Submitted by: Rachel Elise Lockwood
Our birth story is a little complicated. My husband and I are British, and we had only just moved to France when we found out I was pregnant. Literally – we’d been there a week.
On top of that, we already had a three month holiday planned in the New Year for our wedding and honeymoon in New Zealand. It all went fine, right up until the end. We were actually staying in Sequoia National Park in California on our way home. We were in the mountains, the road was closed most of the day, it was snowing, and it was night time – when my water broke.
I didn’t know this is what it was. I always only 26 weeks pregnant. It didn’t come all at once, but every now and then, all night. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep. In fact I burst out crying in the early hours of the morning and my husband had to comfort me. I knew this wasn’t normal. I knew, from researching on the internet, that it was amniotic fluid. But I didn’t know what would happen next.
The next day we left the mountain. The fluid stopped coming, so we assumed that whatever had allowed it to come out had closed up. Our flight was booked for the following day from LA, so we decided that once we got home, we would check in at a hospital to make sure everything was ok. I was later told by my doctor that it was a miracle I didn’t go into labour, and if it had happened on the plane, it would have been disastrous. But it didn’t. In fact I was very upset by his words, which were by then unnecessary, but that’s something else.
Nothing more happened. We got back home to the UK and reached my brother-in-law’s house, where we were staying for a while before heading home to France. Within a couple of hours, I had some bleeding, so we went to the hospital. It was confirmed that I had no amniotic fluid. I had to have two steroid injections – OUCH! – and got transferred to another hospital with a Neonatal Unit. I spent 10 days in there but didn’t go into labour. I found out that she was lying sideways, and the placenta was so low that I would need to have a classical caesarean, which I was told would mean I could never have a vaginal birth, ever. I was devastated by it all. I had planned to have a homebirth, all natural. It was my greatest desire. And this was the opposite of it all. They showed us the Neonatal Unit, and it was the first time I’d ever seen a premature baby. They looked so small and fragile, I burst into tears. It was horrible beyond words.
They were happy to leave baby inside, as long as I didn’t get an infection. I was let out of hospital and we went to stay with friends. Throughout this time I had to wear large pregnancy pads because I was constantly losing fluid, which is a very uncomfortable feeling, like being incontinent – and always tinged with fear, as one time a blood clot came out, so I was always having to run and check whether there was any blood. A week later, I went into labour – on my husband’s birthday. I spent a couple of days in light labour – baby was actually enjoying it, or so they told me – when one evening I had a serious amount of bleeding. The placenta – problematic throughout the whole pregnancy – had come away. That was it. I was wheeled into the delivery suite, where I was examined by the doctor. Immediately after that I was taken to the operating room. My husband couldn’t come in because I was having general anaesthetic. I felt so alone.
There were so many people in there, rushing around. I have no idea what half of them were doing. I was crying and shaking like a leaf, I was terrified, for myself and for the baby. I’ve never spent much time in hospital before, let alone had an operation. Funnily enough, I’ve always wondered what it’s like to have general anaesthetic! People were prodding things into me, inserting cannulas, plus a catheter, and I had to drink this nasty liquid as I had just eaten dinner. Not long after that – probably one of the worst times of my life – I was out like a light.
I woke up in a different room, and my mum and husband came in. Apparently I was very dozy and saying odd things. That would be the morphine. Later in the night, a nurse delivered a picture of my baby to me, on request, but I didn’t see her till about 9am the next day. My mum is still furious that they took so long about it. I was a bit too out of it on drugs to realise. Even when I saw her, I was nervous, but I didn’t feel too much. It was all just very strange. I was exhausted and spaced out. It wasn’t until the next day, when I was off the morphine, that I crashed. I cried on and off all day. I cried when I watched her wailing in her incubator – a strange, premature baby mewl that I had never heard before, that just sounded so wrong to my ears. She looked so tiny and fragile, I just wanted to pick her up and put her back in. I was in shock I think. I was horrified that she was outside of me now, when she wasn’t supposed to be. I felt like I had failed as a mother somehow, not being a safe place to be inside. I don’t blame myself anymore, but it’s how I felt then. I felt grief and anger over the homebirth that I had lost, and also suddenly not being pregnant anymore, when I had only had seven months of it. I was also scared of my caesarean wound; I didn’t want to look at it. And on top of all that, I was sure my milk wasn’t coming in as I was struggling to express anything (stress, my mother tells me – she’s a midwife).
