I often find myself looking at my son, whether he’s being funny, cute or even naughty, and I wonder what it would have been like to have two of him – a carbon copy, a mirror image. Would they have had the same infectious giggle, cheeky grin and love for all things Fireman Sam? Probably not, but I will always wonder… What if George was here too?

On 4 March 2018, six weeks before my due date, our world officially came crashing down. I’d spent months wondering, hoping, grieving, perhaps even hiding a little, but on that day, it was happening whether I liked it or not.

George was delivered first, swiftly followed by his brother, Charlie. They both made their way over for skin to skin cuddles with mummy and proud photographs with their daddy. George was only with us for three short hours. We knew we were lucky to have that time with him – but it would never be enough. It felt surreal and quite honesty, a never-ending night – a brutal beginning to our journey as parents.

Introducing our twin boys, George and Charlie.

“How many did you order? There’s one and there’s the other” the sonographer exclaimed. Identical monochorionic twins. I cried in pure disbelief; Tom just laughed – we were both in shock.

My pregnancy status was classified as “high risk”. During the scan the sonographer flagged an enlarged bladder in one of the babies and referred us to a consultant. We both felt anxious – but we were quietly reassured by anecdotes from a friend, sister, colleague and so on, that despite something being flagged up during a scan, all has been well. It’s nothing to worry about, right? We spent the weekend sharing our news and basking in the excitement. Secretly I was freaking out. Two babies? Could I cope with that?

I wasn’t prepared for the next appointment. I was 13 weeks pregnant – I wasn’t prepared to hear the words “abnormality”, “disability” or worst of all “termination”. The significance of the enlarged bladder was more serious than we’d initially thought, the consultant wanted me to undergo invasive tests to gain a clearer picture of the health of Twin Two. We decided to ask for a second opinion.

We were referred to a Professor of Fetal Medicine. One happy memory we’ll take from this day was hearing the news that we were expecting twin boys. “It’s a willy party in there”. Sadly, he also confirmed our fears too. Although we were able to avoid the invasive testing, we would need to wait and watch how Twin Two’s bladder developed over the next few weeks. We also learnt of our increased risk of Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome (TTTS), due to an abnormality with Twin Two’s umbilical cord. This was not good news. The next few weeks were going to be agonising.

After our next scan we were pulled into a room for a chat. A chat that would change our lives forever. A chat that I would replay time and time again. The doctor started drawing a diagram, but my brain was struggling to compute his words and sketch simultaneously. Did he just say, “Twin Two only has a 5% chance of living”? We left with four options; watch and wait, invasive surgery – in addition to the risk of surgery if TTTS developed, terminate Twin Two, terminate both babies.

I was 16 weeks pregnant by now, knowing one of our babies only had the slimmest chance of surviving, that he would most likely die shortly after birth and that we wouldn’t be taking him home with us. To say we were devastated is an understatement. I changed that day. It wasn’t the day my baby died, but it was the end of my naivety and with this, the ideals I had been holding on to – a “perfect pregnancy”, fantasies of matching “going home” outfits and the hypothetical lives of our unborn twin boys. We navigated the coming weeks with bated breath.

By 26 weeks the risk of TTTS had drastically decreased, Twin One was growing beautifully and Twin Two was fighting. But a blocked uropathy meant his bladder was significantly larger than it should be, his kidneys were already abnormal and we were told that his other organs wouldn’t develop as they should, in particular his lungs. Our next goal was to reach 36 weeks. Each week felt like an achievement. In our case we were desperately protecting Twin One, we needed Twin Two to fight on a little longer, until his brother was ready for this world.

My care moved back to our local hospital, where discussions centred on Twin Two’s palliative care. When I should have been “pinning” nursery themes or choosing  “the pram” I was anxious about funeral costs and discussions surrounding hospice care. But at the same time, I can hand-on-heart say there were joyous moments too. Only a handful of our closest friends and family knew the severity of our situation. And for those who didn’t, the “double trouble status” brought increased excitement and interest – I never lied, but sometimes I just went along with their conversations, seeking a moment of normality.

At my 34 week scan I mentioned some back pain – an examination indicated early stages of dilation, so I was booked in for a c-section the following day. As it turns out there were no signs of progression and other emergencies went ahead of us, so we were told to return on Sunday. If I’m honest I was a bit grumpy about going back in for a check-up – feeling heavily pregnant, scared witless and trying not to do anything that would bring on labour. After a few hours of being monitored there were concerns over Twin Two’s heart rate and we knew there were risks if he died in utero. We don’t know how close we came to losing both babies on that day, but I’ll always be grateful that we were under the cautious care of our consultant.

I’d spent many sleepless nights wondering what would happen when the babies were born. We had incredible support from a Bereavement Midwife leading up to the birth, we’d planned as much as we could. But losing a child is one of the toughest things you can go through as a parent. It changes you. It’s a dark place you never hope to find yourself in. George died in my arms, with Tom next to him and Charlie close by. His short life was filled with love.

The postnatal period is tough enough – you’re hormonal, fragile, sleep deprived, recovering physically from the pregnancy and delivery. Life as you know it has been turned upside down. On top of this I was grieving, ridden with self-hate and guilt, anxiety and sadness – I spent a long time feeling like we’d had something amazing taken away from us. Gazing tearily at every twin pushchair I saw, pining for what should have been. I searched for answers and solutions in books, therapy sessions, fell down the deepest social media holes, chatted with befrienders, talked to Tom, close friends, family. Loss is devastating. It makes you question everything. It changes your perspective and your relationships – you’ll be a different mother because of it, a different partner, daughter, friend.

For me, there was no epiphany moment. I just had to do it my way. My love for Charlie was like nothing I’d felt before. I battled through each day for him, he was the remedy for my pain, and as a tiny premature baby he needed me as much as I needed him. If you’re lucky, like I was, you’ll have a support network surrounding you to soften every fall and ensure you do get back up again. There are also plenty of support services and groups out there.

On the first anniversary of George’s funeral, a day we have chosen to celebrate as “George’s Day”, we were having lunch and a lady stopped by our table to say how “lovely and well behaved” our son was. It dawned on me that from the outside we portrayed the “perfect” young family, and despite the enormity and difficulty of the day we were still allowed to be just that, happy. Smiles and happiness are possible even in our saddest moments.

In 2020 we were thrilled to welcome our third son, Oliver. Pregnancy after loss isn’t easy, and under the restrictions of a global pandemic it wasn’t ideal for my mental health, but he’s here. Proof that textbook pregnancies do exist and now he’s navigating this journey with us. And soon enough, he will know all about his oldest brother.

There’s no denying I will always find milestones the hardest to navigate, those moments that happen without your child. It’s a lifelong journey, a route we never expected to take, a detour we could have done without, but there’s an acceptance we can’t control life and there’s confirmation of its fragility. One day at a time, life does go on.

Karen x

Instagram~ @k_strider