I was never one of those people who had always wanted kids. I met my husband, Merv, when I was 23. We were more concerned with our careers, our hobbies and travelling than starting a family. In fact during this time I tried my very best not to get pregnant. Kids were always in that 5+ years timeframe. When I look back now at the young me I feel a mixture of jealousy and stupidity. Jealousy for that wonderful thing called naivety that I will never have again and stupidity for leaving it so long before starting a family.
The decision to start a family did not come easy to us. We didn’t particularly like kids and we had a great lifestyle. We could do what we wanted, when we wanted. We went back and forth on the decision, doing up lists of pro’s and con’s. Each list always ended up with a large number of con’s and very few pro’s. So many people we knew with young children looked a little miserable. They were exhausted all the time and never seemed to be able to do what they wanted, forever slaves to their children. Most of them would say that they loved being parents, that they couldn’t remember life before their kids, it was fantastic. The black bags under their eyes and vomit stained tops, however, told another story. Despite this there was something deep down inside me that felt I would regret it if I never had any kids. Looking at the relationship I had with my own parents, did I really not want to have that for myself with my own kids?
Pro’s and con’s aside, we decided that there must be some wonderful unknown to having kids that you only experience once you have them. With Merv’s PhD finished, both of us in secure jobs and me creeping towards my mid-30’s we decided that it was time to take the leap. We started trying for a family.
Trying for Benjamin
Once we made the decision to start trying we did our best to push all of the fear to the back of our minds. I mean, really when you think about it you should be able to have a bit of fun trying for your first baby. Month after month passed with lots of fun but no signs of a baby. As we got closer to the 6 month mark with no pregnancy the symptoms of the endometriosis I suffered from in my early 20’s started to return. I remembered when I had my first laparoscopy in Dublin my consultant had said to me that I could have fertility problems with endometriosis. At the time I was 25 years old and babies were so far from my mind that I just brushed the comment aside. Now some 8 years later those dreaded words “fertility problems” started to creep back into my mind. I decided I would be safe and organise an appointment with an endometriosis specialist.
I think I was only in the specialist’s office 10 mins before he was booking me in for another laparoscopy. When in his office he discussed with us the different gradings or severity of endometriosis. He showed us the pictures of a patient’s uterus who had one of the worst cases of endometriosis that he had seen. It looked a complete mess. He followed the pictures up quite quickly with the fact that this patient now had 3 children and it was likely that I only needed a “tidy up” anyway.
As I woke up post surgery I did not feel great. I had a lot of pain in my abdomen and was still very groggy from the anaesthetic. The specialist came to see me to discuss how the surgery went. What came next was a big surprise. He started out with “remember that patient I showed you in my office…”. I was in shock. I had blanked those images from my mind. I had reassured myself that the odds of it happening to me were so low. This was to be our first harsh lesson in statistics – you can only ignore them when you are on the right side of them. Unfortunately this is something we would find out on more than one occasion on our journey to start a family.
After being diagnosed with severe, extensive endometriosis I was told that the safest way for me to get pregnant now would be via IVF. To say my head was spinning was an understatement.
I had a difficult and long recovery from the surgery. I did not feel that I was ready to make the decision to proceed with the IVF by the time it came around. The specialist wanted to start it as soon as possible to take advantage of the fact that he had removed a significant portion of the endometriosis. Now was my best chance to get pregnant so I felt like I had no choice and jumped in, feet first.
Each morning and night I injected myself with hormones. The side effects of the hormones were much worse than the actual injections themselves. Bloated stomach, headaches, nausea, tiredness. Add to this multiple blood tests each week, multiple ultrasounds and going under general anaesthetic again. Most clinic visits were in the mornings to track your hormones via blood tests. Each visit took on average 2 hours by the time I included travel time and waiting to be seen at the clinic. The stress of getting into work on time and getting time off work for these multiple appointments was awful. I have a high stress job with long work hours. It was safe to say that I was very irritable during this time.
The wait for the pregnancy test results that first time was not what you would think. The whole experience was so awful that I just wanted it to be over…without a positive pregnancy result. If I was actually pregnant I didn’t know how I would have the strength to get through a pregnancy and then look after a newborn. I was so exhausted both mentally and physically. I felt broken. In the end I did not need to worry. The test was negative.
After the harrowing experience of the previous 4 months, we decided that we needed to take a break. During this time I really wanted to do something for myself and in what some might call a moment of madness I signed up to complete a Half Ironman – 1.9km swim, 90km bike, 21km run. I had 4 months to get my body and mind back in shape. After months of intensive training and some 7 hours of racing I crossed the finish line. I had such an amazing sense of achievement. I had done something for me that I thought I would never be able to do and in the process had learnt so much about myself. Most importantly, I felt myself again. It was great. I felt ready to get back on the horse and start another cycle of IVF.
