Red Nose Day

Wyn Red NoseLike many people I have suffered “awareness day fatigue”. There is red ribbon day, white ribbon day, pink ribbon day and teal ribbon day; all important in their own right, but the list of awareness colours does go on and on. I have sometimes pondered whether there might be enough to be able to wear a different one every single day of the year. Wikipedia lists forty-four different ribbons, and if you added in all the other awareness raising days, with jeans and bandanas and daffodils, you would probably get the 365 quota.

My partner and I were ambivalent to most of these days. We would support some of the big ones but would let the rest pass without a thought. Red Nose Day was one of the latter for us. We had no connection to it. No one we knew had lost a child to SIDS and we are not the type of effervescent people who can pull off walking around with a red nose on their face. But in the space of a year that has all changed. Now it is a day we will never forget.

June 2012 was tragic in our world. On the first of June old school friends of mine lost their 11 day old baby girl to a sudden illness. Watching my classmate walk into the church bearing the tiny coffin of his baby daughter was the saddest thing I had ever witnessed. Home for only a handful of precious days, happiness turned suddenly into days shrouded in grief. Their baby, Arielle, would be forever in their hearts but they would never hold her in their arms again.

I was 36 weeks pregnant when Arielle died. I walked through the last weeks of my pregnancy with a heavy heart. For the first time I understood so keenly the fragility of life. But the lessons about life and death had not finished. On the 19th of June my best friend’s son, Walter, was stillborn. We had shared the journey of pregnancy together and never doubted we would both be embracing our bundles of joy. Instead, her hopes and dreams for the future were shattered. The baby boy that she had longed for, and had already grown to love, was gone. My partner and I went to the funeral, 38 weeks pregnant, hearts literally aching for our friend. How could so much tragedy occur? Why her?

Three days after Walter’s funeral our daughter, Aowyn, was born. It was Red Nose Day.

I did not really understand the true scope of Red Nose Day before June last year. I knew that raising awareness about SIDS had been crucial in reducing cot deaths. I did not understand, however, the role the group SIDS and Kids played in supporting research into stillbirth and neonatal deaths (which unlike SIDS have actually increased in the past decade) and supporting families dealing with the grief of those deaths.

When two of my friends had lost their babies it felt unfair to be embracing my own newborn. Holding my daughter I was sometimes overwhelmed knowing how much pain my friends would be going through. I also struggled with wanting to support them in their grief, yet wondering if I would only add to it with the newborn that I held in my arms.

I took comfort, though, from my daughter being born on a day that is about supporting people in their situation. Since that time I too have tried to support my friends and all those treading such a difficult path. In return I have learnt more about life and love and friendship in the past year from both Walter and Arielle and their families than in the preceding 33 years of my life.

A year has now passed and my daughter’s first birthday is just around the corner and Red Nose Day has become a day I can never overlook again. Once so naive to the tragedy of stillbirth and neonatal death I am now so very conscious that many parents – my dear friends included – never get to witness so many ‘firsts’ with their babies. I am reminded of this daily as my daughter grows.

Now I understand the red noses but I also think I understand the daffodils and the ribbons in every imaginable colour. The grief of stillbirth, the loss of a loved one from cancer, or the magnitude of problems like domestic violence are confronting in their reality. It is often easier to let awareness days pass by in blissful ignorance. They are things that happen to other people. But once you have been touched – once stillbirth, or cancer, or domestic violence, or the myriad of other causes have breached your inner circle – you will never be the person you once were. Every ribbon worn, every daffodil bought, every red nose donned becomes a way of showing others that you stand with them. This June we stand with our friends and with all who have experienced such heart-wrenching loss. Our hearts, and our noses, go out to you.

*******

If you would like to make a donation to SIDS and Kids we’re running a ‘Red’memberance appeal during June. You can donate online at http://www.everydayhero.com.au/redmemberance

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Posted in identity, parenting, psychology, stillbirth | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Snug as a bug in a rug ain’t all it’s wrapped up to be

Image

Image courtesy of Laurie Shirazi

Wrapping or swaddling babies has traditionally been used as a means to help settle them to sleep. Wrapping is thought to mimic the atmosphere of the womb and confines the limbs of young babies to avoid the ‘moro’ or startle reflex from waking them up. Understandably parents keen for a good night’s sleep will readily embrace this proven measure for a restful night.

