Whenever I meet someone new, there's still one ‘small talk’ question I dread
Whenever I meet someone new, there's still one ‘small talk’ question I dread - because there's no way to answer it without feeling upset.
It's “how many kids have you got?"
Because the real answer is five , but to reply "four" is always easier, because then I don't have to explain the absence of Sebastian, the little boy I lost to cot death twenty years ago this week.
Years ago, the small talk wasn't such a problem. Sebastians tragic death was a household story and everyone knew about the life-saving Back To Sleep campaign that followed.
But all these years later - and incredibly to me now - memories have dimmed and the rest of the world has largely forgotten him.
What’s even worse, is that we have a whole new generation of mums and dads who have forgotten the scourge of cot death and are becoming blasé about its threat.
Over the years, I have worked very hard in my own mind to ensure that his death does not become bigger than his life.
Occasionally, though, I am heartened that his death still means something to others.
Just a few months ago, when I was rushed to hospital in the middle of the night with a grumbling gall bladder, and while I was gasping in the numbing gas-and-air sitting atop a bed in the casualty ward at Oxfords John Radcliffe hospital, a young doctor came up and shook my hand and thanked me " for all I'd done about cot death" What's more he even bothered to say how sorry he was about my son, and that he'd just become a father, too!
Tears streamed down my face. Well I was a little high. And also in physical pain.
But the agony of losing a child is surprisingly near the surface, no matter how well you think you have it under control. It actually doesn't take much to bring it all back - the aching loss, the lingering sadness of a life that should have been and was cruelly denied.
Back in 1991, I was the archetypal 80s career girl who was discovering, in her thirties, that she was in fact an earth mother. I already had two sons, three year old Oliver and James, two. I was still on TVam every day, enjoying my reign as "queen of breakfast tv", or so the tabloids dubbed my role as host of Good Morning Britain.
Sebastian's arrival changed all that. No way could I haul myself out of bed at 2.58 every morning to get into the Camden studios by 3.15 anymore, with three kids at home needing a hands-on Mum. Luckily I was offered the station’s Sunday show, and so I was able to have the best of both worlds. Domesticity and a career. Motherhood, though, was taking over my life and I loved it.
Sebastian, though he'd been four weeks premature, was bouncing and bonny and our house was full of love, laughter, little children and all their stuff.
Life was great.
Then, on a morning that should have been one of our happiest, fate struck my lovely family a blow from which we’ll never recover. One which to even seek to forget would seem an act of disloyalty.
It was my eldest son, Oliver’s, fourth birthday. One of the few photographs that survives from that awful day is one of him looking slightly bewildered and confused, wearing an enormous policeman’s helmet. I swear its one of the most poignant photographs I’ve ever seen, when you know the story behind it.
He shouldn’t have been a solitary little figure wearing a policeman’s helmet that day. He should have been surrounded by his little friends, blowing out the candles on his cake, wearing a paper crown.
Instead, just after I’d been in his bedroom to wake him up, singing Happy Birthday, I’d popped into the baby’s nursery, to check on four month old Sebastian – and our lives changed in the time it took to absorb the awful truth, to scream for help, to dissolve in bewildered shock and tears.
In a day which saw our front door besieged by press and paparazzi, our first visitor was a young policeman answering our 999 call.
He came upstairs to the nursery where I was cradling the stiff cold body of my precious baby, and he touched my shoulder with a caring hand.
“I am so sorry,” he whispered. “I know how you feel. The same thing happened to me…”
Downstairs, the rest of my family was gathering in utter shock, in the kitchen, making endless cups of tea that no-one drank. My husband, Mike, rang around all of the families who were due to bring four year olds to the birthday party. He had to explain, over and over again, just why the party had been called off.
Oliver and Jamie crouched in a corner, aware that they weren’t the focus of attention right now. The kind policeman thought his helmet might help – and Oli wore it for the rest of the day. Perhaps it gave him some sense of security.
In hindsight, the terrible thing about what was happening to us that morning was that we weren’t unique.
