Leo's Birth Story - Saying the A word
(Please be aware that this is a baby loss story and could be upsetting or cause triggers for some people reading it. However, it is intended to be positive xx)
Saying the A word.
This month our second baby was due.
Cruelly though, our little boy is already here. I gave birth to him at eighteen weeks pregnant.
I’ve written and rewritten this a million times. It’s therapeutic and it’s helped. It’s given me feelings and thoughts I didn’t know I had. Sadness, anger, thankfulness, even joy. I’d recommend to everyone writing your birth story. It’s a wonderful cathartic journey that can help to reframe and release all those feelings you have when you give birth, even if you never share it.
Ultimately though, I haven’t written this for me. I’ve written this for the mum who is desperately searching the internet to find support and help, to find a better outcome, or a story that isn’t so traumatic. Trying to find something that gives you an ounce of hope that this is going to be okay. Know this, it will be okay. It doesn’t feel like that right now, but you will come back from this.
So, wonderful Mama, I’ve written this for you; To the mum who will birth her baby, knowing you can’t take them home.
I was driving home from work one day when Drake came on. The lyrics, ‘I only love my bed and my Mama, I’m sorry’ – suddenly I was an emotional wreck. Trying to drive through tears that had appeared from nowhere. This had only happened once before really, when I found out I was pregnant with our daughter, Evelyn and I had cried uncontrollably at an Andrex toilet roll advert. So, I just knew, I was pregnant.
Sure enough the blue lines followed and I was about three weeks gone.
Evelyn and I recorded a video for Daddy, telling him Mummy had a baby in her belly. Soon after we shared our news with family and friends. After a completely wonderful, easy pregnancy and amazing birth with Evelyn I guess you could now say I was a little ignorant to what could be ahead of us.
We had our booking appointment, all was well and I told the midwife I wanted to have a homebirth. ‘By the sounds of your first pregnancy and labour, you’re going to be amazing’, she said. Fist pump to me. I felt like a total superhero.
Evelyn turned 2 in August and I was 12 weeks on her birthday. We told most of our friends at her birthday party the following weekend. Out of sheer excitement but also partly, because I’d already started to pop out. My belly was round and growing and everything was happening physically at a faster pace than with Evelyn.
My body had done this before and didn’t hold back this time! I felt flutters from this point too. Unmistakable wriggles of a tiny baby growing inside me. Evelyn was excited to touch my belly and ask if her sister baby, or brother baby was ready yet. I couldn’t wait to make us a family of four.
After Evelyn’s birthday party weekend we had our scan. I was about 13 weeks. It was on a Tuesday evening and the following morning, we were flying off to Turkey. I’d packed a T-shirt for Evelyn, which said ‘Big Sister’ that we planned to share with everyone else, who didn’t know, whilst we were on holiday. I have no idea where that t-shirt is now. Along with my pregnancy vitamins and other day-to-day reminders, they all vanished (A protective husband busy in the background keeping me safe, I’d imagine)
Looking back now, I knew. I led down on the bed and waited for the Sonographer to tell us what she could see. There’s his heart beat. A sigh of relief and a huge grin over to Jason, who looked SO excited. Then, the Sonographer tilted her head. Her eyes said ‘oh fuck’, you could just see it. She moved the monitor away a little and continued to press in to my belly. I looked at Jason and he smiled, but he looked different now, too.
‘Baby is being tricky, I can’t get proper measurements because they are upside down.’ She said. Asking me to head to the waiting room, move about and have a big drink. When we were called back in, it was another Sonographer. Her badge said ‘senior’ and I knew.
I could feel my heart shattering and my eyes drowning.
Our little boy had a large cystic hygroma and a number of hydrops on his body. There were also significant areas of his brain that had not developed as expected and although it was still early days, the severity of them already was undeniable. ‘There is a fetal abnormality’ the Sonographer said.
What happened next is a blur and after cleaning my tummy up, we were shown in to a quiet room. The room you go to when someone has to deliver bad news. We were offered a brew. We sat. We cried. We waited.
Our consultant midwife came in and sat down. Her first words were ‘You have a very poorly baby’ - teaching Hypnobirth has made me very aware of the use of words and for her to acknowledge this ‘fetal abnormality’ as my poorly baby changed the entire experience. She acknowledged him, she acknowledged us as parents of a little person and in doing so she validated our loss, she made me feel heard and in that sentence alone, it was like I’d been given permission to grieve. I will never forget that.
