“Grief took up a good part of my brain for about 18 months, so that there was less room for everything else. It is a massive cognitive and emotional task when you lose a child - it really meant re-working my understandings of myself and the world, and figuring out my beliefs on what happens after death. To integrate all of that – becoming a mother, but mother of a child who had died, and being uncertain about whether I would ever have a living child – took time.” Law lecturer Hannah Robert on how she got through the accident that took her unborn daughter Zainab’s life, and changed the course of her own.
We caught up with Hannah to explore the notion of grief, how and where she found solace and support in times of need, and why the legal ramifications surrounding an unborn child’s death are as complicated and in need of review as ever before…
Your book, Baby Lost, explores grief, hope and the legal aftermath of losing an unborn child, your daughter Zainab. What was the writing process like for you - did you find it cathartic to retell such a personal story?
I started writing while I was still in Intensive Care, because I had to start processing what had just happened. It was so much to deal with all at once – the accident, finding out that our baby’s heart had stopped, meeting her and saying goodbye – I couldn’t fit it all in my head and so writing was a way to lay down some of those thoughts and deal with them one at a time. When I revisited those journals over a year later, to start forming them into the book, it was a way to safely work with those memories – to knock the sharp points off them so that I didn’t have to re-live them. Each time I revised or re-wrote, some of the shock wore off, so that those memories are still weighty and sad, but they don’t scare me anymore. Being able to handle those memories is important to me because it is a way to connect with my daughter – to let love for her overcome the horror around her loss.
You have dealt with unimaginable pain and loss - can you tell us what the grieving process was like for you?
Grief took up a good part of my brain for about 18 months, so that there was less room for everything else. It is a massive cognitive and emotional task when you lose a child – it really meant re-working my understandings of myself and the world, and figuring out my beliefs on what happens after death. To integrate all of that – becoming a mother, but mother of a child who had died, and being uncertain about whether I would ever have a living child – took time. It meant I had to dismantle a lot of assumptions I had held, and realise how privileged I was, and how common and human it is to lose a loved one and to grieve. It was a long time before grief was no longer the biggest thing in my life. I emerged as a different person, softened up by grief and more aware of how it connected me with others through the shared experience of loss and suffering. The intense shock and sadness that our daughter isn’t here – that still comes in cycles, mostly now on significant dates or when something reminds me of her. But I can usually welcome it now, because it is part of my love for her – this is what being a parent means, that your heart is always connected with your children.
You spoke openly about your desire to try for another child after the accident and joyously welcomed your baby boy, Ali to the world in 2012 after a long road via IVF. Do you remember what you were feeling during the lead up to his birth and his early days as a newborn?
It was an intense time. He was overdue, and we were walking a tightrope between fear and excitement. I remember our midwife, Jan Ireland, saying, ‘you need to be making your decisions based on *this* pregnancy and *this* baby, not based on your past experiences’. It is difficult to compartmentalise like that, but I think it helped me recognise the fear and trauma as belonging to our accident, so that I could acknowledge them and feel them, along with the grief for Zainab, but then make decisions for the present moment. And during his early days, I think I was just stunned that these things I hadn’t really quite believed were possible for me – a very empowering birth, a living baby – were here and happening. He was a soft-snoring, velvet-cheeked proof that the universe can be unimaginably good as well as unimaginably cruel.
Where do things stand now for Zoe’s Law and has your support and thoughts on the bill changed at all?
The NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has made it an election promise to introduce new laws ‘to address this issue’ in 2019 if her government is re-elected. The big question mark is really over exactly how such laws will work. If we create distinct offences for causing injury or death to a pregnant person which results in pregnancy loss, I think that could work. But I still have serious concerns about fetal personhood laws – like Fred Nile’s bills – which define a fetus in utero as a legal person in particular circumstances. The more I have researched similar laws in other jurisdictions, the more evidence I have seen that they have disastrous consequences for women’s basic bodily autonomy. In US jurisdictions, we’ve seen the women themselves charged with criminal offences such as attempted feticide after falling down the stairs, refusing a caesarean section, suffering a stillbirth, attempting suicide or disclosing a history of addiction to their GP. ‘Illegal abortion is still a criminal offence in New South Wales, and women’s access to safe terminations depends on a common law interpretation of what is an ‘illegal abortion’. Defining a fetus in utero as a legal person in one area of the criminal code may affect those common law interpretations – and may create uncertainty so that doctors start limiting the procedures they are willing to provide for fear of criminal prosecution. This would affect not only access to safe terminations, but also to any procedure for a pregnant person that can affect the fetus, such as chemotherapy, most surgeries or epilepsy treatment.
