Incompatible With Life
Incompatible with Life (2020) is a photographic testimony of grief in the aftermath of a catastrophic loss. This work aims to examine grief on its own terms, not as a moment in time but rather as an ongoing process that shapes the world we live in.
On Christmas in 2007, Jane conceived her first child. In March of 2008, at her first ultrasound, she was informed the baby had anencephaly and would not survive. The doctors told her she had three days to decide, not that there was any other choice–the baby had no chance of survival regardless of how long the pregnancy lasted.
And so the procedure was scheduled for the following day. When Jane went home that night, she felt the baby move for the first time.
“I can’t measure what effect that has had on me mentally, to carry on being a human being after that. Feeling a baby move–knowing how badly I wanted to have that baby, and how happy I was to be pregnant–and knowing that within the next 24 hours to four days, that baby was going to die and that I was just going to still be a person after that.”
Documentary photography and poetry have been combined to provide a multifaceted and distilled texture of grief as experienced by my participant and collaborator, Jane H.
The following text is an excerpt from an interview with Jane on 17 September 2020. This text was not included in the physical exhibition, but is being provided here because I feel it is important for Jane’s story to be told in her own words:
When I was at about 18 weeks with the first pregnancy, I was so excited to be pregnant. Like, so, so hopeful and excited about it. And people would talk to me about it and I’d be excited and then there would be this voice in my head that would say: “You’re going to feel so bad when you have to tell people that this is not real,” and, “You’re going to feel so silly when this all falls apart.” And I couldn’t understand that feeling. At the time, it felt really awful.
This overwhelming feeling would come over me, like, “You’re going to be so embarrassed when you have to go back and tell all those people you’re not really pregnant.” Which was irrational at the time because I’d done the pregnancy tests. The doctor had confirmed I was pregnant. We just hadn’t had an ultrasound. But we had everything else confirmed that I was pregnant.
And it was so significant to me that after we had the ultrasound, and they told us that the baby was anencephalic. And we went home, and then we had to go to a different hospital the next day to get a clearer ultrasound and confirm. And then that hospital, because it was a Catholic hospital, said, “We can’t do anything for you, you have to go back to the public hospital.”
They said that when they diagnose a pregnancy as being “non-viable,” they say they’ve got about three days that they like to have as, like, a grace period to terminate the pregnancy. If that’s what the mother wants to do, they try and do it within three days because they know that, after the three-day mark, there’s significant deterioration in the mother’s mental health, carrying a baby they know they can’t keep. So that stood out to me. So I remember that we had the second scan at the Mater, then we went back to Ipswich and they said that they would book us in the following day to come in and be induced.
They said it could take anywhere from 24 hours to four days to induce the baby. So I had to pack a bag. I lay in bed that night and I had a bump already. I hadn’t been able to button up my chef jacket for weeks. So I had a significant, visible, hard belly underneath my stomach. And I lay in bed that night thinking that I was going to go into hospital the next day and it was going to all begin to finish.
I was lying there with my hand on my stomach and that was when I felt the baby quickening. That’s when I felt the baby move the first time. The quickening that they have is like fluttering, light movements that some people mistake early on. But once you’ve felt it, you know what it is. And that was — that night — that was the first time I felt true movement from the baby. And it was knowing that I was going into the hospital the next day to terminate the pregnancy.
I can’t even measure what effect that has had on me mentally to just carry on being a human being after that. Feeling a baby move, knowing how badly I wanted to have that baby, and how happy I was to be pregnant, and knowing that, within the next 24 hours to four days, that that baby was going to die and that I was just going to still be a person after that.
I don’t know if he survived the birth. I think it’s best that I don’t know. I turned my head away so that I didn’t see. I wouldn’t let [my husband] look either. When he came out, I pushed both our heads into the bed in the moment that he was born. I feel that I was really lucky that I didn’t hear any kind of cry. Sometimes there’s a reflexive cry. I feel really lucky that I didn’t hear that because I don’t think that I would want to have that in my head forever.
So then they took him away. I got cleaned up. [My husband] showered me and, when everything was finished and they did hand and foot prints and they did all of that and then they dressed him and they put him in a crib and they brought him in. So I feel lucky that there was that disconnect and that I didn’t see him like that. So I don’t know if his heart was still beating when he was born. I don’t know. It’s best that I don’t know.
