Why I’ll never have a family portrait

Why I’ll never have a family portrait

Photography by Louise Manning

Last weekend Tom, Leo and I (along with Rosie the dog) met with the wonderful Louise Manning and headed into town for a photography session. Whilst I’ve never been that comfortable in front of a camera, I was excited to be getting some professional shots done; the first and only other time I’ve had my picture taken properly was for our wedding, and I was feeling a sense of regret at not having some taken sooner. As we all know, babies grow up so quickly, and with Leo’s birthday fast approaching I was conscious that we perhaps haven’t documented our first year together in as much detail (and certainly not with the creative flair) that we could have done.

Plus I am aware that, despite my wholehearted endorsement of the ‘taking the god damn photo’ mantra, I am usually the one behind the camera (well –  iPhone.)

Louise is actually a friend who also happens to be an incredible photographer, so I knew we could all just relax and be ourselves around her; not that I had any concerns that Leo would be camera-shy: my smiley boy loves to pose!

We had a brilliant afternoon. As well as heading to popular spots like the Abbey and our favourite haunt The Green Dragon, we rediscovered our lovely town through a photographer’s lens; uncovering gems like this blue wall which I must’ve passed hundreds of times but have never noticed before. Undoubtedly, there were moments when it seemed the old adage ‘never work with animals or children’ threatened to put an end to proceedings, but undeterred Louise managed to keep everyone on side.

Maybe I’m biased, but I think we can all agree the results are stunning. Louise has produced images which encapsulate the very essence of us; our life together immortalised on film. From candid shots when we thought the lens was being changed, to subtly choreographed moments which illustrate the bond between father and son, the finished pictures are everything I had hoped for and more.

But none of these pictures, beautiful though they are, can lay claim to that prestigious title of a ‘family portrait’.

There is not, nor will there ever be, a complete picture of our family.

Because someone will always be missing.

Tackling the taboo of baby death

For many people, the notion that a pregnancy can result in anything other than a live, healthy baby, is unheard of. From the moment you see those two blue lines you start to plan and prepare for life plus one. Pregnancy announcements are met with joy, excitement, congratulations. No one every says ‘good luck’ or ‘I hope this baby comes home.’ There is an underlying assumption that pregnancy = baby. And they all lived happily (and chronically sleep deprived) after. End of story.

But what about when happily every after doesn’t come?

It’s not something which people want to think about, and certainly not a topic they wish to talk about. Baby death is a harsh, uncomfortable subject: a rare tragedy which happens due to some fetal anomaly; a cruel twist of fate; medical negligence. It is something from the history books, straight out of the Victorian era, when lack of sanitation and medical support was rife. It is the plight of the developing world. It doesn’t happen here, in the UK, to nice, normal, healthy, middle class families, who take their prenatal vitamins, who don’t smoke, and who do pregnancy yoga. It doesn’t happen to me.

Except that it does.

#15babiesaday

Every day in the UK around 15 babies die before, during or soon after birth.

Today, 15 families will hear the devastating words ‘I’m sorry, your baby has died’ and their world will be shattered.

15 families will wake up tomorrow with arms aching to hold their babies; faced with authorising postmortems, arranging funerals and returning un-used pushchairs. Many of these babies will be perfectly healthy, their mothers having had the textbook ‘normal’ pregnancy; no cause or explanation will ever be found.

This month alone, over 450 babies will die; on average, one baby every 90 minutes.

It’s happening, right now, in hospitals and in homes all across the UK. So why aren’t people talking about it? Why isn’t the government and the Department of Health doing something about it? Why isn’t anyone trying to stop it?

In actual fact, they are.

There are a number of charities and organisations working across the UK to reduce the number of babies dying; among those is Sands, the stillbirth & neonatal death charity.

June is Sands Awareness Month: 30 days dedicated to breaking the silence around stillbirth and neonatal death; raising awareness of the devastating impact the death of a baby has on families; and promoting the incredible work Sands do to reduce baby death and support those affected.

This year, the campaign aims to not only highlight the scale of stillbirth and neonatal in the UK by making people aware of this appalling statistic, but also to encourage the public to talk openly about baby death, which remains a taboo subject.

15 babies are dying every, single day; yet when it happens, all too often you feel completely alone.