My second cycle was a little easier than the first as a frozen cycle has no injections and no general anaesthetic. Easier or not, it still did not work. It was a negative result, again. I got the call from the nurse as I was driving into work. “I’m sorry, your test was negative”. My stomach dropped. I was really disappointed this time. I shed a few tears and rang Merv to tell him. I thought that being super fit and healthy and much more relaxed meant that I would get pregnant this time. I blamed the negative test the last time on being stressed and not fully recovered from the laparoscopy. What could I blame it on now? I started to wonder would I be able to get pregnant at all? Was there something wrong with me that meant I could not have babies? I felt like a failure. What type of woman was I that I couldn’t even do the one thing that we were made for?
I picked myself up and we went for round 3. By this time the owners of the company I worked for had decided that they wanted to try and sell the company again. This meant that I was working the longest hours of my life. On the day of my embryo transfer I didn’t finish work until 11pm. I was furious. I was convinced that there was no way that this cycle could work. We got 5 embryos from our initial harvesting cycle. After this third cycle we were down to only 2 embryos. Even if one of them worked we still had to get past the “safe zone” of 12 weeks. Merv and I resigned ourselves to the fact that it was unlikely we would have children.
On the day I was to get the pregnancy test result for this cycle I told work that I needed to work from home. I knew that I would be very upset when I got the negative result and didn’t want to have to put on a brave face in work. The nurse rang not long after I had gotten back from the clinic. My stomach sank as I answered the phone. “Congratulations, you are pregnant” she said. I was in shock. I was not expecting a positive result. I burst into tears as soon as I got off the phone. They were not tears of happiness as you would expect but tears of disbelief, fear and confusion. My mind was racing with a rollercoaster of emotions. I called Merv and told him. We were going to have a baby.
Pregnant with Benjamin
For the first 12 weeks of being pregnant with Benjamin we tried not to get too attached nor too excited. We were only too aware that up to 1 in 4 confirmed pregnancies end in miscarriage. At my early dating/viability scan they discovered a bleed. The doctor wanted me on bed rest for 2 weeks so see if it would go away or whether I would miscarry. After a very anxious wait we got the all clear from the doctor and were on the countdown to our 12 week scan. The scan came and went without drama. We had ourselves a perfectly formed little baby. At this point we couldn’t hold the excitement in any longer. We left work early that day and made the phone calls back to Ireland to tell our families the good news. Everyone was so happy for us and so excited to meet our little one. The 19 week anatomy scan confirmed that we were going to have a boy.
The excitement grew week by week and overshadowed the 24 hour nausea and rib pain. I can safely say that Merv and I had never been as excited nor as happy. Every morning when he would wake up Merv would roll over, kiss my bump and say good morning to our little man who by now had earned himself the title “Little Merv”. Each night before going to sleep Merv would rub my belly and ask Little Merv to take it easy on his Mummy and stop kicking her so she could go to sleep. I was so damn happy it seemed too good to be true.
I had my 35 week check up on my last day at work before maternity leave. As usual Little Merv’s heartbeat was perfect and he was wriggling around inside me. At work there were some baby celebrations and before I knew it the day was finished and I was finally on maternity leave. I had 4 weeks to relax before Little Merv would be delivered via c-section.
That weekend was the Easter weekend. Merv had 4 days off in a row and we were looking forward to spending it together to kick off my maternity leave. I had been feeling very tired all weekend and had been in some pain from the usual stuff when you’re heavily pregnant. On the Sunday morning Merv went off for his run and I slept in. I woke up before Merv got home and noticed that Little Merv hadn’t woken up yet. An hour later and still no sign of Little Merv. This just wasn’t like him. He would always wake up 30-45 minutes after me. I was still lying in bed so changed sides to see if that would wake him up. Nothing. Merv then got me some cake left over from the previous night to see if the sugar would work. Little Merv always jumped around when refined sugar was involved. Again, nothing. I was starting to get worried. We called the hospital who told us to come straight in and get checked.
We were both nervous on the drive to the hospital but were trying not to get worked up. After all I had a healthy and uncomplicated pregnancy. The most likely scenario was that they would check Little Merv, say everything was ok and send us home. As we walked through the entrance of the hospital I said to Merv that if the worst happened and Little Merv had to come out early today my hospital bag was in the bedroom. Deep down we did think that everything would be fine. Little did we know our world was about to come crashing down around us.
