‘Rainbow babies’ like Carrie’s feel miraculous – but do they really help mothers deal with loss?

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Carrie Johnson and her first child, Wilfred - Simon Dawson / No10 Downing Street
Carrie Johnson and her first child, Wilfred - Simon Dawson / No10 Downing Street

It was one of those times I was ashamed to admit I didn’t understand what they were referring to. I was visiting the Tommy’s Rainbow Clinic at St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester, where parents expecting so-called ‘rainbow babies’ were taken care of.

Like many who read Carrie Johnson’s pregnancy announcement on Instagram yesterday, I wasn’t sure exactly what a rainbow baby was. As an ardent supporter of Tommy’s pregnancy charity and having experienced both miscarriage and stillbirth myself, I felt this was something I should have known and felt ashamed that I didn’t.

A rainbow baby, I soon worked out, is the baby that followed some kind of loss – whether it is an infant death, stillbirth or miscarriage. The term rainbow was a sensitive way to define the birth of a child to someone who had previously lost a child; a gentle term to describe joy and hope following a horrendous situation. It resonated with me, because whether I should have one of these rainbow children was a debate that I was struggling with at the time.

Marina and Ben Fogle - Andrew Crowley/The Telegraph
Marina and Ben Fogle - Andrew Crowley/The Telegraph

It was only months since my third child, Willem, had been stillborn. I had always envisaged a large chaotic family. With two siblings each, my husband, Ben and I always suspected we hadn’t quite finished having children after our second child, Iona, arrived in 2011.

But two children under two was hard – they sapped me of my energy, both physically and emotionally and when, in January 2014, I discovered I was once again pregnant, there was an element of trepidation that accompanied my excitement. Part of that was the knowledge that a positive pregnancy test didn’t necessarily translate into a healthy baby.

My very first pregnancy had ended in miscarriage. Having had what I thought was a problem and symptom-free first trimester, I booked in to my 12 week scan with a celebration dinner planned for afterwards. My bubble burst when the sonographer failed to find a heartbeat. I had experienced what is dubbed a ‘missed miscarriage’ where the foetus dies but there is no outward manifestation. A naïve newcomer to the world of pregnancy and baby loss, this wasn’t even something I was aware could happen. Because I hadn’t had any bleeding I had simply presumed all was fine.

I was lucky to get pregnant soon after this miscarriage and so I guess, Ludo, who is now a persistently curious eleven year old, was my first ‘rainbow’ baby. Although, no-one ever referred to him as such when he was born. In fact, at that time, it felt taboo to even mention my miscarriage, never mind discuss it in any detail.

The trouble was that I couldn’t just brush what had happened under the carpet. While I had adhered to the bizarre ‘you keep your pregnancy a secret for the first trimester’ rule, when I had the miscarriage it felt baffling that I couldn’t reach out to friends when I needed help the most. My husband, Ben, was embarking on a three-month expedition walking to the South Pole. I was facing a D and C (a procedure to remove the foetal matter from my uterus), recovery, hormonal thunderstorms and adjusting to the fact that I was not expecting a baby in June, on my own.

Carrie Johnson with Wilfred at the G7 summit this year - Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street
Carrie Johnson with Wilfred at the G7 summit this year - Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Eventually, I confided in the late Cassandra Jardine, a brilliant journalist at The Telegraph who was covering Ben’s expedition. “You know I’ve got five children,” she told me, “well I’ve also had five miscarriages.” And while I didn’t feel happy that she had experienced the same emotional turmoil as me, five times, it did fill me with reassurance that the likelihood was that I would go on to have the children I’d dreamed of. As Carrie has acknowledged, it can be a real comfort to hear from people who have experienced pregnancy loss.

And so I agreed to be interviewed by Cassandra, and while some accused me of capitalising on my miscarriage to promote Ben’s expedition, the vast majority of those I heard from were truly grateful of my honesty, for talking about a common occurrence that was strangely shrouded in secrecy, something that only makes it harder for those experiencing it.

In the years that followed, I founded The Bump Class, antenatal classes that aimed to support and empower women through pregnancy. Having signalled that I was not afraid to talk about the harder parts of being a mother, I became a go-to for friends and their friends who were going through their own agonising experiences of miscarriage.

What I hadn’t realised was that I wasn’t done with loss. In August 2014 my third child, Willem, was stillborn on a rainy Sunday morning as the church bells tolled in Salzburg, where at 33 weeks pregnant, I was on holiday with my family. Baby loss was still something that people struggled to deal with – while the hospital thoughtfully put me on the gynaecological ward rather than the antenatal ward for my recovery, I still had to explain to a well-meaning physio why my newborn wasn’t at my bedside.

Boris and Carrie Johnson are now expecting a second child, due in December - PA
Boris and Carrie Johnson are now expecting a second child, due in December - PA

In the months and years that followed, I have become a passionate advocate around honest conversation around all aspects of having children, especially loss. I admire Carrie hugely for using the happy event of announcing her pregnancy to also talk about the baby she lost earlier this year; highlighting the fact that miscarriage is something that many women will experience.

It’s even better that the prime minister’s wife has introduced the term rainbow baby into the mainstream dialogue of our media. Many of my friends still had no idea what it meant – one thought it was referring to gender neutrality and another thought it was a term for mixed race child. It’s time to stop pretending that baby loss doesn’t exist.

As I prepared for my As Good As It Gets Podcast last month, it struck me that it’s seemingly insidious traditions like not talking about baby loss and encouraging women to keep their pregnancies a secret for the first trimester, in case it doesn’t work out, that makes it feel as if it’s somehow our fault.

But my experience also tells me that we need to be careful about creating another ‘fairy tale’ which cultivates the idea that once you do have a baby after losing one, all will be well in the world. While, for a lot of women this might feel like the case, for many it’s not.

Having a baby, however much you want that child, is rife with challenges. Not only are new parents faced with severe sleep deprivation, but hormones can play havoc with our emotions too. It is estimated that postnatal depression affects between 15 -30% of new mothers, a figure that is likely to be higher because of the stigma attached to feeling depressed when you should just feel happy. Mothers to ‘rainbow babies’ are not immune to this, however “blessed” they might feel.

Grief counsellor Julia Samuel - Andrew Crowley/The Telegraph
Grief counsellor Julia Samuel - Andrew Crowley/The Telegraph

Dr Michelle Tolfrey, a clinical psychologist who experienced severe postnatal depression after her ‘rainbow baby’ was born, explained to me how the fact that she wasn’t supremely happy after giving birth to a healthy baby after her daughter Orla was stillborn, almost made her depression feel worse. It was like the ‘rainbow’ wasn’t quite as perfect as she’d anticipated.

And this is the reason why, after Willem died, that I made the decision not to have another child. While I wanted to believe that another baby would be the happy ending Ben and I so desperately craved, the reality was that, in my case, a rainbow baby could also have jeopardised my life.

It was my grief counsellor, Julia Samuel, who explained the naivety of the supposition that this baby would be our ‘happily ever after’. The only person who could navigate me to a happy place, she told me, was me, and that it would be unfair and unwise to pin that responsibility on any baby, rainbow or not.

Seven years on, the pain of not only losing Willem but also of having two children, rather than three, still hurts. But not having had a rainbow baby does nothing to diminish from my happiness for those who do. And I am thankful everyday for the army of honest women like Carrie who share their stories which means we are finally starting to have a more mainstream conversation about what loss means and all the complicated emotions and realities that come with it.

thebumpclass.com The As Good As It Gets Podcast is available on all podcast platforms. Instagram @marina.fogle

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