Updated: Jun 24, 2020
It was Fathers Mental Health Day yesterday, and after Hannah posted something about me on Father’s Day – I thought it may be appropriate for me to have a discussion about my mental health as a father, the difficulties we as Dads come up against, stigma, and society.
It’s fair to say I’m well versed in mental health challenges now. I’m 36, I’ve got a 6-year-old daughter, we lost our 2nd child at 11 weeks and 6 days, we had twins at 30 weeks and lost our little bird at 4 and half months old.
Let’s rewind to a time before I was a Dad, way back in the early 2000s. I was a young lad, massive circle of friends. I DJ’d quite a lot back then and would find myself in different parts of the country most weekends. If I wasn’t DJing, I was at a different event with my mates. I was, as some might say, carefree. Not a massive amount of responsibility, just coasted through life day-by-day.
In 2012, I married Hannah – the day was amazing. Best day of my life… so far. After a few months of being newly weds we decided to try for a baby. I seem to remember it all happening pretty quickly too, without any issues. In October 2013, Evelyn entered our lives. At this moment, my life, my outlook, everything about me changed. I grew up, fast! Everything I did was to ensure Evelyn was always healthy and safe, I was her protector. Never once in the months after Evelyn was born, did anyone ask if I was ok. But to be honest, I think I was fine.
After a couple of years of learning how to be parents, we decided we wanted to grow our family a little more. So we tried for another baby… and it happened pretty quick again. The 12 week scan was booked in on a Friday, it was 3 days after Evelyn would turn 3. On the eve of Evelyn’s birthday, we positioned the cards and presents downstairs ready for the early wake-up call. As we were both settling down for the night in bed, I remember Hannah saying she was in agony. Sat on the edge of our bed leant over holding her tummy. I knew something was wrong, really wrong. I phoned my sister, I think it was about 2am? I rushed over to her house in the car to get her, and brought her over to our house. I took Hannah to A&E, where they left Hannah, in agony, bleeding for hours. Literally HOURS. No one would say what was happening, but we both knew, this was a miscarriage. We were in the process of losing our baby. We eventually went up to the gynaecology unit, and it was said it was likely a miscarriage, but because there hadn’t been a scan yet they couldn’t say if she was even pregnant. I mean, what-the-f*ck?!
So after sitting in the hospital, knowing (but not confirmed remember) Hannah had suffered a miscarriage and baby number 2 was no more, we headed home… for Evelyn’s birthday. We were devastated, but had to pretend everything was absolutely normal. It killed me. Hannah had some checks done not long after the miscarriage, but I never had any contact from a GP or health professional about how I may be feeling. Totally crushed. But, as is the stigma, I put on a brave face, pretended everything was ok – bottled my feelings up.
Christmas that year we wanted to give it another try, let’s see if we can grow our family. So in the New Year we gave it ago and Hannah fell pregnant very quickly. All the way through those first few weeks, both anxiously waiting for something to go wrong again – but it didn’t, yet. We went to the first scan together and sat waiting to hear the bad news… but instead of there being bad news, we were met with a room of stunned silence. As were both watching the screen as the sonographer scanned Hannah, I thought I saw 2 babies. I think my heart literally skipped, my mouth was stuck in the open position and the sonographer went back to the spot where…YES! THERE WERE TWO BLOOMIN’ BABIES INSIDE HANNAH! We left the room and sat in the waiting area, world was spinning very fast, couldn’t think straight. We were having twins, it was an insane feeling of emotions.
After a few weeks, I’d got my head around to having twins. The next thought to cross my mind was, “Shit, what if it’s twin girls?! 3 daughters?! Good lord”. We got the scan where it was confirmed, we were having identical twin girls. HOLY SHIT!
As the pregnancy went on, complications started coming our way. We decided on names for the girls fairly quickly. Pippa & Penelope is what they’d be called. At this time, the hospital knew them as Twin 1 and Twin 2. Twin 1 we decided would be Pippa, and Penelope was Twin 2. We were told quite early on that Pippa was showing some abnormalities and her growth was slipping behind Penelope’s. I remember going to one scan, and there being real concern that Pippa might not make it – and if she did die, it could pose risk to Penelope – so there was a discussion to possibly terminate Pippa, to save Penelope. In the end, it was deemed too risky as the pregnancy was too far gone. I can remember saying to Hannah how could we possibly have to make a decision like that?!