For many years the weapon of choice against a baby who fought sleep was a simple muslin square. However; in recent years the humble baby wrap has had a radical makeover. A proliferation of swaddling products has hit the shelves and infiltrated online stores. Cocoon shaped zip-up wraps made of stretchy fabric are on every new mum’s “must have” list. The websites spruiking these products cite medical and scientific research into the benefits of swaddling giving an air of credibility to their products. Yet parents using these products may unwittingly be harming their children.

Orthopaedic surgeons from around the globe are raising concerns that these new swaddle suits are behind increasing rates of hip dysplasia in children. If untreated hip dysplasia can cause a child to have a limp, lead to the early onset of arthritis and even the need for a hip replacement as young as in their 20s. If caught early (before 6 months of age) the condition can usually be treated through non invasive bracing. After 6 months of age surgery is likely to be required.

The head of orthopaedics at Sydney Children’s Hospital Randwick, Dr Angus Gray, noted in a media release in 2010 a steady increase in cases of hip dysplasia and warned parents against the dangers of tight wrapping. In 2012 Associate Professor Peter Cundy (head of paediatric orthopaedics at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital Adelaide) outlined his research which linked swaddling to hip dysplasia to an international orthopaedic conference in Colorado. In the past few years Dr Cundy has noted up to a fivefold increase in cases of hip dysplasia at the Women and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide. In 2012 Professor Nicholas Clarke of Southampton General Hospital in the UK called for renewed awareness campaigns to highlight the risk of tight wrapping to parents. Similar awareness campaigns conducted in Japan have reduced the incidents of hip dysplasia there fivefold.

Awareness of the risks of tight wrapping is crucial. Online communities of parents whose children are being treated for hip dysplasia are ripe with regretful stories of swaddling and wrapping. In almost all cases it was only after their child was diagnosed with the condition that they became aware of the risks. Even doctors, midwives and early childhood nurses seem unaware of the issue themselves and as a result are not helping to educate parents about safe wrapping techniques. Yet awareness is not everything. Even parents who are aware of the link between tight wrapping and hip dysplasia may unfortunately fall prey to products that are questionably marketed. There are cocoon style wraps which openly refer to hip dysplasia on their websites – explaining that tight wrapping can contribute to the condition. They infer that their swaddle suits are not tight and safe for hips but many of these swaddes remain a concern to orthopaedic surgeons. Parents who are concerned can visit the International Hip Dysplasia Institute website to investigate safe wrapping and see a list of products that have been endorsed as “hip healthy“. The majority of swaddle suits on the market are far from hip healthy and are arguably dangerous for some babies. Dr Gray warned recently “”They often don’t look very tight, they can be very elastic, but a little weak baby is not going to fight against it. They will lie in the resting position with their knees together.”

froggy legs copyFor babies’ hips to develop properly the ball of the hip must be in place in the socket. The natural position of newborn babies is to have their legs curled up and flopping out “froggy style”. This position is also the most optimal position for healthy hip development. When babies’ legs are straightened out in a cocoon style wrap there is the potential for the hips to partially slip out of the socket or, in the worst case, to become fully dislocated.

In the United States, Texas has recently enforced a swaddling ban in child care centres to help stop unsafe wrapping practices (both to prevent hip dysplasia from overly tight wrapping and for SIDS concerns where loose wrapping can result in wraps that pose a safety threat to babies). In response to the ban many child care workers are complaining it is impossible to get babies to sleep for any length of time. This highlights the nub of another problem related to tight wrapping and hip dysplasia. How do you convince parents whose baby is sleeping soundly when snugly wrapped to change their wrapping practices? Many parents have had success with these new cocoon type swaddles and rave about them to other parents. Their baby never developed hip dysplasia so “it’s all an urban myth”. In reality it’s all a bit of a lottery.

