Autobiography, Choice mother, Choosing single motherhood, Conception, Hope, Inspiration, IVF, Memoir, NHS, Preemie, Pregnancy, Premature baby, Premature birth, Short film, Single mother by choice, Writer
I just wanted to announce that, after three months in neonatal intensive care and special care, I have brought my beautiful son Barnaby home.
The experience at the hospital was harrowing – the toughest I’ve ever had to face – and I saw five tiny babies become angels. Barnaby started as the most critical baby in intensive care but then he fought like a lion to make progress, grow and develop.
I have been continually inspired by the will of these tiny babies to live, the courage of the parents and the devotion of the hospital staff.
Barnaby now weighs 2.2 kg and his due date is tomorrow. It will be some time before I know what problems he will face as a result of his extreme premature birth, but he is my whole universe and I will give him the happiest life possible.
He is a lively fellow and is leaving me little time to sleep, let alone write, but I hope to pen his incredible story before too long.
To everyone who has kindly been following this blog/book,
I have lived for the past six-and-a-half incredible weeks in first the neonatal intensive care unit and then the special care baby nursery of a London hospital.
It has been the most emotionally gruelling and yet the most inspiring journey of my life.
After a terrifying beginning, in which I came narrowly close to losing him, my tiny, beautiful son (now 33 weeks’ gestation) has battled bravely with a lion’s strength and held on to life. He is the perfect little miracle man that I had longed for and fought for and suffered for. I love him more than I ever dreamed possible.
He is still at risk but the two of us are holding each other tightly and riding the rollercoaster together.
I will continue the story of his amazing life soon, but at the moment I am too busy experiencing it.
I wanted to pass my sincere gratitude to all the people who have supported me throughout this miraculous path, conceiving solo.
To those thinking of trying for a child, the joy that your little one will bring you will more than compensate even the most painful and seemingly impossible journey.
I am sitting in what I have nicknamed the ‘dairy farm’, my breast attached to a pump which is connected by a long tube to a suction machine. Droplets of milk are being rhythmically extracted from my breast and collected in a small bottle for Barnaby’s next feed. With my son too small to suckle for another few weeks, the milk will be put into a syringe and fed to him through a tube into his stomach.
The neonatal unit’s lactation nurse encourages us to express milk from each breast for at least fifteen minutes, eight to ten times within a 24 hour period. I usually manage about seven. It’s a tedious task that disrupts the day and renders a decent night’s sleep a distant memory, but I’ve always felt that breastfeeding is extremely important and I want to be ready. Barnaby is worth all the hours spent feeling like the most inept jersey cow in the herd. I love the fact that my body is helping him grow and strengthen. Aren’t women remarkable!
My introduction to expressing milk was less than pleasant. The day after giving birth, when I was still suffering from the trauma, a nurse asked me to try to express some milk for my baby. I could almost hear my body responding: You must be kidding! I won’t be ready to even think about milk for another three months!
I returned to the ward. Only through pregnancy had I been able to fill an A cup for the first time. I tried squeezing my sorry little breasts. No response.
As the hours passed, my breasts began to harden, becoming engorged and painful. I asked a midwife if there was anyone who could help to show me what to do. A little later a burly middle-aged woman in a pale green tunic brushed back the curtain by my bedside.
“You need help expressing milk? Open your gown.”
She had the bedside manner of sergeant major undergoing root canal surgery, but I was desperate for help to feed my dangerously emaciated son.
Her brawny hand shot out and the fingers closed, vice-like, around the middle of my swollen breast. She squeezed with all the might of an Olympian bodybuilder. I writhed with the pain, twisting away from her grasp. I’m certain my bellow outclassed the cries from the labour ward downstairs.
“Well if you’re going to react like that, I can’t help you!”
She stormed out of the ward and left me sorrowfully nursing my throbbing breast. As I looked down, I saw a tiny drop of moisture on my nipple. Got milk!
