I delivered my son prematurely after my waters broke totally unexpectedly at 33 weeks. It was traumatic in every sense. I blamed myself, and the guilt that ate away at me year after year solidified my decision that I would never have another child. I knew that somehow, in some way, I had screwed up, and the thought of having another baby petrified me. Matthew was to grow up an only child.
Maternal guilt is a powerful thing. It engulfs you, immobilizes you, and is often immune to reason and logic. Guilt, like so many emotions, is not something anyone chooses to feel. And likewise you cannot just let it go. Guilt releases you in its own time. I remember when my mother told me how proud she was that I had moved on. I told her I hadn’t done anything; the guilt had just left me. Learning about prematurity through internet research helped a lot. So many other women, from all different walks of life, had seemingly experienced the same thing I had: spontaneous preterm rupture of the membranes. I wasn’t alone, and I wasn’t to blame. And very slowly I began to toy with the idea of having another child.
Telling Matthew I was pregnant was a beautiful thing. My husband and I told him we had something special for him. He wanted to know if we’d got him a present. I asked him if he knew what the most amazing present a child could receive was, and he confidently replied that the coolest gift would be a Lego Boeing A380. Then gently, while holding his sweet six year old hand in mine, I told him he had a little brother or sister growing in my tummy. He fell into my arms completely overcome.
My pregnancy was very emotional. I’d find myself bursting into tears unexpectedly in public without being able to identify a trigger; I raced to the hospital on numerous frightening occasions confusing mild urinary incontinence with leaking amniotic fluid, and diarrhea and vomiting with preterm labor warning signs; and I also experienced a peace and respect for the sometimes incomprehensible path and plan our divine Creator has for our lives.
At 37 weeks, after a closely monitored pregnancy, I delivered a beautiful baby girl. I had told myself that if I were lucky enough to make it to term I’d have a natural birth with an absolute minimum of intervention. When everybody congratulated me on the natural birth of my second child I began, for the first time, to compare my two birth experiences. I didn’t want to compare them. They were destined to be different. I didn’t want my second one to bring back painful memories from a long time ago. But when I did start to compare, my thoughts led me to an uneasy realization. My stitches pale in comparison to the rip I felt when my premature son was separated from me at delivery. There’s a wide selection of pain relief available for mothers during labor and for postpartum recovery. There’s no epidural option for the pain you experience sitting beside your baby in the hospital when all you need is something to take the sting out of your new unexpected reality. It is the mothers who have their mental health tested to its limits who are so deserving of praise and admiration and yet who all too often go uncommended.
I’ve never been someone outspoken. I tend to keep my opinions to myself. When Eleanor was four months old I was attending a breastfeeding support group and some of the things that were being said really hit a nerve with me. Give your baby the best start in life by breastfeeding is massively insensitive for some mothers. It implies that you can choose whether or not to breastfeed. Of course some mothers can but others can’t. And those who can’t often feel very upset about it. So I spoke up. I said that although I was delighted to be breastfeeding my baby, I felt we needed to be reminded how lucky we were that we could breastfeed. I said I felt grateful I was able to breastfeed and that I felt sorry for all the mothers who wanted to but who could not. If you want to feel proud, then fine. But also remember to feel thankful for your health and your baby’s.
Even though sometimes you can’t breastfeed or do skin-to-skin or immediately burrow your face into your baby’s tummy and blow raspberries into their little bodies or nibble on their feet bandaged with a pulse-oximeter, you may, in time, find a wisdom and a peace and a gratitude that others are not always so fortunate to have. Experiencing what I have with my daughter, the immediate bonding and the celebration untainted with fear, has fortunately not reminded me of what I did not have with my son. I thought perhaps it would, but it hasn’t. The two birth experiences were totally different but equally special. Each, in their own way, served to remind me that health is not something to be taken for granted. Whereas one was an insight into the awe inspiring workings of the NICU and the gratitude I will eternally have for it, the other was an exquisite taste of the power of raw nature. One saw me birth a seven pound baby with my beloved husband spurring me on like a hysterical cheerleader, and relish the sight and feel of my warm pink baby suckling at my breast. The other saw me experience a debt of gratitude to doctors and nurses for the tenderness they extended to me and my child when we were at our most vulnerable. Human kindness is exemplified in the NICU.
Perhaps the conclusion is simply that our trials render our good times all the more sweet. They say time heals. For me it has.
About the author
Virginia Neville is an aspiring writer, and wife and mother of two. Her first birth, preterm at 33 weeks, inspired her to start writing about her journey through motherhood. She recently welcomed her second child at 37 weeks. She spent her formative years in Washington, DC and now currently lives in Ireland.