Almost four years ago on a Wednesday evening in the tail end of November, my husband and I were round at a friend’s house looking at their buggy. She was pregnant with her second child and needed a double. I was pregnant for the first time, about 6 months along, and looking for an alternative to the somewhat bulky contraption I’d been handed down. Our bellies were laughably round. She commented on the fact I could still do my coat up. I think we stopped to buy bread on the way home.
But at some point in the evening, maybe in the supermarket or maybe when we were back home, I realised I hadn’t felt my baby move since that morning. Lunchtime, maybe. I couldn’t remember. I didn’t panic. This was before Kicks Count was launched and so much awareness was raised. I can’t really remember what I did think, initially, but I went to bed and tried to listen out for any movement.
In the middle of the night I was down in the kitchen. I had a pain in my stomach that I attributed to trapped wind – and still the baby wasn’t moving. I texted a friend who worked night shifts. Have a glass of orange juice, she told me, or some cold water. That usually perks them up.
Don’t worry, she said.
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I Googled, as you do at stupid o’clock. The first result that came up was a forum post from a woman who’d lost her baby at a similar stage in her pregnancy. She’d felt no movement, gone to the hospital and that was it. Her baby had died.
I ignored the sick feeling in my stomach and kept searching for tips to make the baby move. Nothing worked and I went back to bed.
In the morning I told my husband I wanted to go and see the midwife. The baby still hasn’t moved and I’m starting to freak out, I said. We got dressed for work and texted the number I had for the midwife, then made our way to the GP surgery where she was based. As we were walking from the car park into the building, a text came back.
Don’t come in. You need to go to the hospital for monitoring.
She gave me the hospital phone number – for the wrong hospital as it turned out. We called it from the car park, realised part way through the conversation that I was registered at a different hospital, hung up, Googled the right phone number and started the conversation again.
Come in right away, they said.
We drove there in separate cars, since our workplaces were in opposite directions and we planned to go on there afterwards, presuming everything was fine. My husband went home first to quickly see to the dog and I got in my car, trying not to panic. When I arrived on the ward, they took me to a curtained bed and tried to reassure me. A Pinard horn first, then a Doppler. My husband arrived around this point. He sat on the chair beside the bed, his jacket still on, his face pale.
My own heartbeat pulsed loudly on the speaker, but alone. The midwife called a doctor who came in with a mobile ultrasound machine. I suppose I knew at that point, but I held it together until he said ‘I’m sorry–’
I don’t know what else he said. I cried, as you’d expect. I guess my husband cried too, but I don’t know, I didn’t look at him. I buried my head in his chest and repeated the Doctor’s words over and over. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I felt this double whammy of my own personal loss and the fact that I’d failed everyone so badly. I had one job: grow the baby. And I’d failed.
We were moved to a private room as soon as I’d got myself together. Imagine being another woman on that ward, hoping for your own baby’s wellbeing and listening to me grieve? It was a small room with a bed, a chair, a sink. Not the kind of bed you’d want to sleep on – the kind you lay down on for examinations and procedures. I sat on the chair, dressed for work in a grey skirt and navy vest with a brightly coloured bow on it, neither of which I ever wore again, though they still hang in my wardrobe.
In that room, the doctors explained what would happen next. I’d take a pill, or a couple of pills, and hopefully that would encourage my body to ‘start things off’. If nothing happened, I’d come in two days later to be induced. I was shocked to discover I would have to deliver this baby naturally, but too numb to make any kind of argument. Blood samples were taken. When my husband went to top up the car parking, I phoned my mum and told her what happened. I heard the sob in her voice and knew how disappointed she would be. She wanted to come, to help, but I said no. I just wanted to be with my husband. How could I bear to see the hurt in her eyes too?
A bereavement midwife came in to see how I was doing. It occurred to me that this must happen a lot, if there’s a whole person responsible for caring for bereaved mothers on the maternity ward. Yes, she said, it’s quite common. I felt small sparks of rage ignite in my chest. Why had no one told me that? Why had no one warned me this might happen?
I texted my boss and emailed my dad, who was on holiday at the time. I messaged my best friends from uni who live far away from me. I told the minimum of people and asked them to tell everyone else. The telling was hard.
And then we went home.
It can only have been early afternoon when we got back, but I don’t really know what we did the rest of that day. Sat on the sofa and held each other, I think. At some point I must have called my antenatal class teacher. We had just been to our first class that week and we hadn’t got to the ‘labour by induction’ section of the course. I didn’t know what to expect. She came over the following day – the Friday – and sat with us for a bit.
I know how it feels, she said. My first babies were stillborn. Twins.
