I’m not wild about suprises. Don’t get me wrong. If someone wanted to whisk me off to Paris tomorrow or if more than 4 hours sleep in a row were to come my way (pretty please, it’s been a year…) I’d be thrilled. But if I’m honest, I’d be much happier still if I had advance notice to work out my travel itinerary or know I could have a large glass of wine without regretting it. My dislike of surprises is one of many reasons why I find all of this so hard. I couldn’t plan for Mr Boo’s birth. I wasn’t ready. But what really kills me inside now is that I can’t plan for Mr Boo’s future. Will he walk one day? Will he have learning difficulties? Will the spasms come back?
When Will we he be diagnosed with cerebral palsy? All I know is that I don’t know anything.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. When I went to work, 65 miles from home, on 2 April last year, I knew I was in for a long day. I was interviewing. I had to be intelligent and on the ball. For a brief 30 minutes or so at the start of the day I felt both of those things. But by mid-morning I wanted to go to sleep and I and was very uncomfortable. At first I thought my discomfort was caused by the chair I was sitting in. (That’s how much I was in denial.) But by the time the lunch break came round I couldn’t sit down at all. The enormous sense of pressure and brief waves of pain welling up inside caused me to curl up in a ball in my office while hoping no one would knock at the door.
I’d hadn’t had normal contractions with Sissyboo, and while the pain I was in fitted the descriptions of what I’d read in the pregnancy manuals all those years earlier, the length of them didn’t. They were 10 seconds of intense pain at most. But they were coming every 2 minutes. I couldn’t be in labour, I told myself, so what could it be? I phoned a friend who’d just had her second baby for advice. And she told me what I knew but desperately didn’t want to hear: ‘You’re in labour. Phone for an ambulance. Don’t worry; they’ll stop it’.
So I made the call and packed my bag with work for the following day and a stack of papers to read overnight in preparation for the next morning. Not only was I coming in to work tomorrow, but I’d be home in time to make dinner for my daughter, who was in nursery in other county.
The paramedics were brilliant and reassuring. They gave me a choice of hospitals local to my work. One was near but I’d heard horror stories from colleagues who’d had their babies there. One was twenty minutes further away and I’d heard lovely things about it. I wanted to say take me to the lovely hospital. I couldn’t be in labour after all and I might as well be sent away with a flea in my ear from a nice hospital than one I’d been told never to be caught dead in. But although I didn’t admit it to myself, I knew things weren’t right and I remembered how wrong they’d nearly gone with Sissyboo. I needed to get anywhere quickly.
I phoned the Grumposaur and in my best cool as a cucumber voice told him that I was having some odd pains and that I was sure I was fine but was going to the hospital to be checked over. It was my calmness that worried him. It’s only when I am really worried that I am ever that collected. He got our daughter out of nursery, deposited her with relatives and got in the car.
When I was wheeled in, on a stretcher and breathing in gas and air, to the maternity day unit, a concerned receptionist took one look at me and said reproachfully to the paramedics that they should take me to the delivery suite asap. I think I frightened at least 5 expectant couples. There I was hooked up to monitors, assigned a fabulous midwife and awaited the arrival of the doctor.
They would stop this. My friend had said so. The paramedics had said so. The doctor said so. And then she examined me and everything changed. It was happening again. I was 10cm dilated and Mr Boo was making his appearance in the world whether I wanted him to at that precise moment or not. Incredulous, I stupidly said, ‘But I’ve just been booked in for a planned c-section in 2 and a half months’. ‘The baby hasn’t read your diary’, said the Aussie doctor. ‘You need to have this baby now and to give him the best chance, you should deliver naturally. There’s no time for steroids. When will your partner be here?’ I said I didn’t know. ‘Try to hold on she said. If it hasn’t happened already, we’ll break your waters as soon as he arrives.’
I’d battled all pregnancy to get the birth I’d wanted. To have the best chance of delivering my baby safely with people who could help if it all went wrong. Instead, I was more vulnerable and more frightened than I ever imagined I could be and nothing was within my control.
