Being a Father With an Asterisk
By: Christopher C. Natsch
I’m a father who lost his son.
That statement should stand on its own. But, for me and for many other dads that I’ve talked with, it’s just not that simple. As a father who suffered a loss due to stillbirth, there was a time that I felt as if that statement was marked with an asterisk.
When my wife and I lost our son, Colton, we were completely blindsided. We were 36 weeks into the pregnancy and just two days earlier we were in the OB’s office for a routine exam.We saw our son’s heart beating strong, his measurements checked out, and we left knowing the next time we saw the doctor would be at delivery.
We had no idea what was in store for us just a couple of days ahead. It was Christmas day 2010, and we were doing all of the normal holiday family gatherings when my wife began to feel sick and spiked a fever. We went to the ER and upon examining my wife, the doctor informed us that he could not find a heartbeat.
The ultrasound confirmed. Our son had died.
In the passing days and weeks, I can honestly say that the pain and anger, which seemed to come in waves, were like nothing I had ever felt in my life. We were left with so many questions.
What had gone wrong?
Why didn’t the doctors see this coming?
Was there anything we could have done?
Most of the questions revolved around the loss. I wanted answers. I was angry when the answers were vague or didn’t seem to make sense. I wanted more than we were given, and I wanted to hold someone accountable.
But, there was one question that truly haunted me. It wasn’t one that was going to be answered by the doctors. There was no one that I could hold accountable. It was personal, and it shook me to my core. It was the asterisk of my fatherhood.
Was I really even a father?
My wife was definitely a mother. She carried Colton for over 36 weeks. She got to know him intimately. She felt him breathing, moving, hiccupping. She spent every day with him. She cared for him. She gave birth to him. She was and will always be his mother.
But me, I felt like a bystander. I watched from the outside. Sure I felt some kicks from atop my wife’s belly. But when it came time for me to be a dad, there wasn’t a son for me to father. He couldn’t hear my fatherly words of wisdom. I couldn’t teach him to hit a ball or throw a punch. I couldn’t help mold him into a man. I couldn’t even change a dirty diaper.
When Father’s Day rolled around after losing Colton, I wasn’t sure how to react.
Family and friends made a point to include me with obligatory “Happy Father’s Day” messages. I know they were much more heartfelt than I gave them credit for at the time, but in the moment, it felt insincere. I felt cheated.
I carried that chip on my shoulder for the next year. Even during our subsequent pregnancy, I wasn’t willing to hear any talk of me being a father. Not until I got to be a father to my child.
But after our second son, Reid, was born, there was another question that made me circle back to the first.
The question came and I wasn’t prepared. It came from strangers, at social events, at work, or having beers with the guys. It came right after bragging about what my son did that day or sharing photos of him on my phone.
“So how many children do you have?”
I would freeze. I’d have to stop and assess the situation. I had to decide if I was strong enough to answer. I also had to decide if I really wanted to make that person regret asking or possibly shut down a happy hour with my response.
If it was the checker at a grocery store just trying to make small talk, I’d give them a pass.
“Just the one,” I’d say.
If we were at a social event, I’d have to scan the room and see if anyone that knew our story was listening. I didn’t want to feel like I was denying the son we had lost. But was this really the time and place to get into it?
Avoiding the tough answer was simply a defense mechanism that initially kept me safe. As time passed, the easy answer started to bother me, though. I felt horrible if I didn’t acknowledge our first born son.
I could no longer dismiss Colton’s name.
I realize now that I was the one placing the asterisk at the end of the statement. I was in fact Colton’s father all along. I’m as proud to be his dad as I am to be dad to our two living children, Reid and Lyla, today.
So beware my response if you happen to ask how many children I have. It won’t matter if we are at a dinner party, work function, or drinking beers with the guys. If you ask, I’m going to tell you about all three of my children. If you are the checker at the grocery store, I may still give you a pass. My answer may seem cryptic to you, but it is my way of answering and not dismissing Colton’s legacy.
It took a long time, but I have removed the asterisk that haunted my early fatherhood. I am now comfortable telling you I’m a father who lost his son.
My hope is that all fathers who have lost a child to stillbirth or other forms of pregnancy loss, can feel comfortable and confident talking about the children they never got to meet. Being a father shouldn’t carry an asterisk.
I want to wish all the dads out there a Happy Father’s Day.
Thank you, thank you for this article from a father’s perspective! My husband and I lost our twin sons, Owen and Lani at 20.5 weeks. I will be sharing your article with my husband.