The knife twisted a little more. Why does no one talk about this? I wondered. But she was so kind. She told us as much as she could of what to expect at the hospital the next day and we listened, numbly. We did everything numbly.
Flowers arrived from well-meaning people, commiserating the death of a child who was not yet born. It felt too soon. After I took the delivery I got in the shower and cried some more, staring down at this six-month bump that was now dead.
Do you know what else no one tells you? That you will still feel your baby move after it has died. It’s floating around in there in amniotic fluid. You’ll still feel the swishes and swirls of that movement.
At the hospital the next day I told them I could feel my dead baby moving. Yes, they said, that’s quite normal.
Pills were inserted into my not-at-all-ready cervix, a hugely uncomfortable experience. My uterus cramped but did not contract. We waited. It was a nice room, especially designed for sad situations. Again I marvelled that there was this whole side to pregnancy that no one had ever shared with me, or else that I had always blindly ignored.
I was given all the pain relief I wanted and the midwives were kind and attentive but there’s no denying that was a bleak day. We discussed epidurals and I said I wanted one, I didn’t want to feel anything. But nothing happened in the day or overnight and at 9 o’clock the following morning they suggested we go home and wait and see what happened there. We declined. There was nothing for us at home.
Shortly after that I went into labour and only a few hours after that our little boy was born. There was no epidural and I was glad. I felt his body twist out of mine and I relished the connection between us. He was perfect. Tiny, at 2 lb 7 oz, but perfect. We called him Brandon and we cried some more. The midwife cleaned him up and dressed him in clothes they had there, wrapped him up in a blanket and laid him in a Moses basket. We stared at him, trying to memorise every feature, but I couldn’t hold him. It felt too painful. He was so small.
The midwives took photos, handprints, footprints. They gave us a memory box and let us stay with him for as long as we wanted, but out in the air his skin soon began to change and his perfect lips began to look dry and cracked. We said goodbye to him in the late afternoon and a little while after that we left the hospital.
Saying goodbye to someone you love is not a one-time thing. You don’t plant a kiss on the forehead and walk away, never looking back. In the first year after Brandon was born I continued to feel the loss, the separation, acutely. I would think I was feeling better, moving past the initial hurt and arriving at the promised ‘new normal’ when something would set me off and then there I’d be, letting go all over again. In the early weeks, every outing was fraught. There were babies everywhere. Pregnancy announcements everywhere. In real life, online and on the TV. I exclusively watched Location, Location, Location, but even then I would be struck by people’s presumptuousness – oh you need the extra room because you’re planning to have a family? Well guess what buddy, life doesn’t always work like that.
I went back to work after a week, since there’s only so much sitting on the sofa staring at the walls that I’m capable of. Twelve weeks after giving birth, on Brandon’s actual due date, my husband and I ran a 10k road race and raised over £2,000 for Sands, the charity that had funded the Forget-Me-Not Suite at the Royal Surrey County Hospital where Brandon was born. On New Year’s Day 2015, a friend and I went for a walk in the Surrey Hills and shouted Brandon’s name into the wind. I constantly sought validation, some kind of acknowledgement from the rest of the world outside my husband and I that our son existed, that he was a real person and above all that our love for him was as real as anyone else’s love for their child. Too many people seemed to dismiss him. Once, at a conference about six months after he died, a man to whom I had already related the bare bones of our sad story said: Oh hey, you’re a mum now. He wasn’t the first. A couple of other people had said the same thing that week and it was a difficult one to answer because yes, I was a mum now, but no, I couldn’t share any baby pictures with them. When I reminded this man that my baby had died, he said: Oh, right. But are you over it now?
Almost four years on I have had two more babies, who happily arrived safe and well. It is in being a mum to these beautiful girls that I realise what I missed out on by not holding Brandon, or dressing him. And what we missed out on altogether by not having him here with us. I don’t know what his tummy looked like. I never saw his eyes open. I don’t remember what he smelled like. We’ll never know whether his dark hair would have turned blonde, like the girls’ has. They all three have the same long fingers and toes, the same little nose and perfect lips. When our babies sleep, they all look so alike.
I have written before about the process of forgiving myself for losing Brandon, but it has taken all of this time to be able to write anything real about those awful days. It’s a long and rambling account, I know, but if I could say just one more thing, it would be this: I have no regrets. If I could go back and erase those days and make it so that Brandon never happened at all, I wouldn’t do it. He is my son, always will be, and I am proud to have borne him. Proud to call myself his mother. He deserved so much more. He deserved a full and happy life. But I hope that in that brief period of consciousness inside my womb he felt loved and secure. Because we did love him and we do love him, so much, and we always will.
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