If pregnancy is a car journey and the birth is the destination, then being forewarned of your child’s prematurity, transforms the birth into a speeding car on a collision course with your own. First you are curious about the approaching headlights, but before you have chance to figure things out, you’re bracing for impact. A pregnancy is nine months; that was what I had been taught as a young child and that is what I had believed since. I had no exposure to the concept of prematurity, I hadn’t been premature, neither had anyone in my family. In fact when I entered my date of birth into some gimmicky ‘facts of your life’ generator on the internet, amongst other information, it suggested that my most likely date of conception was the 20th January… my Dad’s birthday… the horror!
My mum’s choice of birthday gift that year aside, the point is, it strengthened the notion for me that the length of a pregnancy is constant and predicable. That is probably why the reality of what then happened hit me like a ton of bricks.
When we were first told that my wife was pregnant with twins it was also mentioned that they are often born early. Fine, I thought, makes sense. The possibility of a 36 to 38 week pregnancy was banded around. Fine, again, no problem. Then the discovery of twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome (TTTS) opened the door to the birth being even earlier…much earlier… assuming of course my boys even survive at all… ...Not so fine.
If you are not familiar with TTTS you can read more about my experience with it here - Henry’s Dad TTTS
So, my boys would be premature… Done deal! 24 weeks..? Yeah… could be! You know what I was saying about the speeding car on a collision course? We managed 31 weeks and 4 days in the end… IMPACT! Shortly before the birth, to prepare ourselves, we were offered a tour of the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and there I caught my first glimpse of a premature baby. A tiny,fragile, little boy weighing in at almost 4 lbs. There was nothing to him.
I felt the car slam into me even earlier than I had anticipated and I broke down in tears. I became vaguely aware of some of the female nurses swooning over me…how sweet and touching it apparently was that it would have such an emotional impact on a man… “usually it’s the mums that it gets to” one said… My tears were far more personal than they realised though. Here was a 4 lbs child, so small, so fragile, yet I was armed with the knowledge that one of my twins, due to the TTTS, was likely to be born at 1 ½ lbs. I had no idea how to comprehend that my own child would be less than half the size of the baby we had seen. I thought we would lose him.
I recall the delivery vividly. The wave of emotion I felt was indescribable but I had to keep myself together. No mean feat… it was like a tidal wave in my mind for which I had to keep building and rebuilding dams to hold back the pressure. My wife needed my strength and support and that it what she got.
The most challenging aspect of the experience was that there was no guarantee of a happy outcome. No one was telling us everything will be ok. Particularly with Henry’s twin, Jasper, being so small….I couldn’t get the vision out of my mind… a hand on my shoulder… “I’m sorry but…” Both boys needed significant help in the first moments of their lives. The doctors and nurses did their best to involve us but a quick glance was all that could be offered to my wife before they were whisked away. Heartbreakingly, she would be denied the opportunity to provide them with her warmth, her love and the touch of her skin on theirs. But they were alive, and they were fighting. It was bitter-sweet.
I knew before the birth that a lengthy hospital stay would be on the cards. I had figured I would deal with this by telling myself that this period would be a simple extension of the pregnancy, with their true birth occurring when they came home. As a concept, it had made absolute sense to me, until the moment I saw them…. there was no getting around it….THEY WERE HERE!
The first night I had to leave both my wife and my children in the hospital and return home alone was agonising. There was a huge sense of absence and longing. It was not how I had envisaged my first night as a father… home alone.
After my wife was discharged and the days turned into weeks the feeling of not being with my boys became excruciating… as if I had cut out my heart and left it still beating in the hospital. Both boys were over two weeks old before we even got to hold either of them, hard on me, but I expect torture for my wife having carried them inside her. Henry was in hospital for two months and came home on his due date, purely by chance, so at least for him, my failed concept of it being an extension of the pregnancy, had worked from a time perspective. Jasper, however, needed longer and came home after almost six months. It was an agonising experience; heartache, stress, anxiety and exhaustion.
Henry suffered brain damage and our world collapsed around us… our hopes and dreams as we knew them evaporated. Jasper suffered setback after setback and had more surgery than most people will see in their entire lives. They are both remarkable though… strong willed and big hearted… they have pulled through it and are powering on in their own unique ways. Love them.
Prematurity is part of my family’s lives now and it will leave a lasting legacy for my children and I expect my children’s children. The impact is too great, the evidence too visible, for it to be forgotten. The resulting challenges are still present. The pregnancy and premature birth was just part one of a longer difficult journey. I often still think about the daily visits to the hospital; the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit situated cruelly half way along the corridor to the Maternity Ward. Each and every day we would pass new parents coming the other way, newborn baby in tow; balloons and flowers; smiles and laughter. Those families had reached their destination safe and well as expected.
That wasn’t to be for us… we had been blinded by the oncoming car… we had been in the wreck… we haven’t come out unscathed. But we are survivors and we are so thankfully for every day we have. Henry’s Dad.
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