I always gave the thought of having children, the same level of consideration I gave most other things in life…if it happened, it happened. Now as I write this, I scoff at just how naïve I was. I never imagined that having a living child would become more important to me than breathing.
Before I got married in 2013, I knew it was likely that we would need a little help conceiving. We decided early on that we would try to conceive for a short time and if it was not successful, we would pay privately to freeze samples so that we would have the opportunity to try for a baby in the future, if we wanted to. I never felt particularly broody, I just thought that I would regret it if we didn’t at least try.
So, after a short and unsuccessful period of trying naturally, we were referred for IVF treatment. As people who’ve been through IVF will know, all too well, our journey started long before Mali was conceived in 2018. There were countless appointments and tests, but IVF never felt like a last-ditch attempt to me, it was just a matter of giving it a go. In the last three and half years, I have continuously tortured myself over having that attitude, like I somehow brought on Mali’s death myself because I hadn’t been broody enough.
But what they don’t tell you about IVF is that it sucks you in. It doesn’t matter how ‘realistic’ you think you are, from the very first injection, you’re invested. I was all in. Right from the start. And even if I didn’t admit it to myself then, there was no going back. I wanted my baby. To think I could have just walked away now seems like a joke. IVF success rates aren’t widely published and what was, didn’t look particularly promising so when our first round of ICSI was successful in July 2018, I was surprised and considered ourselves unbelievably lucky.
Early pregnancy was easy; no morning sickness, no real tiredness and the rest of the pregnancy followed suit. When people asked how I was doing, I would comment on how easy it was. I called her my ‘easy baby’. But everything changed at 34 weeks and 4 days…
I noticed a small show and rang the maternity ward for advice. They told me to come in and get checked over. They found that my waters had started to break, although I hadn’t had a full rupture. The hospital wasn’t equipped to deliver a baby before 35 weeks, so I was transferred to another hospital by ambulance with a midwife on board in case I went into labour. It was known at this point that the baby was in a breach position and that I would need a caesarean.
The first night in the new hospital, my waters fully ruptured and the day after that my contractions started. The hospital wanted to balance the risk of not delivering too early with not risking a natural birth because the baby was breach. In what would turn out to be the most traumatic day of my life, they got that balance wrong. Very wrong.
On the 31st January 2019, in a story too complex and too lengthy to go into here, I started to deliver my baby girl on my own on the maternity ward after being told that I was not in active labour. No medical staff were with me when I realised I was giving birth; not until my husband went screaming into the corridor. What ensued was a blur of panic and trauma.
I gave birth naturally and unmedicated to my beautiful little girl. Silent. The resuscitation started immediately. We’ll never know how long she was without oxygen in the birth canal, but she did not breathe for 16 minutes after birth.
My next real memory was hours later when medical staff came in to give us an update. What sticks in my mind is that they congratulated us on the birth of our daughter. It somehow felt like a sick joke. They told us that she was doing well for a baby who had been without oxygen for that length of time, but we wouldn’t know the impact of that straight away.
I remember being asked what her name was. I couldn’t process that she was here, let alone name her. At this point I still hadn’t seen her properly. I remembered that my husband and I had been whittling down names the day before while I’d been on the ward. A memory that already felt like a lifetime ago. We went with the name we had both liked, Mali. A Welsh name that I had liked for a while.
Mali needed to be transferred to NICU and so we all went to our third hospital in the same number of days. It was clear on arrival at the new hospital that Mali’s chances of survival were not good. We spent three days in NICU with her, sleeping in the parents’ room.
Those three days were the best and worst of my life. We spent all day every day, looking at her through her incubator, willing for her to show just any sign that she would come back to us. She didn’t.
By the third day, it was clear that the lack of oxygen Mali had suffered during and after birth was just too much. With the amazing hospital staff, the decision was taken to remove her from her life support. Our parents came to meet her and say their goodbyes all at the same time.
When the time came, I cwtched her in my arms, until she took her last breath. I kissed her over and over, eager for her to hear how I much loved her and that I would make her proud that I was her Mammy. I bathed her, brushed her hair, dressed her, said our final goodbyes, and then we left the hospital without our beautiful little girl.
Those early months of grief were dark. I isolated myself. I could barely go anywhere. I had amazing support but nothing felt possible for me. I relied on an online support group and a small number of people close to me but I didn’t know how I would ever return to the old me. Nor did I really want to. All I wanted was my little girl. The blame and guilt that would follow was crippling, I blamed myself every day.
In time, my mind turned to having another baby. I knew I could never replace Mali but I also had an unrelenting feeling that it was the only way I’d survive. The only way I would be able to put one foot in front of the other. I also felt that the only reason I wouldn’t try again was fear and I refused to live a life based on fear. So, we decided to re-embark on the IVF journey.
When our second round of ICSI was successful in October 2019, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t admit it to myself at first. I told my parents that it hadn’t. I think it was my brain trying to protect my heart. To say my second pregnancy was hard is an understatement. In comparison to my ‘easy baby’, it was nothing short of a nightmare. Every little thing sent me into an emotional spiral. I didn’t cope well at all. I was under the care of a fantastic consultant who really looked after me. But it wasn’t enough.
My marriage also started to crack.
I was booked in for caesarean at 38 weeks to manage my emotional state and Macsen was born in May 2020, a beautiful and healthy little boy. The moment I heard his cry, was the first time I took a real breath in 16 months. I can’t explain that feeling but it still gives me goosebumps.
Having Macsen, in the middle of a pandemic, wasn’t easy but I was so happy to be cocooned from the world with my little boy. It felt like the world stopped for us and I soaked in every second. Our marriage didn’t survive. For reasons that probably relate to the loss of Mali and for reasons that have nothing to do with it at all. It hasn’t been easy on either of us but there is beauty in the world for us both again. We have real joy in our lives and we co-parent Macsen in a way that I hope does him and Mali proud.
Except for Macsen, I will never want anything in my life as much as I want Mali. Living with that sorrow, and the joy of Macsen simultaneously, has been challenging for me. But it is possible to live with both. My life doesn’t look like it used to, or what I ever thought it would but somehow its better…even with all the heartache and pain.