Shown me the delicate secrets of the midnight hour
You have revealed the wonders of a bird’s song
And the majesty of a wiggling worm
You have made it clear that life is a precious gift not to squander
Among the dismal heap of tears laughter echoes
Lydia Berry, written Christmas Eve 2014
There’s a beautifully illustrated children’s book Poppy and I stumbled across in the library called Augustus and His Smile by Catherine Rayner. It follows the simple story of a tiger trying to find his smile again and is well worth a read with your little ones. He finds his joy in the little things and the free things . The patter of the rain; the birdsong in the trees; a heavenward gaze to the stars. All these things are timeless, peace-giving and cosmically bigger than us.
I too, through the experience of losing my first child in such a traumatic and dramatic way, have taken solace over the last five years in nature, in the quiet, in the beautiful landscape of my local Cotswolds. It calms me to focus on the detail of the clouds being blown by the wind across the brown and green fields or to witness the majesty of sunlight shafts filtering down through the haze to the ground. I see Evelyn in the gentle flutter of a butterfly or tiny bird which I tell myself is her reassuring me she’s ok; I find peace in the memorising pattern of a flower’s petals and delight in watching the meandering trickle of a stream.
Feeling connected to the earth somehow makes me feel connected to that perennial motherhood that I now belong to. I feel I wear the guise of mummy awkwardly after such a horrific graduation and it’s ill-fitting mantle troubles me that I could not assume my new role with the ease I was expecting. I was brutally forced into a motherhood of pain and loss right at the moment of triumph when my baby should have entered the world being joy and tears of happiness. I have not gotten peace yet with how I first become a mother.
A smooth and bright cape of Super-Mum was hanging ready for me to lift down and don proudly – I am Evelyn’s mother, fierce for my child. For me, I felt this was trampled on, destroyed and in its place a lumpy, ugly garbage bag was tied around my neck as I gazed upon her lifeless body for the first time. The first time I ever properly saw her, she took no breath, made no cry and did not open her eyes to look at her mummy. I had to live with the exposure to baby loss and the raw grief consumed me like the grim reaper’s cloak.
I have fought very hard to regain any sense of peace in my mind and to regain a sense of a new normal, for the former status quo can never be recovered. I am still trying to pick over my first experience of birth to find any joy, any goodness or wonder; anything I can cling onto to say proudly that I brought Evelyn into this world. To separate her from the manner of her death is a constant struggle. Both her shoulders became severally suck when she was crowning and she was unable to be born for 7 long minutes. My body, in the act of giving her life, prevented it. It is a sick irony that has no meaning I can fathom and yet I feel it hangs over me, a black mark against my motherhood credentials. It goes directly against nature so I try to forge the link back to make myself feel less of a killer and take my rightful place as a proud mummy to two daughters. I’ll get there…
How and where do you find joy? It’s important to find out for your own well-being, despite the struggles and our experiences, our guilt and our loss, parents like us deserve peace and happiness as much as anyone else. I found this interesting article you might like to to consider when thinking about what does make you happy. We can feel out of practice when we have been sad for so long.
In a parallel universe, I would have just sent off the forms for our choices of schools for Evelyn. In this universe, a silent pang of sadness fills the void where her life would have been. I see the shadows of how I should be living my life all around me; they haunt my dreams by night and follow me by day. And yet I continue, I go forward, I will and I must #lifeafterloss #joyafterloss
Milestones are a standard joy for any parent – first smile; first attempt to crawl; first word; birthdays; first day at school; first car; wedding day. There are many and we revel in celebrating them – as we should. Milestones for me with my first daughter read a little differently – first time I felt her kick; first labour experience; first time I saw and held a dead baby; first funeral I’ve planned; first anniversary of her death: my first baby.
There is so much sorrow intertwined with the birth and death of my first child that I could get stuck in that place, unable to see the joy in life. And believe me I have been in that place; but slowly and deliberately I have travelled to a more balanced place where joy and sorrow reside side by side in my heart. I still cry regularly but the depths are easier and quicker to climb out of now – I suppose I have worn a path out of the valley, well-trodden with my frequent visits. But I can also stop in the park with my Poppy on the way to nursery, as I did this morning, and listen to the birds with her. Dancing our way up the path to their morning birdsong. Savouring the small joys all around me with my precious second daughter is Evelyn’s gift to us both. Out of my sorrow has come a deeper appreciation for life and an urgency not to waste a moment of it. I think it has made be a better mummy; my pain has been transformed into a fierce love for the gift of life.
I do want to say though that this all sounds great, and it is, but is was a rough journey getting here. I want to be real with you all so let’s go back a bit…
Following Evie’s death life felt distorted and out of proportion, it felt incredible and not in a good way, it felt incredulous and basically like a film. It did not feel real and nor did I, I did not recognise the landscape of my existence and to be frank I felt like a caricature of myself. A ridiculous parody of what I should have been, what I should have had. An uncomfortable reality for someone who had always strived to match the perfection in her head – this was about as far from it as I could get.