At the labour ward they took us straight into a room and hooked me up to a monitor. That familiar sound of a heartbeat started straight away. I felt a massive flood of relief. “That’s your heart beat, I can’t find the baby’s yet” the midwife said. I thought this was a little weird but she said she had been having problems with the machine earlier that morning and moved me to another room with a new machine. Same thing. No heartbeat. At this point I knew there was something seriously wrong. My body started to shake uncontrollably and I was finding it hard to speak. They phoned the on-call obstetrician to perform an ultrasound as our obstetrician was on holidays. We waited mostly in silence. The inevitability of what the ultrasound would show remained unspoken between us. It felt like forever before he arrived at the hospital. He sat down beside us with the ultrasound machine and put the gel on my belly for what would be the last time. There was Little Merv up on the screen. Still and silent. “I’m sorry, it’s not good news” he said. They were all the words I needed to hear. I crumbled into Merv’s arms. Our gorgeous little boy had no heartbeat. Our gorgeous little boy had died. I couldn’t breath. How could this happen after a normal and healthy pregnancy? It felt like our lives had just ended.
Not long after receiving the most devastating news of our lives the decision making had to start. Decisions you had a moment to make but a lifetime to regret if you got them wrong.
In a state of absolute shock we started with the first major decision – a natural birth or a c-section. The obstetrician thought that a natural birth was the best option for me but recognised that I had been scheduled for a c-section. He gave us information on both options but was urging for a natural birth. A natural birth would have meant that I would not be giving birth for around 48 hours. I would be given something to soften my cervix that night, then wait 24 hours to induce and then wait to give birth. This was a relatively easy decision for me. I wanted a c-section. I wanted the nightmare of giving birth to my deceased baby over as soon as possible. I didn’t think I could mentally survive the anguish of a 48 hour delay to give birth naturally. It was just too much.
The process started a few hours later and by 4.46pm our beautiful baby boy was born sleeping. We had decided not to see him until I was recovering in the hospital room. I really did not know how I would cope with seeing our little boy, knowing that he was no longer alive. I had been so excited to meet him for so long and now here I was about to meet my first born child and it was so heartbreakingly different to what I had imagined. The midwife rolled our little man into our room. As soon as I saw him it all became so real. I started wailing crying, completely inconsolable. The midwife tried to calm me before handing me my son. As I held him for the first time all the anxiety and fear melted away. It’s the hardest thing in the world to describe, holding your stillborn child for the first time. The most incredible love and happiness alongside the deepest feelings of sadness and loss. I felt so calm holding him, it felt so right. He was so perfect, a perfect combination of his Mummy and Daddy. A little button nose, big cheeks and little blonde eyelashes. He was big like his Daddy too – huge hands and 2.8kgs at 35 weeks. Merv leaned over us and said “I think he looks like a Benjamin”. So there it was, our first beautiful child – Benjamin James.
We poured over Benjamin’s every detail over the coming days. Our hearts were bursting with love for him. It turned into a bit of pass the parcel with Merv and I alternating holding him, trying to absorb as much of our little boy as we could while we still could. One of the midwives asked if we would like to get photos taken. She told us about the Heartfelt charity where professional photographers donate their time and come in to take family photos for you. The first time I heard this I thought it was the weirdest thing. Why would I want to get photos taken of my dead son? How would we pose for photos holding our dead son? Thinking it to be morbid and strange we quickly dismissed it. The next day the midwife mentioned it again very gently. Again we said no but this time we looked up the Heartfelt website. After reading some of the testimonials on the website I began to think that these photographs might be something we would want in the future. Something we might regret if we didn’t get it done. We took a chance and asked the midwife to organise it for us.
That night the photographer arrived. She was so very lovely, kind and gentle. She gave us guidance on what to do and how to pose. I’m not going to lie, it was one of the hardest things either of us have ever had to do but the photographs are now our most treasured possessions. In the middle of the shoot the photographer asked if we would like photos of Benjamin’s feet. Never having really thought about it we said ok. We quietly started to undress him from his baby grow to uncover what were the biggest baby’s feet we had ever seen. In the greatest moment of sadness we started to laugh. Benjamin had inherited his Daddy’s big feet. I looked over at Merv, the love of my life and father of my child. He looked so proud of his son but so broken at the same time. The sadness is his eyes that night is something I’ll never forget.
We had decided to get a full post mortem performed on Benjamin to try and find out what had happened. He needed to get transferred to another hospital for it to be performed so we knew it was time for us to say goodbye until his funeral the following week. We both held our little boy and told him how much we loved him and how much we would miss him. Feeling the weight of him in my arms was the only thing that could keep me calm. I handed him back to his Daddy who put him down in his cot. The midwife came in and wheeled him away for the last time. I wept uncontrollably in Merv’s arms. Our son was gone.
The next day I was allowed to leave the hospital. We packed up our few clothes and gathered together the memory box the hospital had put together for us. As we walked out of the hospital I could not help but think how different it should have been. Instead of carrying our newborn baby to the car we were carrying our baby’s memory box. We were leaving the hospital with empty arms, empty hearts and our lives in ruins.