Baby Loss Awareness Week (9th-15th October 2019) is an annual event to raise awareness, and commemorate the memory of babies lost during pregnancy, giving birth or soon after. It is not an issue I’ve ever had to deal with personally, but I’m acutely aware of the heartbreak and emptiness it causes through my Mammy. And in a way, that loss, I realise has indirectly affected me too.
My parents married in the late summer of 1961 and I was born in early 1970. Before my first born status arrival, there were three confirmed and a suspected fourth miscarriage. As I grew up, my Mammy would mention the other siblings I could have had in a sad quiet way. To my knowledge she NEVER spoke about the loss to anyone else. I distinctly remember her reaction when someone enquired “you’ve JUST got the ONE then”, a sharp intake of breath, pursed lips and a nod of the head. I’d wait for the tirade of swear words but they never came, just a reassuring squeeze of my hand and we would depart. My young mind would be upset that my Mammy seemed to be blamed for something, and I was angry because I was the accusation. That’s how it felt to me anyway.
Growing up I was drilled in my maternal family tree as much as possible, my paternal side being somewhat scant on information. Mammy would take me every Saturday until I was about 11.5 years old, to visit her two sisters, and my Dad’s two brothers (on a strict rota basis) who all lived locally, so I would know about my cousins. Both my parents were the youngest in large families; so many cousins were already making their way in the world themselves. But she tried hard to ensure I was aware of them all. Whilst being drilled on my Mammy’s family, I was ALWAYS corrected if I forgot I would have had an Aunty Annie (elder sister of Mum) and a cousin James from Uncle Johnston & Aunty Rosie’s family, had they not died as babies. I was a Seventies kid, Annie didn’t survive her first year in the 1920s, James his first year in the 1940s. BUT THEY WERE NOT FORGOTTEN. That’s what impacted me the most; they were still remembered and considered part of the family.
My Mammy always wanted more children and kept my pram in hope it would be used again. She sold it with reluctance when I was 11.5 and about to embark on going to high school. Four years later she had to get another pram, with the welcome arrival of my brother Paul. Her pregnancy was a late discovery, the doctor declaring the change of life, my Mammy replying “the change is going to take feet!” She was literally “blooming” with health and eating well, in total contrast to her pregnancy with me. She was convinced a little boy was on the way and was delighted. It was at this time I became acutely aware of how people who should bloody well know better, can be the most inconsiderate buggers alive. The doctor had tended my Granny and my Mammy from her younger days, including those miscarriages. Her medical records were a reminder of those losses, my Mammy testament to a healthy birth for my Granny who was 43 when her final child arrived, the same age Mammy was now. History was repeating itself, although in the mid 80s abortion was available unlike in the forties. The doctor gave my Mammy no more than 72 hours to decide if she wanted a termination, as she was nearing a final cut off point, being I think about 5-5.5 months pregnant by then. To say she was apoplectic with rage is an understatement, her face masked with fury as she left the surgery. All the way home she raged at the unbelievable attitude, the insensitivity, how hell would freeze over before she would agree to such a monstrous act. Two of her three sisters were less than supportive on hearing the news as well. Regardless of the deafening howls “to get rid of it”, with all her being she wanted this baby, and thankfully safely delivered a wee boy in the summer.
My maternal Granda was adopted and as a result, there was a hyper-sensitivity surrounding the subject in my Mum’s family. I suspect a combination of circumstances surrounding his birth ensured his adoption, the lack of a stable home, finances, supportive family, and the authorities knowing better. Not a lot has changed in that regard, although my grandfather was born over a century ago “out of wedlock”, which condemned his mother and tarnished her child instantly in those days. It can’t be easy, feeling there is no choice, but to hand over your baby for someone else to bring up. In today’s society, it can’t be easy to decide on abortion either, making a choice which benefits the whole family (parents & other children) too. Of course many people and organisations condemn this act, and it has become a highly politicised issue as well. But those who wield the power don’t always know better, or come up with the right conclusions.
I recall a neighbour suffering a cot-death and never being quite the same person again. Another baby followed and I did hear “that will make up for the one she lost”, and I thought nothing will ever do that, and take away the memory of finding her weeks old son unresponsive in his cot.
People maybe childless or have a small family for numerous reasons, be it a conscious decision or something beyond their control. But you can never really tell what story lies behind a family picture. I have one sibling, but I definitely could have had four maybe five.
I visited Burlington House courtyard last week, where there is an Antony Gormley piece “Iron Baby 1999”, depicting a tiny sculpture of a newborn baby (based on his six-day old daughter). A descriptive plague quoted Gormley commenting “Iron (concentrated earth) the same as exists at the core of our planet. This tiny bit of matter in human form attempts to make us aware of our precarious position in relation to our planetary future”. It certainly made me think of “Mother Earth”, my far off ancestors’ tenuous hold on life, my unborn siblings never to be known, and holding my newborn baby brother watching him grow into a fine man. So tonight (15th October) at 7pm I will remember, and light candles held in angel wing vases as part of the Global “Wave of Light”.