The First Time I Was a Father
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because mourning is a journey that sometimes takes multiple days and more than 7,000 miles before it can even begin.
I fled the newsroom. I hailed a taxi. I entered the hospital.
It was June 21, 2012. Several days later, after 36 long weeks of poring over becoming-a-dad books and blogs, of ultrasounds and birthing classes, I was finally there. My first moments of fatherhood. There were tight embraces from anxious family members who grabbed me by the shoulders and told me to be a man. That thick resistance as I cut through my daughter’s umbilical cord. The second when my wife, having given her last push, could finally just stop.
When I held her in my arms, my tiny girl, Nadiya, at 5 pounds, 4 ounces, was badly bruised. She looked almost like she was sleeping. But she never stirred, never cried to life with the wail all new parents await. Nadiya arrived stillborn.
The nightmare had begun a world away from our home in North America, in the United Arab Emirates, where I worked as a newspaper editor. My wife phoned me at the office; she’d just had one of only two ultrasounds I was forced to miss. Her voice was heavy. She calmly explained to me, then her partner of nearly six years, that a technician couldn’t find Nadiya’s heartbeat. But we wouldn’t know anything official until I showed up at the hospital and a doctor completed a follow-up scan. Just four days earlier, on June 17, I had received my first Father’s Day email — it read that Nadiya was “really looking forward to seeing you next month.” Now I was reading test results that confirmed she was gone — her exact date of passing, unknown.
“I wish the worst of it was hearing that news,” my wife wrote to our closest friends, “but I think the coming days are going to only prove to be tougher.” Indeed, Nadiya was dead, but my wife was still carrying her. I asked our friends: “How do you mourn your little one, when she still seems to be growing inside?” Mothers in this situation, I was told by our hospital’s spokesman, typically have the choice between immediate induction — such a clinical word — or scheduling for a later date, so that she and her family can absorb the news and grieve. We inadvertently fell into that second camp because we took a night to think it over. We just wanted Nadiya out. But if we wanted to deliver at Corniche, our hospital in the UAE’s capital of Abu Dhabi, we’d have to wait about a week — a thought that crushed my wife, and me, every time she hugged her stomach in front of our dresser mirror.
Sure, we were in shock, but we felt like it was us versus the world, and we drew on our skills of knowing how to remain calm (her) and organized (me).
The next day we were in Dubai, pleading with nurses at Latifa Hospital for help. But they wouldn’t accept my wife as a new patient — for liability reasons, I speculated, though my formal request for comment went unanswered. We also traveled to a clinic, but a doctor’s concern there that my wife could run into complications and need a proper hospital emergency room meant it wasn’t an option. Same went for yet another clinic, back in Abu Dhabi.
So we did a runner.
Normally, expats who flee the UAE do so over unpaid debt — or worse. Our day of escape completely disregarded all those bereavement brochures that warned against major changes at a time like this. We bought new duffel bags and packed up our apartment. We procured medication in case my wife accidentally went into labor in the skies. We paid all outstanding bills to ensure we could pass through the UAE’s customs, which some expats believed blocked foreigners from leaving even if they owed only small amounts of money.
Facing the border agent in Abu Dhabi, I strategically stood in front of my wife, who was already holding a loose jacket to ward off any probing about how far along she was in pregnancy. Just in case, though, I had a doctor’s note in my back pocket that cleared her to fly — some in the local medical community had tried to help us in whatever way they could. Sure, we were in shock, but we felt like it was us versus the world, and we drew on our skills of knowing how to remain calm (her) and organized (me). My wife and I plotted a meticulous itinerary that included multiple stopovers in case the stress induced her into labor. In Germany, I filed my resignation. In England, we rushed to catch a connection but had to pause, regularly, to avoid triggering labor. Over the Atlantic, as we neared our native Canada, I painstakingly cataloged every book and pair of shoes we’d stuffed into our luggage in the hopes that upon landing, we’d be allowed back into the country without any bureaucratic fuss.