Over the following hours we talked about how in our case there was a 90% chance I would loose our baby during the pregnancy. When, was unknown. Eventually his heart would stop because his body and brain were not able to support his growth. There was a 10% chance I would reach full term, a 9% chance within that, that he would die in labour and, in the 1 tiny percent chance he survived it, he would not leave hospital and we would loose him soon after birth.
To be told that there was no outcome where I could bring him home broke me in a way that I don’t think I’ll ever recover from. I left my body for a while and floated in a haze. It was my job to grow him, nurture him and protect him. To fail at that job (despite the absolute assurances that this was not my fault) were really hard to come to terms with. Had I drank a coffee, had I missed a day of my prenatal vitamins? Was it because of stress? We’d had a rough year already and I couldn’t help but question if that was to blame. I am assured it wasn’t but it doesn’t really help.
In less than 24 hours we were flying to Turkey and so, with the help of our consultant worked out (using B.R.A.I.N from Hypnobirth!) the benefits and risks of going. We chose to go, knowing that there was a slim chance we would loose him whilst we were away. We checked our insurance and made arrangements to speak to the nearest maternity hospital, making sure they could care for me should anything happen.
We left the hospital.
We packed our bags.
The following morning we went back to the hospital before our flight. We had more questions. What happens when he arrives? Was I in any danger? If I gave birth in Turkey, how would I bring him home? Was I allowed to bring him home (I felt genuine fear someone would make me ‘dispose' of him before coming home so I planned in my head how I could get him back - It sounds totally mental now!) Was the risk going to increase as the pregnancy continued? Was he going to know what was happening when he was born? Would this impact having more babies in the future?
It was overwhelming and we were drained.
We met with our consultant who answered our questions and explained that if my baby arrived after 24 weeks it would be classed as a stillbirth. Before that, a miscarriage. This may sound strange but that made me so angry. I hate the term miscarriage anyway. I didn’t drop my baby. I didn’t miss-carry him. My body didn’t fail. After 24 weeks we would have to face a private burial or cremation but he would be registered as a birth and a death – that felt like validation, at one point I felt I needed and hoped it would happen later.
We talked about cremating our baby and plans for his resting place, all whilst I could feel him moving inside me. I’ll never forget that. I remember putting my hands on my tummy to protect him from hearing any of the conversation.
We were told that, if I really wanted to, I could choose to say goodbye on my own terms. I can’t use the word abortion. For me abortion represents a choice. A choice I absolutely agree all women should have the right too, but for me, this wasn’t a choice. I didn’t have a choice. The options were loose him, or loose him. We chose to continue the conversation using the words ‘say goodbye’ instead of abortion, this was another change of words that had a profound impact on my ability to feel heard and in control and to acknowledge that this was not a medical procedure. It was the loss of a very wanted baby.
We went on holiday, having decided to not make any decisions until we were back.
It was the worst two weeks I have ever endured. At the time I felt a responsibility to everyone we had gone with to crack on, smile and enjoy myself. If I could have flown home and hid in my bed I would have. I had a gorgeous round, pregnant belly and everything I had packed showed it off. I was terrified someone would ask when I was due. I just wanted to hide and cry. I’d be lying on the sun lounger desperately looking for support online. Articles or blogs to say – ‘This happened to us, but they were wrong’. Or, for just one person to say, ‘it can be fixed’ – I didn’t find any.
Instead I came across an article on Instagram about Terminations for Medical Reasons. A mum described her experience of birthing her baby in to a bed-pan on a toilet. I almost threw up.
My job is to support women to birth positively. To ensure that the experience they go through leaves them feeling intact and positive - not broken. It was a turning point reading that article. I realised I couldn’t not have a positive birth for him, or for me. We needed to do this our way so that we could come out the other side.
If I had to bring him in to the world, it wouldn’t be on a toilet. It would be with dim lights, aromatherapy oils, breathing and for me, no pain relief. As calm and content as possible, just like his sisters birth. As his mum, I owed him that.
I started to think about what scared me the most. And whilst Jason and Evelyn played in the pool I planned his birth and how we could say goodbye, whenever the time came. If anything, the holiday gave me space away from friends and family to make these decisions without input or pressure and I am so thankful for that space.
We flew home on the Wednesday, two weeks later and went to the hospital the next day. Despite having very real moments on holiday where I was convinced I was loosing him, we flew home as a family of four.
We had another scan and there he was (we still didn’t know he was a boy at this point!) His heart beating strong. He waved at us on the camera and we have a photograph of it.
