We were supposed to have a baby on Monday. We didn't, and won't.
We found out we were expecting last year. Late November, I think. My partner had terrible pregnancy sickness, which meant that, once Christmas rolled around, there was little to no chance of keeping it a secret from family.
It would have been either extremely obvious to those who joined the dots – "oh, she's been bed-bound by nausea every day this week, yet you're completely confident it's not infectious? Sure." – or, I suppose, rather alarming to the less switched-on relatives. So we told told them all. We were having a baby, the due date was early August, yes we'd thought about names, no we weren't going to tell them.
We had our booking appointment on New Year's Eve. It's always an odd experience for the father, I think. There's not really much reason for you to be there beyond providing moral support, and it introduces the rigamarole of the midwife having to contrive a reason to separate the two of you to quietly ask the safeguarding questions ("Is everything alright at home?"). But it was still exciting.
That day I also started this newsletter. The two weren't unrelated. I wanted a private space to write about fatherhood, without the public lens my job would have required. I even dropped a little hint in the first issue, though most people guessed I was writing a book instead.
Our next appointment changed things. The twelve-week scan is the first time the ultrasound machine is broken out, and it was clear very quickly that something was wrong.
My partner couldn't see the screen at the beginning, but I could. There was our foetus, but behind it was a large black void. I didn't know what I was looking at, but a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach told me it wasn't good.
The ultrasound operator went quiet, and briefly murmured an instruction to his assistant (not to show my partner the screen) before leaving to consult with a colleague. When he came back, he told us it would be best to wait for a consultant to become available, but not before attempting to explain what the fear was.
He was, it turned out, wrong. One of the things the ultrasound operator normally does at that appointment is measure a particular fold of skin at the back of the foetus' neck; if it's especially thick, it's an indicator for Down's syndrome. He had included the black void in the measurement, resulting in a thickness many times the threshold.
The wait for the consultant was agonising, but also the start of the many wonders the NHS pulled. We had no appointment, no warning, but still got to meet two consultants and a registrar within a few hours.
In fact, the problem had nothing to do with Down's, the consultant explained. What we were seeing was a sac of cerebrospinal fluid that had leaked out of the skull through a hole where the bones had failed to fuse properly.
The condition, an encephalocele, is bad. Chances of a live birth are low. Chances of surviving childhood are low. Chances of an independent life are low.
We waited two weeks before making the hardest decision of our lives.
I think it was after that follow-up appointment, when we confirmed that we weren't taking the pregnancy forward, that I cried for the first time. I'd managed to avoid it by simply being unable to say, or think, the words that eventually set me off: "I really wanted to be a dad".
Something we didn’t know, because no-one talks about this stuff, is that past about 12 weeks, the NHS no longer offers a surgical abortion. It’s possible to get one, if you go private, but it’s not recommended for health reasons. That means that the procedure isn’t “get knocked out, and wake up no longer pregnant”. It’s “take a pill, wait two days, then take a set of pills that induce labour”. And it’s real labour. It’s over faster, at least, and you can be on morphine for it, but.
The appointment was hard. How hard is mostly not my story to tell. I was just an observer for the worst parts. She had the contractions, the bleeding. I only had staying up overnight, sat in the hospital room, semi-obsessively arranging my Pokémon in the right order in their boxes and racking up my high score, still not beaten, on Slay the Spire. I've not really touched either of those games since then. They're memories of a particular time and place that I don't really want to recall all that deeply.
It was the only real time the NHS dropped the ball, too. The transfer of responsibility from the maternity ward to the emergency gynae unit was smooth, and the new consultant as caring and kind as the others. But a second transfer, from the EGU to the ward itself, was less so, and left us frustrated to the point of tears trying to find out when to actually come in to the hospital. In the end, we realised that a termination is just voluntary enough, and just delayable enough, that our bed was constantly being reassigned. It took calling the EGU again before we were told to show up for the final stage, on Valentine's Day.
In hindsight, we had been cavalier with breaking our good news, which meant we had a lot of people to tell the bad news.
The conventional wisdom is that this is why you shouldn't tell people you're having a child before the twelve week scan. That's the scan where bad news comes, after all. Better to suffer in silence than have your pain in public view.
The conventional wisdom is bullshit. There is a secret club of people, all of whom have experienced this sort of pain, none of whom feel free to talk about it publicly, and all of whom are there to provide support and guidance, if only they know about your circumstances in order to do so.
I have lost count of how many people, on hearing our experience, have come out with a similar story themselves. I'm thankful to every one of them.
With their help, the past six months have been bearable. We took compassionate leave from work, each of our employers being kind enough to let us treat it as the bereavement it was, and spent two days in Paris once my partner had healed enough to travel.
Then she went back to work for precisely two days before the office closed.
I've heard "fuck 2020" a lot this year, but let me say: as someone for whom 2020 was already the worst year of their life by the end of February, seriously. Fuck this year.