Over the next few hours I worked on my breasts, squeezing as hard as I could until I felt dizzy from the pain in both breast and hand. No luck. Maybe the drop of liquid was a fluke. Sweat perhaps?
Tentatively, I again asked for assistance, adding hastily that I did not want to see the same woman again.
At last, a smiling nurse arrived with a pumping machine. I explained what had happened during my previous encounter and showed her the finger-sized bruises on my skin. She shook her head.
“I’m so sorry. That shouldn’t have happened and you were wrongly instructed – expressing should be gentle and should never hurt.
She fetched a model breast, made from stuffed wool and showed me some techniques for tenderly massaging the breast in preparation for expressing milk. She demonstrated how to put together the components of the breast pump and attach it to the suction machine.
The machine had different speed settings, imitating the initial quick sucking of the baby’s mouth then the slower drawing of milk as he fed.
Gradually, the machine began to coax a tiny amount of golden colostrum-rich milk from my breast.
“Every drop is important. It’s a cliché, but breast really is best.”
It wasn’t the magical moment of holding my babe against my breast and caressing his head as I nourished him that I had always pictured, but I was thrilled. It felt as though there was so little I could do to help my poor son. At least I could provide him with the best nutrition possible.
A couple of hours after holding my son for the first time I returned to the SCBU, longing to feel his little body pressed against me. It would be over a week before I would be able to hold him again. He became critical… very critical.
As I entered the unit, there was a fluorescent blue light surrounding Barnaby’s incubator.
“He has jaundice,” the nurse explained, seeing my distress. “We’re treating him with phototherapy. It’s common in preterm babies.”
She went on to tell me that he was due to undergo a procedure at 3pm. He needed nutrition and they needed to insert a tube either through his umbilical cord or into a vein in his arm to feed him intravenously.
“Is it a fairly standard procedure?”
“Yes, it should take about an hour and I’ll come and let you know when we’re done. It’s best if you don’t come here until after it’s finished.”
The idea of not staying to comfort my baby as he was poked and prodded by strangers felt unnatural, but I agreed to return to the postnatal ward. Seeing him in distress would be more than my heart could take and I didn’t want to be a distraction to the doctors. How could they concentrate on their delicate task – and it was delicate; Barnaby’s arm was tiny enough, and the veins within, miniscule – with mum sobbing in the corner?
I sat on the bed in the ward and filled the time with more phone calls to friends and family members to tell them what had happened. I could hear people’s internal struggle in their voices, weighing up whether the expected response was to congratulate me or offer condolences. My own voice was hollow. I responded robotically to the conversation but my thoughts never left Barnaby.
4pm came and went… then 4.30pm… then 5. With every minute the knot in my chest tightened, as though twisted in the cogs of some relentless clockwork machine.
Finally at 5.30pm, unable to wait another second, I leapt from the bed and ran to the SCBU. I pressed the buzzer and eventually the nurse came out.
“Your son got overstressed when we did the procedure and we’ve had to intubate him. We’ve put a ventilator into his lungs to breathe for him. We now need to move him to a specialist unit at another hospital and we’re just ringing around to find him a bed. We don’t really deal with the tiny babies here.”
A little later a specialist ambulance and transfer team were on their way. I was allowed in to see my baby. He was out of the incubator and had been placed on a table on his back. His weak little body, no more than a skeleton covered with red skin, was comatose, heavily knocked out with morphine to keep him calm during the journey. A thin tube – the ventilator – was inserted into his mouth, puffing oxygen into his lungs. He had lost a great deal of weight through dehydration and his face was bruised from the trauma of birth. The tiny arms and legs were as slender as twigs and looked as though they would break just as easily if someone touched them.
I sat next to him and battled the emotions, not wanting him to sense mummy’s anguish (if he was capable of sensing anything). I again spoke to him gently, telling him about all the people who were waiting to meet him and who were praying for him to grow big and strong.