After we approached our customs agent, with her warm smile and her official stamp of approval, she closed one chapter of our journey with the words we so desperately needed to hear: “Welcome home.”
Over the course of multiple days and more than 7,000 miles, certain questions haunted me: Had our weekend visit to an outdoor pool somehow baked Nadiya under the desert sun? How hadn’t anyone noticed something wrong when, worried about feeling fewer kicks than usual, my wife and I made a late-night trip to the hospital only to be told everything appeared normal in a scan? Why hadn’t I just driven to neighboring Dubai when our hunt for a home-based fetal heart monitor in Abu Dhabi proved unfruitful?
We’d already been nervous through most of the pregnancy. Initially, our doctor told us we were having twins — and just a week later we learned that Nadiya’s sister was gone, perhaps due to so-called vanishing twin syndrome, in which one baby just disappears. There was no concrete reason why. The loss cut deep. It scared my wife and me away from sharing any ultrasounds or belly shots of Nadiya ahead of her July 16 due date other than with a few family members and friends. That’s also why we waited all the way until June 12 before a dear friend took maternity pictures. We hesitated until June 16 before we reluctantly let that friend hold a baby shower — which was around the last time we really remember feeling Nadiya kick, and five days before we found out for certain that she had passed.
Many people think stillbirth is a thing of the past, but it happens to 2.6 million babies annually. While serious psychological effects of stillbirth on mothers are well established, much less is known about the impact of such loss on fathers, one study from the British Journal of Psychiatry says. What experts do know is this: Fathers of stillborn children tend to describe classical signs of grief and guilt, as well as symptoms of anxiety and depression, though at lower levels than mothers, according to a Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology study. Researchers also caution that these dads may develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
During Nadiya’s delivery, I tried my best to do as I’d been coached — providing massages, leading in yogic breathing and raising certain topics to my wife that people asked me to initiate, including whether we wanted any family photos with our deceased daughter, or what kind of funeral service felt the most appropriate. But given everything my wife was going through, I also felt deep deficiencies, particularly when I couldn’t make simple decisions like which sandwich to order, or after I lost all ability to multitask, for weeks.
Powerless, I’d occasionally hear her sobs through the bathroom door — a shameful part of me feeling resentful that I’d also have to relive our pain in that precise moment.
The impact on both of us was severe. Especially when we were told we’d never definitively find out what went wrong — perhaps Nadiya’s umbilical cord was too small in a certain area, or so went the one theory that most resonated with me. Initially, time didn’t heal: Grieving with a partner when you’re no longer completely in sync can feel complicated, like its own form of grief. There were days when I needed to work through the sadness solo, almost scheduling it into emotional writing sessions or by sweating through it in yoga, sometimes leaving my wife to turn to others to get the support she needed. Powerless, I’d occasionally hear her sobs through the bathroom door — a shameful part of me feeling resentful that I’d also have to relive our pain in that precise moment.
But couples therapy helped, and we are certainly more resilient now, as individuals and as a team with new coping skills. In the weeks following Nadiya’s death, my wife wrote a graduate management admission test and compiled a last-minute application for a coveted MBA program that she began just months later, while I started hustling as a freelance journalist — each of us quietly mourning during the day in our own ways and then, together, at night. A long time would pass before I’d stop burning myself with questions and should-haves and what-ifs. It would take even more time before lingering remorse would no longer feel like salt — well deserved, it seemed — on a still-open wound. And those scars from feeling a deep sense of parental failure still occasionally flare. I anticipate I’ll always receive good news with some measure of caution.
“Reassuringly,” the British Journal of Psychiatry study says, certain symptoms associated with delivering a stillborn baby “largely remit after the birth of a live child.” That became true for me, but only after my wife and I held our breath for nine months during a subsequent pregnancy. And despite feeling that wave of cautious optimism whenever I squeeze my perfect 2-year-old girl just a little too tight now, I try to remain present and remember what Nadiya taught us.
Her name, after all, means “hope.”