22 August 2021

Rethinking the Rainbow Baby

Dr Kirsty Liddiard, Senior Research Fellow, The School of Education
*This post discusses baby and pregnancy loss*

ihuman rainbow

Sunday 22nd August 2021 was National Rainbow Baby Day. A rainbow baby, as currently constructed, is a baby that comes after miscarriage, pregnancy loss and stillbirth (Tommy’s, 2021). It’s the birth of a live baby after the death, or deaths, of others that came before. The rainbow baby is the marker of surviving the storm, or so the analogy goes. 

It’s really important to state here that my intention in this short post is in no way meant to denigrate National Rainbow Baby Day, nor those who see it - quite rightfully - as their day. A day to celebrate; not only the beautiful baby in their arms, but the memories of those who never made it there. As such I’m posting and sharing this after the day itself out of respect for those who experience it as a day of joy and hope.

National Rainbow Baby Day is undoubtedly a day of celebration for families that have suffered unimaginable losses. Reproductive loss, of any kind, is agony. It’s more than a storm; it’s an utterly life-changing experience and ‘identity-defining event’ (Hardy and Kukla 2015: 107) that can be desperately hard to come back from (see Gough 2020). I’ve been there, three times, in hospitals, with babies that never made it home, nor ever into my aching arms (Liddiard 2018). So, I only have admiration for those who render it important to them in the context of a difficult, painful and often very lonely journey. 

However, I do want to ask some critical questions. I think it’s important that, as an inclusive baby and pregnancy loss community, we take time to rethink, or consider the term ‘rainbow baby’. Research shows that online communities are deeply powerful spaces of support, solace and safety for people who have experienced reproductive loss (Hardy and Kukla, 2015). They can be vital arenas in which to share embodied experiences that are often silenced in our offline social networks (Hardy and Kukla, 2015). Therefore, to keep our communities safe(r), we must think about the many meanings of the rainbow baby, the ethics of the power and privilege it holds, and its varying impacts. As such, what follows in this blog post is a list of questions.

The first is possibly the most obvious: What about those who don’t get their rainbow baby? Reproductive loss still carries with it an immense amount of stigma and social shame (Keeble, Loi, and Thorsteinsson, 2018). What about those who never get close to a full term pregnancy and bring home a live baby, regardless of the effort, strength, and sacrifice put into keeping or maintaining pregnancies? According to Tommy’s (2021: np.), ‘more than 6 in 10 of women who have recurrent miscarriage go on to have a successful pregnancy’. What, then, about the 4 in 10 that don’t? What impact does National Rainbow Baby Day have for those who don’t get the so-called happy ending of a rainbow baby? For me, rather than a beacon of hope, after losing my babies, National Rainbow Baby Day was a day of dread, isolation and further loneliness. Generally, it was a day to hide away. A day of celebration for a rainbow baby I didn’t have was only ever a brutally painful reminder of our loss, and that which compounded an already complicated grief.

Watson, Simmonds, La Fontaine and Fockler (2019) argue that reproductive loss involves intense feelings of sadness, guilt, regret, and shame. Self-blame is common: What did I do wrong? Often, exposure to these kinds of grief increases the likelihood of clinical depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety for those who have experienced reproductive loss (Keeble et al., 2018). My worry is that National Rainbow Baby Day, with its proliferation of success stories and ‘stories of hope’ (Tommy’s 2021: np.), exacerbates these emotional experiences to the detriment of the most vulnerable amongst us.

More broadly, however, there is a need to critically question the ways in which the construct of the rainbow baby re-affirms dominant cultural narratives that pregnancy and birth are the only, or preferred, routes to parenthood. In what ways does the notion of the rainbow baby privilege biological parenthood and kinship over social intimacies and non-genetic ties, that can be as equally meaningful and fulfilling? What might we be missing through this relatively reductionist notion of what it means to be a mother, father or parent? There are many ways to be a parent and to love, and be loved by, a child. Again, I don’t say this to trivialise the desire for pregnancy and birth (Liddiard, 2018), or the biological connections and legacies these enable. But, at the same time it’s right to be cautious of the extent to which we privilege these to be ‘real’ and ‘natural’ in our perseverance for the rainbow baby. Ultimately, love, care and intimacy are social experiences (Liddiard 2018).