tight swaddles copyHip dysplasia used to be called Congenital Dislocation of the Hip (CDH) but the medical profession changed the name to Developmental Dysplasia of the Hip (DDH) in recognition of the fact that it is not just a hereditary condition, but can be acquired (through tight swaddling and the like). DDH affects approximately 2-3 out of 1000 babies and occurs significantly more in girls than boys. However, approximately 1 in 20 babies have hip instability at birth. It is these babies who are arguably at risk of becoming one of the statistics of an increasing rate of hip dysplasia if their already unstable joints are straightened out through tight swaddling and the use of swaddle suits. Unfortunately there are no Australian Standards to ensure products like swaddle suits (and other products like baby carriers) are not risking the health of babies’ hips. Infant sleep bags must comply with the standard for reduced fire hazard but there is no requirement for swaddle suits to be hip friendly.

safe swaddles copyWrapping and swaddling are not bad per se. Wrapping can help settle fussy babies but babies should never be wrapped up like a burrito or a caterpillar in a cocoon. There are products on the market that are genuinely hip friendly and a baby can be wrapped in a simple muslin square in a hip friendly way as well. We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water and abandon wrapping altogether but if we are to stop the increase in hip dysplasia we do need to learn hip friendly ways to settle fussy babies.

More information about hip healthy swaddling along with information about other baby products such as carriers, swings and walkers can be found on the International Hip Dysplasia Institute website.

Pictures of infants with no swaddles (natural “froggy” position), tight swaddles and safe swaddles

Posted in hip dysplasia, parenting | Tagged , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Can tweaking the male breadwinner model ever lead to equity?

Image taken from suyensedai’s photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License

Image taken from suyensedai’s photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License

Apparently the male breadwinner is alive and kicking in Australia. This comes as no surprise. The latest statistics show that women make up just 35% of the full time work force in Australia but women comprise the majority (70%) of all part-time workers with nearly half (46%) of all women working in Australia working part-time.

Different countries have different cultural expectations around women and work – particularly in regard to working mothers. Germany is particularly conservative: Women are encouraged to be stay-at-home mothers and those who return to work are often labelled “raven mothers”. Germany has also adopted economic policies that encourage women to remain at home to care for their children. In contrast the cultural expectation for French women is that they will work full-time after having children and France has one of the highest rates of women in full-time work in the OECD (approximately 70% of working women are full-time). Just like Germany, social attitudes and government policies have contributed to the development of the cultural expectations around working mothers in France – but with a very different outcome. Interestingly the fertility rate in Germany where the traditional male breadwinner model is encouraged is 1.39 births per woman whereas in France the rate is 2.0 births per woman.

What cultures have been established around women, work and child rearing here that are pushing or influencing women into part-time work in Australia? Perhaps it’s more that our workplace cultures haven’t really moved with the times. Sure we have introduced innovative work spaces and ideas into some companies but the model of the standard job being full-time 9-5 hasn’t ever really changed or been challenged. The demands of some corporate cultures also mean that many full-time jobs require much more time than a 35-40 hour week.

Research conducted by both the Productivity Commission and the OECD notes that the main factors influencing women in Australia to choose part-time work are the cost and availability of child care and the way that women and men share work and caring responsibilities. Research also shows that most women working part-time do so by choice and that women who work full-time are more likely to want to reduce their hours than women working part-time wish to increase theirs. Whilst examining women’s preferences for part-time work is important we also need to look at the role of pressures and additional (usually unpaid) work undertaken by women that influence their choices.

The historical model of the male breadwinner relied on housewives to keep the home-front running smoothly. Although women now make up 46% of the total workforce in Australia and modern mothers have undoubtedly joined the ranks of the working, there has been no corresponding drop in the working hours of fathers. The Productivity Commission report into part-time work in Australia has noted an increase in part-time work for men but this is largely the result of single fathers or men with no children taking up part-time hours – only 6% of coupled fathers worked part-time. The Families in Australia 2011 report also found that only about 7% of families report having a female breadwinner. For many families in Australia when kids come along there is an increasingly uneven skew between paid and unpaid work with women taking on more of the unpaid responsibilities.

