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Fathers Feel Too: A Book for Men by Men on Coping with the Death of a Baby
By Andrew Don
Stillbirth & Neonatal Death Society
The death of a baby during pregnancy, at birth or during the neonatal period is an inconsolable loss, not only because of the devastating and heartbreaking grief that follows but because of a loss of expectations.
What pregnant parent does not fantasize about how the baby will look and develop, of walking the pram in the park for the neighbors to see, of hugs and cuddles, of that special baby-smell after a bath and of bringing a new baby into the family? While prior to World War I there were poor expectations of all one's children surviving to adulthood, today's lifestyle and awareness as well as medical progress promise us better prospects for our birthing experiences. Women are conceiving and giving birth who only 25 years ago had no hope of motherhood; babies are born at low birth-weight and can survive; life-threatening diseases in mother and newborn can often be treated.
But there are inevitably pregnancies that end in miscarriage or premature birth, babies do die in the neonatal unit and the mysteries of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome have not totally been solved.
Although parents do complain of lack of sensitivity and thoughtless remarks from professionals and family: "You are young, you'll have more children," or "Get back to work and routine as quickly as possible and forget about it," grieving mothers are usually nurtured tenderly and given sympathetic support.
SANDS, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society in Britain, issue a "teardrop sticker" which has been adopted by many maternity units. This unobtrusive sticker is attached to the mother's file so that all staff will be aware of the situation and not unwittingly congratulate the mother or make some tactless remark about when to start breastfeeding.
BUT WHAT about the fathers?
Andrew Don and his wife Liz experienced one early pregnancy loss but were optimistic when the next pregnancy progressed to beyond the first trimester. However at 20 weeks Liz was hospitalized with pre-eclampsia, a very rare condition so early in pregnancy. The condition did not improve and there was concern for the well-being of the mother as well as the baby. Andrew is convinced that Liz was given the wrong medication one night and as a result of that the baby died.
While he and Liz stared at the ultrasound screen, at the beautiful perfectly formed 20-week baby that did not move, he felt "as if my little girl had been ripped out of my imaginary womb."
One of his poems expresses his emotions:
You should have been born this week
I should have held you in my arms
Smoked my fat cigar
Raised you in the air and cried
I name you Lara Jeanâ€¦
I should have been the delirious father
Who Cheshire-cat like
Beamed with imbecilic grinâ€¦"
There would be no other children. They knew that this had been their last chance after long periods of fertility treatment and disappointments. For the next couple of years he was consumed with anger, tried to sue the hospital for negligence and could only move on when they adopted two very needy children. All their love and devotion has gone into providing a stable home, and they have healed as they have seen these children grow and develop healthily.
But much of Andrew's grief was caused by the total insensitivity of hospital staff and even family and friends to his own loss. And this book, Fathers Feel Too, is dedicated to his lost child, Lara Jean, and to other fathers who have suffered such loss and whose needs have been neglected.
"The consultant sent Liz a condolence letter in her name only. What was I - a non-person," he relates. For five months Andrew had dreamed of what it would be like to be a father. Now in a cold, impersonal letter, he was not even acknowledged. "One relative called up and when I answered the phone, she said nothing to me but asked to speak to Liz."
Seven years on, Andrew, a professional journalist, gathered the stories of 10 men who had experienced loss in childbirth and who, like him, felt that their needs were ignored. Through their stories and some beautiful poems by Andrew, they try to tell the world that they, too, suffer through those pregnancy complications, that they, too, have dreamed and fantasized about becoming a father. Those who lost babies after the birth share the anxiety and pain of seeing a child attached to monitors and enduring painful procedures.
While researching for the book, Andrew discovered that nothing was written for men and pregnancy loss.
For some of the fathers in this book, they also had to care for other children in the family while the mother was hospitalized or during long drawn-out and ultimately unsuccessful treatment in the premature baby unit. But whether their grief was for another baby in the family or for the loss of being a father at all, these men felt that their role was to protect and support the woman without legitimizing their personal loss.
"I do not believe that time in itself heals, although we do grow a protective layer over our emotional wounds," says Mark, who does have other children. An active member in his church community, he felt that this and his belief in G-d helped him through the grief.
The issues that disturb women in pregnancy loss were also experienced by the fathers, although they felt that nobody expected them to react so emotionally.
The writer, a childbirth educator and lactation counselor at the Israel Childbirth Education Center and author of Life After Birth - Everywoman's Experiences of the Year After Childbirth, can be reached at Wendyb@netvision.net.il