A Guest Blog Post from Rachael Duggan
I’ve been following Cheltenham Maman for a few months now and I’ll be honest; I thought it was perhaps all about being a ‘yummy mummy’ and I’ve always joked that I most definitely fall more into the ‘scummy mummy’ category when it comes to parenting. It felt a little aspirational, particularly in light of the most recent chapter in my life. However, fellow guest blogger Danielle Parry’s blog a couple of weeks back caught my eye because she talked with such brutal and raw honesty about her traumatic birth experience and subsequent PTSD. So it got me thinking; maybe people would want to read about my experience too.
My journey to parenthood wasn’t easy at the outset; 7 years ago I became a single mum to my little boy. However, following a previous diagnosis of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), I was nothing but overjoyed when I found out I was pregnant and with the support of family and friends, I made it work. He’s since grown into a lovely little man who defies any stereotype the Daily Mail might throw at you about single parent families.
Fast forward to last year and now happily married to Gerard, we were thrilled to be expecting our first child together and having found out that it was a girl, really felt as if we were completing our family. I had a normal pregnancy; despite being built for comfort, not for speed, impressing the midwives with my low blood pressure and exemplary test results (smug face). We were on the home strait by late July and were booked for an elective caesarean – my choice following an unpleasant failed induction the last time. Our 36 week scan showed our little girl was a good size and her heart and lungs were working away – we were reassured that we would meet her in less than a fortnight.
But, for some unknown reason between that appointment on the Thursday and Sunday night, she stopped moving and died. Curse Doctor Internet because when I searched for ‘reduced movement at 36 weeks’, a lot of the comments I saw said that it was completely normal for baby to move less towards the end of a pregnancy – something which I now know is completely untrue. Your baby’s movements should remain the same right up to and including during birth. I should have raced to the hospital as soon as the doubt crept in, something which I will forever regret.
Florence Frances was delivered by caesarean at 11:58am on 3 August weighing 7lbs 2oz. I had opted for general anaesthetic (I think that was the shock talking) and didn’t hold her for several hours and when I did, it was through a haze of morphine and anaesthetic that made it all seem almost unreal. Meeting your newborn should be all about fuzzy warmth and the smell of their skin but it wasn’t like that at all – I was afraid to really touch her and examine her hands and feet. And there was a different smell to it all – not the one I cherished and remembered from 7 years ago. I had asked for her to be washed, dressed and wrapped in a blanket which they had done but it wasn’t the perfect picture you project in your mind’s eye. Her eyes were closed and her lips were blue, but to all intents and purposes, she just looked like a sleeping newborn.
We were cared for in a dedicated bereavement suite at the hospital funded by Gloucestershire SANDS with its own entrance and kitchen/lounge area and there were no set visiting hours. My husband and our families were free to come and go and we were well away from the sounds of the maternity ward with one-to-one care which was just exemplary. We spent two and a half days with our girl, took photos and hand and footprints and prepared ourselves to leave her behind once I was well enough to be discharged. The stark contrast came when I was readmitted by ambulance to the gynae ward a week later with a severe infection and nobody seemed to grasp how I was feeling emotionally. I clung to my daughter’s knitted bear just to try and gain some relief from my aching empty arms. While I was there, I needed a scan of my kidneys and pelvic area. Still sore from the operation, I cried all the way through the examination. The sonographer assumed that my tears were due to the discomfort and at the end asked me brightly; “Where’s baby then? Back on the ward?” In a wobbly voice, I mustered in reply “Baby died.”
In the weeks and months following the funeral, I suffered vivid dreams and flashbacks which weren’t just images but also related to sounds and smells. Just the sight of a baby carrier or the sound of a baby crying would set my heart racing and my fight or flight reflex would kick in. And for someone who was previously the first to look in a pram or smile at a baby in a waiting room, I knew that my feelings weren’t normal. My mental state was already being closely monitored by my GP and I was referred to mental health services who diagnosed me with PTSD and fast-tracked me for a course of therapy called EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. While still in its evidential infancy, the treatment has been shown to have dramatic and tangible results in cases of trauma such as former soldiers and situations like mine. The premise is that it replicates rapid eye movement in sleep – the time when your brain normally sorts and processes events and experiences – and when you undergo a traumatic event, your brain can sometimes misfile it, which then leads to flashbacks. By recreating that state while awake, the therapist helps you come to terms with events and look at them differently.
Alongside counselling from the charity Footsteps Counselling & Care in Gloucester and meeting other bereaved parents at SANDS, the EMDR somehow made everything ‘click’ into place. I could still remember every minute detail of the experience but it was now less acute; I still saw the images but no longer felt the fear or smelt the smells. I’m still not a fan of small babies, but I don’t run for the hills like I used to.
Almost everyone asked and still do if they found out why we lost Florence and the answer is no. She was genetically, physically and biologically perfect and that’s so often the case with stillbirth. Between 12 and 17 babies a day are stillborn in the UK and we don’t talk about it – something which needs to change.
So here we find ourselves in 2016 expecting again and I won’t lie – it’s terrifying. I am currently struggling with people saying ‘congratulations’ when they see me. I absolutely know that it’s meant with nothing but good wishes, but the reality for me – for both of us – is that this baby isn’t a full gone conclusion until he or she is breathing and looking at us. Until then it’s a maybe – a theory – and for my own sanity, I feel that I have to be realistic and maintain a level of self-preservation in case the worst should happen again. That’s not to say that I am choosing to be negative – far from it – it’s not a conscious choice, but the anxiety and fear means that pregnancy after loss is very different altogether.
I’ve made some good friends in fellow bereaved parents over the last year and as soon as I found out I was pregnant, one of my biggest worries was telling one of them who sadly can’t have any more children since her loss. When I summoned up the courage to do so face to face a few weeks ago, I know that her reaction came from a place of grief and pain, but in her anger she said that people who go on to have another baby just forget the pain because ‘another’ baby makes it all better. I was devastated because I can categorically say that if (and it’s a strong if) this baby joins us safely next year, it doesn’t change an ounce of the pain and longing for Florence. This baby isn’t a sticking plaster – it doesn’t make it all right. If you lose a spouse, nobody would say “at least you can marry someone else”, so why do people say similar things to bereaved parents? Someone is missing from our family and they will be forever absent, no matter how our future looks.
I hope that I’ll be able to share nothing but good news with all you Cheltenham Mamans next year but come what may, I will never take anything for granted again.
Rachael is a 37 year old married mum of two to a little boy, who’s nearly 8 and Florence, who was stillborn almost full term in August 2015. She and her husband live in a small town in the Cotswolds and are now (very) anxiously expecting their third child, due to be delivered early in January 2017.
A copywriter by trade, Rachael has written extensively about her experiences of bereavement having lost her youngest brother suddenly and unexpectedly in 2013 and her daughter in 2015. Community-minded with a good sense of humour and a passion for humanist values, she is an advocate for blood and organ donation, volunteering and good causes who doesn’t polish a proverbial halo – she just tries to do the right thing whenever she can. Will work for (good) chocolate.