Having been reasonably slim I now lugged around an extra goodness know how many pounds, my postpartum body felt like one of those fat suits people wear on TV to look like sumo wrestlers. Having tried to embrace my changing shape during my first pregnancy, I believed the trade of figure for baby was a worthy sacrifice. Weight had been an issue for me for years and so to gain so much was, psychologically, for me a very big deal. I was severely (in my mind) overweight with no baby to explain my curves. I felt cheated of my perfectly good excuse for why I’d let myself go.
Indeed, a few months after our loss, some friends hired a log cabin for a weekend break and generously invited us along, a small gesture of kindness that was gratefully received. One evening while we all sat in the hot tub, I very self-consciously surveyed my friends’ carefree, slim bodies and was dismayed at the disparity when I cast an eye downwards. Meekly I said that I felt like a caricature of myself and my friend said, “but I just think of you as you”. I took that with the gentle spirit with which it was said, that I was not seen as any different in the eyes of those who cared about me.
In my head I was a leper now, a social outcast, destined to join a travelling freak show and be wheeled out 3 times a day to be ogled at by curious members of the public who wanted the chance to be up close to … what? A grieving mother, a baby killer, my mauled body a satisfyingly gruesome visual memorandum that babies die? Yeah it doesn’t sound real to me either when I say it like that… it doesn’t feel real, still doesn’t, er have I said that already?
Inside and out I didn’t recognise myself; it was disconcerting and shattered my self-confidence and self-belief. I felt ship-wrecked and the task of piecing myself back together was overwhelming at first. Something that helped was challenging thoughts I privately thought to be true. For years I had staunchly thought people would think I was lazy, ugly, out of control, unemployable and ultimately unlovable if I was overweight. But by challenging that thought with reality I realised none of my friends or family stopped loving me after I had gained weight and I have successfully had 3 jobs since Evie’s death so my skills clearly outweigh my appearance. SO conclusion…I’m just nuts! No really, the truth is that bearing these physical scars has taught me such an invaluable life lesson that I have solely Evelyn to thank for it. She has helped me learn what I could not by my self – beauty is on the inside; people don’t judge me half as harshly as I judge myself and people love me for who I am not what I look like. No small list of things to get into my think skull.
I feel like both physically and mentally, visibly and invisibly I bear the scars of the past 4 years. The fresh wounds have scabbed and scarred, the searing pain has dulled to an occasional throb but the scars remain. A permanent reminder of my experience, my life journey and my daughter. I’ve had a rough couple of years but if I can see the beauty in a sunny day; the joy in getting ‘Rainbow Dash'(my little pony for those of you not in the know) for Christmas; the delight in a good book; the delicious aroma of a Sunday roast then I think I’ll be ok. For the small joys are balm for my soul indeed.
Until next time, do what you can to find your smile again.
My secret mantra throughout my second pregnancy was, ‘If we get a baby, then…’, but I never thought about what I would do if we did actually get a baby here safe and sound.
We’ve just celebrated our third Christmas with our darling second daughter Poppy and it was magical. She got to grips with the idea of leaving food and drink out for Father Christmas and the reindeer; in the morning delighted to see the remnants of the pit-stop snack, hastily gobbled by the famished St Nick on his toy round – he has a busy night mummy, she expertly explained. She also had her first stab at a Christmas list, which was not so successful and probably due to me not prepping her properly on what you ask for. She adamantly asked for a pretend biscuit and pretend statue …what goes on in their little minds?! Needless to say we didn’t bring up the Christmas list much, in the hope that we would not be required to purchased these mystical items, and luckily she’s clearly a little too young to grasp the significance of the said list.
However, our biggest anticipated highlight was the Christmas-Morning-Wake-Up. We had spent ages explaining to her how it all works, you know – that the big FC would bring a stocking and leave it at the end of her bed. In the morning, probably early, she would wake to hear the crinkle of presents in the stocking, rustling as she stretched out her foot towards the end of the bed. She would be overcome with excitement that HE had been, grab the stocking and rush into mummy and daddy’s bedroom. Waking us up with excited cries of I wonder what’s inside? , we would then bring her into our bed and she would open the lovely presents. A wonderful picture postcard day of Christmas family gorgeousness would then ensue.
So… the reality is we wake up before her at 8am and we lay there in anticipation of the gasp and thud of feet. Instead, she wonders in around 8:10am … so has Father Christmas been? Poppy says no I don’t think he’s been yet. Masking the panic in his voice daddy tries to solve the mystery of the missing stocking by taking Poppy back into her room to discover it, in plain sight, on the end of her bed, untouched and unnoticed by Poppy who is still fervently insisting he hasn’t been yet!
No doubt though, this year, being 2 days shy of her 4th birthday, she will understand it all, in much more dedicated detail; carefully crafting the definitive present list and waking at stupid-o-clock, unable to stay asleep any longer for the excitement of the day.
