Pregnancy after loss can be a long, harrowing journey. My rainbow pregnancy was often dramatic and my husband and I were unable to fully relax. We constantly battled against fearing the worst. Until the worst almost happened. When Pregnancy comes to stay, she always calls the shots.
In aid of Baby Loss Awareness Week, which started on the 9th October, I want to share my story.
After trying for almost a year without success, I threw away my box of pregnancy tests and tried to busy myself with other things. When Pregnancy did come, it was a dream that first alerted me to her arrival. It was a strange dream, where I was an undercover journalist at a 1950s Magdalene asylum. The nuns were furious when a random test showed I was pregnant. Despite my cover being blown and the wrath of the nuns, I was elated. I woke from the thick fog of the dream, unable to push aside my brain's night murmurings in the same way I usually did.
I had none of the early symptoms. I didn't feel sick or tired and my breasts weren't sore. Still unable to forget the dream, I gave in and bought a solitary pregnancy test. As I watched the two blue lines formulate, so began the most muddied relationship of emotions I have ever experienced. Pregnancy began to rule me with her pink-gloved iron fist.
Fear latched onto pure joy; both were unable to swim in a turbulent sea of anxiety because caution and pessimism held them down. 'Don't get too excited' a nasty voice, unmistakably Pregnancy's, whispered to my suffocating gladness. Guilt was like a cloud blocking the sun. My womb was now occupied by someone else, someone new. My angel baby, Grace, who had held it as her home, was no longer its last inhabitant.
Pregnancy had come to visit three times previously. She was an unpredictable guest, at times cruel and unforgiving. The first time, she was gone almost as soon as I knew she had arrived. The second time she was undeniably well-behaved, the perfect visitor. That time she blessed me with a beautiful, healthy daughter. And the third time she almost broke me by giving me another beautiful daughter but omitting to form her heart in the required way.
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You couldn't blame me for feeling intense mistrust towards Pregnancy.
Grace's heart defect had been congenital or, in other words, plain bad luck. The likelihood of it happening again was very slim, we were told by midwives and countless doctors. Although not slim enough to avoid a 16 week cardiac scan in the same hospital and with the same doctor who had carried out Grace's numerous scans. Two years before, we had seen this doctor every week, coming away each time with the knowledge that all we could do was wait. Wait to see if she would stop moving over the next seven days or live to be seen on the ultrasound screen again.
When we stepped into the waiting room, it was entirely unaffected by the passage of time. The same collection of bright, noiseless toys lay on a cheerfully coloured mat in the corner. My eldest daughter, Susie, aged four, was not as interested in them as she had been two years previously. The same posters with curling edges hung on the walls, the chairs were arranged in an identical layout and anxious couples pretended to read magazines. The windows were pulled half open, as they always had been, allowing a fresh breeze of hope to circulate the room. It was a breeze I had naively allowed myself to ride on regularly when Grace was in my belly.
When our neonatal cardiologist appeared, she was exactly as I remembered her, perhaps even wearing clothes I recognised. The last time I had seen her was when I lay in bed with Grace beside me in a Moses basket, my hand resting on her painfully loud, un-beating heart. She said she would never forget us. That day, almost two years to the day after our first meeting, she kept her promise with a warm smile of recognition and remarks on how Susie had grown.
Her scan room was unchanged, enveloped with the same silence of concentration. I had to keep reminding myself that a different baby's picture was pulsing over the screen and that the blue and red fuzz being measured by the doctor would surely not have the same heart-breaking connotations as before.
They didn't. She turned to us and spoke the words we longed to hear. 'I'm very pleased with this baby's heart. It looks exactly as I would expect it to.' I wouldn't say I was flooded with relief, because on one level I knew this would be the outcome even if my monkey mind had done its best to convince me otherwise. Instead, her words evoked within me the desire to challenge Pregnancy's unpredictability. I wanted to stop viewing the baby as an abstract object, detached from me by a wall of trepidation.
I asked if she could tell the gender. She smiled, 'I saw a little appendage. I'm no expert at gender and you should get it checked at your 20 week scan, but it looks like a boy.' She was an expert of course; to me she was an expert of everything and I never doubted her prediction.
From there onwards I allowed my defences to come down slowly, brick by brick. After the 20 week scan, which this time passed without whispered words and sympathetic looks, my husband and I even started allowing ourselves to buy him things.
Unknown to me, Pregnancy was biding her time. Toying with me.
We began discussing his name, eventually settling on Freddy. It was important for me to have a name. I had felt with certainty that Susie and Grace were girls as soon as I knew I was carrying them. Their names were in place immediately. Having names early on helped me bond as I sung and talked to my bustling belly. With Freddy I was far more cautious. Giving him a name was the single biggest act of trust my husband and I bestowed upon Pregnancy. He was real and we had fully accepted the risks involved in loving him.
From 20 weeks onwards my belly grew, as did our complacence. Freddy's room was gradually filled with baby paraphernalia in a final gesture of boldness.
Pregnancy was not amused by such defiance and resolved to remind us that it was she who called the shots. She caught me off guard, as I was stretched on the sofa one evening during my 32nd week. Grace had been delivered at 32 weeks in an attempt to save her from her broken heart and it was a milestone I was eager to pass.
As I stood up to get a drink, I felt a floodgate open and knew instantly that my waters had gone. In a split second of confusion and realisation of the gravity of this event, my husband confirmed that it was actually much worse.
I ran to the toilet, where blood gushed out of me like an angry, painless river. I watched my husband's face as he called an ambulance, desperate for reassurance. Despite his comforting words he wore an expression of finality so severe that I knew he thought it was over.