We’re told women have more “choices” now if they have kids – they can choose to be a stay-at-home mum, to work full-time, or to work part-time. It’d be more accurate to say women have a range of constrained choices available to them. When blessed with apparently “flexible” work most mothers actually find themselves doing the splits with one foot in work and the other in family, their legs being stretched tighter and tighter. The only way to ease the pain for many is to reduce working hours. Sadly many fathers have found that they’ve only been granted flexibility in the workplace when family responsibilities have been undeniably forced upon them through separation or divorce. Men are stuck in full-time work in the same way that many women are stuck out of it.

Australian women have been told we needed to embrace a nanny culture in order to fix the perennial problem of the juggle between work and family. Yet this “solution” remains inaccessible to many and undesirable to those who want to spend more, not less time with their kids. We need to dare to imagine different ways of working that will allow a more equitable spread of paid and unpaid work and allow both men and women to spend time with their children.

In the 1930s Kellogg (of the cereal fame) introduced a 30 hour week. Workers were paid slightly less, but were happier, healthier, spent more time with their families and productivity at Kellogg’s actually rose. Unfortunately WWII brought an end to this experiment. Eva Cox has been a long time advocate of the 30 hour week. A 30 hour week is just one option that could be taken up. Others have argued for us to start thinking about broader classification for work to encourage a better spread of work models than just full-time and part-time.

In Australia we’re stuck in what is called a modified breadwinner model – essentially we’ve just tweaked the 1950s male breadwinner model to try to suit the modern era. But can just tweaking it bring true equity? I’m not sure it can. Perhaps for equity to be achieved we need to dare to envisage more radical solutions to the problem of the mismatch between breadwinning and child rearing – solutions that allow both men and women to participate meaningfully in work and care.

Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/suyensedai/4325350601/sizes/z/with thanks to suyensedai. 

Posted in equity, feminism, parenting, society, women, work | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The real purpose of Mother’s Day: Remembrance

DSC_0172_Julia_Morning_PrintMother’s Day is fast approaching. We know it from the catalogues that invade our letterboxes. We know it from the gift guides in the newspapers. We know it from the primary school stalls filled with $5 or less trinkets (usually made or supplied by mums themselves). But what is Mother’s Day really all about?

The history of Mother’s day belies the commercialism that surrounds the day today. It was originally created in 1908 by an American woman, Anna Jarvis, as a memorial to her own mother. Some also attribute the origins of Mother’s Day to Julia Ward Howe who in 1870 organised a protest of mothers who had lost their sons in the Civil War. In either case the day was created with remembrance in mind. Yet today it is largely about celebrating and recognising living mothers.

For those whose mothers have passed away, or for mothers who have lost children, or those that dearly wish to be a mother but cannot, the day is a painful reminder of what is absent in their life. Every Hallmark card, every shopping centre advertisement, every gift guide is a stab to the heart.

Last year I was exposed to the tragedy of stillbirth and neonatal death. I knew about these things before, but I did not truly know them. In June my old school classmates lost their eleven day old baby girl Arielle. Eighteen days later my best friend’s son, Walter, was stillborn. In the days that followed their deaths I saw some of the saddest sights you can witness – a father carrying the coffin of his baby daughter into the church and two brothers reading their baby brother the bedtime stories he would never get to hear whilst his mum and dad looked on in tears.

In the months that have passed since Walter and Arielle’s deaths I have learnt a lot. Sometimes it seems as though we can deal with death in its immediacy. We can send flowers, attend funerals provide some home cooked meals. Yet as the weeks and months roll by and parents continue to grieve sometimes we begin to treat their family as if their lost children never existed. Their names are never mentioned. Their death becomes the elephant in the room. It’s like we’re afraid to bring up the memory – afraid to open an old wound. Yet as Elizabeth Edwards writes mentioning someone’s lost child can never open an old wound – a parent will never forget that their child died –they will carry the weight of their child’s death forever. As Edwards writes by talking about it with them “What you’re reminding them is that YOU remember they lived and that’s a GREAT, GREAT gift”.

The online world is a great comfort to many bereaved parents. There are forums, blogs and memorial sites. Online Baby Loss Mums and Dads can reach out to others with similar experiences and they can also escape the enveloping silence parents often find themselves in the real world. Despite the incidence of stillbirth being far more common than SIDS the silence surrounding it can leave parents isolated in their grief. Parents suffering the grief and loss of miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal loss latch on to some phrases to help express their experiences and grief. Phrases like “stillborn is still born”. When we push pregnancy, stillbirth and infant loss under the carpet we not only deny parents their grief but deny them expressing the memories of pregnancy and birth. On Mother’s Day this can be especially so.

