Me and those women in Africa

Image Credit: University of Michigan

In the nights following Freddie’s death, Max and I sat on the sofa, wrapped in a duvet, clinging to each other. We didn’t say much, we didn’t even cry much. We managed to have a spectacular row about a camping weekend and we managed to feed and put children to bed. We were lucky that we could abandon our business to the staff and not worry about school or the bills or anything else. We just sat – and clung to one another, empowered enough by a couple of years of a difficult but fixable marriage to know how to cope and how to support each other. Friends brought cake, friends brought trees, little knitted gifts and books to support children in their grief were brought to us. People came and held us and spoke to us on the phone, sent books, sent cards and wanted nothing more than to listen to me say the same words over and over again. Said Freddie’s name aloud, listened and remembered and watched with us.

If you must have your child die, there is a precious comfort to come home to safety and warmth and enough money – and sisters who text every few hours and friends who fall over themselves to mobilise and be there for you and and your children. Aunts who drop everything to listen. Staff who put themselves out to keep things running in the background. Friends… it felt like oceans of friends, who had also held their dead sons and daughters in their hands, who knew how it felt to not bring a baby home. People writing here to tell me they understood, a rallying cry across a network I hardly knew I had which brought people to our moment in time, that stopped clock. I’ve thought about that blog post since, how it must have flashed up on the screen on Facebook and RSS feeds and mobile phones with that definitive title and how all those women I have known for years must have felt their stomach drop and their hands go to their faces and tears come to their eyes. How they must have known, instantly, what it meant.

On one of those bleak duvet nights, we watched a programme on maps. Medieval maps, fantasy maps, maps of the sea and maps of the stars. I was blank really, just watching, shapes and colours moving on the screen to a sound of words trickling insistently past.

And then the map above came up on the screen. A cartogram of child mortality. Look at it. Can you see Europe? Can you see England? No, not really. Yet what that sliver of a line near the top of the picture means is 1 in 200 babies. That isn’t really great odds. If you live a life online, full of forums and blogs and birth yahoo groups, then that 1 in 200 is going to pop up and bite you on the backside occasionally. But in reality – unless you happen to have a real life group of friends like I do, with 6 neonatal deaths and still births between 17 of us, and that’s before you count the miscarriages – in reality most people never really acknowledge that babies die in real life. It happens to someone else. I know that was what I thought, even in all those angry vbac consultations where doctors threatened me with suggestions I was trying to kill my baby if I didn’t have a caesarean. I thought it happened to someone else. Some other mother. Some other woman.

17 babies a DAY in the UK. We’ve got one of the worst stillbirth and neonatal death rates in in Europe.

But Europe looks tiny on that map. Hardly visible. What struck me as the image pierced my grief soaked brain, was “WHY ME? WHY US?” There are hardly any families this happens to in the UK. Why US???

So now look at Africa. Swollen and gross as a pregnant belly. There can be hardly a woman in Africa who has not held her dead or dying son or daughter. Or both. Perhaps all of them. Perhaps every birth. Perhaps every time. Look at it. All those babies. All those mothers. All those women.

In the days after, it crossed my mind that I both envied and pitied them. I thought of the images I have seen on television that I have seen over the years; famines and wars. I’ve thought, in the past, that the hopeless look was the pain of impotence, of not being able to provide, not being able to fix things, be comfortable, make things right. With the death of Freddie so fresh in my mind, I re-orientated those images. I realised they were the faces of women who had been powerless to stop their children die. Women who had not been able to save them, protect them, feed them or make them breathe. Women who had found themselves birth hurt and bereaved and had to get up and move on, get to the next camp, start cooking, bury the baby and get working, find food, watch the next child die.

No friends, no cake, no trees, no duvet, no time, no silence, no phone calls.

I envied them, just a little, because in that world EVERY women must understand. There must be the look that passes from eye to eye and in every gesture of the days that follow. There must be understanding and there must be some camaraderie. But no hope. Because at least here I have some hope that this will not happen again to me, even if I cannot rely on it. But there, there is no hope. It happens over and over again, to all the women, all of the time. Someone asked me, shortly afterwards, if I thought it mattered as much to women who lived surrounded by death as it did to me. It’s a question only someone who has never felt the ache of empty arms could ask.

While reading the About Page for International Women’s Day, I found this phrase:“Many from a younger generation feel that ‘all the battles have been won for women'”. I don’t think so. Wages and equality and rights are only so much. And the quote, even the day itself, is more about “women’s rights and participation in social, political and economic processes” than my personal desire for women’s equality, that is for sure. But dear gods, if ever there was an aspiration for a social right, it has to be to be able to expect, wherever you live, to never swell the ranks of that map’s statistics.

Freddie and Mummy

What that map above counts is not just babies and death. It is women. Mothers. For as long as women across the world are part of maps that look like that and endure nights like the one this photo was taken on, no battle has been won at all. It makes fighting for equal pay look like the easy bit. It makes rights look like a walk in the park. And it can catch any of the women who hold those things dear in the back of the knees at any time. Me, you, the women in Africa. The Prime Ministers wife. Twice. Your sister, your mother, your daughter. The girl who left for maternity leave from your office last week.

17 babies a day in the UK. 17 mothers. 17 women. 17 midwives holding a broken woman in her arms.

Every single day.

Written for the carnival for International Women’s Day 2011 at Making It Up.

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  1. says

    Wow! 17 a day in the UK – that’s a really crappy statistic – add to that the statistic for loss pre-24 weeks and it’s all so, so much more saddening and makes me wonder why I would even ttc again. But that map, the UK is just a blip! The everyday loss, pain and heartache on such a gross scale for those women in Africa is sickening. Thank you for a great post and for posting a lovely photo of you and Freddie. :)

    • says

      It is a pants statistic, isn’t it? I think it covers 24 weeks to 1 month after birth, so it has a wide remit, but it doesn’t cover and trimester loss, so would be even worse if it did. I remember a friend telling me that my hospital loses a couple of term babies a year – neither of us ever imagined it would be mine – but even on the day I went in to discuss Freddie, there was a picture on the table of another ‘sleeping’ baby. I guess there will have been more since Freddie.

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