"Thinking back to when I was a child, and dreaming of that perfect life; I have it. It might not have gone the way I had thought or planned it to go but sometimes life takes you in a direction you never saw yourself going in"

I always knew I’d become a mother. As a little girl, when I was asked about my future I’d always respond with a dreamy answer of “I want to get married, get a dog and have a family.” I wanted the whole package. But at the age of 22, I was single and pregnant.

This wasn’t my dream scenario at all. I had a huge decision to make and I felt so alone. When I look back now, eleven years on, I can’t believe how strong I was. What a hard decision to make when your adult life is just beginning? 

After speaking to my parents, I made the decision to have the baby. It was a difficult time, and I knew that the biological father was not going to be a part of our life.

My pregnancy was pretty smooth, although I did have a subchorionic hematoma. This is a type of bleeding that occurs between your amniotic membrane and your uterine wall. This meant that I did have random bleeding at times; which was a little scary.

When I was nearly 28 weeks pregnant I was visiting my dad, who lived a couple hours away at the time, when I started to have these ‘tightenings’. I thought they were braxton hicks but they just kept coming and coming. I quickly drove home to collect my maternity notes then I went to my local hospital.

At the hospital, I had a scan which showed my baby was head down. Now I have had my second baby, I now know they were checking to see if he was breech. I had a fetal fibronectin test which is used to rule out preterm labour. Mine came back positive. This is when I started to think “oh god, is this really happening….?”

The doctors tried for two days to stop my contractions. But on the 31st of January 2012 at 23:35 my beautiful baby Freddie was born; 11 weeks and 5 days early weighing an amazing 3lbs 3oz.

Freddie was in neonatal for nearly three months. The neonatal journey is a bit like being on a rollercoaster; it’s very up and down. One day your baby may be breathing on their own and then the next they would be ventilated. It was emotionally draining. The first time I went to see Freddie in his incubator, there were so many wires, noises and nurses surrounding him. It was totally overwhelming and surreal. I was frightened.

I was told that the first 48 hours were crucial to his survival and that he had a 50/50 chance of making it through the night. I actually think I got told so much in the first two days that none of it sunk in. I remember waking up the next morning and feeling my bump which was no longer there and for a split second thinking what had even happened?

Whilst in hospital, Freddie was treated for septicaemia, jaundice, breathing difficulties (ventilated and then weaned off CPAP) feeding issues, bowel issues (he didn’t poo by himself for over a week!) and also blood transfusions.

When Freddie was discharged, being at home was absolutely nerve wracking. Not only was I a first time mum and single, but my baby had been born super early and I was at home without any nurses or doctors to help. I co- slept with Freddie for 4 years and our bond is so special. I am a very lucky mummy. He is a wonderful, clever, kind and funny boy and I am so proud of him. You would never know that he was born so poorly and early now. 

Freddie is now ten years old and has become a big brother to his little sister Penelope. He is the best big brother! He dotes on Penny, always making her laugh and helping me out by getting nappies or muslin!

Penelope was born last year on the 11th of July at 34 weeks. I was desperate for a ‘normal’ birth. I dreamt of a hypnobirthing water birth with candles and a calming atmosphere. But Miss Penelope was just as eager to meet me as her big brother was.

My pregnancy with Penelope was not as smooth as her big brothers and I was consumed with anxiety from the get go. Before Penelope, we sadly had an ectopic pregnancy where I had my Fallopian tube removed due to it rupturing. So our first hurdle was to make sure this pregnancy was nestled in my womb and not in my remaining tube. Luckily, it was and what a huge relief that news was. But very soon, my anxiety crept back.

The next part of the journey was to see a specialist preterm consultant. At these appointments I had my cervix measured to make sure it wasn’t shortening prematurely and I also was prescribed progesterone suppositories at 18 weeks to take until 34 weeks. Progesterone is a hormone that helps the uterus grow during pregnancy and keeps it from contracting. This was to try and help me from going into spontaneous labour like I did with Freddie.

Every twinge, bleed and pain that I had, I instantly thought I was having my baby early. This was emotionally draining. I don’t think I relaxed once during my pregnancy. My main milestone was to reach 24 weeks as this is when your baby is ‘viable’ and able to survive. But even when I got to this milestone I was already thinking of hitting the next; Freddie’s gestation. 

Around this gestational time I was admitted to a labour ward for a whole week due to having the exact tightenings I had with Freddie. I also had the fetal fibronectin test again which came back positive! It was like deja vu. I couldn’t believe it. I was distraught after the test came back positive. All I wanted was my baby to be safe, I felt like my body had failed me again. My partner was able to come in and comfort me, which was so needed. 