My thoughts wondered to Freddy's room upstairs and the pretty collection of furniture and accessories we had laid out for him. I was going to have to give birth to a dead baby, would I also have to pack away his things? Or would someone do it while I was away? Would his things be stored in the loft or donated to charity? I felt like a fool for ever having allowed myself to develop a mind-set of hope. Pregnancy was laughing at me now. I should have held her at arm's length as instinct had told me to in the beginning.
A lone paramedic arrived in a car, while we waited for the ambulance. As he fumbled around over my belly, trying to find a heartbeat with his stethoscope, my eyes rested on a picture of Grace and I. To the untrained eye she looked like any milk-drunk new-born in the proud arms of her delighted yet exhausted mother.
I knew different. If you looked closer you would see her skin was redder than was normal for a baby, her lips slightly darker. Her sleep was not milk induced, it was more final than that. The photo didn't portray the stone coldness my lips were met with as they brushed her forehead, but I remembered it well. My face was twisted in grief and pain, not just exhaustion.
As I realised we would soon have a similar picture to place alongside it, the floodgates opened and my heart liberated seven months' worth of hot, heavy tears. Pregnancy laughed.
The paramedic was unable to find a heartbeat. Apologetically, he explained this was not uncommon with a stethoscope and my no means meant there was actually no heartbeat. He encouraged us to wait until we arrived at hospital before we gave up hope. Yet hope was deserting me rapidly in torrents of blood.
Pregnancy wasn't done with me yet. As I was blue-lighted to hospital, something miraculous happened. I felt Freddy move. A familiar pull tugged at my belly as he twisted to find a more comfortable position. The relief was so great I could almost touch it. Each time I felt a tiny hand or foot poke me another wave of relief slapped me happily in the face.
At the hospital I was attached to the heart monitor and there it was - the washing machine churn of his tiny heart going about its business. My husband and I would listen intently to this sound almost continually for the next four weeks. A scan produced further proof that Freddy was alive and well even though the cause of my bleeding was a source of bafflement to the doctors. I marvelled at how my little rainbow had survived all this messy blood loss.
Painful steroid injections were administered to my behind, just as before. I needed to be prepared for an emergency caesarean in case he stopped fighting and his heart rate dropped. Despite this grim prediction, his heart kept thudding proudly through the monitor, signalling his stubbornness and reluctance for early eviction.
A doctor came to talk to us about what to expect from NICU, should Freddy end up there. She didn't need to explain anything to us. I remembered the clinical silence of the place punctured by crisp beep-beeps from monitors. I remembered the hushed whispers, the tap-tap of hurried feet and the towering glass cribs containing the tiniest, wire wrapped babies.
A different NICU, almost exactly two years ago, had been Grace's home for twenty four hours. I carry the place in a small, closed compartment in my heart; there is no need for anyone to remind me.
Pregnancy continued playing her games. Yet Freddy hung on.
A week of ward life later and the bleeding stopped as mysteriously as it had begun. I was discharged until it returned the next day. The next four weeks were played out like this, with ping pong admissions to hospital. The relief of hearing Freddy's heartbeat on the monitor was still palpable each time, tinged heavily with the guilt I felt because this puzzling blood loss was so often taking me away from Susie.
Pregnancy clearly had no idea what game she was now playing. Freddy's heart pounded on.
Finally, Pregnancy decided she was done taunting me. The bleeding stopped for good just as slyly as it had begun. By this time I was 36 weeks pregnant and desperate to get Freddy out so I could wave goodbye to Pregnancy and hold him in my arms. I craved the ability to rest my ear on his chest and hear its offerings first-hand, instead of through a monitor.
My consultant refused to deliver him before 39 weeks until, after much begging, he gave in and we agreed on delivery by caesarean at 38 weeks. In my mind, there was no question of waiting for the onslaught of natural labour. I didn't trust Pregnancy to handle this.
The time came. A hospital gown was fastened around me and I felt the familiar tug of the needle in my back. Then nothing from the chest down. A cut administered in exactly the same place as before, yanking and heaving until a baby was produced. This baby wasn't whisked past us and hooked up to machines; he was placed on my chest where I looked into his befuddled little eyes with all the love and longing his creation provoked within me. I nestled his warm skin and gratefully received his cries of displeasure. Relief was just a heartbeat away.
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Pregnancy was gone. I didn't miss her presence but I was thankful to her nonetheless.
A few moments later, Freddy was dressed, wrapped in a blanket, topped off with a hat and nuzzled in my husband's arms while the surgeons sewed me up. My husband was as proud as punch and I could feel the warm relief radiating out of his skin. Like me, he was amazed we had made it this far. Life is a gift, which should never be taken for granted, undervalued or underrated. Grace and Freddy both showed us that in very different ways.
These days Freddy grows with blessed sturdiness. I often lay my head on his chest while he sleeps, comforted by the thumping organ within. As he transcends toddlerhood, he shows the will of an ox in all his endeavours - something I recognise from his very beginning. I don't mind so much when his tantrums drive me crazy because I'm certain it is this spirit that kept him alive.
There is a little shadow, walking with us when we go out together, clinging to my hand silently. Grace would have been four now. She is in the empty chair at the dinner table, the unwrapped Christmas presents, the buggy I never pushed and the unpurchased school uniform hanging in the shop. I see her in the faces of the friends I never made, the graduation I will never witness, the wedding I will never attend and the grandchildren I will never love. She reaches through my windows in the early morning, a dancing sunbeam warming me with her light.
(Image credit: author)
My husband and I do discuss trying for another baby, but the truth is Pregnancy scares me senseless. I'm not sure I'm ready to let her exert her power over me again. For now I am unfailingly grateful for the two healthy little bodies I can gather up in my arms. I see no reason to tempt fate any further.
Aimee Foster is the co-founder of mum friendship website, Mum Amie, where she also blogs about parenting, baby loss and well being.