• Debbie Challis

My Baby Box: Prologue

This is the introduction to a memoir / history around bereavement, reproductive justice and forming a family that I finished some time ago. It has an agent but hasn't found a home yet. I've rather been ignoring it but recent personal and wider events - the death of my dad, a return to austerity (or malign neglect), being gaslit over deaths and bereavement in Covid, threats to abortion rights and yet another inquiry into failings on a maternity ward - have pushed me to revisit it. Rather than just feeling frustrated at it going nowhere, I thought I'd post the beginning as a blog . . .. A few trigger warnings - it talks about infertility, bereavement and baby loss.

A painting of a woman in the foreground, with a boy sat painting and a girl looking over his shoulder through a door behind her.
Edward Burne-Jones, Portrait of his wife Georgiana Burne-Jones, with their two children, Philip and Margaret, in the background (1883)

A woman stares out at us from the past. There’s a palpable connection. For all that Georgina Burne-Jones and her Children - the subjects of the painting - are long deceased, the portrait of them by Georgina’s husband from 1883 is vivid and alive. Georgina holds our gaze from the dark foreground Behind her, in a warmly lit room, her son Philip is painting while his sister Margaret looks approvingly on. Georgina holds a book, a bright blue pansy resting in its open pages. The first time I saw this portrait, in an exhibition of Edward Burne-Jones’ work in 2018, the accompanying label told me that it depicted the ‘enduring love’ between the painter and his wife. The pansy was symbolic of one person thinking of another. Less than a year later, I saw the same portrait in a different exhibition, this time labelled as a ‘tacit acknowledgement’ of the painter’s affair with another woman, his subsequent return to his wife and the ‘importance of the family unit’.* I had my own interpretation as I thought it symbolised Georgina’s enduring love for all of her children, the pansy a reference to her thoughts for a child who had died. The inclusion of the living children surely made that obvious. But I also knew that my reading of the portrait was very much to do with my own personal history.


First, I couldn’t have children. After years of trying, of tests, of drugs and invasive procedures, of IVF, I faced the devastating truth that I was infertile. With my husband S, I survived that and then began a new challenge – to adopt a child. That also took years, with a whole new set of tests and procedures, this time more psychological than physical, but no less invasive or exhausting. We got through that, this time with the child we’d so longed for. Then, happy and settled with an adopted son, I got pregnant. After everything S and I had been through, we couldn’t allow ourselves to believe it or hope that it would work out. And it didn’t. Our daughter was born at 32 weeks gestation and lived for just eight days. Still, the doctors encouraged us to try again. Forty years-old, and more than a decade after first trying to get pregnant, I gave birth to a healthy baby.


I didn’t think it would ever be like this. I assumed modern medicine would provide a miracle and then, when it didn’t, that it would ensure that my unexpected, miraculous pregnancy was safe and successful. The irony was that for all this reliance on the modern, I work in the past – as a historian in public engagement in museums and archives. When things went wrong for me, as they did again and again, the past is where I hid and healed, and where I found a way of coming to terms with what had happened. The bits of history I already liked to study – the nineteenth-century and how people looked at the ancient past – became much more than a comfort. They helped me make sense of what I’d been through, the ‘secret’ pain and trauma of infertility and childbirth, the difficult realities so rarely spoken of in public in our modern world.


Take Georgina Burne-Jones and that portrait. On 28 October 1864, Georgina, while suffering from scarlet fever, gave birth to her second son prematurely. She was too ill to hold or nurse him, and he - Christopher - was also sick with the disease. The wealthy art and social critic John Ruskin paid for the road outside the Burne-Jones’ flat in central London to be lined with hay so that Georgina could rest undisturbed by the noise of carts and other traffic.** Georgina survived her illness but Christopher died aged three weeks and three days. His mother carried the memory of him with her for the rest of her life. Almost 30 years after his death, she told a friend, ‘I keep his birthday and death day, and a shadowy son of seven and twenty sometimes exists for a moment for me.’ *** I share that with her. Like that Victorian mother, I will always have a ‘shadowy daughter’ who was born prematurely, whose birthday and death day we still mark each year, and whose loss is always there, sometimes as sharply felt as the day she died. In 2019, my own birthday happened to be my son’s first day back at school after the summer holiday. It would - it should - have been my late daughter’s first day at school, and I could almost glimpse her among the nervous little ones and their nervous parents. I understood the emotional wrench of separation, but thankfully few parents know quite my gulf of loss.


Since I didn’t share my experience of grief with many other parents today, my loss became lodged in things, whether my own or more usually the things in museums, galleries and archives. In a point of crisis, of immense loss and bewildering anguish, I did the only thing I knew how to do. I immersed myself in things and with people from the past. I felt a particular affinity for the portraits, photographs, boxes and texts from or discovered in what’s called the ‘long nineteenth century’ - the Victorian period 1837-1901, plus a decade either side. I used the tools from my work in museums and in my research as a cultural historian as a kind of therapy. I researched these things and their wider context because that helped make sense of my own experience.


