In hindsight, I should have known, but nothing prepared me for how my world would be tipped upside down after giving birth to my twins at 28 weeks in 2007 – still nothing has!
I wasn’t prepared for the abrupt end to my pregnancy and the finality of the birth. The following days were not how I had imagined they would be when I was a naïve, unsuspecting first-time mum, blissfully preparing the nursery. I remember reading a pregnancy book and how I skipped the pages on Special Care because things like that don’t happen to young, healthy mums like me. How wrong could I have been!
No one spoke to me about the possibility of special care, even though I was carrying twins. No one spoke to me about being a high-risk pregnancy, even though I had swollen up just a week before and had a scan that showed I was carrying twin two very low. No one mentioned to me that I should start antenatal classes earlier as I was carrying twins and may have a shorter pregnancy. No one told me an awful lot.
As a result, when I did go into labour in the middle of a Monday night at 28 weeks, I was mentally unprepared. After a long labour, twin one arrived by natural delivery and was whisked away by a team of medics, leaving me with a consultant talking to his team about how twin two was in distress – no one spoke to me.
Next thing, I was whisked into theatre for an emergency C -section and woke to a photo at my bed side of a tiny doll that turned out to be my Isobel; and to a partner who was as shell-shocked as me but with no babies to hold in my arms.
Of course, I would go on to develop severe post-natal PTSD, anxiety and depression as we battled with our daughters, Imogen and Isobel, through ICU, CPAPs, brain bleeds, oxygen deprivation and so much more that I can’t even remember as my brain has blocked it out. No one asked me if I needed help, as I sat with my head in my arms sobbing at the side of their incubators. The consultant didn’t know how tiny he made me feel when he turned to me and said ‘ I think you realise what you’ve done now and how serious this is’; still to this day I don’t know what that meant, but it cut through me. Still no one mentioned emotional support for me.
10 weeks later, my girls came home, I was overjoyed! However, I had no support group, no Facebook group, no accommodation to live in with my daughters during their 10 week stay in SCBU, all that had made me desperately unhappy, isolated, depressed and extremely confused by how I felt.
9 months later, after home oxygen, nurse visits, physio appointments and feeling trapped in a world that I hadn’t planned, I finally spoke up. I went to see my GP to tell them that I was struggling and was referred for talking therapy. 3 months later, I was still waiting. So, I contacted PALS to express my thanks for the care that my daughters had received, but to condemn their lack of support for me. That got the ball rolling and 10 months after the trauma or premature birth, finally, my long journey on the road to managing my mental health demons got underway.
Now, 11 years later, my twins are well. They are healthy, they are happy, active, smart and wonderful. But as I write this today, I still cry. I still struggle to be happy for my friends as they have normal births and normal maternity leave. I still struggle with anxiety, to the point where it has affected my social life and career. I still mourn for the loss of the ‘normal’ experience and have never had any more children out of fear that it will happen all over again. I still can’t forget, and I still feel angry about how little emotional support there was for me. However, I am also strong, and my experience has also helped to make sure that families of premature babies now get timely help when their children are born too early or very ill. I tell my story, not to make you feel down or for sympathy; I tell it because I am proud that I used my experience to fight for change. Now, I know that support is getting better. I know that there are support groups, fast-track counselling, charities that are offering counselling sessions and I also know that my experience will now become a rarity. I can never change what happened and the impact that it all had upon my mental health, but I can change the future and I can use my voice to encourage others who are struggling with mental health problems following premature birth to demand the help that they deserve.
With thanks to Louisa Owen for sharing her story and highlighting the mental health needs and emotional impact of premature birth.
To find out more about the mental health needs of parents following neonatal intensive care and how to support families, please see our ‘After Neonatal Intensive Care’ Report.