I chose the first caesarean section of the day, just before 7am. I knew that if I had had the entire day to consider the operation to bring my baby daughter into the world, I would likely break from the anxiety that had been building over the past nine months. A hospital has an eerie silence in the early hours. I know it too well. I was rushed here almost two years ago, following the night I prematurely gave birth to my son at home, watching him pass away in front of me on the towels I hastily laid on the floor after my waters broke five months into my pregnancy.
I was certain this baby was going to die too. A terrifying vision of my daughter lying lifeless on my stomach had frequently entered my mind in the days leading up to the operation. I had seen her brother, Axel, in this position, my hands cradling his tiny body when we were sped to the AE department after he died. It was my body, my weakened cervix, that had caused his early birth. I couldn’t shake the image of her in the same position.
It should have been an occasion of happiness. But moments that should have been filled with love instead filled me with terror. Tears fell as my bed was wheeled to the operating room. I asked for my caesarean to be postponed. Could we wait another day? I wasn’t ready to face the fear that she, like him, might not make it.
The midwife spoke in a soft voice, though her calming words of reassurance were ineffective as thoughts raced in my mind. I closed my eyes through the surgery, choosing to block out what was happening. I sobbed quietly as my body was maneuvered by the surgeon. The few minutes on the operating table felt endless as I waited to hear a cry – confirmation that I would finally get the baby I was unsure would ever come. And then I heard her. My husband held her to my face and my fists unclenched with relief.
It had taken five months of trying naturally to conceive my first son, Astie, in 2011. The only difficulty I had faced was preeclampsia at 38 weeks. There was nothing to indicate that my fertility had changed in the three years since his birth, but, in 2015, when we began trying for a second baby, we encountered complications. In late 2016, my IVF journey began.
Four failed frozen IVF cycles since Axel died had gone by before my husband and I decided to embark on another fresh cycle. It wasn’t as physically draining on my body as past fresh cycles had been – a good sign, I hoped. I waited seven days before beginning the morning ritual I had come to know through each of my previous IVF experiences. Three pregnancy tests laid out on the bathroom sink, the excitement of monitoring the tests with a hope that two dark parallel lines would appear. On day 10, a faint second line appeared. On day 11 it was darker, day 12, darker still. I told my husband, who refused to believe I was pregnant until I had taken a blood test. But I knew. With a mixture of excitement and dread, I booked a blood test on day 14 following the embryo transfer. It was positive.
I wanted to share my news with the world, to post an image of my growing bump on Instagram, a place where so many had reached out to me following the loss of Axel with messages of hope. Although this third pregnancy had been labelled high risk (losing my baby late in pregnancy meant I was only too aware of potential complications; I questioned every movement, twinge and moment of sickness) I decided that by the three-month mark I would announce that our baby was due in the spring.
By week 10 I started to ease into the pregnancy. The morning sickness was as evident and consuming as my other two pregnancies, but my confidence that this baby would make it had grown. The Harmony test told us our baby was a girl.
At almost three months pregnant, my husband, never home during the day, had landed late morning from a business trip and had decided to come home before heading to the office. He had been home for just a few minutes when I felt a small rush of fluid. I looked inside my underwear to see a substantial amount of blood, enough to let me know that something was wrong. I walked the two flights of stairs to our bathroom and managed to make it to the toilet before a greater rush of blood came, carrying with it a large blood clot that forcefully hit the water beneath me. Through tears I told my husband I had miscarried, that we had lost another baby. Strangely, when I saw what I believed was my baby lying in the water, at that moment my tears were not of sadness, but of anger and frustration. For two years I had been injecting myself with drugs, had been pregnant, or been grieving for the baby I had watched pass away in the summer of 2017.
With a mix of emotions, I walked downstairs to the kitchen. I took a pair of rubber gloves and found a small freezer bag in which to place what I thought was my baby. To me, this was a second baby I would quietly bury. I placed her in the small clear bag, wrapped it in tissue, got into the car and called the hospital as my husband drove us to AE.