Picture: Sands

What Sands do and why it matters

When Findlay died, my whole world collapsed. The life and the me I had been expecting, the life I had spent months planning for and dreaming of, suddenly was gone. I was a mother with no baby to hold. The clothes and muslin cloths stayed untouched in the nursery dresser. The car seat sat dormant in the hall. And at the same time, the life and the me before had also vanished. Like Alice, I couldn’t go back to the time before Findlay died: I was a different person then.

What do you do when you’re standing on the precipice of a shattered life, staring into the abyss of what could have been? Who will be there to catch you when you fall?

That’s where Sands come in.

Sands exists to support anyone affected by the death of a baby, to improve the bereavement care received by parents and families, and to influence policy makers and promote research to reduce the number of babies dying. The work they do is vast and varied, at both national and local levels, but broadly speaking falls under four main aims.

  1. Supporting those affected by the death of a baby by providing memory boxes and information leaflets; holding remembrance events; and offering both telephone and online support, as well as local support group meetings run by bereaved parents who know how it feels to have a much loved and wanted baby die.
  2. Working to improve bereavement care through delivering training to health professionals & students; funding and maintaining hospital bereavement suites; and providing resources such as the Sands teardrop sticker. These small stickers identify families who have previously experienced the death of a baby and negates the need for them to repeat their story to each individual health professional they meet, which can be very upsetting.
  3. Working to reduce baby death by liaising with the government, NHS & other professional bodies to make maternity care safer; reviewing the circumstances surrounding the death of a baby to understand what happened and improve care; promote public health messages about stillbirth risks; and funding vital new research.
  4. Raising awareness of stillbirth & neonatal death through national campaigns; advising on baby death story lines such as those portrayed in Eastenders Coronation Street; and encouraging people to talk openly about baby death to help help break the taboo.

Sands can’t change the fact that your baby has died; but they are working tirelessly so that fewer families are faced with this devastating reality; and are committed to ensuring that those who do, receive the care and support they need. They want to make certain that no one affected by the death of a baby feels alone.

And in the blackest of days and months after Findlay’s death, much as today, Sands were there to help me see that it is possible to survive the unimaginable. You can survive it. You will survive it. There is a light in the darkness, and in time, you will find it.

My (almost) picture perfect family

That is what I see when I look at these pictures. I see the light which emerged from our shadowed existence. I see Leo, our wonderful rainbow boy, who brought the colour back into our blackened world. I see a family who found themselves on the brink of destruction, but survived.

And not only have we survived, we live. A life filled with love and joy and laughter. There were times when I thought I would never smile again; when I believed I’d never feel happiness bubbling up inside me; when I thought I would be torn apart by the broken shards of my heart.

But I was wrong.

My arms will forever ache for our beautiful baby boy; our small soldier Findlay Eric who never made it home. My heart will always be broken, some wounds can never heal.

But it is also so full.

Full of love for our first born child: the one who made me a mother and made us a family. The boy who taught me to love another with every fibre of my being; to cherish those around me; and to find beauty and joy in everyday.

Full of love for his little brother; our red haired, blue eyed, smiley little cub. The one who gave me hope and who grows my heart each and every day.

Full of love for my wonderful husband, without whom our family would never have come to be, and whose continued love, strength and support sustains me.

And of course, love for Rosie; our crazy girl, who in the darkest days made me get out and see that the sun was still shining; and who never fails to make me smile.

In many ways, these photographs are full of Findlay. Louise donated this lifestyle shoot as an auction prize for the Sportman’s Dinner which we organised for Sands, and (with a little help from our friends) Tom and I were the highest bidders. We thought it would help us to feel close to Findlay and allow us to capture some memories for him, and looking at these images that is what I see. A life and a family so full of love for a little boy who is missing from us, but whom we carry in our hearts each and every day.

Whilst these can never be the family photographs I long for, I am eternally grateful to Louise, and her immeasurable skill, for capturing my family in these pictures. They are not the images, nor is this the life, which I had imagined, but they are mine. And I am extremely proud to share them with you.

I am one of the 15, and I am learning to live a life full of beauty and love. I hope that others affected by the death of a baby can too.

 

 

To find out more about the work Sands do and ways you can show your support for the #15babiesaday campaign, head to their website: https://www.sands.org.uk/get-involved/15-babies-day 

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