Stillbirths and the conspiracy of silence

Mary Catherall with daughter Sarah, 16 days after she lost her son.
Sarah Catharall

Mary Catherall with daughter Sarah, 16 days after she lost her son.

My stillborn brother and sister are officially known as "Baby Catherall 1" and "Baby Catherall 2". 

I never knew they existed until I was 8 years old, when I stumbled upon a tatty, yellowing birth notice while hunting through my parents' drawers. 

"To Doug and Mary Catherall. A son. 1 July 1970. Stillborn," it read.

Mary Catherall, a month after losing David, on holiday in Queenstown.
Sarah Catharall

Mary Catherall, a month after losing David, on holiday in Queenstown.

"They've got my birthday wrong," I whimpered to my mother. "My birthday is July 3, not July 1. And I'm a girl, not a boy."

* The cruel disease that has taken my young mother's mind
* The pain of stillbirth
* Lily Allen's beautiful song for her stillborn baby

"There's something I need to tell you," she whispered. And it was then that she told me about my brother, who was born dead two days before my first birthday. And there was more, Mum told me quietly, stroking my fine pigtails with her soft hands. Ten months later, she gave birth to my sister, who was also born dead.

Mary Catherall erected garden cherubs in memory of her stillborn babies.
Doug Catherall

Mary Catherall erected garden cherubs in memory of her stillborn babies.

Over the years, growing up with two healthy younger sisters, I wondered what life might have been like as the eldest of five siblings if my brother and sister had survived. As I've had three healthy pregnancies and given birth to three healthy daughters, I've also reflected on the trauma Mum must have endured. Now Mum is in a home with advanced Alzheimer's I can't ask her about what she went through, and instead, I've turned to Dad to ask how it happened that my parents had two stillborn babies in 1970 and 1971.

My mother was 32 weeks pregnant when she felt the familiar wrench of labour contractions.

In Napier Hospital, looming atop Napier hill, Dad sat outside the operating theatre, waiting. Men didn't observe birth 40-plus years ago. Birth was bloody and private, and my mother had been left to labour and give birth on her own. 

Mary Catherall after the birth of her second surviving daughter, Jane.

Mary Catherall after the birth of her second surviving daughter, Jane.

In what seems cruel today, the brother I never knew was whisked away before Mum had a chance to see him, to hold her son and sob about carrying him for seven months as he grew and kicked and moved around in her womb. My brother would have had toenails and fingernails by then, and would have weighed about four pounds.

Ad Feedback

Mum was sent home from hospital, a deep red caesarean scar a physical reminder of the baby son she never got to see.

Dad phoned the Catholic church, asking for a burial but was told such a thing wasn't allowed. Back then, the church believed that babies who died before being baptised went to a place called limbo - a sort of nothingness, a grey place hovering between heaven and hell. Dad went to the cemetery with the undertaker and watched his baby son being put into the ground, in an unmarked grave.

Dad didn't even know what stillbirth meant until his son was born. He returned to his job as a printer at Napier's Daily Telegraph, while family friends looked after me. His workmates, who had read the birth notice in the newspaper, thumped him on his back. "Well done. Good on you mate, you've had a son," they raved, as Dad walked around in a fog.

Ten months later, Mum was back in hospital again, gripped by premature labour pains. That time, she had a vaginal birth. Pushing the tiny girl out, not a breath escaped from my sister's lips. Dad sat outside the operating theatre. Told the baby was dead, he asked to see his daughter. Mum's doctor wouldn't let him. The baby was pulled away from Mum's arms before she glimpsed her.

That time, my mother's uncle, a Catholic priest, Father Bernie Atkins, accompanied Dad to Wharerangi Cemetery, where they held a private burial for my sister. 

When Mum came home from hospital, my parents named my sister Margaret Mary (Maggie). Facing the enormity of their loss, they retrospectively named my brother, David John. Throughout that time, Mum never questioned her doctor, or demanded an investigation. There was never a follow up. As far as her GP was concerned, the deaths had never happened.

In what seems incredible today, stillbirths at the time were regarded by the medical fraternity as a "non-event", according to Professor Tony Dowell, head of Otago University's obstetrics and gynaecology department. 