Yet to write my personal story, I had to gag the objective historian in my head. We are trained not to write subjectively or about the personal, so in the words of another historian, I had ‘to unlearn some habits’.**** I used to deal with anxiety or strong emotion by pushing feelings away and burying myself in work, such as when I swatted for my A-levels after the death of my gran. But when my daughter died, I instead used the way I gain knowledge to understand and feel emotions too. I don’t necessarily advocate this method - everyone needs to find their own path - but the results have been surprising and useful, helping me heal but also changing my sense of our relationship to the past. By doing this, I could refocus on the present and hope for a different sort of future.


Grief is an inevitable part of life. Yet, societal understanding of loss and the reactions of other people to it, such as those I’ll detail shortly, can often lack empathy and at worst are deeply harmful. The loss of my baby daughter also made me think about how we express grief in society today and in the past. This is doubly important against the backdrop of a global pandemic, in which people died and were (are) left to grieve without the physical comfort of their loved ones. I held my baby daughter as she breathed her last. It was traumatic. But the trauma of not being able to do that would be far worse. Death and grief are life events that we need to share to help each other to heal. What we do as a community to mark grief in the aftermath of this immense loss is even more important.


What I have been through - infertility treatment, adoption, unexpected pregnancy, baby loss and another pregnancy and birth - is unusual. However, many people share some aspects of my experience, whether miscarriage, still birth, the death of a baby, adoption or infertility. As I opened up about what I’d been through, other women told me their own stories. Some were women I knew well, yet they suddenly shared experiences I’d known nothing about before. It was like being inducted into some secret society, one involving many more women than I had ever imagined.


I started to record the impact of my daughter’s death on me two months after she died as a way of working through some of the pain, and I have revisited those notes to write this account. I did not keep notes of my infertility treatment, though S and I did keep an account of our adoption experience to share with our son at a later date. I approach this memoir with some critical distance, and the sense of my story in a wider context. When I read back through my notes, I am struck by how much my experience is an extreme example of the pain and changes women routinely suffer in their bodies with a monthly period, as well as through different transitions such as adolescence, infertility treatment, pregnancy, in childbirth, postnatally, the menopause and hormonal therapies of all kinds.


I felt so alone during my infertility but difficulties in conceiving turned out to be quite common. It just wasn’t talked about, at least not in our modern world. Fortunately, in the past decade, more women have been sharing their experiences. Listening to and reading such accounts has made me realise that many of the assumptions I held about health and social care in modern Britain were wrong, too. I believed that everyone had more or less equal access to free and safe care for infertility, in pregnancy, and during childbirth, and that babies had similar chances of being born alive and then being cared for. In comparing the past with the situation today and hearing accounts from other people, my complacent beliefs unravelled. Shocked, I stared at my privilege as a middle-class white woman. The awful irony is that just as women are starting to share their experiences, official statistics show an increase in the number of women suffering tragedies like mine but more likely to be women of colour from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds. In 1994, the term Reproductive Justice was coined by Sister Song, a group of African American women, to describe the right for all women to have combined access to reproductive rights and social justice and the racism that women of colour and indigenous women face in trying to access safe health care. This concerns who has access to reproductive technologies in fertility clinics, as well as to maternal care and support in looking after children. The history of maternal and infant welfare in this country needs to be considered through the lens of Reproductive Justice.


But this book remains my own personal story. Alison Light has said that memoirs ‘seem closer to memories, plural, unreliable and random – and alas interminable!’***** The author of a memoir hopes to avoid this by editing those memories, deciding what to share and how to frame it. There are certain aspects of my story I do not write about here, mainly related to the adoption of our son which is his story to tell if he chooses. I do not use my living children’s real names and I refer to my husband, who shared these experiences, as S. My focus is what I went through to become a parent, not our experience as a family since. I have also largely left out reference to the many, many people who helped us during the difficult times described here - for whom we will always be so grateful. This is my account of what happened to me, how I felt, and how I used things and their histories in the struggle through my loss.


You can read the Synopsis of My Baby Box here.

MyBabyBoxChallisSynopsis
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* Edward Burne-Jones. Pre-Raphaelite Visionary, Tate Britain, 24 October 2018 - 24 February 2019.

Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, National Portrait Gallery, 17 October 2019 - 24 January 2020.

** Judith Flanders (2002), A Circle of Sisters. Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin, London: Penguin.

*** Fiona MacCarthy (2011), The Last Pre-Raphaelite. Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination, London: Faber & Faber, 172.

**** Sheila Rowbotham (2000), Promise of a Dream. Remembering the 60s, London: Penguin, xv.

***** Alison Light (2017), ‘Between Private and Public: Writing a Memoir of Raphael and Myself’, History Workshop Journal, 83, 11-26, 22.

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