A guest post by Zoe (@motherof__pearl).
In the darkness of night, I wake, sweating, my heart hammering. The room is silent. I try to place myself for a second, but my body is already in motion, leaning over, turning on the lamp, peering at his chest before my mind has caught up, watching for that tiny rise and fall of his rib cage. And for what feels like a long time, it is probably only a second, I can’t see it. Then his hand twitches and he inhales suddenly with a little squeak, and I can breathe again.
We have been home just over two weeks, but he is already nearly four weeks old. The patch of irritation on his perfect cheek is still visible from where his feeding tube was taped to his face in intensive care. There is still a bruise mottling the creamy skin on the back of his little hand from the cannula. His tiny heels are covered in punctures from all the blood tests.
I lie back down and try to slow my heart rate. I tell myself over and over that he is breathing, he is alive, he is safe, and I fall into a fitful sleep where that mantra beats like a rhythm in my chest and my head and my dreams. Until I jerk awake only minutes later, convinced again that he is dead, or he was never here at all. And the cycle continues, over, and over.
I know that the chances of my baby dying in his moses basket are very low (I don’t look up the statistics, I have to force myself not to because it will lead me into an anxiety Google spiral). But this doesn’t stop me believing my son has died every few minutes. Because, you see, there was also a very low chance of me losing six pregnancies in a row, or of conceiving triplets and losing all three to a chromosome abnormality, or that my daughter would have a heart defect and die inside me, or that my waters would break at 34 weeks with my ninth baby, or of my uterus being an abnormal shape, which would only be detected during an emergency c-section when it was removed from my body to have the placenta peeled away from where it had adhered, or of my seventh pregnancy resulting in a premature baby who was hospitalised for over two weeks before he could come home. And yet all those things did happen… so why not SIDS, too?
I realise that after seven years of trying to have a baby, my son being born alive and eventually coming home with us, should be a cause for celebration. And it is. We have celebrated… if celebrating counts as exchanging momentary relieved glances at each other, or smiling nervously during a fleeting moment of calm, or crying silently into your son’s soft hair because you’re overwhelmed with how beautiful he is, or being almost paralysed by the frequent jolt of reality that reminds me just how fragile his existence is; how he was nearly never here at all; how lucky I am that he is… But it is just that – luck, or more accurately (what it really feels like): magic.
During my most recent pregnancy we did a few things differently, but no one can say for sure what, if any, treatment worked and what was just down to luck. I can’t recreate this situation again if we ever want another child, so it feels as though we have concocted a mystical potion… it brought and brings no certainty. It’s also possible that Kitto was born alive because he’s Kitto, and he’s a bloody strong fighter. I fought, too, but every day I woke up pregnant, I prepared to lose the battle.
It’s still painful to look back and realise that this lingering expectation of bereavement completely spoilt what was possibly my only successful pregnancy. The whole eight months I carried my son, I was bracing for the impact of the crash, every second, of every day. I didn’t believe any of the medical professionals who almost constantly reassured me that my baby was fine. The consultant who I saw at our fortnightly clinic appointments was the same man who dealt with the loss of our daughter, Pearl. He’d said everything was fine with her, too… until it wasn’t.
So when, at 28 weeks, our first growth scan with Kitto showed he was measuring very small, and restricted growth became a concern, a part of me silently said ‘I told you so’. Then my waters went at just over 34 weeks, and all my worst nightmares looked like they were about to become a reality.
My pregnancy with Kitto was miraculous, but also distressing. It was filled with magical moments that were often immediately counteracted by anxiety. To be pregnant after the loss of a pregnancy is to revisit the cause of your trauma for nine months. The cumulative effect of recurrent pregnancy loss is so profoundly damaging that it feels as though it reroutes pathways in your brain. You cannot trust your instincts, you cannot accurately react to your memories or the present. You become unable to comprehend what the future may look like. You become trapped in a state of limbo; too frightened look forward, too terrified to look back. And with pregnancy after loss, there is a guilt, too, that you are being ungrateful.
A living baby at the end of a pregnancy is the ultimate, joyful goal, and every pregnancy brings with it the fresh chance of that happening. It is a wonderful opportunity to create a life, a family, something born out of love. I do not take my son for granted. I love him fiercely, with a strength so profound that it makes my whole body ache. He represents a kind of pure, forceful, painful hope that takes my breath away. But hope is such a fragile thing, and my hope during his pregnancy after losing eight babies before him, was always tinged with despair.
Having Kitto has given me a type of joy I didn’t know existed. But he has also added a new level of grief about all our previous losses, because, now, I know exactly what we lost – more than all those big things like watching them grow up and pass all those amazing milestones of birthdays, first smiles and first steps and falling in love – although all those things would and will be miraculous to see. But all the tiny moments, too. The way he squeaks in his sleep, the bright intensity of his eyes, the small frown he does when he’s displeased with something, the beautiful pout of his lips. Watching all those minute parts of him brings the other losses into stark focus: We missed out on countless moments. And that makes me furious and deeply sad even as I watch Kitto with blissful happiness
It feels like there is another me, on the other side of a thin curtain, mourning the loss of another baby
If we had given up, Kitto wouldn’t be here now. And this fact often means my mind slips into a surreal, alternate reality. Sometimes I feel he is so precious, he almost isn’t here… and he very nearly wasn’t. It feels like there is another me, on the other side of a thin curtain, mourning the loss of another baby, my ninth baby, this baby. Because it could so easily have been that way. I find it almost impossible to relax into the space where is here, and alive. I am happy and grief stricken simultaneously. A dichotomy of emotion that is utterly destabilising.
It seems there are two opposing motherhoods happening for me simultaneously.
So here is the other side of this story:
In the darkness of night, I wake to the sound of a little cry. I try to place myself for a second, but my body is already in motion, leaning over, turning on the lamp, peering at him before my mind has caught up, watching him in his moses basket, tiny hands pawing at the air, as if he is gently doing doggy paddle on his back. And for what feels like a long time, I lie there and just marvel at the complete perfection of him. He is just over four weeks old and he hasn’t yet reached his due date, but already I can’t imagine my life without him.
I lie back down and try to go back to sleep. I tell myself that he will soon wake up and want feeding, and I should rest while I can. But all I want to do is watch him and savour every moment. I close my eyes and tell myself over and over that he is perfect, and he is here, and I can’t believe how lucky I am, and I fall into a beautiful sleep where that mantra beats like a rhythm in my chest and my head and my dreams. Until I wake again, only minutes later, so I can lean over and watch the rise and fall of his chest, the flutter of his eyelids as he dreams. And the cycle continues, over, and over. And I drink him in. And I know that every tear, every panic, every fight and struggle and bit of terror, was worth it. He is worth it.