I’m teaching 13-year-old school boys sailing. I keep looking at them wondering if my son would have looked like any of them. Would he have had blond hair, freckles and brown eyes like my daughter and I, or blue eyes and brown like his father’s side of the family? Would he have been tall and lanky, or short like my father was?
I will never know. He would be turning 13 soon.
Like all boys their age, these boys are boisterous and loud. Their bad-tempered teacher shouts at them and turns to me with eyes raised to heaven. “Boys,” she says. “Do you have any boys?”
“No,” I reply. “I have a daughter,” and I walk away tears blurring my eyes.
I used to always add on a comment: “I lost a little boy the year before my daughter was born.” I never found the correct words. My words always felt awkward, possibly self-indulgent and too much information for someone I didn’t know. I cringe now when I think of people’s reactions – pity, discomfort, or inability to comment. So now I only discuss my son with a select few. It’s much easier.
My little boy Rhodri died in utero, in other words, a stillbirth. I dislike both these terms and wish I could find one I feel comfortable with. He was 26 weeks old when he died and was born. Like all babies, he was beautiful, tiny and perfect like a porcelain doll. I held his tiny still body in my arms, kissed his translucent eyelids and head, admired his perfect little hands and fingers – his fingers were very long. I inhaled his smell and cried until there were no tears left and then handed him over, never to see him again.
Part of me died with him.
His death changed my life in a way that only parents who have lost children can understand. I will never forget his little white coffin in the big black hearse and the pain in my heart when they lowered part of me into dark foreign earth. No one thought to tell me that my breasts would fill with milk. They leaked all over my blouse at the funeral.
A day doesn’t go by without thinking about Rhodri. I was over the moon to fall pregnant at 41 just three months after my first miscarriage. I decided against intra-uterine testing: chorionic villus sampling and amniocentesis. My pregnancy was normal without any complications. I did all the correct things: no alcohol, vitamin tablets, good food, plenty of sleep and gentle exercise. The thought never entered my head that anything could go wrong.
Imagine my horror to awake one morning and realise my little boy had stopped moving; he had always been very active. Fear gripped my heart. The next couple of days passed in a blur, a living nightmare: driving to the hospital in silence, fearing the worst, watching the ultrasound technician’s face, and the silent monitor, no heartbeat, and returning home. Telling my elderly parents their first grandchild had died, the induced labour and the strained nurse’s faces. I saw a counsellor who was just out of college, she knew no better than to ask me how I felt after my loss.
I chose that Rhodri have an autopsy, but no conclusive reason for his death was found. His death will always remain a mystery: the doctor’s were baffled, he was normal in every way.
“Fifty percent of stillbirths occur for no apparent reason,” explained my obstetrician. “One in every 140 babies born is stillborn.” Not having a reason for his death made the whole situation more difficult. I imagined it was my fault; I couldn’t accept that a perfectly normal baby could die.
My grief was intense: I couldn’t cope with people’s well-intended remarks. The worst of all was being told that I was lucky he died when he did that he might have been disabled only being 26 weeks gestation. Others kept their distance, unable to deal with the situation. I was living in the UK at the time with no family or close friends nearby.
I returned to Australia and fell pregnant within three months. My GPs asked me if I was crazy. I spent every waking minute worrying that my baby girl would die, too. I passed the 12-week miscarriage hurdle, then the 26-week stillbirth hurdle. I again refused invasive tests, hoping beyond hope that my little girl would be ok. She was a breech baby and refused to turn around. I read that some breech babies like to lie in the womb with their head under their mother’s heart and I thought, “That’s my girl”.
Within a year of loosing Rhodri, my beautiful daughter arrived by emergency caesarean section, giving us all a bit of a shock. I was in labour, and five centimetres dilated without realising it. At 37 weeks my daughter attempted to enter the world foot first and has never looked back.
At a very young age, I told her about her brother. He is and always will be part of our family.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem