Friday 22 September 2017

'I never saw our baby again' - Mum (80) opens up about the heartbreak of losing her stillborn son in the 1960s

It's been over 50 years since Maureen Kennedy lost her son Stephen after being induced. She breaks her silence on the heartbreak and loneliness that followed the tragedy and still lingers today

Maureen Kennedy from Dundalk tells her heartbreaking story. Photo: Dave Conachy
Maureen Kennedy from Dundalk tells her heartbreaking story. Photo: Dave Conachy

Chrissie Russell

I remember so much: lying in a crowded ward, in labour, my hand clenching the radiator beside my bed to get through the pain. The radiator was red hot and I was burning up, but I just kept holding on to it.

It seemed to go on and on and I think I must have passed out a lot of the time. In the end, they gave me an anaesthetic and I think it must have been a forceps delivery because I had to have internal and external stitches afterwards.

As I came to, lying on a stretcher, I could see the doctor in the corner of the room.

"What is the baby?" I called over to him, because in those days, no one knew. I'd been convinced I was having a girl and I'd spent months knitting and crocheting little girls' clothes.

"It's a boy," he said back over his shoulder.

I told him I wanted to hold the baby and he said no. "I'm working on him," he snapped.

"Please," I begged. "I want to see my baby. If you don't bring him over, I'm getting out of this bed and coming to get him."

"Okay, I'm bringing him over," he replied and walked over to put the child in my arms.

I looked down at him, his little face was exactly like my husband's.

My husband and I weren't long married when I found out I was expecting. It was 1965 and I was 28 (Jim was two years older) and, although we were both working, our financial circumstances weren't very good. We couldn't afford a baby and really had no intention of having one! But by the time I was about six months gone, I'd come to terms with it and was looking forward to the new arrival. Then, everything seemed to go wrong.

The baby was due at Christmas, but that date passed and I went two weeks over. I'd done all my prenatal classes, all the exercises and breathing, and I'd been full of confidence, but I was starting to panic a bit by that stage.

"Oh, you'll have no problem," the doctor I'd been attending at the Coombe told me. "Fine wide hips," he said.

I went into hospital on a Saturday and had my waters broken on the Sunday, then, on the Monday, I was put on a drip. The pain just went on and on. Every so often, young nurses would come in and put a trumpet to my stomach to listen to the baby's heartbeat.

On the Monday night, the doctor came in and said, "Maureen, you're going to have your baby tomorrow," and off he went.

But later, one of the labour ward sisters came in and changed the drip.

"This is too fast," I remember her telling me. "We don't want you down here, we're too busy."

When the night-nurse came round, I told her what had happened. "Oh, that happens here all the time," she said, unconcerned. The labour ward people could override what the doctor had done. I was left there for two days, until Wednesday evening when I was taken to the labour ward. I only got to hold the baby for a few seconds and then I was taken back to the ward. I thought, 'Ok, now I can sleep.' I had no idea anything was wrong. Nobody said anything.

Early in the morning, I was woken up by a nurse coming in. She walked over to my bed and said,"Your baby is dead."

That was it. Then a physiotherapist came into the ward, where all the other women who had just given birth were, and saw me crying. "Oh stop crying and get out of bed and do the exercises," she said.

I begged for someone to call my family and my husband came flying in. He was actually stopped by the guards for racing, but when they heard why, they gave him an escort to the hospital. I was screaming the place down by then. All I wanted was out. I remember sobbing, "I can't stay here. I'm not staying here seeing other people with babies."

My husband said he was taking me home and was told, "Well you're responsible for her then." But he said "No, you are. You will come out and see that she's okay."

Then he, my mum and my stepfather carried me out. Someone did come out to the house two or three times to look me over - all I remember is them saying something like, "Oh, you've been through a rough time."

My doctor, I didn't see again until a check-up six weeks later and he never said a word about what had happened.

For a long time afterwards, I felt like the baby was still inside me. Sometimes I felt empty, then other times I'd feel something and think 'Oh, he's still there.'