I called the IVF clinic en route to ask when I could start the process again. A nurse I had come to know well answered the phone. She asked how much pain I was experiencing. I told her none. She said it was strange that there was no pain or cramps and that the blood had stopped. The only advice she could give me was to head to AE and let the doctors assess me.
We signed in at the hospital and were rushed through. As I sat on the bed, not knowing whether the small package I held in my hands was my baby, I noticed one of the doctors staring into our cubicle. She came over, explaining that she had been the first doctor to see me when I had arrived in the ambulance following Axel’s death two years ago. She knew me and my story, although I had no recollection of her, or of anybody, from that morning.
The tests were done and standard procedures were checked off by nurses. I was told there was no availability for a scan, either within the NHS or the private clinic close by, so we would have to come back in the morning to confirm whether I was still pregnant.
The next morning, the sonographer placed the ultrasound on my stomach. There was my baby. Her heartbeat was strong. I had experienced a subchorionic haemorrhage, relatively common, I was told. And so, we left the hospital. My husband kissed me as he left for the Tube station. I drove home with the ultrasound image of our daughter clearly in view on the passenger seat.
Nothing I ever thought about pregnancy was this complicated. You had sex, you made a baby. Until our attempts to get pregnant with a second child, this was how easy I assumed my fertility journey would be. No IVF, no child loss, no miscarriages.
My 12-week scan proved to be another hurdle. As I lay on the bed, the sonographer excused herself and walked back in 10 minutes later with an obstetrician. Confirming that my mucus plug had already come away, it was explained that my baby would be here shortly if I didn’t have an operation to fix a cerclage, stitching that would hold the top of my cervix together for the remaining six months of my pregnancy. At 6am the next morning I was back in the hospital, leaving later that day with the security that would, I hoped, get me safely to the 40- week mark.
Tempting fate by announcing the bump on Instagram was something that no longer felt like an option. I felt too fragile to expose myself, knowing what fate could bring. Thankfully, it wasn’t difficult to hide my stomach until at least six months. I liked it this way, my news only shared with those I met. In a world of sharing our every move, it made the nine months more special because it became my little secret. At home I was in a bubble. I checked off each week as they passed alongside my husband and six-year-old son Astie, who had been involved since the moment a blood test confirmed I was pregnant. He had lived the entire journey with us, from the night of Axel’s death and the intense grief that followed, to now knowing another baby would soon, we hoped, be part of our family.
My pregnancy progressed with no further medical complications, but with a growing bump came growing anxiety. Most days, my mind would create negative scenarios, both terrifying and exhausting. I regularly saw a healer who had helped me when Axel died. I tried guided meditation, hoping it would calm my mind. Although I found talking and meditation helpful during the sessions, soon after returning to my daily routine, the negative thoughts once again took over.
Finally, she came. Audrey. A planned date and planned operation. But with the relief that came a few days after her arrival also came a sadness that I hadn’t expected. I had a beautiful daughter, but I had still lost a son. She didn’t replace the loss. During those initial days in the hospital when Audrey cried, I would imagine the sounds Axel would have made. She opened her eyes and I pictured her face as his. I knew she was here and that my son was gone, but those split seconds when my mind allowed me to imagine the “what ifs” left me with an almost unbearable longing for the baby I had lost.
I was told, and in many ways expected, that things would get easier once my daughter arrived. But the immense love I have for this tiny human is coupled with a longing for the baby who couldn’t stay. My arms want to hold the son I met, whose perfect mouth I watched trying to breathe the air that would keep him alive. Audrey is here, but with the happiness she has brought, there is guilt for every moment that Axel is not. How do I let him go, while still being able to hold him close? His freedom is my freedom, but my chest tightens when I think I may need to loosen my hold on him, to say out loud that I will never forget him, but that I am moving forward. I feel overwhelmed by my love for him and the pain that saying he can now rest brings.
I don’t lay blame on the friends and well-meaning strangers who, without truly understanding, comment that I finally got my happy ending. There is no happy ending. Yes, I absolutely realise how lucky I am to have two healthy children.
Yes, there is a new life and deep love for a baby who I thought might never come. But, I still lost a son. The happy ending would have been that he lived too.