Earlier this year I sat in a school hall watching as my 8-year old son Jacob went up on stage to accept a ‘Super Pupil of the Year’ award. He stood tall and proud as the head teacher spoke about my son’s determination, sense of humour, kindness, how Jacob stands up for what he believes in and how he should never forget that being himself is what makes him special. I watched as my son walked back to his seat, head held high, grinning at his friends, looking so proud. I smiled.
Rewind 8 years, back to the moment Jacob was born – silent, blue, tiny and nine weeks early.
When I was pregnant no-one ever warned me about what could happen if my baby was born significantly before his due date. In fact I was told by family, friends and colleagues that as this was my first baby he would likely be born after my estimated due date. Okay I said as I booked my antenatal classes and read the variety of books that would tell me what I should expect. What I didn’t expect was my son to arrive at 31 weeks. What I certainly didn’t expect was to start what turned out to be a long grieving process, mixed together with happiness, guilt, love and fear. I grieved for my son, lying in the intensive care unit hooked up to a variety of scary, beeping monitors and with a mask covering his tiny face, helping him to breathe. I grieved for the loss of what I assumed would be my ‘rite of passage’ into motherhood – the ‘golden hour’ after birth when I could hold, smell, touch, look at and bond with my baby, hearing him cry, feeding him, being the one to change and dress him, the trip back home with my baby in the car, balloons and champagne waiting, congratulations cards lined up on the mantle piece. I even felt the loss of my ‘goodbye drinks’ at work and my longed for maternity leave, which were still weeks away. Instead I had a rushed hold of our tiny, quiet, 4lb boy before he was whisked away by a team of strangers. I spent my first night as a new mother either alone in my room, listening to the cries of other babies, or walking to and fro along the stark, quiet hospital corridors, visiting my son, and being told that the first 24 hours were “key to his survival”. I sat in a plastic chair by his cot (he was still too fragile to be moved to an incubator) hesitantly stroking his face and singing Lavenders Blue until the nurses made me go back to bed to rest. As for the cards, many people seemed wary of sending us one in case our son didn’t survive. There were no balloons to celebrate our wonderful son’s first hours and days in this world, and the expected tears of happiness were instead tears of shock and fear.
I cuddled my son for the first time three long days later, but felt nervous about dislodging the tangle of wires and drips. He was my son but I felt as though the hospital owned him. He was my son but I’d never been alone with him, held him without being watched, changed his nappy or fed him. He was my son but I didn’t feel like his mother. When I was sent home a couple of days later, myself and my husband went back to an empty house. We left the champagne in the fridge. I wanted to run out into the street and shout “We have a son! Please celebrate with us! Send us cards and presents, texts and emails, and use the words “congratulations” and “how wonderful” and not “we’re sorry to hear your news”… We then tried to sleep knowing that somebody else was holding our son.
Three and a half weeks, one brain bleed, lots of oxygen, frequent doses of caffeine (to keep his heart beating) and numerous bouts of jaundice later our amazing, well, strong son was able to come home. Our hands, dry and cracked from hand sanitisers could now hold, touch and love him whenever we wanted. We had to learn that this was our son and not the hospital’s, that we could hold him when we chose, feed and change him when we chose, and be with him through the night as well as during the day. Slowly we began to bond as a family. And he thrived. And he grew. And we could breathe again.
It took me a long time to deal with my ‘grief’ and my feelings of guilt that is was somehow my fault Jacob had such a difficult start to life. I had to try and come to terms with all that I felt was taken away from me when my son was born so early and so unexpectedly. But even though I admit to being sometimes wistful, imagining a different start as a mother, and Jacob having an easier, more gentle transition into the world, I know that this was Jacob’s journey, this was my journey, this was my husband’s journey, and we were on this journey together.
Eight years later, as I sat watching my son beaming with pride at having been selected for such a special award, I felt overwhelmed with emotion. The start of my journey as a mother may have been tricky and Jacob may have had to rely on tubes, wires, masks, heat and constant care from our amazing health professionals to survive those early days, but he made it, and we made it as a family, and for that I will be always grateful. I couldn’t be more proud.
Premature or preterm birth is defined as a birth that takes place before 37 weeks gestation.
In England and Wales in 2011, over 54,000 babies were born prematurely. Around 80,000 babies are born each year in the UK needing specialist hospital care.