It’s these precious memory-making moments and hilarity of everyday life with a child that make it all worth it. The hope I would one day have these delicate and private times of family life that I share with my husband kept me going when the fear of losing another baby threatened to overwhelm me. It’s not grand or glamorous, it’s not harmonious or straightforward but it’s real life – Poppy’s life – that I get to share it and being her mummy: her guide to this life, is amazing.
And when I say amazing, as a bereaved parent, I mean every. single. syllable. I’m constantly aware of how lucky I am to have Poppy at all and that my life can be richer because of her presence. But do you know what? it makes me fearful too – it makes me wince when I think about getting what I planned when it comes to having children. It’s scary to want something, someone so badly, when you have done that already and they have died, the chance of that happiness snatched away so cruelly. It makes you fearful to be that hopeful, to plan, to dare to want a family with a certain number of children (always knowing there’s one more unseen).
I remember clearly that first night with Poppy. I was physically exhausted from having a c-section (major abdominal surgery is no picnic!) and mentally fried from the relief that we had faced our fear and gone through another birth but this time safely. I was shell-shocked, laying there next to this most welcome arrival, wishing with every fibre of my being: please don’t want anything from me and bless her she didn’t, she just stared at her fragile mummy and then slept.
I was a wreak, not being able to process the enormity of what we had achieved – the safe gestation and delivery of our second daughter, but also the fact that now I really was a mummy to a living baby who needed me. Those first few hours, days, weeks and months were such a vulnerable time for me. Veins coursing with hormones, body recovering from major surgery and a difficult pregnancy, sleep deprivation, desperately attempting to breastfeed were overwhelming to my senses. I felt the heavy burden of Poppy’s well-being resting on my shoulders, feeling like I had to pump her heart with my hand to keep her from dying too, to keep her here with me, in the physical world.
I confess I hate to think of the fragility of her and me in that time. I felt so excruciatingly vulnerable and ill-equipped. For someone like me who prides herself on being in control and knowledgable, it was a difficult time of having the most precious person in the world to look after but no manual. If I’m honest the experience and manner of Evelyn’s death had ripped my self-esteem to shreds and so I believed listening to my ‘motherly’ instincts was unreliable. Looking back now I imagine many first time mums feel as I did and that it wasn’t particular to me to find the first months of parenthood fraught, stressful and to be endured.
For me, one of the profound and long lasting effects of this experience of loosing Evie and then having Poppy soon afterwards, is that it’s rather put me off the whole baby thing. Now this, I realise is sacrilege! How can I say it’s put me off? The one thing I wanted in this world, was taken from me and then given, the gift I have that I can even have babies when others can’t and I’m saying I’m not sure about having any more. Well I’m probably just being really selfish but if I’m really honest it feels like babies are my cryptonite. I am crippled when they come near but am drawn to them in equal measure.
Babies are my cryptonite
Despite my darker moments when first having Poppy, I enjoyed my maternity leave immensely, really trying to live in the moment and soak up every morsel of my little darling. But even now the thought of going through another difficult pregnancy like Poppy’s or the risk of something happening to the baby, feels like to high a price to pay right now. I feel like I’m re-building my life after Armageddon and I don’t like the thought of another air raid bombing everything I fought so hard to repair. But really I suppose all I’m saying is: I’m afraid. I’m afraid to love someone again so much that I couldn’t bear to lose them, I’m afraid to put myself in what felt like a very compromised position of leaving the fate of my unborn baby to fate/destiny/insert appropriate deity here. I’m afraid to claim happiness, exquisite happiness of another child because the more you have the more you have to lose. I’m sure I will feel stronger in time to face this fear and claim my stake of joy, just watch me…I’ll get there.
The path bereaved parents must tread is a balance between hope and fear, sanity and off-the-scale anxiety. You have to learn to live again in a risky world with the right amount of fear that still allows you to live, not just survive, and be fulfilled – not an easy task.
Until next time… do what you can to find your smile again
This is something I got obsessed with – how I’d changed or not because of what happened was a constant newsreel in my head. Every decision about jobs, reactions to family and in particular the parenting of my second daughter has been scrutinised as part of my ritual need to see proof of the awful consequences of Evie dying.
Something that unfolds over time are the multitude of consequences of losing my first child. Many are obvious but many more are often only really apparent as the months and years march on.
Having our second daughter so soon after our first
Having a c-section with our second pregnancy rather than natural
Withdrawing from our social lives
Going on antidepressants
Countless sleepless nights
A general feeling of “everything is out to get me” and anxiety
These are some of the consequences of losing Evie. They are a mixture of negative, necessary and inevitable consequences of such a bereavement and not all of them are long-lasting or permanent, I can see that now. It’s the permanent ones that interest me the most, as they will be the permanent mark on my life that show how I’ve altered as a result of losing my first baby.
I do feel at times like I’m playing make-believe
I do feel at times like I’m playing make-believe, that this title of mummy is temporary and when the grown ups come back I’ll have to take off the heels that are too big and set aside the dressing up clothes of parents to rejoin the ranks of the immature. I don’t feel qualified to do this children malarkey and in some ways that is a good thing because it keeps me on my toes and fresh to adapting my parenting style to be to best I possibly can.