The Grumposaur arrived, mercifully in one piece, just as a team from the neonatal unit was showing me an incubator and explaining intubation and the challenges Mr Boo would face. I barely remember a word they said. This can’t be happening, I kept thinking. I’m lying here, in a borrowed posh maternity frock, in jewellery and make-up. I’m not ready to have this baby. I have a maternity swimsuit on order from Amazon.
But it was happening. And somehow those 10 second contractions were doing their job. They broke my waters and shortly afterwards Mr Boo arrived. I didn’t see him at first. What I saw was his Dad’s face, amazed, adoring and utterly terrified. Mr Boo cried and it was only when I let out a sigh that I realised I’d been holding my breath. He was big for his gestation as we’d known he would be. At 3 lbs 11 oz (6.75 kg) he was more the size of a 32-weeker, we were told. This had to be a good thing, didn’t it?
I was allowed to cuddle Mr Boo for the briefest of seconds and he was taken away to the incubator we’d been shown minutes earlier. His Dad went to follow him but was told that intubtation was too distressing a procedure for him to watch. We sat and we waited, not knowing whether our son was winning or losing his battle to live or what health problems he had. After 2 minutes, I realised I couldn’t recall what he looked like. And I wondered why it was that I couldn’t force the tears I desperately wanted to cry out of my eyes.
I don’t really remember all that much about the next two hours or the things Mr Boo’s Dad and I tried to talk about to pass the time. I vaguely remember being put on a drip to re-start my contractions as the placenta had not been delivered. My body was in shock. The first thing I remember clearly was a doctor on the next shift coming in and trying to remove it manually. It was excruciatingly painful. And fruitless. I lost a lot of blood and was prepared for theatre for a manual removal with a spinal. All that effort and I ended up in the operating theatre anyway.
As I lay there listening to the theatre staff talking about their dinner and wedding plans it slowly started to sink in. I was not pregnant any more. I had two children. And I had failed them both by giving birth to one too early. When the surgeon started to tell me jokes, I feigned sleepiness and pretended to drift off while my mind raced with the vertiginous possibilities of what life would be like now. I only opened my eyes when the midwife who had held my hand, made me laugh and allayed my fears throughout my labour came into the theatre and kissed my forehead before going off shift.
While I was in theatre, Mr Boo’s Dad got to see our unexpected guest in what he called his goldfish tank. The nurses took a photo to show me. After the epidural I wasn’t going to be going anywhere near Mr Boo for some hours. I was thoughtfully put in a private room so as not to be near mothers who could cuddle their babies and so that I could get some sleep. I was grateful. But sleep? Are you kidding me?
I spent the next 6 hours on my phone reading every website on premature babies my 3G signal would let me look at. My search terms were crude and desperate: “29 weeks”+”survival”; “pre-term birth”+”health problems”; “prematurity”+”disability”. I became obsessed with the statistics websites presented me with. The odds that Mr Boo would survive and grow up without major health complications were good, I found. That was before I lost faith in statistics, however. Before I realised that statistics are actually meaningless. It really doesn’t matter if you only have a 1 per cent chance in life of being run over by a bus if you are one of 1 per cent.
When this got too overwhelming I sent dozens of emails to work colleagues, calmly explaining that I was on maternity leave with immediate effect and cancelling meetings and so forth. Then I kept looking at the clock and trying to wiggle my toes, desperate to be able to move again and see my baby.
A nurse came round early in the morning and asked if I wanted to see Mr Boo. I said yes. She asked me how I was feeling and explained I had lost a lot of blood and my iron levels were being regularly checked. I said I was fine. She said she’d come back to get me. I went to prepare to see Mr Boo and as I got out of bed, my legs went from under me and blood went everywhere. I called for a nurse who greeted my stupidity with unreserved kindness and offered to take me to see Mr Boo in a wheelchair while my bed was re-made. I insisted on walking. If I could pretend everything was alright, then it just would be, I reasoned.
And it was. As I entered the NICU, overcome by the smell of hand detergent and confused by the carcophony of beeps I can still sometimes hear as I drift off to sleep at night I saw him. My boy. My gorgeous boy. He had ripped his ventilator out overnight and they had let him breathe in air for a few hours before re-intubating him. He was going to be OK. I knew it.
Some surprises, I realised, could be good after all.