After visiting my girls for the first time, we returned to the antenatal ward at around 2am. Even though I had lived here for the past two and a half weeks, it felt like a different place. I barely recognised the ward. Nothing felt the same yet everything was so familiar. It was a very uncomfortable feeling. This was the first time I experienced a place changing. Over the summer as I faced each traumatic event or had to sit in a meeting with the consultant and hear my worst fears be relayed to me, I would walk out of the room into a foreign place. I would feel lost. I knew the place like the back of my hand yet it all felt like a distant memory. A memory which was unable to separate happiness from fear.
We were shown into a private room on the ward, where a fold out bed had been made for Connor. This became our home for the next three days.
Connor and the midwife helped me to awkwardly get into bed. I was in a lot of pain from the operation and could barely move. I couldn’t do anything without the help of Connor. From sheer exhaustion, we managed to drift into an uneasy sleep.
At 5am, Connor woke and had to go and see the girls. I desperately wanted to go but I was in so much pain from the operation and was shattered. I told him to tell the girls that their Mummy said “Hi” and I would go and see them shortly. I asked him to take photographs for me. It felt like a very long time until he returned but when he did he was smiling and informed me that the nurses looking after the girls were efficient and friendly and that both girls were stable.
(Left: Esme, Right: Charlotte)
Morning arrived and I just felt gross. God knows what I was lying in but it was so uncomfortable. When the midwife came to do my observations and give me my drugs, I asked if it was possible to get a wash. Two nurses came and gave me a hand wash. The feeling of the warm cloths and being cleaned felt incredible. I was so grateful to them.
Whilst Connor was away hunting for his breakfast, a lady came in to our ward bedroom with her trolley full of ‘Bounty bags’. I had no idea what was in these bags and was confused as to why she was here. She smiled and excitedly said “Congratulations on the arrival of your girls”. It was so strange to hear those words. It didn’t feel right. I vacantly replied “Thank you” and took the bags. She explained about registering their births and then wished me good luck before leaving. I laid back down and stared at the ceiling. That whole five minutes just felt so wrong. Everything in the bag was for taking your babies home, yet my girls were living by the hour. I didn’t want the bags. I’m not even sure I wanted her congratulations. What was there to say congratulations about? I’d delivered my girls three months early, they were both fighting for their lives and I was told only a matter of hours ago that Charlotte might not make it.
When Connor returned, we decided to go and see the girls. A nurse came to help Connor move me from the bed into the wheelchair. Over the past weeks, Connor’s steering had improved. He was now just paranoid that my catheter bag was on show. He used to check so many times that it was hidden when he wheeled me from the antenatal ward to the neonatal ward. It amused me the way he fussed over it and was mortified if it was in view.
As we waited for the neonatal ward doors to be opened, excited nerves began to grow. I was going to see my baby girls. As we entered and Connor wheeled me through to Intensive Care, it felt a very different ward to the time I had visited when pregnant. I felt a part of it. I received warm, welcoming smiles and it no longer felt as daunting.
We were greeted by two different nurses and they told us how gorgeous the girls were and what beautiful names we had chosen. For the first time, I felt a proud Mummy. I asked how heavy they were and Charlotte was just under 2lb and Esme just over 2lb. I caught sight of Charlotte’s first nappy. I couldn’t believe the size of it. It was a Pampers nappy which fitted in the palm of my hand. It was ridiculous but so cute looking. I had no idea nappies could be made this small. They informed us about each Twin in turn. There was no change to when Connor had visited earlier and they were both stable; Esme more so than Charlotte. They explained what the numbers meant on the machines the girls were on and warned us about the sounds and not to be panicked when they alarmed. Despite being warned about this, when the alarms went off, some more intense than others, it scared the sh*t out of us. The nurses were very approachable and friendly. They were quiet yet confident with their work and the way they handled our girls. Their approach and how they spoke was truthful yet empathetic.
As I looked through the incubators at their tiny chests vibrating from the oscillator my heart poured with love. They were tiny and perfect. All the fears I had of what a premature baby looked like faded. They were mine. But as I watched their bodies working so hard, I realised that I would do anything to swap places with my girls. I would watch as their faces screwed up in discomfort and they would be crying yet I couldn’t hear them because of their breathing tubes. Everything felt so unnatural, I felt nothing but helpless, I couldn’t pick them up, cradle them in my arms and kiss them on the forehead, telling them how much I loved them and that everything would be ok. I was fighting all my motherly instincts that were so new yet so strong.
The consultant for that week entered the room and introduced himself. I asked how he thought the girls were doing. He calmly but assertively told us we were still not out of the woods, Esme was more stable but Charlotte was very poorly and we would be taking each hour as it comes. This hit me hard. I didn’t expect him to say that. It was such a hard statement to comprehend. He was talking about the life of my little girl; acknowledging that she was here at the moment, but might not be in a few hours. I nodded at him but felt empty inside.
A few hours passed and I had to return to the antenatal ward for my lunch.
