When my wife was in the early stages of being pregnant with our first son she started calling him Wombat as a cute nickname. Wombat ended up being a big part of our wedding as my wife was four months pregnant when we tied the knot. As part my wedding speech I wrote a letter to him. Below is the introduction.
"Today I am marrying your Mummy. I’m writing this letter to you to tell you a little bit about her. Before our first date Daddy was very nervous as it had been a while since I was in the same room as another woman who wasn’t my mother.”
As far as wedding speeches go, I nailed it. Cue laughter; cue not a dry eye in the house. But as the pregnancy went on that speech was probably the most I spoke to him while he was in my wife’s womb.
Like many expectant fathers I felt anxious when I found out my wife was pregnant. As Wombat grew in my wife’s womb I struggled to connect with him. I thought that this was a normal reaction as some fathers told me it doesn’t seem real until the baby is born.
But about six months into the pregnancy I really started to worry about my lack of connection to Wombat. Around this time my wife started to feel the baby move more and more. She would invite me to feel the baby kicking and while I would oblige, deep down I was hesitant. I felt guilty about this hesitation. It was not how I pictured myself behaving. I thought that I was going to be the fun, happy, expectant father but instead I was distant.
When my wife was around 26 weeks pregnant she started feeling Wombat not move around as much. We went to hospital and the doctors did an ultrasound to make sure everything was okay.
On the screen I saw my son lying on his back, holding his foot and putting his toes in his mouth. The nurse allayed our fears when she said, “look at him, a baby that is putting his foot in his mouth like that is pretty intelligent, don’t worry, your son is fine.”
This is the moment when I had my first real connection with my son. Finally I could feel a bond forming. But this bond was short-lived. A few weeks later my wife went into hospital for decreased foetal movement for a second time. But this time, the scan revealed that Wombat had a few extra millimetres of fluid on his brain than what was considered normal.
A few days later the results came back that our son had Trisomy 9p which is a rare chromosomal disorder in which a portion of the ninth chromosome appears three times rather than twice in cells of the body.
I’d never heard of Trisomy 9p. Earlier in the pregnancy we had done the tests for the more common disorders like trisomy 21 (Down syndrome) and there was no issue so this was a horrific shock. Children born with Trisomy 9p have moderate to severe intellectual and physical disabilities. Wombat’s condition was so rare that as of 2013 only 150 cases have been reported in the medical literature since the disorder was first described in 1970.
In a cruel twist of fate, Wombat died in my wife’s womb a few days later at seven months. It was devastating blow for us, our whole family and friends. For a while it seemed our world had ended. What made it worse was that my wife took three days to give birth. I stayed with her the whole time and so did my sister-in-law who without her support I would’ve missed the birth of my son. While it was heartbreaking to not hear my son cry and see him take his first breath it was still a beautiful and peaceful moment that I am glad I shared with my wife.
I held my son in my arms for only a brief moment and kissed him on his forehead before the nurses took him away.
My wife and I have dealt with this tragedy in separate ways. She developed a relationship with our son. Every night she has a conversation with him. Whenever there are stars in the sky she says hello to him. She wears a necklace around her neck with his name in honour of his birth - all things I couldn’t bring myself to do as they were too painful. I would get inwardly angry at how my wife was connecting with our son and the grief. Instead my reaction to the loss was to avoid the pain. I buried myself in work, television, movies and weekend trips.
She regularly went to see a grief counsellor which I avoided. After one particular session the grief counsellor told her that sometimes you just have to sit in the grief and other times you can create a bit of distance between you and it.
This made me angry, connect with the grief? That was the last thing I wanted to do.
“I started to realise that how I was behaving and dealing with my son’s loss was a form of toxic masculinity."
But after about 10 months I couldn’t avoid the grief any more. It manifested itself as anger and that anger turned into back pain which I had been tolerating for months. But once the back pain evolved into shooting pain in the sides of my stomach I changed tack and started to see the grief counsellor with my wife. I also went to a psychologist and I even started doing a little bit of yoga - all these things have helped me face my feelings of grief about the loss of my son.
I also started to realise that how I was behaving and dealing with my son’s loss was a form of toxic masculinity. I did some research on the subject after I started hearing that phrase everywhere. I found an article that referenced Gloria Jean Watkins an author and social activist known as, ‘bell hooks’. When I read her explanation of the roots of toxic masculinity it was a light bulb moment for me.
“The first act of violence the patriarchy demands of males is not violence against women, instead patriarchy demands of all males that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves.
“If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem”.
The second paragraph was particularly pertinent to me as recently I told a male friend I hadn’t seen in a while that I was seeing a grief counsellor and psychologist to better deal with my grief he jokingly replied, "what about hardening up?"
I agree with bell hooks when she says, “that we need to address the links that are made between those feelings of poor mental health and the inability that men have to express themselves because of expectations of stoicism and masculinity that we place on men to be restrictive."
It took me a long time to realise that avoiding the grief had stopped me from healing.
It took me a long time to realise that avoiding the grief had stopped me from healing. I’m not interested in adding to the debate about feminism and the concept of toxic masculinity I only want to be able to get closer to my son.
I was able to do that a couple of months ago when I attended a Red Nose Day remembrance service in Sydney along with many other bereaved parents. Each family was presented with a flower and a candle to light as part of the service. My wife wrote a message that was read out and hearing my son’s name Angel Wombat made me feel like I was a father.
I talk to my son more often now and more importantly I don’t get angry when my wife mentions his name. Wombat was born two weeks before Father’s Day and at the time it was still too raw and painful to speak to him on that day but this year will be different. I’ll talk to him, tell him I love him and that he will always be a part of me. I know that as long as I mention his name he will still be alive.
Con Stamocostas is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @constama10.