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Wednesday 29 January 2014


The following was written during my time working with Sands Australia. It was published yesterday in The Adelaide Advertiser.

FOR nine months I let a seed of doubt fester into believing I would never get to hold my child. It overwhelmed the confidence I wanted, so I felt guilty. The end result was that I barely let myself get excited about the prospect of becoming a father; that was until my son was born healthy last year.

I suppose a small amount of concern for the wellbeing of my then-developing son was understandable and expected. Shortly after conception, most soon-to-be first-time fathers make a noticeable shift into protective parent mode.

I was no different, but what I couldn't escape were the all-too-present recollections of grief and lost opportunity my partner and I endured early in 2012. Twice, two months apart - both miscarriages and both devastating.

In Australia every year about one in five pregnancies end in miscarriage and about 2000 babies are stillborn or die shortly after birth. In the majority of these cases, the causes are never known - there are 10 times more unexplained stillbirths than there are cot deaths.

In many cases bereaved parents spend the rest of their lives wondering what went wrong.

Despite these seemingly high rates, pregnancy loss is such a taboo topic in society that many people are left to grieve alone. This is especially true for fathers.

Before the first miscarriage, my partner and I had tried to fall pregnant for three months. Our doctor shared with us all the dos and don'ts of getting pregnant. We cut the don'ts out of our diet and did all the dos like our lives depended on them.

We were so diligent we conceived rather quickly. A missed period tipped us off, and the required three-stick test confirmed it. I was on a high for days. I let myself celebrate by buying parenting and names books. Our families learnt the news, and I couldn't help let it slip to my close friends.

Biologically, I had fathered a foetus. But, significantly, in mind and emotion, I was a parent. I imagined our child growing up well-educated and part of a loving family. More than a fortnight later, I hated myself for getting excited and carried away. The joy turned sour when scans revealed that at eight weeks, our baby had died. It happened again in August of 2012.

Fortunately, I don't shy away from sharing feelings - no matter how vulnerable they make me - so I sought support from those close to me.

I grieved openly. Like most men would, I felt a practical need to take some of my partner's grief away, though I knew I couldn't, and processed the news pragmatically. Importantly, though, I acknowledged the pain I felt, and shared it my own way.

To get through a crisis, men traditionally forego tears with a stiff upper lip. Bereaved fathers too often turn to rigorous exercise or a vice for emotional support. They opt to muscle-up, drink up or bottle-up their emotions, rather than speak up and reach out for help.

There seems to be a conspiracy of silence surrounding miscarriage which needs to be broken, especially given how many people it affects.

If miscarriage and pregnancy loss were discussed more widely and openly, bereaved fathers may feel more comfortable talking about it and looking for support to manage the grief. It's not unmanly to need help and find it. In fact, it's the opposite.

Dan MacDonald is employed by Sands, which provides peer support to parents whose babies have died.

If you've been directly affected by the death of a baby, contact Sands on 1300 0 SANDS (1300 0 72637) or click here.

Tuesday 21 January 2014


A week into the job, and I sense men have a long way to go to prove our abilities as full-time parents. When one’s local maternal health nurse is skeptical of the man’s ability to take on the role as primary carer on the home front, one suspects the road ahead is bumpy.

Our maternal health nurse seems old school. It’s rumoured she crafted her firm hand for childrearing while tending to the five babes of Tsar Nicholas II. No love is more compassionate than tough love, it would read in Cyrillic above her health centre desk had her Russian experience been true. Her advice to my wife was once: “if he keeps crying and doesn’t sleep during the day, just leave him in his cot and go for a walk around the block”.

The concept of the stay-at-home dad seems taboo to her. At Freddy’s six-month check-up my wife gave her the exciting news that she was returning to work earlier than anticipated, as a position had opened up for her that she didn’t want to pass on. She confessed it would be difficult emotionally to leave her young boy at home, but she was content with her decision, for I had decided to take a year away from “the office” and would be staying at home.

“I don’t mean to burst your bubble,” the nurse said. “But men aren’t great at staying at home with the babies. They tend to want to watch television all day. They generally realise after two weeks that they would prefer to be going to work each day.

... Freddy and blogger learning
about "safety".  
“And does he know about safety?”

