By Michelle Collins, Ph.D, CNM, FACNM, FAAN
Vanderbilt University School of Nursing
Call the Midwife is back for its eighth season and so are the faculty of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing with a weekly guest blog. Watch the show Sundays at 7 p.m. through May 19, then read our blog each Monday morning for historical and contemporary context about the previous night’s episode. SPOILER ALERT: Some posts may contain spoilers.
Sometimes as I watch Call the Midwife I think not much has changed. Other times, what I am watching is so utterly foreign that surely it could never have happened that way, though history tells me otherwise. Such was the case with this week’s episode. We saw a young mother, hyper vigilant about her child’s health, who was tortured by the memory of her first child’s death in infancy.
To be clear, women never, ever forget the details of the births they have experienced. Studies have shown that well into advanced age, women can recount the fine details of the births they have had, and particularly the details of births wherein they encountered significant emotional distress.
Discussing death ‒ particularly the loss of a child ‒ has historically just not been something that was done. Throughout time, women have suppressed and then carried the burden of deeply buried grief through their entire lives. In years past, babies born with genetic syndromes or anomalies (birth defects) that were considered to be incompatible with life were separated from their mothers at birth, placed in cribs at the back of the newborn nursery (or in a separate nursery), and left alone until they died. Mothers were “not allowed,” nor encouraged, to spend any time with a baby whose life was predicted to last only hours or days. Babies died alone and devoid of ever knowing a mother’s touch. Mothers left hospitals with empty, aching arms, without as much as the memory of a touch, a glimpse, or the scent of their newborn to comfort them.
Fortunately, time has brought change. We have evolved from the notion that speaking about perinatal loss is taboo to having perinatal hospice services. Multi-disciplinary hospice services provide support for families who have been given the prenatal diagnosis that their baby has a condition incompatible with life. There are now protocols and policies in place for women who give birth to stillborn babies or those with very short life expectancies.
These babies are respectfully bathed and dressed in gowns often made by the loving hands of volunteers, or donated by organizations like the Littlest Angels Gowns, which turns used bridal gowns into infant burial gowns. We prepare memory boxes for the family containing locks of hair, pictures, hand- and footprints – anything tangible that will ease their pain in the days and years to come. Professional photographers volunteer their time and talent to photograph these precious little ones and their families to provide the first, and last, portraits the family will ever have through organizations like Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep organization.
Thank goodness we have come to realize that NOT acknowledging a child’s loss only magnifies the heartbreak. In regard to this aspect of maternity care at least, we have grown by leaps and bounds since the 1960s when the episode is set. As Elizabeth Edwards wisely said, “If you know someone who has lost a child and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died, they didn’t forget they died. You’re not reminding them. What you’re reminding them of is that you remember that they lived, and that’s a great, great gift.”
Michelle Collins Ph.D., CNM, FACNM, FAAN is a Professor of Nursing and Director of the Nurse-Midwifery Program, at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.