The next few weeks and months flew by, busy prepping for the house to be taken over by an army of small girls. But also more and more scans, more concern for the twins, and more so for Pippa. It was decided that if they both reached a “viable” weight of 500g each they would look to deliver. Let me just say, to any healthcare professional reading this, “viable” is not REALLY the sort of language that should be used to describe a baby to a parent in my opinion. I know the definition of the word is correct, but we’re talking about someone’s child here. Anyway, we carried on, Hannah kept laying on the bed and getting scanned. Some days the blood flow to Pippa was positive, sometimes intermittent/absent, and other times it was in reverse. It was the latter that was worrying, however it wasn’t consistently in reverse. Over the course of the 30 weeks of being pregnant, Hannah was scanned 33 times. 14 of which were in the final 14 days of her pregnancy. The twins were both over their “viable” weight so both were considered well enough to come in to the world, but the obstetrician wanted to keep them in as long as possible, to give them an even better chance – this was going to be determined by the blood flow. After a lot of going back and forth, we hit 30 weeks. It was time to deliver. Leeds didn’t have space for twins to be delivered at that time, so a call was made to Sheffield – they had space, and our girls would be delivered the day after.
The day the girls came was just a rollercoaster of emotion. I was worried, scared, happiest man in the world, relieved, I could keep going… Seeing the girls in their flesh was surreal. They didn’t look like normal babies. They weren’t full developed; how could they be so early? They were so small, there were so many people around working on them, fighting to get their little bodies going. I was whisked down to the neonatal unit where the team were practically running with the two trolleys for the girls. There were so many tubes, machines, alarms beeping, doors flying open. It was TERRIFYING! We got to the NICU, they were put into their individual incubators, and settled in. We’d spend 4 weeks in Sheffield, experiencing highs, and real lows.
We were taught a lot about our tiny babies, how to care for them and how to protect them by the team in Sheffield. I remember one particular nurse who was called Anne – she was amazing. Very firm in her instructions, but was very clear about what we had to do. During my time off, I experienced some real difficulties with my employer – who were heaping on pressure on me to return to work, while the girls were still in intensive care. I think we hear far too often about the pressure for Dads to have to get back to work – it’s our financial life-line, we must keep our jobs to protect our family! But it’s an impossible situation, choosing between leaving my family in hospital, my girls depending on machines to keep them alive, and going to work. But, I had to do it – I returned to work after 3 weeks, which was 2 weeks of paternity and 1 week of annual leave. My annual leave was already pre-agreed – but upon my return, the goalposts were moved and I was classed as AWOL for that week, and I received disciplinary action for it. I couldn’t believe it! During my week back at work, the girls were to be transferred to Leeds. Penelope had made the trip already, and Pippa was due to go the day after. Unfortunately, Pippa took a massive downturn. Hannah had called me in hysterics, so I had to leave work again and rush to Sheffield. Hannah told me that Pip had turned blue. I can remember shaking all the way to Sheffield – not knowing if Pippa was going to be alive by the time I got there. Fortunately, the team settled her down – but she needed an emergency blood transfusion. I sent Hannah home that night for a good nights sleep, so I stayed beside Pippa. I went back to work the day after, which was also going to be the day Pippa was transferred. I got another phone call from my Area Manager who was not happy with me for leaving work without asking him first. I’m sorry, but piss off. Have a bit of decency, and respect for your employees and what they’re going through. The worst thing was, he was also the father of a newborn – just put yourself in my shoes you dickhead.
As I finished work that day, Pippa was being ready for her transfer – so I went to be with Penelope and wait for Pippa to arrive. In that time of sitting there, with Penelope in my arms, I decided enough was enough. I had to change my job. I had no support for my employers, I couldn’t put myself under any further stress from them. But you know, looking back, maybe I should have just stuck it out and waited for our personal circumstances to be a better balance. With no one to really talk to, I just went with my instinct. Luckily I went in to another job straight away.
After 4 weeks in Leeds’ St James’ Hospital, it was time for our girls to come home. All of our worries had gone, we were home as a family of 5 for the first time. On October 19th, after just 8 days at home, which happened to be Evelyn’s 4th birthday, and exactly 12 months to the day since our miscarriage – Pippa turned very poorly, very quickly. Her journey about what happened next can be read in full here (Pippa's Journey).