West Australian mother Carly Marie knows too well the pain of Mother’s Day having walked the road of pregnancy, infant and child loss. She wants to ‘heal mothers day’ from the rampant commercialism that surrounds it and acknowledge within it the need for remembrance – for those mothers who have lost children, or indeed those children who have lost mothers. It’s a difficult challenge. To start the process Carly created International Bereaved Mother’s Day to be held on the first Sunday of May (the Sunday before Mother’s Day). The intent is that it will be a temporary movement until Mother’s Day truly remembers and recognises all mothers.

So this Sunday – International Bereaved Mother’s Day – let’s help Carly’s cause. If you know a mother who has lost a child (or a child who has lost a mother), drop them a note or a card, drop by or give them a call and give them the greatest gift you can. Remember their loss and remember their child – honour their child’s memory (or their mother’s memory). And on the following Sunday – Mother’s Day – whilst recognising the amazing mums who are still with us let’s allow a little space to grieve mum’s and children we’ve lost. We’ll all be the better for it.

Posted in parenting, psychology, society, spirituality, stillbirth, women | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Why words matter

Image taken from Toni Girl’s photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License

Image taken from Toni Girl’s photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License

Recently there was a mild furore in the blogosphere about a post on kidspot 4 ways to fold a fitted sheet (including the RIGHT one). Normally I wouldn’t have clicked anywhere near such a post but I’ll admit the fitted sheets in our house get scrunched up and thrown into our linen closet with absolutely no attempt at folding. Laundry is not my or my husband’s forte. In our household laundry and associated tasks are deliberately minimised. Ironing is reserved for attendance at weddings, funerals or job interviews. Wrinkle minimisation is practiced – hanging shirts up straight away when they come off the clothes line – so whilst we may not be as crisply dressed as some we pass. So with wrinkle minimisation and more cupboard space in mind I was curious. I’d previously looked at YouTube clips on how to fold t-shirts to try and get our t shirts less wrinkly so I was up for an instructional video session.

The post included 4 short video clips demonstrating different ways to fold fitted sheets. The first three videos (one featuring Sydney Blogger Beth Macdonald, one featuring Martha Stewart and one featuring an anonymous woman who’d posted her instructions to YouTube) were critiqued before the last video was presented as the solution to all our fitted sheet folding dilemmas.

So what was the issue with the fitted sheet demonstrations?

The problem was the seemingly “bitchy” way the other videos were critiqued. It seems the post was initially an attempt at a light hearted, tongue-in-cheek response – a bit of satire that unfortunately got its tone oh-so-wrong. The post has now been “tweaked” to “make the tone more true to our intentions” but you can still get a sense of why it drew the wrath of those reading it. Beth Macdonald’s method is scorned because she lays her sheets on the floor to help fold them and apparently the ideal in sheet domesticity is to have only the pure sanitising rays of the sun touch one’s sheets. Martha Stewart’s method is ribbed for requiring those following it to be “blessed with three arms and four hands” and the anonymous woman gets “points for enthusiasm”. The final video (Jen Cheung’s method) is then described as the “one method that works…No strange origami moves, no sleight of hand and definitely no touching the floor.”

The comments about the post speak for themselves: Penny writes “Wow. That’s a lot of effort to go to to bag other people out. What a ridiculous way to present a how to post.” Tina Gray writes “Another proud moment for Aussie Mum Bloggers.” Sarah sums up the discomfort people felt reading the post with “That awkward moment kidspot won’t stop being a bitch.” This is a post that clearly didn’t hit the mark. Farmer’s wifey writes “The person who approved this article needs to be sheet slapped! I thought kidspot/village voices were supporting bloggers not tearing them down! And Beth you can come to my house and fold my fitted sheets anytime because you are awesome my dear!”