As we returned to the antenatal ward I asked Connor which doctors and nurses had been there when the girls were born. I felt slightly mortified so many people had seen me with my legs akimbo but I guess that’s what happens when you give birth; your dignity vanishes. In the canteen, later that afternoon, I more or less sat opposite the anaesthetist. Mortified, I attempted to hide my face behind the menu as Connor refused to swap places with me.
After lunch, Connor and I had a go at expressing milk. I pinched the ‘NHS expressing poster’ from outside our room and we followed the instructions step by step. Overnight my boobs had become functional objects and there was absolutely nothing sexy about expressing into a syringe. It was quite funny. We were excited, rewarded by my brilliant mammary glands and proud to be doing something that was really helpful for our girls. We were eager to go back to the girls and took the two syringes of milk with us.
Each time we returned to the neonatal ward it got easier. The place and staff became more familiar and we were always greeted with welcoming smiles. The excited yet anxious nerves before entering and going through the doors of the Intensive Care Unit never went away.
The nurses were pleased to see us and delighted with the expressed milk. They showed us how it was used for the girls’ mouth care. They asked if we wanted a go at doing Charlotte’s. I watched carefully and then rolled the foam mouth swab in the milk and had a go. How on earth did the nurse manage to get this huge swab inside Charlotte’s mouth? I could barely get it past her lips, too cautious of hurting her. I handed it back and asked if she could finish.
We took it in turns at each incubator and then swapped over so that each girl had either their Mummy or Daddy with them. We wondered if life would always be like this. We enjoyed looking at their features and discussing who they took after. Connor called me over to say Esme looked like my Grampy (my Mum’s Dad), just after he’d woken up from a nap. I had to agree with him.
The nurses showed us some diaries they’d started for each girl. It was a really sweet, heart-warming feeling. They’d written it in the first person and printed off photographs to go with their writing. In Charlotte’s first picture, she definitely had Connor’s cheeky glare. I asked if I could have the picture to put up in our hospital bedroom. I would normally be so up for writing in the diaries and completing them as memories to look back on, but I couldn’t bring myself to put pen to paper. What if these books were the only memories I would ever have?
We spent the afternoon learning about the neonatal ward and what we could do for the girls. We learnt not to stroke their skin as it was so delicate and this would cause irritation. We were taught how to comfort hold. We had to use a gentle but steady touch. I put my hands through the incubator windows, making sure my arms weren’t resting on any tubes and carefully cupped Esme’s head with my right hand and held her feet with my left. She felt so warm, tiny and fragile. I don’t think I breathed until I pulled my hands out. It was a long time before I stopped asking for the nurse’s permission to do comfort holding.
Next to each of their incubators, were Charlotte and Esme‘s own trolleys. The top of the trolleys belonged to the nurses. This included all their notes and observations. In the first drawer was everything we needed to do their care; nappies, octensian antimicrobial wipes, sterile water, foam mouth swabs and a special powder to put in their creases. The second drawer had their diaries in and my expressing kit and the third drawer had a special yellow box for all their keepsakes they had on the ward.
Before we left, we were given four fleece buddy blankets; two purple ones for Esme and two red ones for Charlotte. This was to get our scent on and leave them in the incubator when we weren’t there. I kept them tucked under each bra strap during the day and placed them between Connor and me when we went to bed. It would stress me out if I dropped one on the floor, meaning it would have to be washed, as I’d spent hours getting my scent on it, hoping the girls would have some comfort or reminder of their Mummy and Daddy when we weren’t there.
In the evening, my Mum, Dad and sister, Kirsty, visited. Kirsty and her fiancé, Bill, had travelled up late Sunday night when they heard I’d gone into theatre. I warned them what it was like in the neonatal ward and showed them photographs of the girls to try and prepare them. I was so nervous about them seeing my girls. Would they still love them the same? Connor went with my Mum and Dad and I waited with Kirsty. When they returned, my Mum gave me a big kiss and said how beautiful they were. My Dad was standing behind her. He burst into tears, gave me a big hug and cried, “They’re just so perfect. They’re beautiful darling.” My heart burst with pride.
Later on as I lay in bed whilst Connor was in the shower, a cloud of deep sadness and loneliness floated over me. I broke down in tears. I was so lost without my girls’ safe inside my growing bump and now I felt alone in no man’s land. The sound of the water running was soothing and the sun began to glisten through the window. I looked out and the sun was shining so strongly. The rays were dancing and I felt the familiar and overwhelming comfort as the sun’s warmth wrapped around me, embracing me in a reassuring hold. My Grandad (my Dad’s Dad who is sadly no longer with us) was here for me. He is always there for me when I need him most. I’m pretty sure he was telling me everything was going to be ok. I heard the shower stop and called for Connor to open the door, just in case he needed a little cuddle too. No more than an hour had passed and I got a message from my sister on our family WhatsApp with a photograph of two rainbows taken from my parents’ house. What a clever man my Grandad is.