This is a topic close to my heart. One in four women experience loss of a baby in some form – miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death. I am one of those women. As a midwife, health visitor and friend I have spoken to many women who have experienced the loss of a baby, sometimes multiple losses. In my experience, the impact is usually profound and lasts far longer than the time traditionally regarded as ‘long enough to heal’. Indeed, it is now more recognised that baby loss is not something you heal from. It is something you live with and grow from.
Let me tell you a little about pregnancy loss and me…
When I became pregnant for the first time, I was nervous (this pregnancy was not exactly planned, although equally, not reliably prevented) but quietly delighted. I knew I wanted to be a mum, I wanted to have a baby and now I was pregnant – how exciting! However, a few weeks after this discovery, and just as my partner was getting used to the idea, I started to bleed. I remember passing our tiny embryo in the bathroom of our flat. I was shocked and devastated. Even though I knew women miscarried sometimes, I had naïvely never really considered that it might happen to me. It was a year later that I became pregnant again. I waited a little while to do a test (nerves) which confirmed what I suspected – I was pregnant. The following day I bled. The pregnancy must have been just 5 or 6 weeks gestation.
Two months later, I became pregnant for the 3rd time. Another positive pregnancy test, and, was it me, or was the blue line a little stronger this time? My partner and I peered sceptically at the test stick – what did this mean? We had stopped associating a positive pregnancy test with the joy that we felt ‘should’ accompany this moment. However, despite our anxieties, the pregnancy continued. At 11 weeks gestation we heard our baby’s heartbeat for the first time. At 12 weeks we had a reassuring ultrasound scan, told our family and friends and I felt special.
The pregnancy continued to progress well, despite my anxiety that remained a feature of the 2nd trimester. As the 3rd trimester progressed I started to relax (just a little) when I woke one morning to find that I had bled heavily overnight. We headed to hospital, where they could find no reason for the bleed. As we made our way home from the antenatal ward, we bought a couple of babygrows – just in case! That evening my waters broke just as I was getting ready for bed. We made our way back to the hospital where our little boy, Hugo, was born early the next morning at 34 weeks gestation (6 weeks early). He was and still is our precious gift.
I loved being a mum to baby Hugo. It wasn’t until he was 18 months old that we turned our minds to having another baby – a brother or sister was in order. To my surprise and delight, I became pregnant straight away. A couple of days later, I felt that sinking feeling as I started to bleed – not again – I thought this was a thing of the past, that I could do pregnancy now! I had a scan – the sonographer told me she thought the pregnancy had a 50:50 chance. I got home from the scan and bled heavily. Convinced it was all over, I commenced a vigorous exercise routine – running, pilates, skipping – I did plenty!
A few weeks later, I was still bleeding on and off. A scan was arranged to make sure the miscarriage had been complete. The sonographer started the scan, and, there it was – a little heartbeat! I couldn’t believe it! There were still pockets of blood visible, so we were sent away prepared for more bleeding. The pregnancy progressed and I continued to bleed intermittently. Regular scans continued to confirm viability. Then, one day after a few weeks of no bleeding, my partner and Hugo joined me for a scan. We were going to show Hugo his new brother or sister ‘on the special TV screen’. The sonographer was quietly looking at the baby. “Is he ok?” I asked – I could see his heart beating, so things must be ok. “No, it’s not ok”, she answered. She had found several physical abnormalities. Our baby was not very well.
The next few months remain a blur to me. We had CVS (chorionic villus sampling) testing which confirmed that the little boy I was carrying had Edward’s Syndrome – a rare but serious chromosomal abnormality that is not usually compatible with life. I remember talk of termination. This was not something I wanted. I knew from our scans that our baby was very poorly and his tiny body was failing him. I knew he didn’t have long to live. A few weeks later, after I hadn’t felt movements for a couple of days, a scan confirmed that he had died. I took the medication to induce labour, and the next day I gave birth to Thomas Albert. For all the ‘abnormalities’ we had been told he had, he looked absolutely perfect to me. I felt so proud of him.
The next year was very hard. I was depressed and experienced an unrelenting anxiety and sense of failure. I remember that people came to help for a little while. I felt so hurt to have lost a pregnancy that I thought would be ok, and so sad to have lost Thomas, Hugo’s brother. We did all the things you are meant to do to help you heal – a funeral service, chose a song to remember him, made up a memory box. During that year and beyond, I attended regular counselling sessions which were helpful. Other mums who had experienced loss of their own baby helped me too. I am forever grateful to those mums.
It was nearly 3 years before I felt able to consider another pregnancy. I became pregnant after a few months. However, a viability scan at 8 weeks revealed that the baby’s heart had stopped beating. Deep breath…
One more try? We both knew that if & when I became pregnant again it was going to be our last try – whatever the outcome. There was only so much of this rollercoaster we could put ourselves through. We were lucky. Despite a number of ups and downs along the way (yes, more bleeding), Wilf was born at term (and I finally got my waterbirth!). He too was and remains our precious gift. Our family was complete.
Our boys are now 12 and 8 years old. They know about their brother, Thomas, and we talk about him freely. There is a special place that we go to remember him. He is part of our family and I believe he has been a positive in our boys’ lives. He has taught them that sad things can happen in any family. He has been part of teaching them that life is a miracle (we sometimes talk about how amazing it is that the 4 of us got to be born at all!). He has helped teach them how very loved and wanted they are by their mum and dad.
It is now over 10 years since Thomas’ birth and death. I am now able to see the gifts that Thomas gave to me too. Perhaps one of greatest of these is increased empathy. Pregnancy and parenthood can challenge us in many ways – as a midwife and health visitor I try to find the time to really listen and hear parents’ stories. So many have been through such a lot on their journey to becoming parents. Stories like ours are really not unusual.
The other great gift my bumpy road to motherhood has given me is gratitude. Despite the running around we seem to do each and every day (is every family so busy?), I feel a deep sense of gratitude on a daily basis for the gift of two healthy boys. This too is something I share with other mums who have gone on to have a child after experiencing baby loss – the palpable sense of gratitude that we got to become a mum after all. There really is no greater privilege 💛
Rebecca is a midwife, health visitor and mum. She runs Babyology Dorset to support new parents in Bournemouth, East Dorset & Ringwood through home visits and classes.