When we live in an era when it is oh-so-common to read comment scuffles that can be outright offensive and bullying in nature in a way it was refreshing to see so many people calling this post for what it was. As disappointed female wrote “Stop bitching about other women who are out there giving it a go. Your attempt to ridicule and belittle for the chance of fame is certainly to backfire. Women who support other women is the way forward.”

Yet for me there was an even bigger issue to this piece that wasn’t picked up by the vast majority of comments. The bitchy tone was offensive but for me the piece drew my ire even more for the other specific words the writer chose to use. In summing up how to achieve the “one right way” of sheet folding we’re told “So, women of Australia, I present to you … (the)… definitive how-to video guide…Ladies  this is how to create linen closet nirvana. ” The video demonstration closes with “Women of Australia… you’re welcome.”

Words matter. It may seem innocent enough but when we say a dad has to “baby sit” his kids we reinforce inequalities surrounding caring. When we ask for “mums” to volunteer at schools we’re losing an opportunity to expand peoples’ perceptions of how volunteer work should be divided. We’re also potentially making dads who do volunteer at schools feel awkward and out of place. When we close a blog post (bitchy or not) about sheet folding in this way we slam a door in the face of equality. A door I’d very much like to see wedged open. We’ve probably all been guilty of choosing the wrong words at times, but with blog posts like the one from kidspot I’m realising how important it is to be more conscious of choosing the words we use carefully.

Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/tonigirl/8420611068/sizes/o/in/photostream/ with thanks to Toni Girl

Posted in equity, feminism, parenting, society, women | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Silence is not golden

Image taken from Crazy Craven's photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License

Image taken from Crazy Craven’s photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License

When my best friend’s baby was stillborn I was utterly devastated for her. I will never forget the day I found out. I had just started maternity leave myself as I was 38 weeks pregnant. Both my sons had arrived early so we were expecting labour could start any time. My partner, a teacher, had taken two days leave prior to the school holidays just in case, and if bub didn’t come we could enjoy the luxury of a couple of days to ourselves before our boys were on school holidays.

To take advantage of us both being off work with no kids to take care of we headed out to a café we’d been meaning to try for a late breakfast. I had forgot to turn my mobile phone on that morning, so I switched it on as we drove off down our street. Of course it instantly bleeped out a reminder to attend to all the emails and texts which had accumulated in off mode. It was my best friend’s due date, so when I saw there was a text from her of course I clicked into it straight away. We were still driving down our street when I sobbed out the word ‘No’. My husband asked me ‘what is it?’ I couldn’t talk. I just handed him the phone so he could see it for himself. We turned the car around and pulled up in our driveway. Shattered. How could this have happened to her?

No one deserves such a tragedy to happen to them but still my thoughts illogically asked, of all people, why her? She is the most wonderful person, would have been the most wonderful mum this second time around, and wanted her baby boy so, so much.

Statistics show that in Australia around 1 in every 130 pregnancies will result in stillbirth. About 60% of stillbirths occur at term. These are beautiful, perfect babies, who would most probably have lived had they been delivered earlier. Stillbirth is unexplained in up to 1/3 of cases providing parents with no clues as to how to prevent the tragedy from re-occurring.

Stillbirth is 10 times more common than SIDS. Yet pregnant women are rarely told anything about it. It’s as though we don’t want to induce fear and worry. But by maintaining silence around stillbirth, we help keep those who have experienced it within a suffocating silence, and fail to prepare others that it is a genuine risk in pregnancy. It’s something we don’t talk about – almost like we don’t want others to ‘catch’ it. But if we can educate pregnant women and their partners about SIDS and safe sleeping, surely we can break the silence around stillbirth? Yes we tell women if they don’t feel movement to lie on their side and drink some juice, but we have other tiny morsels of research that show, for example, that contrary to what many people have believed babies don’t slow their rate of movement as labour is approaching (in fact possibly they increase their rate of movement despite the restricted room) and that sleeping on your back when pregnant increases the risk of stillbirth 6 fold.

I first spoke to my best friend at her son’s funeral. In her initial text she had said she wasn’t up to talking, but perhaps in time. We had texted and emailed back and forth, in the days that followed Walter’s death but we hadn’t talked. She lives several hours drive away from me and since she had moved to the country our friendship had largely been maintained via text and email. This suited us as neither of us are great talkers and in this circumstance it felt like it was easier to talk about such confronting and overwhelming sadness in writing. But as time went on we began to talk as well.