However I also feel like this parenting gig is temporary because I know the harsh reality of how precious life is, how short and how easily it can be lost. There is a big part of me that still thinks – “how long will I get to keep Poppy for?” “how long can the dream last?”. I still think it could all be taken away, she could die and I be back with nothing again. Just because I’ve had an awful thing happen once doesn’t mean it can’t happen again. I shouldn’t be so presumptuous to assume I can have what I want when it comes to having children. For those of us who live this reality of having our worst fear actually happen to us, we know how perpetual fear and anxiety of potential bad things happening to our children takes its toll on our souls and state of mind.
When Poppy was first-born I genuinely thought to keep her here it was my job to be close at all times and some how keep her heart pumping and her lungs breathing. It was exhausting. As the months have turned to years and she has proven she can stay alive I have slowly relaxed… slowly. I believed that if I stayed vigilant, alert and anticipated any and every potential illness, accident, bump and cough I was doing my duty to protect from harm my living child as I couldn’t with my first.
The truth is that you can never do it enough – and it doesn’t work. They still get ill, fall over, get hit by another child and bang into tables despite your best efforts. The best we can do is find a balance between our heightened sense of anxiety about our children’s health and well-being and a “normal” amount of worry. We have to tell ourselves we know the likelihood of them catching meningitis is small so don’t spend time every day worrying but make sure you know the signs. Remind ourselves we know they will very likely fall over when they are learning to walk, put pillows down, be with them and rub any bumped knees – they will be alright.
One consequence many bereavement parents find hard is that you cannot say to us: “don’t worry they will be fine, nothing is going to happen to them. This pregnancy will be fine, it’s not going to happen to you. It’s such a small statistic so don’t worry”. We have seen that the worst can happen, pregnancies can be fine and then not: we have been that statistic.We are very hard to comfort in the respect and have to manage a much bigger slice of fear than others might.
Surprisingly I believe there is one way my altered self is better now than if I hadn’t lost Evie – I do not take my second daughter for granted, not one bit. I marvel alongside her when it rains and stand awestruck at the magic of bubbles just as she does; I laugh at Bagheera’s head ringing when Baloo shouts for him at close range in the Jungle Book (a current favourite film) and learn the words to The Gruffalo’s Child slower than her sharp young mind.
I wonder at her development as the months progress and she masters the shapes and sounds of words and the art of stringing them together to be understood. Her indignation as another child pushes her and her effortless ability to forget how that felt when pushing others, both amuses and angers me as I educate her on the need to be gentle and kind. I hold close to my heart the knowledge of how fortunate I am to be doing this at all, how privileged to be responsible for bring up this beautiful child in this imperfect world.
I have a respect for my daughter that gives her a voice and right to her own feelings; I try to teach her emotional intelligence not just counting and animal noises but words like angry, sad, happy and I’m full. I love how opinionated she is and assertive, I’m excited to see how her fledgling personality and character traits will thrive and develop as she grows. I will enjoy her like I cannot enjoy my first and not get caught up on a mark on the carpet or whether the washing is put away. I will devote myself to her for both her and my own sake. I will take an interest in her in all things. I will soak her up like warm summer rays, take her in like nourishing broth and drench myself in her like an exquisite perfume.
The daughter that lived
Until she is fully grown and can possibly understand such things, I do not know if she will grasp how much she has inspired me to embrace life without Evelyn. She is my motivation to carve out the best life I can for her, myself and for my family. She makes me strive higher, work harder, moan less, understand more, and generally pushes me to achieve what I am capable of, an ability I thought I had lost. She has reignited a lust for life that I thought had been extinguished. A heavy burden indeed for such small shoulders but I hope she will understand it is more a gift she has given me purely by being here and there is nothing she must actively do that will ease my sorrows and patch me up. Her existence is enough to cheer and soothe me and I sincerely hope I do not make her feel under pressure to live up to my expectations of the “daughter that lived”.
You see these are my worries: that the ultimate consequence of Evelyn dying is a warped parenting full of pressures and expectations that are harmful or damaging to my second daughter. My sister told me that after she had her second child she realised that with your first you don’t know what you should be worried about so you worry about everything and with your second you don’t have time to worry about anything other than the stuff you know you should worry about. I can see the logic in her wisdom but for me it is not really applicable, if anything, worrying about my second supersedes my worries for my first. Nothing can hurt my first, I can do nothing more but there are many, many things that could go wrong with my second, too many possibilities for harm by others or by my hand that if I’m not careful it will paralyse me.
I remember one example of trying to balance my gratitude that Poppy is here at all and trying to be a balanced parent who doesn’t let her get away with everything. One day I shouted – yes I know it’s awful – but she was driving me mad by not listening and generally being a nuisance while I was trying to cook tea. I had banished her to the living room in a desperate attempt to continue the cooking – and an even more desperate attempt to ignore the judgement in my head that I was winning worst mum of the year hands down – when she came back in. She climbed up onto her kitchen stool, sidled up to me, leaned in and told me she loved me. In that instance my heart melted, all my frustration from the day vanished and I realised she loved me unconditionally. She didn’t care that I had been cross, she didn’t judge me or think I was a bad mother who couldn’t teach her to be a model two-year old (they exist, don’t they?); all she cared about was that I was hers, I was her mummy, that was enough.