When he lifted his arm to the camera and waved, my heart fell out. I couldn’t work out if he was waving to say ‘I’m okay, let me stay here’ or ‘it’s okay, mum. I want to go now’ so I sobbed. Making the right choices for our children has to be the most challenging job of all of them.
In the two weeks we had been away, he had become more poorly. We could now see the hygroma had grown and his brain had not developed, as it should. The information we were given was detailed but not appropriate for me to share here. Essentially though, it all confirmed to us that he couldn’t recover and he would not survive.
The choice now became how to do this. What I could physically and mentally go through and what Jason could watch me go through and go through himself. What Evelyn could be exposed to and what we could protect her from.
Neither of us wanted to bury our baby. Neither of us wanted to arrange a private funeral. Our hospital had a policy that if our baby arrived before 24 weeks, they would be able to look after him. We would not need to arrange private services to step in and instead he would be cremated privately and laid to rest with other babies. The thought of him having a little tribe to rest with made me feel reassured. As horrific as it was to imagine that there were other families, sat in other rooms, making these decisions. It was comforting to know we weren’t alone and neither was our baby.
(I say I, or me, a lot in this. I am aware. Jason was incredible, he let me lead and he trusted my judgment. We talked so much about it but it felt very isolating still. We were on the same page for so much, but other things I could tell he just didn’t understand. It was tough on us, I can understand how many families don’t survive and stay together after loss. It will rip you open like nothing else. I felt every wriggle, the sickness, the body changes. I was pregnant and I felt incredibly lonely all the time because no one else could feel it too. I guess I felt the baby was only real to me, which is selfish and not true, but that’s how I felt, so it was, and still is hard to communicate how I feel to others.)
Ahead of me I had another four months of unknown pregnancy, the risk of going full term, having to continue being pregnant, alongside my friends who were expecting, having people ask in the street when I’m due, or what I was having. Evelyn thinking she was getting a sibling and then not, what would that do to her perception of pregnancy and birth? She’s probably too young to remember but I couldn’t take that risk that it would impact her. The thoughts were torture and, ultimately we couldn’t put ourselves, or our family through it.
We decided to take control and say goodbye when we were ready. For clarity here, we chose to end the pregnancy (have an abortion) - It never felt like a choice though, make no mistake of that.
We quietly waited for the birth date to arrive. We didn’t tell anybody, except one person. Eventually, before the day arrived we told my mum, so she could take care of Evelyn whilst I went in to hospital. Telling anyone else was terrifying. I felt like I’d be judged. I don’t think it’s something I could ever explain but I felt like I’d have to justify our decision to everyone. Our bereavement councilor said this was a common choice for ‘parents in our situation’ so we planned to tell everyone that we had ‘miscarried’ – that word. Ugh.
I guess some of our friends may be reading this now realising we didn’t loose our baby naturally, I’m sorry we kept it from you, we just had to protect our choice and we were worried about the reaction. It was the best choice we made but not without it’s difficulty. Keeping that secret has been destroying at times.
I made plans to birth positively and use Hypnobirth to create a birth nest as best I could. The plans included:
Requesting a room in the Gynae ward, not the delivery suite. I didn’t want to birth around other mums who got to take their babies home. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t, at times consumed with jealously of their joy. I didn’t want to hear a newborn cry. It was bad enough having to wait in the antenatal clinic room to see our consultant (my only criticism of the whole experience) We were offered a sound proof room to birth in, a room designed for birthing babies who wont come home. I declined.
Being on the Gynae ward meant if we decided we could ever face another pregnancy, I wouldn’t risk being in the same room to birth that baby and I could protect future experiences– although, I’d plan to be at home anyway!
I wanted to use aromatherapy oils to help me relax, help labour progress when it was artificially started. I also had tiger balm as I’ve longed used it to combat anxiety.
I would dim the lights and close the blinds. This felt natural and I wanted it to feel as little like a procedure as possible. I drew the line at taking fairy lights in for atmosphere, although I sort of wish I had now.
Music. An acoustic playlist that we found on iTunes and I have on my phone still, although can’t listen to yet.
Privacy. I didn’t want to be supported by a midwife, until the end. I just wanted to be with Jason. It felt too personal to share the moment with anyone else and I wasn’t sure how I would hold it together when he arrived.
The preference to not have pain relief. I was aware that the artificial kick-start to get me in labour could be intense and painful. I can’t describe it now, but at the time I felt overwhelmingly that I had to be in control of this birth. I had to be ‘on the planet’ when he arrived. I had to trust my body to do this. I think if I’d lost trust in my body, I’d have been in a much worse place with recovery and in trusting it for future pregnancy.