After being admitted for a week with no change to my cervix, the doctors thought I was safe to go home. I was 30 weeks pregnant. We went home, and decided to prepare the nursery. This was an amazing day, painting and sorting the baby furniture. I thought to myself “if I can get to 33-34 weeks pregnant I’d be happy with that.” Even though I was still holding onto the hope of going full time and having my dream birth. 

At 33 weeks pregnant, like clockwork, I started to have a little bleed and my contractions started. I was transferred to Basingstoke Hospital as my local hospital in Southampton had no cots available in their neonatal unit. I was told that my baby was breech after a scan and for this reason I had to be admitted and prepared to have a c-section if I was to dilate. Due to my previous preterm history with Freddie, and how fast he came, I was under a watchful eye. There were days I was not allowed to eat due to ‘maybe’ needing to have a caesarean. This was very frustrating, and I was so hungry!

My contractions kept coming but every single time I was examined, my cervix was fully closed. This was obviously a good sign as baby was staying put, but also slightly annoying as I wanted to go home! I hated being in a hospital ward by this point. They are loud, uncomfortable and the visiting hours for my partner to come in were awful. I felt so alone and I remember being absolutely shattered.

On Saturday the 10th of July, nearly a week after being admitted, my partner had come in in the morning and everything was how it had been; minor contractions being picked up but no change to my cervix. I had warned the doctors that with Freddie, my cervix shortened and opened extremely fast so to be cautious of this. But they were optimistic that our baby would stay put.

I told my partner to go home and rest, and spend the day doing something for him (golf!). I was confident that nothing was going to happen. My partner popped back in the evening, and I was told I could eat after not eating for nearly 16 hours! I ordered something in, as I just wanted something delicious. I told my partner to go home at around 9pm to get some rest. I ate my food and got as comfy as I could in the hospital bed.

At around midnight, I woke up to the same type of contractions that I’d been having all week but this time I just knew something was different, the pain was slightly more intense. Aren’t our bodies just amazing? I believe that the maternal instinct that we have as women is so strong and you should almost always go with that gut feeling! I called a midwife to come and see me and told her how my pains were becoming more intense. I waited for my consultant to see me and at around 1am I was examined. And there were those words again, “Harriet, you are in established labour and are at around 4-5cm dilated.” 

Even writing this now, I am welling up. Though I just knew Penelope wasn’t going to reach full term, I also held on to a little hope that she would. I think I was desperate for that golden hour, the breastfeeding and the knowing that my baby is safe and healthy.  Everything I didn’t have with Freddie I was looking forward to with this baby.

I frantically asked if my partner would be here on time; as I knew she was breech I’d need a c-section. Luckily, someone was already in theatre so I had a little wait to go in. My partner most likely drove like a mad man to get there on time. I called my parents to let them know that their granddaughter would be arriving shortly and I just sat in my bay and cried. I cried for the birth that I would not be getting, I cried for the sheer panic of having surgery and I cried at the thought of my baby being poorly like her big brother. 

At 3.46am on the 11th of July, after a complicated delivery where I lost a lot of blood and our baby got stuck, our beautiful Penelope was born weighing 5lbs 6oz. Penny was in neonatal for 2 weeks and we were lucky enough to be transferred to our local hospital so we were near to home. 

The worst part about your baby being in neonatal is leaving them when you are discharged yourself. Leaving the hospital after giving birth without my baby is absolutely one of the hardest things I have had to do as a mother and I’ve had to do it twice. Not knowing if they are okay, or if they are crying and needing comfort from me. Not being able to be there 24/7; the whole experience is just gut wrenching. I thought to myself “will my baby know who I am? Will they know I am their mummy?” I spent every waking hour there at hospital. Establishing breastfeeding was so important to me and the feeling I get from the closeness is something I have never experienced before. I plan to breastfeed as long as Penny wants to; and I know I will be sad when it comes to an end. It’s a wonderful feeling and feel very lucky we have managed as far as we have at 10 months old. 

I am extremely fortunate that both of my premature babies are healthy, happy and have no further medical concerns. Especially with Freddie being so very early. I have been told nit would be wise not to have anymore children, because the chances are extremely high for me to have another premature baby. The reasons are unknown as to why my babies have both been premature and I think I am only now coming to terms with both of their traumatic births. I have had counselling with a midwife for both births and this is something that I recommend to all mothers who have had a complicated or traumatic time during labour and birth.

Thinking back to when I was a child, and dreaming of that perfect life; I have it. It might not have gone the way I had thought or planned it to go but sometimes life takes you in a direction you never saw yourself going in and it turns out to be the best road you have ever taken. I cannot wait to see my babies grow up, to support them and be there for them every step of the way. They are my whole world and I love them both endlessly.