Seeing me through her eyes was inspiring, it stopped me in my tracks and it dawned on me I needed to bank this moment in my memory for future reference when I was having a bad day and thought everything was wrong. This fleeting mystical moment would be my proof of everything that was right with me and my daughter, my ‘little treasure’ as I tenderly call her, my little beacon of light in the darkness of the past few years.
Keeping a constant check on whether my decisions, reactions, instructions and example for my living child are balanced is a tiring occupation but I do feel it has largely paid off. I do not think I am over protective above and beyond a normal parent, I think I am sufficiently laid back that she can explore and find her own way without me hovering over like a helicopter, nor do I think I stifle her or express over the top fears about the world around her (in fact sometimes Poppy having a bit more of a health fear for the world around her wouldn’t go amiss!).
SO I guess what I’m saying is that despite my tendency to doubt my own abilities and my battle for sanity since losing Evie, when I really think about it, I do believe I am doing a good job parenting my second daughter in the way I believe is right. Even saying that out loud is a huge achievement and one not lost on me.
Until next time… do what you can to find your smile
It was a glorious summer as we embraced our new-found status as expectant parents. We fell into an easy routine of me taking to my bed in the evenings in our rented terraced house in Bournville, Birmingham, and Matt studying. The previous September he had enrolled at Birmingham City University to complete a PGCE, with the view to becoming a secondary school music teacher. It would be a realisation of his dream to work in music, albeit not as a hot producer or singer/songwriter in a London studio, but it would be in the right direction and would be using his music degree more directly than his previous recruitment job.
I think we both felt quite settled in our new and emerging roles. Matt was changing career, enjoying his studies and doing extremely well despite the challenges that teenage school children create. He also made some friends that are still dear to him now, one of whom has just got married. We attended the nuptials with our second child in tow. I too was changing career – from PR to PA and from wife to mother, I was as thrilled at the text book pregnancy I was having as I was at settling into my new job – both fitted like a glove.
Having put our life plan into action we set about planning to move back to sleepy Chipping Norton, where I grew up. My family moved there when I was 7 and it has been a permanent fixture in my life ever since. I met Matt at the secondary school there, I had many friends still living in the area and Matt’s family lived 7 miles away in an even sleepier town called Charlbury. It was the perfect place to bring up children, a reasonably rural, small Cotswold town with both sets of grandparents on our doorstep and a comforting familiarity that would allow me to focus on learning how to raise my child. It fit the ideals we both had for our child or children to be brought up with a sense of family and place in the local community. It was in many ways an idyllic place to grow up compared to the suburbs of a big town or city we thought; as country bumpkins ourselves we had nothing to compare to apart from our time spent studying and living in Birmingham and the experience had left us cold to anonymous city living.
My parents owned a large town house in the centre of the town; it was an unusual set-up with a furniture shop at the front and the family home occupying the rest of the building above and behind it. The easiest access to our front door was through the shop which was piled high with beautifully crafted and accordingly priced oak and pine furniture, decorated with trendy shabby chic knick-knacks strategically placed to catch the eye of passing custom. The shopkeeper had run the business for many years and was a well-known, well-loved face in the local community; through the week he would host a stream of regular chats with townspeople who did not come for his wooden delights but for his delightful company. His distinctive laugh ringing out perhaps more often than his till but his popularity and solid client base kept him securely ensconced on the High Street, between two large branches of national banking chains.
When my parents found out I was pregnant and the initial excitement had been replaced by even more excited planning and organising, they agreed we could rent the apartment which was the top part of their house. It sat above the shop and looked out over the centre of the town. For a nosy-parker like myself it was heaven to sit in the large open-plan living/dining/kitchen, peer through the old windows into the bustling streets below and people watch.
The apartment was in the oldest and original part of the building which was Georgian. It had been added to over the years resulting in a rabbit warren of rooms and passages spread over 4 floors. It was quirky to say the least with charming time-worn wooden windows and archways. As a teenager it was fantastic fun to bring friends round after school and see them flounder with the layout, throwing their hands in the air declaring they were lost. I was the eldest of four children so we relished the room we had in this house compared to our previous 3 bedroom semi-detached estate house. In the town house we had the luxury of a room each and no less than three bathrooms to use between six of us. It is a house that had been moulded by us over the years through adolescence and now as I turn thirty this year it has seen the joys and heartaches of my twenties too. Our fingerprints are evident in the structural changes to the property, which allowed us to make the most of the higgledy-piggledy arrangement of the floors. In short, it was a delight to return to my family home to start my own family and thinking of the months ahead I was nothing but thankful to have my mum downstairs from me, on hand for any baby emergency.