As the weeks and months went by, I learnt so much about grief and loss through my friend, and through reading other peoples’ stories online. What I want to relay most I think is that there is a silence around grief in general, and around stillbirth particularly, that is utterly suffocating. As if losing your child was not enough! Being caught in a world where so many people either brush over your grief “you can have another baby” or seem to pretend the birth never happened (perhaps because they just don’t know what to say, or don’t want to inadvertently hurt the parents) hinders parents doing what is natural and helpful – talking about their loss.

Born in Silence is the saddest, and yet the most necessary, film clip about stillbirth because not only does it create awareness about stillbirth, but it helps create awareness about ways you can help grieving parents. It was created by the Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth (GAPPS).

The phrases held up on cards by parents in this clip are so powerful because they echo the words not only of my best friend but the hundreds of parents whose stories can be found in online blogs (like Missing Liam) and communities. When people lose their baby, they not only lose their child, but their hopes, dreams and expectations for the future. Everything they thought would be is no longer. They are left having to carve out a new path for themselves at a time when they have neither the energy or spirit to set a new direction. They are often left with feelings of guilt or blame – second guessing any actions which may have contributed to their child’s death.

Like other new parents, parents who have had a stillbirth experienced pregnancy and birth. They often have their own pregnancy anecdotes and tales to tell. But because of the silence surrounding stillbirth they often find that they cannot share their experiences of pregnancy and birth with others. When the outcome is that your baby died the shroud of silence descends around every memory of your baby publicly. Yet the reason that parents grieve is that their baby was loved. They don’t want their baby to be locked away in a prison of silence. More than anything, they want their baby to be loved and remembered. Their baby will always be a part of their lives. And what is more, every life matters, and should not be shut away.

Walter’s death has taught me a most beautiful, yet painful lesson. Each new life, no matter how brief, forever changes the world.

And so I’ll close with some words that sum up the nub of this post far more succinctly and beautifully than I can:

“If you know someone who has lost a child or lost anybody who’s important to them, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you’ll make them sad by reminding them the child died… they didn’t forget they died. You’re not reminding them. What you’re reminding them is that YOU remember they lived and that’s a GREAT, GREAT gift”  – Elizabeth Edwards

When someone dies, silence is not golden. It is a suffocating darkness. It’s never easy to talk about death but we must learn to break the silence.

Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/leecraven/6248436470/sizes/z/in/photostream/ with thanks to Crazy Craven.

Posted in parenting, psychology, society, stillbirth | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

The mulch that (almost) broke the camel’s back

mulch2012 was a big year (and a year of not much blogging as a result!). For the first half of the year I was working full time, studying part time, parenting two young boys and was pregnant with our third child. To say life was busy was a serious understatement. With all the juggling I was doing it is surprising that I wasn’t recruited by Cirque de Soleil!

Then at the beginning of June tragedy struck and I found myself witnessing one of the saddest sights I have ever seen – my high school classmate carrying the coffin of his 11 day old baby daughter into their church for her funeral after a sudden, catastrophic illness took her life. I don’t think it is possible for anyone to witness such a scene and remain dry-eyed. I was crushed for my friends – though they would forever hold their baby girl in their hearts they would never be able to hold her in their arms again.

Arielle was their third child, and their first girl. At the time of her death I was 37 weeks pregnant and also carrying our third child and our first girl. Tragedy continued to roll in. Ten days after Arielle’s funeral I received the worst text message I’ve ever read. My best friend (who was also pregnant and due ten days before me) had went into labour but her son was stillborn. Her beautiful baby boy Walter was so perfect, but she would never be able to take him home. My heart broke for her. At 39 weeks pregnant my husband and I took the labour bag with us (my two previous boys had been born at 38 and 39 weeks) and traveled 6 hours to attend Walter’s funeral. Only going into labour would have stopped me.