As I sat, I felt how deeply intertwined our lives were. We belonged together now. I knew I couldn’t live without him. I solemnly acknowledged that both our fates were linked to his survival and recovery.
I placed my finger on his hand, waiting to feel his tiny fingers closing around it, but he was limp and lifeless from the morphine.
The ambulance team arrived, shattering our time together. I was sent out of the room again for a couple of hours while they prepared Barnaby for his journey. When I returned, he was strapped and sealed in a special portable incubator.
A friend’s message came to mind. Your son’s soul chose you for a mother because he knew you had the strength and courage to get him through.
I didn’t feel strong or courageous. I wanted to collapse in a heap and wail. But I could act these things.
“Be brave, my little one. Mummy loves you more than the world and her heart will always be wrapped around you. You be a good gentleman for these nice people. I’ll see you soon, my darling.”
Then I watched my critical baby son being wheeled away to an unknown future, understanding that this may be the last time I would see him. Perhaps the hour long cuddle we’d had would be our only time together.
First thing the next morning I was banging on the door of the midwifery office to ask when I would be transferred to join my son. After several hours of buck passing and being told that different teams were dealing with the transfer but everyone was busy for the time being, I became desperate. I cornered one of the midwives.
“We need to wait until someone’s available to discharge you properly,” she told me.
“I understand the need for hospitals to administrate but when bureaucracy gets in the way of common sense and humanity, I can’t adhere to it. My son is in a critical condition. I could never forgive myself if I was too late to see him because I was filling out a form! If my transfer isn’t organised shortly I’ll walk out the front door and get a bus to his hospital.”
Finally, the wheels started to turn. Two hours later I was in a hospital cab, escorted by the matron, and on my way to be reunited with my baby.
I am sitting on a chair by my baby son’s incubator. I am about to hold him for the first time. He is so tiny and frail that I’m terrified of hurting him.
The nurse is getting him ready for my ‘kangaroo care’, arranging his multitude of wires and tubes so that he can be safely transported to my chest. He’s not happy about this interruption to his rest and is spreading his hands and legs wide. His cries are pitiful, like the bleating of a tiny lamb, and his distress breaks my heart.
Finally he is lifted into the air and placed carefully between my breasts. Almost immediately, he stops crying and settles against my bare skin. In that instant, any remaining fear of loving my sickly son melts away forever. I fall for him hook, line, sinker and entire boat.
At last I begin to understand why friends have been sending me congratulations on hearing my news, which had seemed so incongruous in the circumstances. I have a beautiful son – my perfect little miracle man, mummy’s brave little soldier.
I glance down. Much of his face is still hidden by his breathing tubes but his little eyes and mouth look peaceful and contented. He is as close to home as he can be. For a few minutes, we sit in silence, feeling each other’s hearts beating. His thumps wildly against my chest in double-time synchronicity with my own.
I murmur to him softly. I tell him again, this time with absolute conviction, how dearly I love him and how many people are waiting to meet and adore him.
As I speak, one drowsy little eye opens just a sliver for a few seconds and closes again. Ah, there’s my mummy! His tiny hand closes around my finger, gripping it with surprising strength. Never leave me!
A song comes to me from the deep recesses of memory. The lyrics seem to fit so well and I croon it, choking back the tears. Later, my mother tells me that it’s a song she used to sing to me when I was a baby.
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are grey
You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away
An unendurable hour passed before the hospital would allow me into the Special Care Baby Unit to see my child. I sat on the bed, numb and bleeding, unable to comprehend the situation.
Every so often a staff member would appear.
“When can I see my baby?”
“We’ll let you know. They’re just trying to settle him.”
Settle him? What does that mean? Why is it taking so long? What’s wrong?
At last, I was transferred to a wheelchair and taken upstairs to a bed in the postnatal ward.