We spent a further 10 weeks in hospital with Pippa. Again, we me having to work 40+ hours a week – as well as taking care of Evelyn, with school and driving her to different people so she could be looked after, and spending the rest of my time at the hospital. I don’t think I ate properly for months – everything was on the go, or in a microwave. I can remember a day or two after Pippa was readmitted to hospital, I was sat alone in the parents room, I felt so lost and confused about everything was happening. I remember sitting there having a cup of tea, whilst eating a slice of Evelyn’s birthday cake – missing her dearly, wondering how she must be feeling. I wanted to be able to be there for everyone, Hannah, Penelope, Pippa, but also Evelyn – who we could barely see because of how poorly Pippa was.
The team at Leeds General Infirmary’s NICU were superb. Very honest, and sensitive about Pippa. They explained to us clearly about what was happening. I can’t remember an occasion where anyone saw me and asked how I was though, which you know, looking back now knowing what I know, is wrong. It’s not intentional – it’s just another bit where fathers get overlooked. We come and go because we have to work, but it feels like sometimes there isn’t a thought for what might be going on outside of the NICU too, piling on top of what’s happening with our babies.
Late in November, Hannah’s uncle Tony passed away after a heroic fight with cancer. It hit Hannah hard, and it was another load to deal with on top of Pippa. It was then when a consultant for Pippa that week asked if Hannah would like to speak to the ward councillor. It was good that she’d recognised that the pressure was becoming too much, and then eventually, it was offered to me too.
After 9 weeks on the NICU, Pippa was moved to the Childrens Liver Ward – where everything changed, and the councillor wasn’t anywhere, we weren’t followed up. Some people may say, well why didn’t you ask? It wasn’t something that was at the forefront of my mind, and I’m speaking for Hannah here but I’m sure it wasn’t on her mind either – but it would have been helpful. On December 28th, Hannah and I arrived to be with Pippa for the day. We could see from the second we arrived she wasn’t well and over the course of the next few hours, Pippa was deteriorating rapidly. She needed more support, and then even more support, until the moment that would change our lives forever, and undid all the amazing work that had been done for Pippa. Her consultant for that week came in to the room. There must have been about 10-12 people in the room, mostly working on Pippa to help her breathe, keep her calm etc. The atmosphere in the room at that time is probably best described as frantic. I hope you can imagine this room – it had a cot, a chair, a sink, a stand beside the cot with medication and breathing support, and a small toilet room the corner. Having 12 adults in that room was cramped. I was stood on the far side of the room looking over the shoulders of 2 nurses stood helping Pippa. Hannah was stood changing Penelope after she’d filled a nappy. Voices were raised as everyone was communicating with each about Pippa, Penelope was screaming. The consultant walked over the Hannah, had his back to me, and leant over her shoulder and said “Mum, she’s not going to survive, her treatment is not working”. No warning, no “Can we have a quiet word?”, I heard NOTHING. Totally excluded from that moment. I just heard Hannah turn in hysterics asking “WHAT?!”. I knew something bad was happening, and then I heard it again. She’s not going to survive. How on Earth is it possible to overlook DAD at that point? It really upsets me, and makes me a little angry that this happened in the way it did.
Our world imploded in an instant. Our little lady was going to die. You often hear people say the phrase, “it broke my heart”, well I can tell you this, my heart was truly broken. It’s still broken to this day. I then had to do the unthinkable and phone our family. I had to tell them they needed to come straight away to say goodbye. I also had to phone my dad on the other side of the world to tell him he’d never get to meet her. We spent another 48 hours with her at the hospital, knowing her time was coming to an end. There was never an occasion where we were approached, offered, or signposted to any support that we may need. No crisis lines, no charity helplines, nothing. Looking back on that now, and knowing what help is available, it’s really sad that hospitals aren’t offering or signposting to get help. Some hospitals may, but we didn’t get any – and at that time, it would have helped, massively.
