This post has been surprisingly difficult to write.
As I sat in my hospital bed, awaiting discharge from the antenatal ward, I felt the overwhelming urge to put pen to (metaphorical) paper and ‘blog it out’; to document these tempestuous few days and how I navigated them. But once I arrived home, enveloped in the safety and familiarity of my own surroundings, the words just wouldn’t come.
To those who don’t know what on earth I’m banging on about, here’s the context:
On Monday 5th February, at 26 weeks and 5 days pregnant, something didn’t feel right. It was period 1 – poetry with Year 10 – and I couldn’t shake the notion that my body was a bit off-kilter. I was a little clammy; my hands trembled slightly as I brought my water bottle to my parched lips. Was that nausea I was feeling, or did I imagine it? As the lesson wore on, the knot in my stomach became harder to ignore; whether it was anxiety or an adverse reaction to last night’s pork roast, as it pulled tighter I knew I needed to call the midwife.
I felt remarkably calm when I dialled the switch board to for the community team, although the tightenings were getting stronger.
‘Does it feel like Braxton Hicks?’ the voice on the phone enquired.
Not really, but perhaps?
I cast my mind back to my previous pregnancies; I had definitely felt these cramps before. I found several memories which fitted the bill: lying in the dark delivery suite room the night before Findlay was born; bouncing on my ball in the antenatal ward and staring out of the window, willing myself into labour with Leo; wincing each time I attempted to breastfeed in the days after his birth and my body seemed to start contracting all over again.
None of these memories were Braxton Hicks.
The midwife decided it would be best for me to head up to Delivery Suite to be monitored, so I rang Tom and we arranged to make our way over there.
After several hours in the waiting room, the pains remaining consistent but no worse, we were taken through to triage. At under 28 weeks, I was too early to be placed on the CTG monitor, but the midwife listened in with the doppler and a mini-ultrasound scanner which resembled a chunkier, NHS version of the 00’s classic Motorola Razr.
‘Everything looks fine,’ the midwife confirmed. ‘It’s probably just Braxton Hicks. They do get stronger the more pregnancies you have. The after pains do too.’
I felt relieved, and a little embarrassed. Tom and I had both missed a full day’s work all because my pain threshold wasn’t quite as stoic as I’d always believed.
We had to wait for the doctor to speak to us, but anticipated being home for Leo’s bedtime.
The doctor arrived, full of good spirits. We briefly discussed my obstetric history and he asked a little about the cramps: they were the same, about one every 10 minutes, no better or worse than this morning. He said that he wanted to give me a quick examination and perform a fetal fibronectin test. This simple test, similar to a smear, measures the level of a protein known as fetal fibronectin and can determine whether or not a woman is at risk of going into preterm labour. It works like a pregnancy test: if the protein is detected you get two lines for positive, if not then negative. After the examination, which the doctor confirmed showed no visual signs of me going into preterm labour, we just had to wait a few minutes for the test to work.
‘Er, Laura…it’s positive.’
‘That’s good, right?’
‘Not really. It means there’s a 50% chance of you going into early labour.’
The tone and pace of the conversation quickly shifted: I was being admitted; I needed a steroid injection to help mature they baby’s lungs; NICU had to be notified.
‘But I can’t actually go into labour now,’ I choked, ‘it’s far too early.’
The doctor reassured me that the result didn’t guarantee that I would go into labour, but they needed to make preparations in case to ensure the baby had the best possible chance. ‘We do have babies born at 27 weeks,’ he smiled. ‘It’s not what we would want, but we do.’
Fortunately, after 48 hours on the antenatal ward and two rounds of steroids, the cramping subsided. It seemed I was out of the woods.
But I won’t lie, the whole experience has left me a little shaken.
Pregnancy after loss is relentless. You are constantly battling the anxiety – the terror – that history will repeat itself, and once again you are going to find yourself clutching nothing but a memory box and the fragments of a shattered heart. Each 24 hours which pass bring you one step closer to meeting your baby, to the possibility that they could come home, and yet some days you feel each, and every one of those hours. It seems as though you are counting every grain of sand trickling through the timer, willing yourself forward to a time and place when the fear won’t suffocate you, whilst the end goal – a living, breathing, healthy baby – appears like a hazy mirage, just out of reach.
In Leo’s pregnancy, I couldn’t allow myself to even imagine a version of reality which ended in anything other than devastation. Heartbreak and trauma were all I knew of pregnancy, and it was too dangerous to indulge the fantasy of an alternative.
This time around, PAL is proving just as challenging, but I am stronger now. Perhaps it is being that bit further along in my grief; maybe it is the benefit of having Leo; most likely it stems from the intense feelings of regret and sadness which taint my memories of his pregnancy, and a stubborn refusal to allow myself to succumb to the crippling fear again, without so much as an attempt to manage it. Whatever the reason, I have vowed to try and embrace the lighter moments in this pregnancy. To allow myself to feel the full spectrum of emotions, from the anxiety and terror to the joy and excitement. Most of all, I made a promise that I would feed the love more than the threat of loss; to tend the flame of hope even when the darkness sets in.
And generally, I think, I am managing to do that. I’m taking active steps to cope with my anxiety by having frank conversations with my midwife about how I’m feeling and utilising resources such as my Headspace app when I need to; I’m acknowledging the limits of what I can manage and accepting help from friends and family; I’m being kind to myself, whether I’m sinking under the weight of grief and fear or revelling in the daydream of a summer with two children at home. I’m learning that all of my emotions are valid and okay.
Yet I can’t help but feel the universe is determined to test this resolve time and time again. As soon as it seems like I’ve got a handle on things, that my mental health is in a good place and I’m managing to ride the waves of PAL, something comes and knocks me off-course. First it was our screening results, which came as a complete shock, and now last week’s episode. Both of which are completely unrelated to Findlay’s pregnancy and the reasons he died.
I guess it just proves that, sadly, nothing about pregnancy is certain; when it comes to making babies and bringing them safely into the world, there are no guarantees.
Throughout my pregnancy with Leo, people would assure me that ‘this time, everything will be fine.’ I was regularly greeted with swathes of well-meaning platitudes such as ‘lightening doesn’t strike twice’ and ‘it will be different this time’ – comments intended to alleviate my grief and anxiety which did nothing other than make me feel as though no one in the world had the faintest idea how I felt.
Grief is uncomfortable for people; the idea that others (particularly those we love) are suffering doesn’t sit easy, and many are compelled to try and do/say something to try and take the pain away. What they don’t realise is that such sentiments belittled the fear which paralysed me, trivialised the lasting-trauma of my son’s death, and dismissed the cornerstone of my maternal experience.
I’ll admit that even I thought pregnancy after loss would be a little easier to navigate second time around. Whereas before my only experience of pregnancy was that it ended in tragedy, I have tasted life on the other side; I know now the joy and wonder of a bringing home a rainbow. That said, the fear is still there. Just as people assured me that Findlay’s death didn’t mean that Leo would never come home, Leo’s safe arrival is no guarantee that this little one will be safe and well.
I guess that last week just confirms what I already know: in pregnancy, as in life, very few things are certain. All we can do is take each day as it comes, be well-informed about safety in pregnancy and stay vigilant to any signs/symptoms which may be a cause for concern, and remain ever-hopeful that the colours will once again break through.
For more information about staying safe in pregnancy, please see:
MAMA Academy: http://www.mamaacademy.org.uk/for-mums/