Still shuddering with shock, I hobbled down the corridor to the SCBU and was shown in. There were a number of babies there. My gaze fell on one little one, who was wriggling and glancing around the room, not appearing particularly ill. I began to move towards it when the nurse caught my arm.
“Your baby is in here.”
She pointed to an incubator surrounded by monitors with series of lines moving across them. I peered inside the small transparent window. The only indication that the vessel contained a human being was a tiny, swollen closed eye visible through a sliver amidst a mass of bandages, tubes and wires.
How could this poor, frail little soul be the happy, active baby inside me for the last six months? This can’t be my baby!
One glance and I couldn’t bear it. I collapsed, crying and crying, waiting for my heart to burst so that the pain would cease.
Fight and flight responses struggled with each other. Gradually, I reprimanded myself for not being brave for the sake of my child. I tried to gather myself together to talk to the tiny being in broken sobs, telling him how much his mummy loved him and how hard she had fought for him, telling him to be strong and fight just as hard.
The words seemed empty. The little soul would surely not survive the night.
I prayed to God to save his life, to take my life in his place, at the same time questioning how any God could let something like this happen.
I knew that I should stay with my child but my flight response overpowered me and I had to get out of the room. None of this is real. Wake up. Wake from this nightmare and feel your healthy child kicking inside you again.
I returned to the ward. For hours I lay awake, twisted in the sheets, listening to the sounds of happy mothers with their healthy gurgling babies. I fought against the tears, afraid of being ‘the tragic woman in the next bed’ and spoiling the other mums’ joyful first moments with their children.
My own mother once told me that the most agonising experience that anyone could ever endure would be to lose a child. Now, faced with this prospect, a torrent of different emotions gushed through me, churning and merging in confused panic.
The crazed frenzy of voices in my head all screamed at once, fading in and out of focus…
Self pity: How could this happen to me after all my suffering and struggling to bear a child? I have been so healthy. I’ve done everything right. It just isn’t fair. I must be the unluckiest person on Earth. Why don’t I have a partner to help me though this? Why do I have to face it alone?
Fury: How could the hospital have let this happen? Why did nobody predict the labour? For God’s sake, I’ve been in to triage four times this week. I told them something was wrong. Why didn’t anyone believe me?
Resentment: Women have been bearing children for thousands of years. How can every other woman on the planet manage to have a healthy child except me? Some mothers don’t even want their children. Some will drag them up without any genuine love or care. Why have I been robbed? One healthy child was not too much to ask.
Self-protection: What do I do? My child is likely not to live through the night. Do I distance myself or give in to the instinct to love him?
Desperation: I’ve not time left. I need to put this behind me and try again. I need to have IVF as soon as possible. Oh God, I can’t live without children. There is no happiness without children. I want nothing else in life.
Guilt: What are you doing here? Your son is probably dying. He needs you. You should never have left his side. You should have loved him instantly. How can you feel nothing but emptiness and distress? You don’t deserve children!…
A midwife put her head around the curtain.
“How are you feeling?”
I could hardly believe she’d asked the question. “In utter despair. Suicidal.”
I used the term to communicate the depths of my anguish rather than an intention to end my life, but it was enough to alarm her. Around 3 am, after an exhausted sleep of waking nightmares, a psychiatric team arrived with an onslaught of questions. “Can you rate your mood from 1 to 10? Are you thinking of harming yourself? Are you thinking of harming your child?”
Hearing this last question felt as if someone had driven a javelin into the core of my heart. “Of course not,” I felt like screaming, “Fear of losing my child is why I’m distraught in the first place.”
Instead I replied, “Under the circumstances, I think that what I’m feeling is a perfectly natural and sane reaction.”
They had to agree. They sent me back to my ward to spend the darkest hours of my life panicking every time the door opened, in anticipation of bad news.
The next morning I forced myself to return to the SCBU. I half-expected to find a little empty incubator and nurses turning their heads away from me in pity.