At the time, cot death, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, was killing 2,500 babies a year – that’s about four or five a day. So, as we were living through the worst of all nightmares, this dreadful scene was possibly being played out that day in four or five other households. And the next day, as we struggled to accept what was happening to us, and the next, and the next, and the next. And even on the day we had the funeral, when despite our personal pleas, The Sun still sent a photographer and made it all front page news.
If there was one good thing about the press coverage, the crowds of journalists and photographers who effectively placed us all under house arrest for weeks – it was to raise awareness of the syndrome, as the papers called for more money for more research, and did indeed raise over a hundred grand.
In the end, my quest to try and find the answer to cot death, took me all the way to New Zealand, which had the highest cot death rate in the world. Everyone in New Zealand had either had a cot death themselves or knew someone who had.
There, while I was filming, another baby in the same city died of cot death, and I spent the morning with the young bereaved mother in her Maori home. There, the dead baby stays with the family for three days while the family mourns around it. They believe that the baby’s spirit is still with them, before finally moving on.
What the experts were finding in New Zealand, they were also finding here at home. And, thanks to my high profile, I was able eventually, to help disseminate that vital information. That sleeping position was key. The babies who were dying were the ones sleeping on their tummies. That many babies were being over heated, over wrapped. That it was really dangerous, given modern parents’ propensity for drinking and smoking, to sleep in the same bed as your baby, even to fall asleep with them on the sofa in front of the telly - and that you really shouldn't smoke anywhere near your baby. The science and statistics linking smoking with cot death was actually stronger than the science linking smoking and lung cancer.
The advice worked and the cot death rate fell, thank God. By 70 per cent, almost overnight. The Back To Sleep campaign is still the single most successful health campaign there's ever been in this country.
But still we are losing 300 babies a year, and that’s 300 tragedies too many. What I now most fear is that complacency and stupid, unforgivable ignorance could make the figures rise again – because twenty years later Sebastian’s death is forgotten.
Young mums are beginning to chat on the internet forums, and twitter, about the age old problem of “how to get your baby to sleep for longer at night”. It’s one of the biggest concerns for all new mums and dads. Everyone who’s ever had a baby knows that!
But some young mums are recommending to each other to let their babies sleep on their fronts, as a means to get them to sleep more soundly, and for longer.
That’s directly against all of the advice they’re given nowadays from health visitors and midwives, ever since 1991.
And it’s putting them in danger.
Does it really need another high profile person to lose their beloved child to wake a new generation up to this very real, ghastly peril?
There's really nothing worse than losing a beloved child. One thing I really have noticed over the years in those similarly bereaved to me, is the burning desire to stop it happening to anyone else. There's a tribe in Africa which says " the only way to end grief is to save a life." That's why so many grief-stricken parents become fierce and feisty campaigners. I reckon it's also because your time campaigning is time you're spending with that child.
That’s why, though it hurts to tell Sebastian’s story, I feel I have to from time to time. I can hardly believe it all happened twenty years ago – though his brothers are all now off pursuing their careers, internships and gap years! (I went on to have another two sons, Jacob and Conor.)
When they’re all home, as we have been to celebrate Oliver’s 24th birthday, Sebastian’s absence is tangible. Around a large circular table at our local Chinese Restaurant, we all ended up playing ‘spin the menu’ with the turntable laden with sizzling beef, crispy duck, chow mein and rice – just like they’d always loved to do when they were much tinier. I looked at them, all now six-footers and independent thinkers, and I beamed proudly. But I missed one, and always will.
I know exactly how he’d be. A six footer, too, but possibly thicker set than the others, and more red-headed. I always had him down for a rugby player. He had the legs. If he turned up at the dinner table right now, I’d know exactly where to pick up the conversation, because the dialogue between him and me has never stopped. I’m his Mum, and that’s a job for life.
So if you ask me how many kids I’ve got, I’ll always want to answer “five”. If I occasionally answer “four”, it’ll be out of consideration for you. It won’t be because I’ve forgotten.
This article first appeared in the Daily Mail July 2011