A couple of weeks later, we packed a bag, just for me, which was strange and made our way to hospital. We were settled in a private room.
‘I’m so sorry’ said everyone who cared for me that day. Some of them I could tell it was their first time in this situation, so I found myself telling them it was okay and trying to smile and take the pressure off. It must be a completely horrendous job but I am so grateful they acknowledged our loss. Many people still haven’t to this day.
Whilst we were waiting for the pessary to kick in we talked about a name. We didn’t know at this point we would have a boy. We talked about what would be appropriate, what felt right. We laughed. We cried. We waited.
About 30 minutes after my pessary I could feel things ramping up. I breathed through the surges. I knew I had to get to about 8 or so centimeters to be able to birth him, he was a growing baby, after all! The surges grew intense quickly, I dilated very fast and it was uncomfortable to say the least but very similar to my labour with Evelyn.
I continued. I used the birth positions I teach in Hypnobirth to help with comfort. I stood up at one point to go to the bathroom, I felt the need to get low and move in to a small space. Another instinct I know kicks in when baby is close, as it happened with Evelyn!
As I walked my waters popped. ‘Jason did you hear that!’ I smiled, I was actually excited for a moment, because they didn’t break with Evelyn, so I had no idea what it felt like. Water gushed and I waddled to the bathroom. I managed to get in to a really comfortable squat, on my knees in the walk-in shower. Jason supported me and I breathed through the surges.
It was almost an hour now after having the pessary and there it was, I felt it. I needed a poo. (You know I love a good poo chat in my classes!) I knew he was close so I asked Jason to get the midwife. In that moment, as she came in, our baby boy arrived. I remember screaming ‘He’s here’ as he fell in to my hands, on the floor of the shower. The midwife lifted him from my hands as I looked down at him. I had shouted he was a boy before seeing him, and he was. Call it my instinct, I don’t know. I just knew in that moment that he was a boy.
Because of the small space in the shower Jason had had to move out of the room just as our baby arrived and the midwives rushed in. I remember screaming for him. It was guttural; I don’t think I could ever make that noise again if I tried. I wasn’t prepared to see a little person. I knew he was one, but seeing a baby on a scan and seeing that baby for real are two very different things. Although he was alive for a moment at birth, it hit me that my baby had died and I screamed and sobbed as I birthed the placenta.
He had tiny hands and feet and a little nose with a ski-slope like his Mama and Sister. He was my baby and he wasn’t coming home.
Jason held me on the floor as I cried. He was so strong. He just did this thing he does when he’s trying to hold himself together, a big puff out through his cheeks as his eyes go all red. He holds his heartbreak well, that guy. He lost his son that day and my heart breaks for him every time I think of that moment.
We wrapped him in his Sisters blanket and we spent time together. This was really important to me. I wanted to be with him. Hold him and remember his face. The midwives gave us a memory box from the charity SIMBA. At first I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the memories. Leo’s scan pictures, his blanket, photographs of him, the memory box. It felt too painful to walk out of the hospital with a box of memories and not a baby. It felt like consolation prize and I couldn’t look at any of it for a while. My instinct said take it though and I’m so thankful now that I did.
I really had to find the strength to speak up and say what I wanted after he arrived. I felt immense guilt at choosing to say goodbye, I felt almost undeserving of asking for anything. But I found the courage and I did. I asked for more time. I asked for some pictures to be taken. I asked for the blanket to be returned to us. I think I could have easily withered away and let those hours pass without honouring them how I wanted. I had to be really firm with myself that I deserved to continue doing it my way and that I was still his mum, even now he was gone.
a few months on and Leo’s box is there if I need to be close to him. The blanket is the only thing I have that connects us. We’ve both touched it, I find that really comforting now. His SIMBA box had a wooden star in it, that went on our Christmas tree and a tiny knitted teddy that I keep next to my bed. I’m forever grateful that we were able to protect those memories for when I was ready to hold them and i’m so thankful that charities like SIMBA are there to guide you through how to do that. He deserved to be remembered and we as parents deserve to have the choice to remember him and acknowledge that he was here, if only for a moment.
Sadly, I have experienced child loss in my extended family twice before. I was much younger, but my family always explained it to a younger me, that when you are no longer here, you become a star and you watch over us. I wanted him to be named after a constellation of stars. But which one? We laughed over some and considered others. Evelyn is an August baby and her star sign is Leo. It made sense. Connecting the two of them for life. The Leo constellation.