It was terrible when my milk came in and I had to get pills because it was so sore. But in the end, they wouldn't give me any more pills, I just had to deal with it.

It was never explained to me what went wrong but I did see an article some years later by a doctor who had researched it and she said that a huge number of women who were induced like that, lost the babies. Nowadays, people go to court, but the way we looked at it was that nothing would bring him back.

When we came home, I sent my husband back to the hospital with a big bag of all the girlie baby things I'd made so he could give them to the woman who had been in the bed beside me. She'd had 11 or 12 boys, but she'd just given birth to a baby girl.

I never saw our baby again and I don't know if my husband ever saw him. We don't talk about that part of it. Jim never talked about it a lot, unless I mentioned it, but though he never shows it, I know he feels it. He's the only one who understands. We've no mementos to remind us, but every year our church does a Mass for unborn babies or babies that died after birth - it's held around the same time as I had Stephen - and my husband always puts his name into the box. We never go though, it would be too hard.

Afterwards I went to stay at my mum's for a while. My mother had had five miscarriages and two stillborn babies in the Coombe and on her final pregnancy, she told the doctors she would kill herself if they didn't give her a Caesarean - something that was unheard of in those days - and so my sister was delivered safely. My stepfather was moved to the spare room after that.

My mother wouldn't let me talk about it because of what had happened to her. She just wasn't able to talk, she just didn't want to hear about it. She'd say to me, "You have to stop crying," and didn't want me being upset around her. I was just to get on with life.

It wasn't too long after I had my stitches out that I went back to work. Sometimes I'd be standing serving in a busy bar, unable to think about anything else, but you can't go on like that.

No one really wanted to talk to me about what had happened. One girl I knew had a baby shortly before I did and she just never spoke to me again. People felt awkward. No one asked me how I was feeling, but if they had, I would have burst into tears. I couldn't talk about it. Even now, it's still difficult. My husband's family all had a lot of babies and a lot of kids. I was the only one where something went wrong and I just felt like such a failure. I couldn't look at a pram for two years, I couldn't look at babies.

We adopted a little girl a few years later, but I never got pregnant again. It just didn't happen. We went to live in Belfast for a while and, at one stage, I decided to go to the Samaritan hospital to find out what was wrong. But I was going in with this pretty little two-year-old and I felt like all the women were looking at me going 'What are you doing here? You've got one!'

At one point, I was put in a chair in stirrups so they could examine me. There were loads of people around and I was mortified so I didn't go back. And, of course, they said my husband would have to give samples and all that sort of thing, which I'd have been too embarrassed to tell him about. People were different at that time compared to today when everything is spoken about. When I had an operation some years later, I had fibroids, so I think that's probably what it was.

I turned 80 in March and Stephen would have been 52. I try not to think about the 'what ifs'.

I was down at his grave again just a few weeks ago - he's buried with my husband's parents - but I wasn't at his burial, I was still in bed sick, unable to move. I feel lucky that he is buried in a grave and that they baptised him in the hospital. In those days, you were lucky that they didn't just take the baby out and bury it in a big grave with lots of other stillborn babies.

A friend of mine, a lovely lady who passed away in her 90s, was still worrying in her last days about her stillborn baby that had been buried outside church grounds. I remember her crying to me about it. Just another one of the cruel things the Church did.

I have doubts of course, but I do have faith and I do believe that I will see Stephen and all my family in the life hereafter. It's still hard not to be angry. People might say, 'Oh it was a long time ago', but he was our son and it shouldn't have happened.

I try not to dwell on negative things and I've a very busy life, involved in lots of things. Jim and I have been around a long time now, and all through our lives there have been ups and downs, so it's part of that. But it never goes away and it never gets easy.

* INM has a dedicated section independent.ie/babyloss where parents of all ages can share their stories of miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal death. The section will serve as a testament to the women and men who share their stories, a memorial for the babies lost and as a resource for other people who have gone through or are going through the experience.

Your stories can be anonymous or on the record and nothing will be published in any format without prior consultation with you. If you would like to be part of this and tell your story, email Yvonne Hogan at

yhogan@independent.ie.

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