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Thoughts on birth and Elizabeth Siddal

I write this as the mother of three children and, thankfully,  have never suffered the tragedy of a stillbirth as Elizabeth Siddal did.   I discovered Lizzie early in my adulthood, yet it was after the birth of my second child that my interest in her grew and I felt a strong urge to seek out her story, hungrily reading as much about her as I could.  I find it odd that I didn’t make the connection at the time, but thirteen years later I realize that there is a strange sort of parallel that it was during that time that my interest in her grew.

My son was born with Spina Bifida.  His condition was undiagnosed during my pregnancy, so the news was a shock.  My joy was quickly joined with fear and questions.   My situation was vastly different than Lizzie’s and yet I do understand what it is like to be in the throes of a joyful pregnancy and then suddenly have to switch gears when the blessed event does not go as planned.  It is jarring to the senses.  Unable at first to process the news, it may appear to others that you are digesting the information when actually it’s all just sliding over you — sliding over the calm exterior you’ve put on simply because you don’t want to share the emotion with the people around you, don’t want them to know of the panic that has swelled so much inside of you that it seems hard even to breathe.   Then that panic begins to feed your thoughts.  Thoughts that are now mainly interrogatives.  How?  Why?  What does this mean?  What do we do?  Then, eventually, when the  panic subsides and you’ve answered what questions you can answer, your brain supplies new ones.  Mainly of the “what next?” variety.

I don’t want to be presumptuous enough to say that I know Lizzie’s grief.  I refuse even to associate the word grief with the birth of my son.  I will say that since I was unaware during my pregnancy that he had Spina Bifida and that the hours after his birth were filled with shock and moments of denial and sadness,  I have a sliver of understanding.   Having a small glimpse into this unwanted world of melancholy, I feel for Lizzie to a deeper degree.  I was more fortunate than Lizzie, though.  My son was not well, but he was alive.  Lizzie’s feelings were permanent while mine were intermittent and  transient.

There was no hope for Lizzie’s situation to change while hope was all I had to cling to.  I was able to sit by my son in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit  and stroke his shoulder, the only area I could find unencumbered by wires, so I could whisper to him that no matter what, I felt that he was absolutely and breathtakingly perfect. Which was, and still is, the truth.  I had a baby who needed me to be tenacious for him, to speak to doctors on his behalf, to gather all the information about Spina Bifida that I could find.   I resolved to care for him in such a way that when he grew older he would know that there was nothing wrong with him, just differences.

I had him to absorb my focus and my love while Lizzie had an empty cradle to rock by the fireside while she frantically told visitors to hush so that they would not wake her dear, lost child.  Lizzie and other women of her era suffered through a time of misinformation and misunderstanding.  Grief and depression are natural responses to tragedy.  Lizzie must have been overwhelmed by a devastation that only deepened when surrounded by friends who were giving birth without difficulty.  Lizzie’s loss happened before grief was understood to be a process.  Pain went untreated and was covered up.  It was ages before people knew that with counseling and time, maybe things could get better.

It is no wonder that Lizzie sunk further into the grips of Laudanum.