My baby – Barnaby – looked more human. Some of the bandages had been removed and a little more of his face and a tiny red arm could be seen. He was real. He was alive. He was my son.
That was the moment I began to fall in love with him.
“She’s eight centimetres dilated. The baby’s coming now!”
No. No. No. No. No. This can’t be happening. Only a few hours before, I’d been told that my mild contractions were probably caused by a bladder infection. I expected to go home and carry on my pregnancy for another three months, not to give birth now. Not now. Not now!
“Please do something. Delay the labour. Keep him in my womb. Even if he can just make it to 28 weeks’ gestation…”
“There’s nothing we can do. If the baby is coming out, there’s a reason for it.”
The previous Saturday I had attended my first antenatal class, learning about the pros and cons of different birthing options and forms of pain relief, as well as studying a serious of helpful diagrams showing the baby’s journey out of the womb.
I had gone home very excited and written up a detailed birth plan. I wanted a natural water birth in as peaceful an environment as possible, with my mother as birthing partner. I intended to remain drug-free for as long as possible, then take gas and air, finally having a local anaesthetic as the baby arrived to relax my cervix and avoid the pain of tearing. I imagined the midwife lifting my beautiful little son from the water and placing him in my arms. He would cry at the shock of being out of his cosy womb but I would hold him and soothe him, sobbing with joy, and he would settle down to gently suck at my breast. A photographer friend had agreed to capture our first magical moments together.
Barnaby’s actual entry to the world was slightly more dramatic…
The moment the labour pains intensified, all my natural Earth-mother ideals were discarded.
“I need an epidural…NOW!”
“It’s too late for that.”
TOO LATE?! How could it be too late? I’d been in hospital for over fifteen hours and nobody had noticed that I was going in to labour. The pain was becoming unbearable, like a belt of dull iron spikes being pulled ever tighter around my abdomen and jabbing into my lower back. I was sure I would pass out at any moment. How could I give birth without pain relief?
A flurry of alarmed midwives, nurses and doctors suddenly surrounded my bedside. I was wheeled out of the ward, leaving the two full-term women still moaning. Even in the confused jumble of my panicked brain, the irony of beating them to the delivery room, after only half an hour of active labour pain, did not escape me.
I was wheeled down the corridor, numb with terror and disbelief. How could this be happening after everything I had been through to conceive a child? A healthy son was to be the golden reward that made the entire hellish struggle worthwhile.
There were around ten people in the delivery room, scrubbing up and making preparations.
“Are we fully staffed?” someone shouted and received affirmation that they were. I felt a slight wave of relief in this knowledge but couldn’t help wondering what happened if another woman suddenly went into labour.
The pain was worsening and I cried again for an epidural. A midwife shoved the gas and air tube into my mouth, which had no effect whatsoever. She assured me that they were preparing an epidural. I knew she was lying.
I was lifted from my ward bed onto a table, lying on my back. I remembered from the antenatal class that this was the worst position for birth, despite the stereotypical portrayal of birth in films, as the coccyx is curled inwards, narrowing the gap through which the baby must pass. I kept asking if I should kneel up but they told me to remain where I was.
As the agony in my lower half increased, something very odd was happening inside my brain. My consciousness split into two, each part vying for control of my body and voice.
One part of my being was out of control, racked with helpless delirium. I screamed and convulsed and gibbered nonsensical outbursts. I pleaded to the people around me, and then to God, to make the pain go away. I felt like Winston Smith in Room 101, confronted by his greatest fear, willing to do or say anything to prevent the torture. I would even have consented to forceps or an emergency caesarean (both of which were suggested and which I had been adamantly against). Just end the pain. I thought I would die. I thought the baby would die. I grabbed the midwife’s sleeve and told her that if they had to make a choice between the two, to save my baby. I had given up my whole life for my child and couldn’t live without him.
The second part of my consciousness took a step back from what was happening to become a logical, scientific observer, determined to get through the next few minutes as safely and effectively as possible.
