Alex Lowes shares the heartbreaking story of her firstborn daughter Matilda’s stillbirth, her grief, the challenges returning to work, and how to support other parents who have lost a child.
Can you tell us about your career journey so far?
The foundation of my career was within media agencies, predominantly in digital. I have since purposefully selected roles to expand my knowledge of media and business as a whole, traversing both agency and client-side roles.
I am fortunate enough to work in one of the most exciting marketing teams in Australia at Tourism Australia. I’ve been with the company for almost three years, starting directly after my second wave of maternity leave. I am accountable for setting the vision of Tourism Australia’s global media strategy, operations and processes including managing the global agency relationship.
Now, you have a heartbreaking story that you would like to share with other parents out there. You had a gorgeous daughter, Tilly, who was born at 38 weeks and was stillborn. As a mother, I can’t think of anything worse than losing a child. What would you like to share about this very sad time?
My first pregnancy with Matilda (Tilly) was a miracle pregnancy as I had never had a cycle, and she was a much longed for baby. My pregnancy was unremarkable, I was fit and active, working full-time—life was great. With hindsight I now know that something was wrong, but at the time I was not armed with the knowledge to understand the pregnancy wasn’t progressing as it should.
At 38 and a half weeks I went for a scan. My obstetrician was away so I saw her colleague. It was during this scan they discovered no heartbeat. Later that day I was admitted to hospital and birthed my beautiful daughter. We now know there were some placental issues so growth was slowing. I wish my obstetrician had talked to me about foetal movement and tracking. If I had known what was normal there would have been an intervention.
The following weeks were torturous. I had already left work to go on maternity leave and we had set up the nursery at home, so now life felt so empty. It took me weeks to leave the house—there were prams and pregnant women everywhere. In total it took me a little over four months to return to the workforce, and I needed a lot of support.
What would you like other parents, colleagues, friends and family to know about how to support parents who have lost a child? (i.e. What are your practical tips to help others understand what to do and say if someone has a stillborn child?)
There are so many ways you can support someone who has a stillborn child:
- Acknowledge their child and say the child’s name. For me it is so important to acknowledge that I have three children.
- Check in with them. Not just a day later, a week later, but a month later and a year later.
- Feed them. When you’re lost for words, give a gift of food to show you care.
When you went back to work, what was this experience like? Was it hard to get back into work? How did you handle answering questions about your loss?
Getting back into work was incredibly hard and fraught with challenges. After a lot of advice, I set up my return slowly and to the best of my ability at the time.
I met my boss in a neutral location to talk about my return. On the morning I started I arranged for him to walk into the building with me (walking through the doors and greeting my colleagues for the first time was harder than it sounds). I asked him to let everyone know beforehand what had happened so they would understand. I also asked to work part-time as my ambition was to try and have another child.
I worked on my pitch: ‘My daughter was born still’, yet there were plenty of occasions when it all fell to pieces. On day one a colleague who didn’t get the memo couldn’t believe I was back at work so quickly and asked me ‘what I had’. This occurred many other times. Getting in the lift was particularly tough—being faced with well-meaning small talk—especially as I looked like I’d just had a baby. Unfortunately, in situations like this I would often end up comforting the person who had unintentionally upset me as I felt terrible for them that they didn’t know. That’s the way life is sometimes! Over time I learnt to say thank you for the well wishes. The pitch took a lot of practice.
I imagine that dads can sometimes be forgotten during this time as everyone tends to focus on the mother and how she is feeling. What was it like for your husband, Harry? And what advice do you have for other dads who are going through such a tragedy?
There is no doubt that this experience has brought us closer than we could have imagined. Often, husbands who watch their wife birth are overwhelmed, and given our circumstances this was obviously harder. I think Harry found it hard. He took time off work for himself and to help me work through the grief.
On returning to work, Harry had the same conversation issues with colleagues that I did. In some sense, the return to work process is harder for the father after stillbirth. Everyone expected Harry to return after a two to three week break—the norm when a man goes on parental leave. What they didn’t expect were the circumstances he was returning from.
It’s important to recognise the father is grieving and has his own process to go through. Those around him should make sure that while he supports the mother he also looks after himself and finds the time to work through his own grief. Going through this is a journey for everyone. This includes grandparents, brothers, sisters and friends.
My advice, based on our experience, is take time as a couple to process what has happened and set goals to help move forward. The best advice we received was to focus on the short term. We booked a holiday at the three month mark to celebrate making it to that point—it gave us something to focus on and look forward to. It is still one of the best holidays we’ve ever been on together.
You’ve been passionately involved in the senate inquiry to report on the future of stillbirth research and education in Australia. Sadly, employer parental leave policies are not clear about what support is offered to the parents of a stillborn child. What needs to change here?
There is currently no consistency in information or legislation for parents who have experienced a miscarriage or stillbirth, and this can prove enormously stressful to navigate. The trauma of a stillbirth is real and I do not think a parent can be expected to return to work afterwards for both physical and emotional reasons. Many companies now have fantastic parental leave policies in place, however in some cases what support a parent receives is at an employer’s discretion, when it should be legislated.
You now have two beautiful boys. Has it been hard or healing (or both) welcoming other children into your family?
After the death of Tilly, we commenced IVF treatment in the aim to get pregnant again quickly.
Managing subsequent pregnancies was very tough, especially as I was so desperate to have another girl. Having to answer questions like ‘Is this your first?’ posed by strangers on an almost daily basis, was challenging. Also, during my third pregnancy with son Hamish I was unwell and at one point we thought we could lose another baby.
The light in my life now is incredible. I am so fortunate to have two healthy, happy and loving little boys. They provide me so much joy, and this whole experience has taught me a lot about who I am, what matters to me and my values.
What more can be done to prevent stillbirth? What have you learnt that could practically help others who are pregnant?
- Count the kicks. Track your baby’s movement and understand what is normal. Movement does not slow down in late-term pregnancy.
- Ask questions. If it is your first baby, it is OK to have concerns and ask questions. I went private the first time, and public in my subsequent pregnancies. I’m an advocate of both, but suggest you choose a provider who makes you feel like any question is OK to ask.
- The Stillbirth Foundation has launched a new campaign to encourage mums to sleep on their side. Studies have shown that this helps improve blood flow to the baby.
What is one dream you have that you have yet to accomplish?
I’d love to stick the family in a campervan and go around Australia—but only when the kids are older. Right now, we’d be pulling over every 30 minutes and have to listen to ‘are we there yet?’ on repeat!