Ten days later Wyn was born. To say it was an emotional birth is an understatement. For the first time I was able to labour without drugs. I finally felt like I got this labour thing and how to help my body work through it. The pain felt right, like this baby waiting to be born was such an amazingly precious thing that I had to work hard to earn. Joy mixed with exhaustion and pain – both physical pain and emotional pain for my friends.

July and August were filled with the days that pass in a haze of a newborn baby’s needs but also learning how to support my best friend through her grief. How could I – who held my baby in my arms – comfort her when she did not? Was I the right person to do that? Should I just leave her be and let her family and other friends support her? Could I ever be anything but a source of pain? I took it step-by-step, doing what I could when we were separated by a long distance. Everyday when I held Wyn I would think of Walter and Arielle and wish I could take away their parents’ pain. Seeing my classmates’ updates on Facebook as they learned to navigate life without Arielle, taking up their wonderful adventures with their boys again, and finding amazing strength in their faith was both touching and a source of strength for myself in helping my best friend.

In September Wyn was diagnosed with hip dysplasia. This saw us embark on a medical journey I never thought I’d go on with kids. Perhaps it was a naive assumption but I had never envisaged having a child with health problems. Then again, I had never envisaged having any of my children die and my eyes had been opened there. The sad reality is that miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal death are a lot more common than thought because they are surrounded by silence. So there we were over the latter half of the year sitting nervously in the waiting room of the children’s hospital whilst our baby was in the operating theatre. It was the first of many trips and I became part of a new (largely online) community of parents with kids with hip dysplasia.

Many parents feel terrible grief when their baby is diagnosed with hip dysplasia because if their bub needs to be treated with a harness, brace or surgery they do not get the same experience of babyhood as other parents. Whilst they may be grateful that it is treatable (especially when diagnosed early) it can be the start of a lengthy medical journey with its own unique challenges (nappy changing a baby in a spica comes to mind!). I didn’t feel upset at Wyn’s diagnosis though. I have never cried at my baby being encased in a spica cast – my baby still smiles and laughs and chuckles. She is still my baby. The events of 2012 have changed me as a person – changed my perspectives. I am far more in tune with the heartfelt aspects of life and somehow feel more of a genuine “grown up” who is able to roll with the punches. I don’t sweat the small stuff in life so much anymore. Previously I would have been devastated that having a baby in a spica cast meant I had to use disposable nappies 24/7. How could I not live up to my green ideal? Now my focus is on enjoying my baby, not on living up to preconceived notions of how I should parent.

Because we are gluttons for punishment we decided to round off the year of chaos by putting our house on the market. So we attempted to make a house where three young children lived look like it was lived in by an interior designer for each open house. To make the garden look a bit better we decided to get some mulch to spread around. Being both budget conscious and a recycler I decided to source some free mulch from a tree lopping company. They had a minimum load delivery of 4 cubic metres so we decided to go with that. I think in reality we ended up with about 10 cubic metres dumped on the footpath outside our house.

In classic comedic style the mulch was delivered when my husband had just left to take my sons to watch a soccer match and when I had just successfully got bub to sleep and was going to have an oh-so-rare nap myself. Instead of napping I found myself out on the street desperately shoveling mulch in a vain attempt to create a thoroughfare for pedestrians. I shoveled till 10pm that night. I shoveled for the days that followed. I offered mulch on Freecycle. People came and collected mulch in trailer loads and still I shoveled.
mulch 2I remember saying to my mum when I’d just completed 10 barrow loads and saw no visible difference in the size of the pile that “hip dysplasia hasn’t broken me but this bloody mulch might”. But it didn’t. I kept shoveling, kept wheel-barrowing, and people came and took some of the load and gradually the footpath appeared again. And perhaps that mulch sums up 2012. When we started out we thought we were going to make a neat garden. Instead we got piles of stuff we didn’t want and didn’t know what to do with. We had to work really hard and pull together to deal with what seemed totally overwhelming but with the help of family and friends and even kind strangers we got through it and we’re stronger for it (feel my arm muscles!). Yet that mulch was so big that it feels like it will never really go away – there are still great piles in my garden and I still find bits in the lawn that are painful to walk on. But each day it settles a bit more and life determinedly goes on underneath it, things grow and change. But I’ll always remember what it, and what 2012, has taught me.

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