We lied about it. When it happened, we lied about it. We told them it was a late miscarriage. I think there’s a lot of people that still think that’s what it was. And we just kept that as being what we told people because I was so ashamed. I felt such shame at what I felt was my incompetence in producing a viable pregnancy, in producing a healthy baby.
I felt such shame that I didn’t want anyone to know. I probably still feel, for a long time, some traces of that. There was this shame that I failed in my duty as a childbearing woman. I think there’s a lot of social pressure attached to that, which I think carried on for a really long time. The feeling of shame; not being able to just have a baby, which any knocked up 16-year-old can pop out a baby. And I couldn’t.
Looking back, I cannot believe that I willingly became pregnant again. I cannot believe I put myself, and my body, and my brain at risk two more times after that. I don’t know how I did that. I do know that after [my daughter] was born, I felt not only that our family was complete but I knew that I could not be pregnant again. I knew, deep down, that I would not survive that experience again.
And with the postnatal depression and postpartum psychosis, the severity increases with each pregnancy (which I didn’t find out until years later). They don’t tell you any of this at the time. I have found out that if you have postpartum psychosis, it will increase with every pregnancy. And I think I was lucky. And sometimes you just need to quit when you’re ahead.
I think one of the most helpful things for me was removing the shame attached to it by just finding out how common my experience was. It’s not hugely common. Like, anencephaly is not hugely common. Losing a baby at 19 weeks is not hugely common. But losing a pregnancy — losing a baby — is incredibly common and not commonly spoken about, and I think that that needs to change. I think by talking about it and being open about the experience, when someone is going through it, they’re going to feel more prepared and they’re going to feel less alone.
I felt like I had gotten to a point where I knew how much shame I had felt about it and how unjustified that was. And I had had a few people quietly, quietly say to me on the side, “I know someone who had that but we never talk about it.” Or, “I know someone who lost a baby and she never spoke of it ever again.” And I thought there are so many — so many — women that have lost a baby under terrible circumstances. Early or late, miscarriage or whatever. So many. And we just don’t talk about it. And if we did, maybe we wouldn’t feel so ashamed or alone. I felt so alone.
I found out someone that I worked with had had a similar experience when she’d had children 20 years before and that she just never spoke of it, but that it really had hurt her. And hearing about it happening to me had brought up a lot of stuff for her. And I just thought, “Why don’t we ever talk about this? Why do we just live with this and let it make us feel so worthless and alone?” So I thought, “Well, I’m a fucking loudmouth. So I will just talk about myself, which is my favourite thing, and start being honest with what happened and talk about it and try and be a little bit open so that some other woman that has had this happen can not feel so fucking awful and alone like I did.”
As much as [my husband] was with me and supportive through the experience, it was my body and my brain that physically went through this. And I don’t think I could ever explain, or even really re-live some of that, and recount it in a way that someone else could ever understand. The physical sensations of having the birth induced and giving birth to a very small baby and being able to feel, physically, pushing that baby out when that baby is so small. Like, it’s not something that I feel like I could ever give that knowledge to someone else or expect someone else to understand it, really, unless they’ve been through something similar.
It’s good that this is kind of a testimony to that event that’s going to exist long after I’m gone. I think that’s a good thing.
Photos by Cathy Ross. Poetry by Jane Hightower. This work has been completed in partial fulfillment of Cathy’s Bachelor of Photography (Honours) work at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University.
For confidential support, please see the following list of services available in Queensland:
Lifeline: Crisis support. 24/7 helpline: 13 11 14. Webchat available 24/7: www.lifeline.org.au
The Compassionate Friends: Support for families who have experienced the death of a family member. 24/7 helpline: 1300 064 068. www.compassionatefriendsqld.org.au.
Sands: Support after miscarriage, stillbirth, and newborn death. 24/7 support line: 1300 072 637. www.sands.org.au.
GriefLine: Helpline 12pm-3am, 7 days a week: 1300 845 745. Drop-in 9am — 3pm: 505 Bowen Terrace, New Farm, QLD, 4005. griefline.org.au.