What kind of grief support would you suggest any other families in similar situations to yours look into?
SANDS is an Australia-wide organisation which supports families experiencing stillbirth, miscarriage or neonatal death. I remember standing in our hallway at home after I’d been discharged from hospital, nervously dialling their number. The person I got through to, Sarah, was just amazing – willing to hear my story and truly empathise because she had grieved her beloved baby too. We went to local SANDS meetings for a while, and it was such a relief to sit in a room with others who knew what it was like to have to organise their baby’s funeral, to feel slightly normal for a little while, and to be able to feel supported and offer some support in turn. I also found immense support online. I had a blog at the time, and found a whole community of other bereaved parents through that. I’m still in touch with a circle of other parents, mostly through Facebook now. It is a bit like the parent friends you find through playgroup or kinder or school, but our babies are a cohort of ghosts. Our friendships are one of the things our babies gave us.
You’ve experienced first-hand how life can change instantly, when you least expect it. Has this changed the way you approach work or parenting day to day?
For a long time it really messed around with my ability to plan, because I really wasn’t sure when the rug might be pulled out from under me again. So rather than aiming for particular outcomes, my goals became particular processes – I will write for these slots of time each week, I will show up and do my best etc. It meant focusing on the things I do actually have control over. And in everything, but especially parenting, it has sharpened my sense of how precious our time is. We know for certain that everyone we love will die – we just don’t know when. So it does make me think twice about how I spend my time and why. It doesn’t mean I’m mindful every minute of the day, but I try to keep coming back to my goals in parenting: to make sure my kids know they are loved and know how to love and be kind in turn, to enjoy their company, and to foster their curiosity and connection with the world and other people.
How do you juggle your role as a law lecturer with co-parenting your son and step-children?
My step-daughters are incredible young women now, living out of home and getting on with their lives, so we catch up when we can. The hard and the wonderful thing about my work is that most of my hours are flexible, which helps, but there is still a lot of work to do. We have a schedule that works for us – so that means I can do lots of the school drop-offs and pick-ups, but I often work in the evenings (or through the night) after my son is asleep. Sometimes that means getting three hours sleep, so that I can get things (like these interview responses) done. Honestly, it also means sometimes dropping some of the balls some of the time, and being okay with that – though I try to make sure it isn’t the important ones.
What does a typical morning in your household look like?
I often wake up to the sounds of my brother (who lives with us) making his coffee before he leaves early for work. Then I get up, sometimes manage a bit of a yoga stretch in the living room and a short meditation. I put on Ali’s favourite David Bowie song (Under Pressure, funnily enough) to help him wake up. We do brekkie, I make his lunch, then somehow time disappears, and it is five to nine and we have to leap on our bikes to get him to school, mostly on time. Thankfully we live very close to his school!
How do you handle the more stressful parts of parenting?
In those stressful moments, I take a big breath and try to stay ‘unruffled’, as Janet Lansbury might put it. That means trying to hear and acknowledge what my kid is expressing, but then staying on course with my decisions and what is important to us as a family. After the drama is over, I like to debrief with good friends away from my kid and hopefully get to the point where I can laugh about it.
What is your definition of self-care and how do you make time for it?
I like the notion that self-care is not necessarily about pampering yourself, but about providing yourself with the things you know you need to function well – adequate sleep, time outside, exercise, good food, time with loved ones, bills being paid etc. I’m not always good at fitting all that in every week, but having a bit of a structure to it really helps – for example, most Fridays I go for a lunchtime walk with a friend around the wildlife reserve at La Trobe, and I catch up with another friend every Monday for coffee. When I’m under pressure with work, it can feel impossible to carve out time for self-care – I have to remind myself that I’m much more effective when I’ve had enough sleep, and am feeling well and supported. The other thing which really belongs in that self-care category for me is creativity – whether it is doing something creative myself, or engaging with others’ creativity. I don’t do it as often as I should but an afternoon wandering around an art gallery makes me feel myself again.