The apartment was already being let so the soonest we could make the move was in July, I was due on November 7th, my mum’s birthday, so we had plenty of time to settle in before the arrival of bubba. The only stressful part of the move was that I couldn’t very easily commute from Chipping Norton to central Birmingham every day for the rest of my pregnancy so we had to come up with an interim solution. Matt had finished his PGCE by the summer and gained an outstanding first, I was so proud of his achievement as was he. However, the reality of finding a music teaching position in Oxfordshire or surrounding counties in what is traditionally a small department proved futile and he scampered to find a job in recruitment to ensure he could provide for wife and child. With dragging feet he found one helping people claiming job-seekers allowance find work; it was hard and largely unrewarding but it paid the bills and was stable.
With Matt settling into his new job I still needed to work until my maternity leave which started when I was 27 weeks pregnant; including unspent annual leave, it was the earliest it could start so I had to stay in Birmingham for a month while Matt lived and worked in Oxfordshire. A dear friend from my university days and her lovely husband hosted me and I was truly spoiled by their generosity throughout my stay. I had home-cooked meals and was allowed free reign on the TV channels while they went about their business in the evenings after work. My evenings were spent leisurely resting up and ended with a nightly phone call from Matt to say goodnight to me and bump.
We’d swap stories from our day and wove our ideas for the baby room decorations and favourite baby names into such a rich tapestry it was hard to see where we ended and it began. Each time we had a thought or hope for our baby, our new life, we would delicately stitch a little more into the fabric each day. The cloth grew larger and more intricate as the months went by just as our baby developed and grew. I had a day by day pregnancy book that I poured over, in awe of the female body and what it could achieve. I hungrily read ahead wishing the time away until I could meet Bubba Berry and at the same time trying to savour every part of this fabulous process. I was, quite frankly, nauseatingly happy and content with my situation and would gladly tell anyone that would listen; indeed, if I had been asked I could have seen myself on some pregnancy advert quite blissfully demonstrating the benefits of some cream or other for mums-to-be. Yes, I was that into it.
The final few months of my pregnancy were spent answering the phones for my brother-in-law’s company and stockpiling cooked meals in preparation for a time when cooking would be the last thing on our minds and require more focus than our tired minds would allow. I absolutely embraced impending motherhood and tried to morph into a domestic, maternal goddess who knew her way round the kitchen and the cleaning equipment – and more importantly revelled in her status of home queen. I think I was trying to fit that image I’d seen promoted in TV, fiction, facebook, instagram and pinterest of the yummy mummy – informed yet fun, inventive and proud. Sadly now I do tend to feel much more of a fraud if I’m honest, perhaps I’m not so much a natural nest builder. But there we were drifting, lounging on the raft of pregnancy, floating along being carried by our optimism and anticipation, little did we know we were careering towards a waterfall of epic proportions…
Until next time… do what you can to find your smile
Ok – deep breath – I think I’m ready now to tell you about what happened, to explain why I’m so traumatised and why I’m writing at all…
Indeed, the house felt pregnant just as we were and one evening as I lay in bed recovering from the flu; which I had not been able to shake for two weeks, there was an excitement in the air as I called to Matt to come to our bedroom. I had rolled over in bed and mid roll I had felt a pop and then liquid, nervously I suggested that my waters had broken. I had a rush of adrenaline as I started to try and wrap my head around the fact that the mystically adventure of childbirth was beginning. The only way I can describe it is that my mind just cleared and I became very focused on my mission: Mission Baby. I knew I would be up all night so stayed in bed to get what rest I could, I recalled what I had read – that this stage could take hours and having been ill I wanted to conserve my energy.
Matt flitted around excitedly like a moth to light, fussing over me, checking then rechecking the hospital bag, that was his job and he took it very seriously. Another job he took up with extreme vigour was putting in the car seat. He spent goodness knows how long out in the car, in the dark, trying to fit the thing and conquered it just as I was starting to really find out the difference between Braxton Hicks tightenings and real contractions – am I right ladies? Slowly but surely the contractions started to come on stronger and more regularly; in fact I know this for a fact because Matt had downloaded a labour app and was helping my time each contraction and length of time between them – what a modern father. Actually it was really useful because when we decided to call the midwife unit again and they asked about the contractions, we could describe with twentieth century accuracy their development over the hours.
One vivid memory I have as we left for the hospital was the excitement, the expectation, the anticipation… the hope. As my mum and step dad waved us off it was all very civil and tame – a big hug and a ‘see you on the other side-esque’ farewell. We fully expecting to see them in the morning with a baby. The chilly October night air did little to quell our delight that the wait was finally nearly over and after a very uncomfortable but thankfully short drive we arrived at the birthing unit of our little town…
Now I can literally feel my fingers slowing down as I type this, my pulse is quickening as we draw near to the trauma. By writing this story I cannot pretend it is a story, a fiction, I cannot rely on one of my scripts to get me through. I feel like I am going back there, going through it again as I lay down the sentences, words and letters that spell out our disaster. Dare I go on to tell the details that few people have heard first hand – the long version that is, the uncut visceral version that means you can see me at my most vulnerable? I’ll just tell myself, “For Evie, my Evie”. If one person can be helped to feel not alone in their grief it is worth it, through gritted teeth I will tell you what happened.
