Denise Kekimuri opens up on how losing her babies changed her life
Reading Denise Kekimuri Ngesa’s book, So, What Next? brings home the true meaning of author Robert Frost famous quote “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Her down to earth and easy to read book is filled with raw emotion that touched the most sensitive nerves in my being. Why do Ugandans avoid discussing the very painful issue of miscarriage and stillbirths? Why are women made to feel guilty for their losses? Is it because of the way our society views women; it is as if they are saying the mother who has lost her baby is the worst kind of failure because she cannot handle even the “simple” task given her that of reproducing. But to be realistic, there is nothing simple about conception, pregnancy and childbirth and that is what Kekimuri so painfully experienced and shares with the reader, hoping to reshape and refocus our perceptions. She compiles her journey from brokenness to healing with wisdom and compassion hoping to bring the often ignored miscarriage and neonatal mortality problem into public narrative.
I am a wife, a mother of three; one alive and two angels. I was a business development specialist (start-ups) until the loss of my daughter which changed my entire life; I now devote my time counseling and helping those going through the same predicament to help them get some closure or healing. My book started out as journal, I was going through so much torment and being a Christian woman, I kept asking God for answers because I felt only He could do that hence the title So, What Next?
The first three months following my daughter’s passing were dreadful but what made it worse is that I kept meeting so many women who confessed to have lost babies too. So I would ask them, “What happened next? What did you do to get to where you are right now?” They told me that they just moved on. I wanted so much to move on but I could not just do it, because the loss of a child leaves a huge missing piece of one’s life. I knew I would never be a fully functioning human being until I got some sort of closure or healing. I kept asking God to show me how to do it, hence the book.
The question that most people ask is the why. “Why me, why now?” Through journaling, praying and sharing my story I think I got my why clearly. Other people want instant answers; they want the pain gone now. They do not want to feel the pain, but the pain is a necessary process where you finally get to know your why.
Losing a child
No one ever heals completely from the loss of a baby; I think it is a pain you live with for the rest of your life. My father recently mentioned to me that my mother lost three babies; and I understood why she had those months when you could tell she was hurting. I have a cousin who keeps mentioning how old her baby who passed on over a decade ago would be now. My cousin is one of the brave ones; most people would rather not discuss miscarriage and infant loss because it makes them uncomfortable. The loss of a baby carries so many conflicting emotions especially for the mother. Because the birth of a child is entirely a woman’s responsibility in our culture anything that results in failure to do so causes shame, anger, guilt and insecurity among other emotions. Child loss is surrounded by stigma because some people believe there is something wrong with a woman who has had recurrent losses. Indeed, recurrent child loss is seen as a curse or punishment from God. In some cases, the loss is followed by the dissolution of the marriage as the man moves onto other women capable of bearing children. Others have to deal with societal beliefs and myths that the loss was a result of promiscuity by the woman or she is cursed.
Why are there more infant losses and miscarriages now?
But now, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, miscarriages and infant losses have become an everyday occurrence; many expectant mothers wonder whether they will be able to have a healthy baby.
A doctor friend told me one of the main reasons for this tragedy is because women are now having children later in life. The average age at which women are having their first child has been gradually increasing: now, many pregnant women are over the age of 35. Yet, pregnancy at older ages increases the risk of complications during pregnancy and labour such as miscarriage, induction of labour, and caesarean section deliveries among others. Several studies have shown that the womb may not work as well in older women. This may be because the muscle produces less energy so that contractions are less effective.
A recent study about age and reproductive health shows that:
In women of 20, around 15% pregnancies will end in miscarriage
In women of 25, around 16% pregnancies will end in miscarriage
In women of 30, around 18% pregnancies will end in miscarriage
In women of 35, around 22% pregnancies will end in miscarriage
In women of 40, around 38% pregnancies will end in miscarriage
In women of 45, around 70% pregnancies will end in miscarriage
Urgent changes needed
So, we need to tell the younger generation to try and find a balance between their careers and having children as early as possible. But we need policies that support this. According to the employee act of 2006, female employees are entitled to 60 working days (eight and a half weeks) of fully paid maternity leave. The compulsory leave is four weeks after child birth or miscarriage. This for me is a big problem. You cannot put miscarriage and childbirth in the same sentence. Maternity leave may be extended in case of sickness arising out of pregnancy or confinement, affecting either the mother or the baby, and making the mother’s return to work inadvisable, the right to return is available to the worker within eight weeks after the date of childbirth or miscarriage (thus adding four more weeks of maternity leave). We need a new amendment that takes care of families that have lost an infant; we need to give fathers more than four days to be with their families following the birth or loss of a baby. The way we teach reproductive health also needs to change because infertility is not mentioned. There is this assumption that we are all fertile but there are many people struggling with infertility. We need to avail this information to the young women so that they are able to make reproductive decisions using the right information.
Also since we are aware of the problem, we need medical facilities to be well equipped to handle it effectively. Did you know we have only three neonatal intensive care units in Uganda? Something needs to be urgently done about that. In a culture where the loss of a pregnancy is unmentionable, women and men suffer silently and have no idea where they can find relief. So when I started talking about my experiences openly, I started getting one person who referred another and then another. I realised I was spending my days counseling women about loss and relationships. So I decided to start a platform called Vessel Is Me that provides perinatal loss care as well as physical and virtual support group meetings for parents who have experienced loss. I also engage a counselor, Mrs Gorreti Bamwanga who is one of the five grief counselors in the country to help guide the grieving family professionally. For far too long there has been no support systems to assist women and families that go through these types of losses. In most instances, families rarely receive leave days to grieve. Most mothers will only talk to mothers who have gone through the same problem because they always feel as if they are being judged or the person will not understand the pain enough to give them enough information.
What can a modern mother do?
If you are 35 years and above, it means that you will have to be more careful with your pregnancy. Have as many doctors’ visits as possible because it takes just one thing and it is gone. And if it does happen, talk about it. You need to talk about it until there are no more stigmas. Everyone’s story’s different but how you react to it afterwards is you own story altogether.