Pippa was transferred to Martin House Children’s Hospice, where she died peacefully in our arms, surrounded by her closest family, including her two sisters. I have often said, it sounds odd to describe that moment as beautiful, but it was. It was the most awful experience a human could go through, but to have our family there with us, and most importantly, there for Pippa, that meant the world to me. The hospice were fantastic for us, giving us support, guidance, but not only us, Evelyn too. Without their help, and the help of our bereavement councillor Jo, I worry where we’d be right now. Since we left the Children’s Liver Ward to go to Martin House, the only contact we’ve ever had from the hospital was for Penelope and her check-ups. No one from the NHS, be it a GP, consultant, or any healthcare professional has spoken to me about how I am feeling, or if I’m ok, if I need any support. Nothing. Just left to get on with it. It almost felt like it was known that the way in which the consultant soured the moment, it was like treading on eggshells, and if anyone did speak to us it could open a can of worms… so we’ll just leave it as it is. The only contact I ever got, was a random phone call a few months later, from a nurse on the liver ward – who was in the room at the time, who recognised that what happened wasn’t right, and he wanted to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. In the end, nothing really came of that – we didn’t really make any progress with it.
In the weeks after Pippa had died, I felt myself sinking into a deep hole. No way out, just clawing at the sides of it, but sinking further. I needed help, I recognised I needed help. So I went to see my GP. I was told that if I want to be referred to see someone about my mental health, I would have to go on to a waiting list which could take 6-8 weeks. Man, I needed help NOW. I never got that appointment. Never saw anyone. Never got a follow up phone call from my GP. Just left to get on with it again. I had this horrible feeling every day that I had failed as a father. I failed to protect Pippa. What could I have done differently? And, still now, I wish I could have traded places with her.
After just skimming through Facebook, as you do, I came across a post a charity had shared that wanted some parent voices to help with something they called the National Bereavement Care Pathway (NBCP). The NBCP has been put in place to improve bereavement care for parents after the loss of a baby. It was exactly what I needed to get involved in. If I wasn’t going to get the help I was asking for, I’d use my own voice to A. share Pippa’s story and our experiences to help healthcare professionals learn from it, and B. get my thoughts out of my head and share how I’m feeling with other people – to relieve my stress. Win win.
I’ve spoken at numerous workshops and events for the NBCP, talking to many healthcare professionals about Pippa, and my experiences as a father. And over the last 2 years of being on the parent advisory group, I’ve seen so many amazing things happens already in NHS Trusts around England that are helping deliver a better and more consistent level of care to parents after the loss of a baby. Sadly though, there still seems to be so much red-tape and lack of funding for some hospitals, making it more difficult than others to make as much progress.
It’s clear that men are over-looked in every aspect of having a baby. I’ve lost 2 babies, I’ve had terrible employers, and I’ve had no support whatsoever from our healthcare service to support my mental health. I’ve got to this point from the support we received from Martin House in the early weeks and months, and largely now from my family and through speaking out.
Dads have to sacrifice a lot too. We must get support, during, and after the birth of our babies. And most definitely if we lose a baby. There’s so much out there that can be accessed by Dads, but it’s not shown to Dads. Dads don’t know that they might be struggling, until it’s too late. Work pressure, being a new Dad, it’s a LOT to deal with it.
I do look back on our time in hospital, and my time as a Dad – I’ve been through quite a lot, but I’m here – I’m lucky. I appreciate what I have, but I also miss very dearly what I don’t have. This time last year, I was in a good place, my mental health was in a good place, things were going well. It all went wrong when COVID took over the world. I, like millions of others, locked down at home for over 3 months. Hannah has continued to work full time through lockdown, so I’ve had to take on the children full time, while being furloughed. My experience of lockdown has been tough. I’ve struggled at times to really control my emotion. Being couped up with the girls, not being able to go anywhere, it’s taken it’s toll. I’ve been Dad, teacher, referee, head chef, and cleaner, full time for 3 months. I work in hospitality so I’ve worried a lot of my job and industry. We exchanged contracts on a new house just before lockdown, so I’ve worried immensely about that too. If I lost my job, we won’t get the house – where will we live?!
The pressure on Dad’s will continue, the pressure on me will continue. I’ve learnt how to deal with it better, but I’m not perfect, I’m far from perfect to be honest. But I give it my all and do my best every day. That’s all we can do right? I just wish there was more emphasis put on Dads, support was easier to access, and faster to access.
If anyone is struggling or needs someone to talk to – I’m not councillor, but I can offer some peer support. If you need professional support, I’ve listed some charities and helplines below who can hopefully help.
Mental Health support for Dads needs improving and unfortunately it’s not going to happen overnight. Luckily, it’s getting a light shone on it more often now and having people like Prince William get behind it is extremely encouraging.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.
https://www.samaritans.org – 116 123