After a routine labour, textbook progression to full dilation and pushing baby down – their words, not mine – it was time to see our little girl. I was in the birthing pool so they moved me around to get into better positions for baby to crown. Suddenly the midwife’s voice changed and she became very firm, concise and serious, “get out the pool now”, she said with a telling urgency. I complied unquestioningly asking for help to get me out of the pool with essentially my baby’s head between my legs (you get the picture). Then things moved very fast. It was clear she was not coming out easily and there was a rush to ease her stuck shoulders. All I am going to say is that they had to perform several, increasingly invasive manoeuvres on me to try and dislodge her and allow her to be born. The pain of limbs being grabbed and pushed beyond their normal limits, helped to stretch by hormones, an episiotomy with no pain relief and the echoes of my cries as several people rushed in to work on me is an experience branded on my mind forever.
The indelible ink of those moments are not images as such, my eyes tightly screwed up in horror meant most of the memories run deep in my muscles, the dark depths of my mind’s eye rather than in Technicolor, although no less vivid. Images, however, are all my husband has of those excruciating moments that determined our daughter’s life. He bravely held my hand and silently stifled his tears as his world fell apart literally before his eyes. It pains me to think of how he suffered, actually without sounding melodramatic it hurts my very soul to think how he suffered, how I suffered and how our darling girl suffered. Oh this is tougher than I thought to put down in words…
When the rush of relief swept over me, signalling they had finally got Evelyn out, it had been seven long minutes. The seven longest minutes of my life, too long, but long enough to destroy my daughter’s chance of a life. I just can’t believe it, I cannot believe I’m recounting an experience that is mine and not someone else’s… please let this be someone else’s story.
She was rushed away to waiting doctors out of my line of sight. Then, before I could comprehend what had happen she was taken out of the room to a waiting ambulance, I saw the side of her face and head. Incidentally it was the last time I saw her alive.
I was left lying there in shock, numb from the head down crying and looking between Matt and one of the midwives for reassurance that would never come. The midwives and other medical staff agreed that I could wait to be stitched up and that we could follow Evelyn in another ambulance to the large hospital 20 miles away.
The journey is the longest, most terrible I have ever endured. I started praying out loud and didn’t stop through the endless minutes and miles to the hospital as we traced the path our daughter had already taken. I remember at one point the midwife who accompanied us lamenting, “the power of prayer!”. I was doing the only thing I could for my family, crying out, pleading for my daughter’s safety and for peace, neither of which ever came.
We finally arrived at the hospital and the waiting staff opened the doors of the ambulance. This is the point when my husband says he knew she was dead because they did not say anything to us as they wheeled me out on the bed; they did not say she was critical and they would take us to her now, they did not say she was ok but poorly: they said nothing. In a cold, anonymous corridor a doctor crouched down beside me and before she could wipe the tears to speak I asked her, “she’s dead isn’t she?”. A silent nod confirmed my worst fear and I crumpled into my hands as the tears began to flow uncontrollably, my life energy flowing out of me with each hot teardrop.
I literally feel hot and close to tears just writing this, but I must write it, I must try to make sense of it, I have so many hurts and regrets about the hours after we were told she had died. The shock drew over me like a veil; I could not take anything in. I could not look at my daughter as she was placed in my husband’s heavy arms, I could not accept what I was seeing – a beautiful bundle of joy, but lifeless and still.
My mum and brother had followed us to the hospital and all I can remember is my mum sobbing, “I’m so sorry, I’m so, so sorry”. She asked what we had called our daughter, and without discussion we both agreed ‘Evelyn’, which means life and wished for child and she really was.
We were led to a private room where we stayed for the rest of the day. Slowly the rest of our immediate families joined us in our sorrow and to see Evelyn. It again was one of many perverse parodies of what we all should have been doing on the day she was born. We should have been showing her off, instead we struggled to be in the same room as her.
The first time we were along with her, just us three was to dress her in our clothes we had lovingly picked for her first day. Bizarrely for a few moments I enjoyed the decision making of choosing the clothes, rummaging through the carefully prepared hospital bag for the perfect outfit. A brief glimpse of what might have been. The saddest part for me about dressing our daughter is that we couldn’t do it. Every time we tried to touch her or thought we saw her head move we were frightened and confused that she may have made those movements herself. Like some horror show she was not dead, instead I was terrified she was hovering between life and death and would suddenly open her eyes or something equally disturbing. It was hugely distressing. In the end we asked the midwife to help us but she did it quickly so I never got to see my baby’s body in full.
