to coming to work as a break from the stress of my baby who woke and cried around the clock. He was wearing me out despite all attempts to improve the situation. I sat in the tea room ready for allocation and handover for the night ahead. The skill mix of Midwives had altered for my shift ahead and I was needed to spend the night with a labouring mother. A full term unexplained stillborn baby that needed to be born. With a big lump in my throat I went to work. I met the most beautiful and heartbroken mother. She had so desperately wanted to have this, her second baby. She had planned a wonderful life for this new baby, except suddenly and without warning, there was no longer any life left. Her sadness was overwhelming. I was hit with a great thud in my stomach, like I had been kicked. Here I was feeling sorry for myself, that I was complaining about how little sleep I was managing on, and how hard it was to be a new mum. I worked out pretty quickly how much this dear mother would have delighted in being awake all night with a screaming baby, to feel exhausted and overwhelmed. The feeling of her aching breasts full of milk preparing to feed her wakeful baby. She would do anything to trade places with me, to live my life, the life that I wasn't enjoying. I didn't confess to her that I had a baby. I stayed with her long after my shift finished, to help birth her much loved baby. This perfect baby, whose only fault was that she never took a breath. How I willed her to breathe, when she was born. I held her and waited for her to breathe, she never did. Eventually when I was able to leave, I cried all the way home. I couldn't get home fast enough. I gathered my son in my arms and squeezed him so hard, and I cried into his fuzz of soft wispy hair. I vowed never to let him down, that I would fight hard for him, as he had fought hard to stay alive in my womb, and he breathed. I learned to be grateful for my wakeful baby, and each night that he was awake yet again, instead of being mad like I used to be, I was relieved. All was well, not perfect but well.
I was at a baby expo some years later and while checking out some stylish and locally made baby bags, I looked up and instantly recognised the beautiful mother that I had been with while she grieved over her lost baby. She was distinct, while easily recognisable, the sadness was disguised, she was smiling. We locked eyes and I hesitated. I desperately wanted to speak with her but didn't want to upset her in public, where she was working. She approached me and spoke to me. "We know each other, we have met before" she said. I was no longer in my white uniform, probably my sadness and exhaustion no longer there too. "Yes" I said. She continued to look at me, trying to find her answer. " I was there when Audrey was born" I said. Her eyes welled, those tears were all there just underneath her lashes, waiting to pour out, never far from the surface. She removed herself but asked for me to stay, she would be back shortly. I was mad at myself for upsetting her, but I couldn't lie. I couldn't ignore the part I had played in her life. We had shared such raw honesty a few years earlier, she deserved the truth from me. Soon enough she returned by side and hugged me tight. Tight with her all might, like she was clinging to a memory of what may have felt like a dream, a moment of real. She was sobbing and hugging, I was too. She thanked for saying her baby's name. To not ignore she existed and was real. To acknowledge this lady's pain, and to not make light of our chance meeting. I was lucky enough to be one of the few that met her baby, I held her, she was indeed real. I was a connection to a discussion that could not be had with many people. As sad as she was, she was happy to have had the chance to remember her baby with someone other than herself. We parted each other's company with smiles.
This is what makes my friend so special. She has openly kept her lost baby close to all of us. I did get to hold her precious and tiny baby, I do have real memories of her, and I love that this is not a locked away memory that can never be spoken of again. That by having these conversations, it gives families permission to discuss baby loss, miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal loss. This is not something to be swept under the carpet, but acknowledged and remembered. My friend reminded me that to her it was important that we keep her baby's memory alive otherwise her brief time with us and all the pain was for nothing.
Caroline is a Registered Nurse and Midwife from Perth, and also director of Carolines Angels, a specialist baby sleep agency. Along with her business partner, Caroline Radford, Caroline's Angels offers families assistance with sleep, settling, behaviour and toileting support for 0-5 year olds, in Perth, elsewhere in the state, Australia and internationally. Caroline published her first book in 2014, a personal memoir of her time as a midwife, entitled 'Blue Hydrangeas'.