That was the way things were done in the early 1970s, when the medical fraternity believed it was better to pull a stillborn baby away, out of the mother's sight. Dowell says medical records were rarely kept at the time. Stillborn babies were often not buried, and in some cases, simply discarded by the hospital.

It sounds cruel, but Dowell says the thinking was that such an approach minimised the psychological distress to the mother. "They believed that if you talked about it too much, it was more traumatic to the mother. The family and the community wouldn't talk about it, and the GP didn't mention it. If you looked through patient records at the time, there was likely to be no mention of it."

From the mid to late-seventies, the environment changed, and a stillborn baby began to be united with its parents, named, commemorated, and given a burial.

Today, perinatal deaths are investigated, and organisations like Sands support bereaved parents. A Sands member, Vicki Culling, lost her baby daughter, Aster, in 1998, and was able to take her home and mourn her.

Part of this shift was due to clamouring from the likes of Emanuel Lewis, of Charing Cross Hospital's Department of Child and Family Psychiatry, who in 1979 wrote about the "conspiracy of silence" around stillbirths.

"Stillbirth is a common tragedy occurring in about one in 100 deliveries. Yet after a stillbirth everyone tends to behave as if it had not happened. In hospital bereaved women are usually isolated and avoided and then discharged as soon as possible.

"Although this is meant kindly, to protect the mothers from the painful awareness of live babies, it also means that the hospital staff do not have to face their own anxiety about stillbirth," he wrote.

"Back at home, the family, friends, and professionals continue to avoid talking to the bereaved mother, depriving her of the talk that would help her mourn. There is silence."

Mum's older sister, Clare, visited Mum in hospital when she lost one of the babies. Says Clare: "Your Mum was stoic. In those days we seemed to accept that the baby who was stillborn had a condition that would not allow the baby to survive. Those outside the immediate family were not told as I remember.  So one just got on with one's life."

I ask Dad - didn't the wider community want to know what happened to Mum's babies? But Dad says that Mum hid her pregnancy behind a gaping maternity frock. There are no photographs of Mum proudly pregnant. Pregnancy and the looming arrival of a baby weren't celebrated as they are today. Mum's best friend, Pauline Waldon, can't remember Mum talking much about her loss.

I'm surprised that Mum and Dad had the courage to try again, but in 1973, Mum fell pregnant. That time, my parents weren't willing to risk going through their GP, and consulted a specialist.

At six months pregnant, Mum was advised to spend each day in bed, to safeguard the baby.

"Deo Gratias (Thanks be to God)" read the birth notice when my sister, Jane Margaret, was born on  October 18, 1973. I was 4½ years old when my first living sibling arrived with a mop of thick, black hair.

Two years later, Fiona Mary was born, again after a healthy 40-week gestation, on May 21, 1976 - four days after Maggie's birth.

My parents never chose to reflect on their stillborn babies, and to instead celebrate their three healthy daughters. But Mum often mentioned Maggie's birthday. "One of our babies was born today," she would say to us.

I know now that my brother and sister were born just a few years too early, at a time when pregnancy wasn't scrutinised as it is today, when pregnant women weren't given regular check-ups and ultrasounds didn't exist. But it's painful to reflect that babies born at 32 weeks gestation today have a 98 per cent chance of survival.

Once we all left home, Mum began to reflect on her loss, and erected two cherub statues in a small garden beneath her living room window, referring to them as her her "babies".

In 2000, she wrote to the medical centre where her specialist had worked, requesting her medical records. The doctor has since passed away. There don't seem to be any surviving accounts of what went wrong, if any existed in the first place. David and Maggie's deaths remain a mystery.

About the same time, Mum contacted the cemetery sexton to find out where they were buried. Until then, she had never known, burying the memory of them along with their bodies. Writing in her diary, she wrote: "Our babies are buried together. I'm so happy."

"The sexton can show us the plot. I feel strange. Sad/happy," she wrote. My parents visited plot 29, but failed to take up the option to get a plaque made - about six years later, Mum became ill with Alzheimer's.

In researching this article, I discovered that my parents never officially called their babies David and Maggie. In the cemetery records, they are simply known as the genderless "Baby Catherall 1 and Baby Catherall 2", at plot 29. 

That will change. We are organising a headstone, and my siblings, David and Maggie, will finally get the recognition they deserve.

 - Stuff


Ad Feedback
special offers
Ad Feedback