It was almost Christmas 2014, and I was 27 weeks pregnant. I had just spent a stressful semester teaching and working on my PhD, so I was looking forward to spending time with my husband and family at my mother’s house in Zurich.
When I went to see my ob/gyn for my last examination before Christmas, she seemed slightly concerned for two reasons – I had a kidney infection caused by a UTI which would not go away despite my taking antibiotics, and the baby had not grown quite as much since my last scan as he should have.
As I was born with spina bifida, my pregnancy was monitored closely and I had a higher risk for UTIs and kidney infections, but the slow growth of baby seemed unrelated to anything else. However, my doctor assured me that he’d probably ‘catch up’ in a few weeks.
During the next couple of days I tried to stay away from Google and to enjoy pre-Christmas festivities, but the slow growth nagged on my mind, despite the reassuring words of my doctor. On Christmas Eve I developed a fever and more pain from the kidney infection, and I was actually relieved that my husband took me to A&E.
The A&E doctor who gave me a detailed scan seemed so alarmed that she immediately asked another doctor to take a look. When they gave the diagnosis, I felt as if the ground had been pulled from under me.
“Your baby is not growing as fast as he should, because the umbilical cord has become partly blocked. He is getting enough oxygen, which is the most important thing for now, but we have to keep you in hospital and closely monitor the baby, because at some point it will no longer be safe for him to be in the womb and then we have to get him out immediately.”
They were neither able to tell me why this had happened, nor give me an estimate of how long it would be until they had to deliver him. All they could tell me was that this was just one of many complications that can arise in pregnancy, and that they did not think it was related to the kidney infection or my disability.
“This just happens sometimes” one doctor said.
I spent the last two weeks of the year in a weird limbo, frequently hooked to a machine that monitored my baby’s heart rate, watching all the Harry Potter movies. I willed my body to do better, to nourish my son so that he might grow again and catch up, but as anyone knows who has gone through a miscarriage, infertility or other pregnancy-related issues, we can not will our bodies to do what they cannot, not even if we try with all of our strength, not even when we would give anything for it.
When, on the 31st of December, the doctor told me they’d have to deliver my son within the next few days because he had completely stopped growing, we decided to go ahead with a planned caesarean. Due to my spina bifida, local anaesthetics were not an option and premature babies cannot handle a vaginal birth, so I had to ‘give birth’ under general anaesthesia. This meant that my husband could not be in the room during the caesarean, but he would be the first one of us to meet our son, who I’d only get to see once the anaesthetic had worn off.
My husband and I went to have a look at the neonatal intensive care unit or NICU, which luckily was located just a few floors below, so that we could get a better understanding of what to expect. Even though I’ve worked in disability studies for a long time, I found it very difficult to see past the oxygen masks and other support machinery the premature babies were hooked up to. Some of the tiny babies were born up to a month earlier in pregnancy than my son would be, right at the 24-week mark.
The day of our son Teddy’s birth, January 2nd, is blurry in my memory, but what I remember best from this period are all the people I was immensely grateful for; My mum, who had been there for me through many surgeries in my childhood and whose support I could always rely on. My husband because although It felt terrible not to be present in the first moments of my son’s life, I also knew I couldn’t ask for a better person than my husband to be there with him. One of my best friends came to the hospital in the very early morning hours to be there for us too. And finally, there was the midwife who was at my side during surgery, holding my hand tightly until the anaesthetics kicked in.
When I woke up, the midwife was next to me, holding up a mobile screen, smiling and saying: “This is your boy!”
Suddenly, I felt all the anxiety that built up during the last weeks grip me, and I couldn’t even look at the picture. Instead I tried to find the midwife’s eyes and asked: “Yes, but is he ok?”
Only when she assured me that he was on a mechanical ventilator and that there did not seem to be any complications apart from him being born at 28 weeks, I studied the picture, and I didn’t notice the cables or machines, but my husband’s dark wavy hair and a cute button nose.
Within a couple of hours I was able to see Teddy, but we would not be able to hold him until he was off the mechanical ventilator. We could, however, touch his hands and feet through the incubator. We sang and read a lot to him, and my husband drew pictures for him.
Teddy was fed through a feeding tube, and I immediately started pumping breast milk. My body did not seem prepared for this and it took over a day until I could produce colostrum, but pumping for him (every 2-3 hours, day and night) made me feel like I could do something for my son, something that made me his mother and brought me closer to him. Not being able to hold him was hard. I felt a need that was physical and intense.
My husband and I sent texts to friends announcing Teddy’s birth, full name and birth weight (740gr or 1lb 10oz), but the response was muted.
I longed for gestures or messages that celebrated the birth of my son, and was so grateful for the few that we received. One friend baked some bread and brought it to the hospital while it was still warm. Another friend who was already a mother relished in discussing the aspects of motherhood with me I could relate to – pumping breast milk, how we chose the respective names of our children, the way a caesarean feels the day after.
A few days after Teddy’s birth, a small parcel arrived from an old friend of my mum’s, containing three tiny preemie outfits and a teddy bear that played a soft lullaby. Although Teddy was not able to wear the clothes yet (he was way too small for them and still in a closed incubator), I was incredibly moved by this gesture and it made a future where he’d be able to wear them more tangible. In those early days when I could only touch my son through a glass box, these gestures made me feel like I was a new mum like any other.