We need to support both partners through baby loss

Chris and Briony were devastated when their son Henry was stillborn in 2014. They’ve since had twins Robyn and Hallie with the support of the Tommy’s Rainbow Clinic, but Chris is determined to raise awareness of the impact losing a baby has on the non-birthing partner.

No matter that the person who’s experiencing the tragic loss has seen their entire world crumble, it’s easier to sidestep it and spare oneself 15 minutes of feeling uncomfortable. Ask any bereaved parent about the ‘sympathetic head tilt’, they’ll smile ruefully and nod – I guarantee it. 

Loss has a huge impact on dads too 

For fathers (and often for other non-birthing partners) this is compounded by a couple of other things. Firstly, the weird concept that seems universally accepted that you have some lesser connection with your unborn child than the birthing partner, because you haven’t carried them – as if being spared the physical pain and scars of pregnancy, birth and loss somehow absolves you of the emotional pain and scars too. It doesn’t. 

Secondly, the really damaging mindset that men (in particular) can’t show emotion – or at the very least that it’s frowned upon if they do. We’ve all grown up in a Britain where dangerous phrases like ‘big boys don’t cry’ and ‘stiff upper lip’ are thrown around like confetti, so we’re conditioned to act in that way when every fibre of our being is desperate to both cry and to cry out “my baby died too”. Toxic masculinity has a lot to answer for, to men as well as women.

It can only stay bottled up for so long though, and one way or another, eventually, it will come out, which is why compassionate support networks and access to professional support are so vital for non-birthing partners experiencing perinatal loss.

When my son died, I felt like I had to be ‘the strong one’

I didn’t really struggle when Henry died – not outwardly. I just got on with it. My predetermined role was to ‘be strong’ and to support Briony through her trauma of losing a baby. In 2014, no-one really connected the diagonal line between non-birthing partner and baby, instead routing everything through the prism of the birthing partner’s experience.

I didn’t really struggle when Briony battled breast cancer the year after Henry died – not outwardly. I just got on with it. My predetermined role was to ‘be strong’ and to support Briony through her trauma and her treatment, quite rightly too.

I was very grateful for the support of the Rainbow Clinic

I didn’t outwardly struggle through the IVF journey, or through the rainbow pregnancy – where we were lucky enough to receive incredible support from Professor Heazell and the team at the Tommy’s Rainbow Clinic in Manchester. There’s a reason why bereaved parent Instagram (it’s a thing) has a liberal scattering of photos of these doors at St. Mary’s Hospital – because of what walking through them represents. They offer something so unique (yet so vital) to parents in rainbow pregnancy – hope.

We lost all our hope, you see. It died – like our naivety and our innocence – with our children.

Pregnancy after loss was really hard

As the weeks and months of that pregnancy passed, inwardly my mental health was heating up like a pressure cooker. I got through that experience – like many parents – by taking each day as it came, with no expectation as to what tomorrow might bring.

I didn’t dare to dream. Until we walked into the theatre for the c-section at 34 weeks, I hand on heart didn’t truly believe we’d get to the end of it with living babies.

Not until less than an hour before the girls were born did I allow myself to think we’d get a happy ending. This was a pressure cooker cranked up to the highest setting – not for days or weeks, but months and years.

And then suddenly, the pressure was released, or the pressure cooker exploded, depending on how you look at it. The twins were born safe and well, and the questions changed. “Will we ever get there?” gave way to “What the hell do we do now?” – the perennial question for every parent of a living newborn.

Then it all came to a head

For me, this was the point in our journey it all came crashing down. Everything I’d bottled up for 4 and a half years hit me at once, like a tsunami of grief that overwhelmed me and, for a while, threatened to wash me away completely. I’ve battled back, and continue to do so, but there have been periods over the last three and a half years where I’ve been barely clinging on by my fingernails. And yet non-birthing partners often can’t access perinatal mental health support on the NHS in their own right.

This is why Tommy’s new Dads and Partners Hub is so vital 

Because if ‘74% of partners feel support after pregnancy or baby loss was not good or non-existent’, we’re creating a tidal wave of broken parents trying to survive alone. We need to talk about perinatal mental health, postnatal depression, and everything that goes with it in the context of ALL parents, not just birthing parents. This incredible hub provides both parents and professionals with insight, tools, and support to manage that more effectively, and that gives us a fighting chance of turning back that unforgiving tsunami. 

Because it’s nigh-on impossible to turn it back on your own – I’ve tried.