How, then, might the rainbow baby as currently constructed reduce and confine our options to parenthood? And render many of us on long, debilitating journeys through multiple miscarriages, endless rounds of IVF, and the feelings of failure these often entail? The goal of the rainbow baby as we currently know it risks closing down alternative parenting options and routes to family: adoption, fostering, step-parenthood and other forms of non-biological love, care and family. A common, and often unhelpful, response to reproductive loss is, “Well, why don’t you just adopt?” While it’s not that simple, I do think that the prevalence and importance put upon the rainbow baby keeps the blinkers on for many, closing down other options that may be more pain free, happy, or just different. There is possibility in diversity here. How might we grow and nurture one another as a community if we expand what we consider a rainbow baby, or child, to be? A baby or child that is fostered, adopted, cared for in many ways and forms, and who didn’t arrive only through the achievement of a successful pregnancy. I’m also left wondering of the possibilities of organisations such as Tommy’s working with fostering and adoption agencies and local authorities to support and promote all types of family-making. 

Lastly, I want to question the ways in which our current ideas of the rainbow baby affirms neoliberal-able notions of achievement, determination, competition and success (Goodley, 2014). When we think in these terms we not only punish ourselves further, defining ourselves and our reproductive journeys along these deeply oppressive lines, but also inadvertently render those who don’t get their rainbow baby as unsuccessful or underachieving. This leads me to think, then, of those who do stop trying and either reluctantly accept, choose, or embrace a different path in their lives beyond impending parenthood. The ability to accept that your life and future may look different to what you’ve always imagined, especially when you desperately crave parenthood, takes a strength beyond words - this isn’t failure or ‘walking away’. For many, life without the rainbow baby can also be liberating, joyful and exciting. These are the stories that are often silenced in our cultural celebrations of reproductive success, yet they are no less important. 

So, to be a truly inclusive community means just that - including all of our stories, lives and experiences. Those who adopt; foster; find love in the children of others; who commit their working lives to children; and those who embrace or accept living without children and parenthood. I propose that hearing a diversity of stories - and not just the ‘happy ending’ of the rainbow baby - can liberate all of us. After National Rainbow Baby Day is over for this year, let’s start sharing.

References

Goodley, D. (2014) Dis/ability Studies. Theorising Disablism and Ableism. London: Routledge

Gough, K. (2020) ‘Moving forwards after baby loss: Reflections for improving practice’, Clinical Psychology Forum, 334: 12-16

Hardy, S. and Kukla, R, (2015) ‘Making Sense of Miscarriage Online’, Journal of Social Philosophy: Special Issue: Miscarriage, Reproductive Loss, and Fetal Death, 46:1, 106-125 

Keeble, C., Loi, N.M. & Thorsteinsson, E.B (2018) ‘Empathy and the public perception of stillbirth and memory sharing: An Australian case’, BMC Pregnancy Childbirth, 19: 129

Liddiard, K. (2018) The Intimate Lives of Disabled People. London and New York: Routledge 

Liddiard, K. (2018) Reflecting on baby loss, hope, and injustice in research. Online. Available from: https://kirstyliddiard.wordpress.com/2018/12/14/reflecting-on-baby-loss-hope-and-injustice-in-research/ [Accessed 19/8/2021]

Tommy’s (2021) Our Rainbow Babies. Online. Available from:  https://www.tommys.org/about-us/charity-news/meet-some-our-rainbow-babies-born-year [Accessed 19/8/2021]

Watson, J., Simmonds, A., La Fontaine, M. & Fockler, M.E. (2019) ‘Pregnancy and infant loss: A survey of families’ experiences in Ontario Canada’, BMC Pregnancy Childbirth, 19: 12

Robot reading books

Our work

How we understand being ‘human’ differs between disciplines and has changed radically over time. We are living in an age marked by rapid growth in knowledge about the human body and brain, and new technologies with the potential to change them.

Flagship institutes

The University’s four flagship institutes bring together our key strengths to tackle global issues, turning interdisciplinary and translational research into real-world solutions.