The delirium took over again. In true British bureaucratic style, I was asked to sign a lengthy form on which could have been written anything.
“This is just to give your consent to whatever procedure we do here today and that you understand all the risks. In the worst case scenario we might have to cut out your uterus… but that’s highly unlikely.”
Given what was happening, ‘highly unlikely’ was no longer a reassuring term, but I’d neither the time nor capability to explain that I wanted more children and would require the use of my uterus in future. My shaking hand signed the form, the end result in no way resembling my signature. Still contorted in agony, I managed a loose squiggle roughly in the vicinity of the line. My logical brain wondered, for a moment, whether that could be considered legally binding.
The doctors finally decided to let me push the baby out naturally. I was relieved to be having the natural birth I’d longed for but couldn’t believe that I was capable of delivering it. The staff manned battle stations. I had a midwife on each arm, two doctors between my legs and a team at the ready to try to stabilise the baby on arrival.
“The membrane’s still intact,” commented one of the doctors, referring to the fact that my waters hadn’t broken. I felt a slight tap and then GUSSSSSHHH! An ocean poured out of me, soaking the table and probably the doctors too. I had been measuring large throughout the pregnancy and actually looked as though I was full term. All my friends had joked about the fact that I was going to give birth to a giant and, knowing that the sperm donor had been six-foot-four, I had expected a huge baby. That entire massive bump turned out to be fluid.
My logical self took the reins again, asking in a calm, monotone voice, when I should start pushing.
“Very soon, when the contractions come.”
“OK, the contraction is starting to build. It’s coming now. The pain is coming. It’s here. Do I push now? Yes?”
I pushed with all my might, grimacing and yelling and still asking for pain relief.
The midwives reassured me, telling me how well I was doing, but I knew they were just trying to keep me as relaxed as possible. I still didn’t believe that the baby was going to fit. I was terrified of causing damage to the baby, if he got stuck in the birth canal. I was certain I was crushing him.
After two more contractions and strained pushing, I thought that I was surely there.
“You’re doing brilliantly. We can see the top of the baby’s head.”
‘Is that all?!’ I thought.
“Ok, we need you to get the head out with the next push.”
No pressure then.
The contraction arrived and I gave it everything. At last, it felt as though someone had poured burning acid on my vagina. I put banshees to shame with my howling.
“I’M BEING TORN APART!”
“It’s fine; the baby’s head’s there. We need you to get him out now.”
Steely determination. Two more contractions and I felt his body slip from mine – and the placenta too for good measure – and a numbness wash over me.
I raised my head to see a tiny red body lifted by the doctor and placed in a clear plastic bag, to be rushed to the corner of the room. Even though I knew that this must be done to keep the baby clean and warm, nothing could have prepared me for that image. It will haunt me for the rest of my life.
The pain was gone but I was in shock. Frantic action was taking place behind me but I couldn’t see or hear what was going on. I tried to focus on the tone of the voices. Is the baby ok? Are they panicked?
The doctor checked me and confirmed that I had a small tear. While being stitched up I thanked God that I still had my uterus. Now please let my baby be ok. Please let him live.
Finally, I heard the tiniest cry from the corner of the room and sounds of elation from the staff. A good sign. Someone came over and tentatively congratulated me.
“Let mum see him before he goes upstairs to SCBU.”
“Don’t wait for me,” I called out. “Just get him to safety.”
They lifted me back down onto the ward bed and turned me to face the exit as they wheeled the tiny red being past. I knew that I was looking at the baby who I had loved so dearly inside me but it just didn’t seem real. I reached down to feel my empty belly and longed to feel my little companion’s reassuring kicks.
I understood nothing of premature babies, other than that they often didn’t survive or turned out to have severe mental or physical disabilities. I felt I’d already lost him – lost everything. Future shattered. Dreams stolen.
The doctors may as well have removed my heart.