This is where I get very upset, so many regrets pile up and threaten to overwhelm me and my memories of my child. In all we didn’t spend much time with her at all probably 40 minutes and after we left the hospital that day we never saw her again. I discuss this in my post “The conversation of Death” that I just wish someone would have gently shown us there was nothing to be afraid of, helped us to calm down and study our precious one, that she was not a dreadful character but our daughter, a human being to be explored and considered with dignity. I do not think I showed her the respect she deserved, that I should have shown her as her mum. I am so mortified that my shock prevented me from spending quality time with my daughter. I feel robbed of those moments that I can never reclaim, salvaging what I can from the wreckage is all I can do now; picking over these bones hurts and subsequently I do not do it often.
Even over three years later I cannot shake the sense of deep shame I carry for how I could not look at her when she was brought into us after we arrived at the hospital. I could not hold her or appreciate her. I could not touch her or take her in. I am so sorry. I am so sorry I could not look at you properly, as a mother should, and say you were mine. I regret that those precious hours were stolen from me by my shock.
I don’t know about you but I need a drink!
So until next time do what you can to find your smile
How’s everything going for people out there? It’s hard not to feel like you are talking to yourself on here sometimes but hey I’ll keep going! * Spoiler alert* cute pictures of my Poppy coming up!
Someone asked me a question the other day and it’s been bugging me ever since. I wonder if any of you have been asked something similar and not known what to say? The rather ordinary question I was asked was how many children I had. Boy, did it make me fumble and squirm! I hurriedly said 1 thanks and ran back to my car, instantly annoyed that I had lied. Anyone know that feeling?
For me it’s something I’ve had to get used to over the past 3.5 years and mostly I have a little way of saying the truth but quickly – like pulling off a plaster – so the other person doesn’t feel too awkward and verbally drown in half finished sentences as they scrabble around for something to say. You see no-one expects you to say that you have a baby that died, they are expecting a quick exchange where everyone has some children, we all go awww and then we move on. But unfortunately that’s not my truth, that’s not my story and I can’t lie – most of the time.
It made me think back to when I was going along to playgroups and starting to meet other new mums with my second brand spanking new baby girl – motherhood mark 2 – I often wished dearly that I’d had a leaflet printed with my story neatly summed up, perhaps in bullet points for quick and easy reference. Actually, maybe a digital form would be better as I could easily update it as my situation changed. I would be able to sadly shake my head, and silently hand them the sheet of paper or iPad, which said what I could not. It would deftly confirm my bedraggled state and weepy eyes, my need for solitude and understanding without me having to utter a syllable.
Then while pregnant with my second daughter a question like“Is this your first?” would send my mind whirring, trying to work out what the hell to say back. I would think: are you worthy of hearing my story?; do I want to go there?; how will I feel if I lie about this pregnancy being my first?; what would Evie/others think of me if I lied and feigned being a first-timer?; how much time do I have?; who can hear what I’m saying – is this an appropriate place to talk about dead babies? You can see there was a lot to balance.
I remember once while going for a mooch around our little town with a baby Poppy I decided to indulge my weakness for penny sweets and set off for the newsagents. The makeshift shop, cobbled together by its owners was the perfect treasure trove to browse on a lazy afternoon stroll. As I selected and filled my paper bag with sweetie treats, an old lady – one of the ancient staff – cooed over my delightful bundle of joy and asked if she was my first. Unsure of what to say and beguiled by the sweet perfume of confectionary extravagances I panicked and admitted that no, she was my second and that my first baby died.
Rather than being shocked into submission, she began to ask a series of intrusive questions that rather knocked me for six. Questions like ‘did I have pictures of the baby?’ and ‘how much time did you spend with her?’ floated around the little shop keeper’s head like absurd speech bubbles – I was clearly having an out of body experience. It was so bizarre to be asked such intimate questions that the only way to get through it was to insist to my brain this was an hallucination. I hurriedly paid for my sweets, their appeal now lost in the haze of conjured memories filling me up instead of sugary fluff.
I staggered out of the shop feeling mauled by this antique. As I pushed my baby down the road I stuffed sweets into my mouth to stop from crying out that honesty should not be this painful. I decreed that I could say my second was my first in all future scenarios of this nature and vowed it would not matter a jot to my firstborn – she would understand, if I could ask her.
On reflection I get that the lady was probably trying to be nice and sensitive by asking what others feared to probe but I’m afraid I didn’t see it that way. The entire conversation was not for my benefit but hers; I gleaned no support from her or pearls of wisdom (other than don’t have these conversations in shops ever again). The upset it caused me could not be justified by what I gained from it, and so I have strived only to discuss my story with others when I need support or feel able to answer their questions without endangering myself.And of course by blogging!
As the years have moved on so has my ability to size up the course of a conversation at a hundred paces. I have developed a repertoire depending on the audience. These scripts are a shorthand to help me explain the unimaginable; they range from a 5 minute vignette to a saga lasting about an hour. I can reel off the horrors like I’m gossiping about it happening to someone else, maybe that’s how I cope.
‘What’s the cost to me?’ has become my new mantra.
Self-preservation, checking if I can deal with recalling hearing the confirmation by a crying doctor to my question, “she’s dead isn’t she?” did not come naturally. Rather it is a skill I have learned along the way and it certainly was not always as honed as it is now.
Until next time do what you can to find your smile