Anyway, this was probably the worst day. After that, I was able to leave the hospital, which was a relief, although we had to leave our baby behind. Over the next seven weeks our lives were driving back and forth from the hospital, which thankfully wasn’t far away. Ava did amazingly from the beginning; she was a fighter. She had a bit of jaundice and reflux, but that was it. She was born at 3llbs, 7oz, at 29+4 weeks gestation, which is a good size. I healed from the caesarean and buried all the pain for a while. A couple of weeks after she was born I got sick and had to stay away from the Special Care unit for about 7 days, which was awful, but also a blessing – I desperately needed rest. To be honest, I don’t know how c-section mums cope with a baby at home!
My husband was my rock the whole way through. He always kept calm while I was an emotional wreck, crying all the time. He was gentle, strong and loving for me and Ava. He never faltered and I love him for that. He looked after me well while I was recovering.
Breastfeeding was a challenge. It turned out I had more than enough milk. Through double-pumping, I ended up with an entire (large) freezer-full that I was able to donate to a nearby hospital, which was lovely. Ava was too young for a long time to manage breastfeeding. She also had tongue-tie, which we discovered after a couple of weeks of trying. They clipped it and not long after she got it. We had a lot of support from the nurses and lactation consultant, but we were one of the only couples trying to exclusively breastfeed a premature baby. Most other preemies are breast and bottle, or just bottle. It did mean staying in there a little longer while she got the hang of it, but we didn’t mind. We also had to say no to a pacifier several times, as they are widely used in the Unit.
We couldn’t have been more blessed with the staff. The nurses were so friendly, and so were the other parents. There was a kind of camaraderie between us – we were all here for the same reason, for our premature or unwell babies. When Ava was a bit older, were actually allowed to take her out in the pram for a while. The other plus was that his hospital practiced Kangaroo Care with preemies, as do most hospitals I think now. So we got to hold her all the time. We’d spend hours there taking turns with her asleep on our chests, skin to skin. She spent nearly the first two months of her life sound asleep. Also, as a parent you could visit the Unit 24 hours a day, they always welcomed you.
Finally, Ava got the breastfeeding. They moved us into a Transitional Care Unit, which is usually for new mums and babies, but they made an exception for us. A few days in there and we were ready to go! We finally took her home, three weeks before her due date, weighing just about 6 lbs. She is now a healthy ten-month-old, she is bouncy, not far off crawling, and still loves nursing, although now she loves other food too! She has no medical problems, and I have worked through much of my grief and trauma and come out smiling on the other side. I hope to have a VBAC someday. Right now, I am happy to have a nice healthy, normal baby. It might sound strange, but one of the difficult things I found with a premature baby is waiting for the interaction. With most babies, it’s about six weeks for that first smile – with Ava, it was almost four months. I was so desperate for it by then! Now, she smiles and shouts and plays and wriggles, it’s lovely. It makes all that terrible time sink into the past.
I’m sharing this story for any other mums out there who have been through difficulties in their births (which is many). Partly, because it helps to read about similar experiences – I have done it a lot! – and also to remind those who may be struggling that – “this too shall pass”. That’s a saying that has got me through many things, because it’s true. There is light at the end of the tunnel. If you can just get through the difficult bit, it will one day be over, and you can take a deep breath and smile. Once you’re on that other side, you are a survivor, and you’re stronger for it – even if it doesn’t always feel that way!