Leo was born on the 7thSeptember. We didn’t bring our baby home, but he was there, for a moment in time. We are a family of four and we still are.
If we have another baby (if*!) that will be our 3rd child. Leo will always be our 2nd.
Recovery was tough. No one tells your body that you didn’t bring your baby home. So your milk comes in. That was fun! You bleed, just like you do post partum with any other birth. You hormones run wild, they are telling you to protect a baby that you don’t have. It’s intense. Everyone expects you to bounce back fast, you have no baby to care for and people quickly forget you’re recovering still. Take your time. Don’t let people rush you. Set boundaries and don’t be afraid to remind yourself and others that you need time.
Grief is a tricky thing. Baby loss is a complete taboo. I had statements and questions over the weeks afterwards that went along the lines of…
‘Did you take pre natal vitamins, could that be it?’ (I did take them and no it wasn’t)
‘At least you can get pregnant’ (Just don’t use that one.)
‘Well you can be grateful for Evelyn’ (Because I should be happy one lived? Really?)
‘You’ll have more’ (Again, really?)
Or the worst, nothing at all. Believe it or not, to this day some of our friends (the ones who knew about him, some genuinely wont know still) have not said a word to Jason or I. Or they have completely avoided the subject. It’s hard that. Because they did not meet him, did he not count? I’ll always remember the ones who spoke up in those days, the ones who sent love, texts, just gave me a cuddle when the words wouldn’t come out. And I’ll never forget the ones that didn’t. Just say ‘I’m sorry and I’m here’ – that’s all that’s needed.
Despite this being a completely devastating and life changing situation, ask me how I felt about Leo’s birth? It was a rare type of perfect. I trusted my body, I followed my instincts, I did it my way. I walked out of there feeling like I’d given him the hello and goodbye he so very much deserved. It was positive and I feel positive talking about it. I felt heard and protected by our midwives and consultants. We had time to make decisions and we took it. I never lost faith in my body because it did exactly what it needed to do to birth Leo. Had we not made the decision to bring Leo in to the world when we chose to, I have no doubt my body would have continued to nourish and support him until he was ready to go. I have a feeling both would have held on until then end, which is amazing, but my mental health had to come first and our family was not ready have a funeral for a baby. Loosing him at 18 weeks was bad enough.
Ten weeks later (it takes a while because of cord tests) Leo was cremated and laid to rest somewhere special. We haven’t been yet, maybe we will in time. For now though, I know he’s in the stars and that’s enough for me.
I should say that throughout everything the midwives, consultants and councilors have been amazing. Sharoe Green Maternity Hospital in Preston is a pretty special place and our bereavement councilor still checks in on us. I’ll be forever grateful to them for taking as much of the fear and unknown away as they could.
His birth was world shattering but amazing. Life changing and empowering. You can ask me about it. You can message me if you’re going through the same or similar, I can talk about it, it’s okay.
My advice would be this. This is your baby and your experience. However you choose to do this be confident and trust yourself. Ask as many questions as you need to. Change your mind if you need to. Do it your way. You’ll come through this eventually, but it will change you and that’s okay. Don’t ever feel like you have to pretend it didn’t happen. You are still a mum.
I don’t want anyone reading this to feel scared about making choices or asking for different care. You may no longer have the choice to take your baby home but you can have an experience bringing them in to the world that will certainly help your recovery, rather than hinder it.
I’m so very sorry if you’re going through it and I’m sending you all of the love and strength in the world.
Thank you for reading my story and helping to raise awareness, you’ve done a wonderful thing opening your heart and listening to this. It’s not easy to do! If you do share this post on social media, please do tag me (Facebook and Insta) @thelancashirehypnobirthingco so I can see how far Leo’s story reaches.
You can also read his big sisters birth story here, Evelyn’s birth story
Lots of love, Leanne xx
PS. If you are currently navigating loss, or pregnancy after loss then do say hello.
And if you’d like to know more about what I do here, I teach Hypnobirth, which is an antenatal class that helps families feel informed, confident and prepared for the birth of their baby. Hypnobirth can be really beneficial for the added anxiety that comes with pregnancy after you have lost your baby. I’ve supported many mums and dads on this journey, it’s a very special part of my job, that I feel so honoured to be able to do.
We offer courses online (over Skype, with a brew!) and in person with 1:1 classes or group workshops, if you’re local to Preston, Lancashire. The details can be found here.
If you need more support I’ve linked below the charities that helped me and still do today.
The Fetal Medicine Foundation was also a great help in understanding the complexity of Leo’s conditions.