Last week, week one, I ventured into the health centre to meet our maternal health nurse. Sure enough, I was quizzed with skepticism. A patronising “I see,” was how she accepted my answers about Freddy’s sleeping routine, diet, teething and general behaviour.

I tried to confidently allay her fears that, after the consultation, I wouldn’t return home to watch the Australian Open tennis broadcast all day (although, in a week of 40-degree heat, and being confined to the air-conditioned living room, I admit, the TV was on for part of the day). I’m not sure it worked. As I packed the nappy bag to walk out of the clinic she said: “You DO know about safety, don’t you?”

I see her role to be alert for changes in domestic environments and an increase of risks to the child, but encouraging of co-parenting and the sharing of all child-raising responsibilities. Of all the people in the community I would have thought positions like hers would be the least disapproving of dads who want to or are able to be stay-at-home dads. I accept that this is not the norm, but the norm it can become if medical professionals like maternal health nurses promote and encourage more fathers to spend time as the primary carer.

Has anyone else experienced something similar?

Thursday 16 January 2014


Having a virus swimming around your meninges (brain fluid) should be a good enough excuse to let one’s blogging fall by the wayside. But add to that my first son’s first Christmas and I think I’ve had some pretty honest reasons not to update The Dad Department.

Seriously, I apologise, although I doubt anyone’s had a boring enough time over Christmas to really notice (no insult to others intended).

I know I promised a Part II of “Freddy Does Asia”, but aside from contracting the dreaded virus, it was much of the same: deluded into thinking we’d relax by the pool, while Freddy would sleep like a dream inside.

Thailand, the land of gold knick-knack elephants, Singha beer, pad kee mao and smiling locals. Khao Lak, a seaside resort region north of Phuket, was a destination paradise. But we were running after a rapidly developing child; it was like parenting by time-lapse machine. Oh, and I got meningitis.

So, to make it up to you, from now, I’ll try and post daily weekly. I’ve had a career change and am now a stay-at-home dad ... temporarily, I’m told. Anyway, I began a year off with my son yesterday, and so I should have plenty of time to write. *experienced stay-at-home parents scoff at last sentence with rejection.

Tuesday 10 December 2013


I was in a bad way and my six-month-old son knew it. I wasn’t dismissive or angry, just distracted. He could sense the pain in the illness. He was sympathetic. He wore compassion in his eyes, and empathy on his shoulders. He stared at me from the bedroom doorway, perched on his mother’s hip, knowing something was wrong. He searched Anna for an explanation, tightly gripping her blouse.

“Daddy’s sick,” she assured him, upon which he returned his gaze to me lying in agony and in cold sweats on the bed.

The natural light was blinding and every blink sent shockwaves through my head. Standing up, I felt like I was carrying a heavy block of rough granite on my shoulders. Lying down, it was as though I had no skull – I had never noticed how hard and sharp the feathers of a pillow could be.

I have viral meningitis. It began with a terrible migraine-type headache and stiff neck and shoulders. Now, I feel like I’m living underwater. Sounds are muffled and my brain feels like it’s trying to expand. But I am more upbeat, and so is Freddy.

While Anna’s noticed Freddy’s mood reflect her health before, I hadn’t been as aware. Now I am under no doubt he has been born with an innate ability to empathise. The day I went into hospital he was forlorn. He wanted to be excitable, but cautiously denied himself the pleasure. He lacked his usual gusto, with which he’d normally play with his toys, and wouldn’t kick aimlessly any more (a sure sign of his happiness and playfulness).

It was during my lumbar puncture when I best sensed his awareness of the situation and his ability for compassion.

I sat on the side of the bed in the emergency department of a local hospital, the surgeon operating on my lower back behind me, and Freddy facing me as he straddled Anna’s legs. As the doctor drilled a needle into my spine, bumping some nerves on his way through that made my legs jolt, I grimaced and looked down to my boy. His eyes were locked onto mine. They didn’t waver. I think he sensed I was nervous and he was right.

The following day, as I recovered on the ward, I was in better spirits. My head felt lighter, my shoulders and neck looser and my hunger was back. My mood was uplifted, despite my playfulness still being at large. Freddy was happy, smiling and laughing; I hadn’t heard his laugh for a few days. His mood had shifted. He was less clingy and more exuberant. He may not have known my pain, but he knew I was suffering. And he was concerned about that. We’re all born with that ability.