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.