For hours I had lain awake. The pains in my stomach kept coming in telltale waves, but I refused to accept their origin. It was the early hours of a freezing January morning, and I have not slept all night.
In order not to wake my husband, who I knew had a busy day at work ahead, I moved to another bed. But the agony would not abate. After three hours, terrified and alone, I was forced to phone the hospital. It was a call that would signal the beginning of the end of my life as I knew it. A brutal halt to my elation at becoming a mother for the first time.
For, deep down, I knew that at just 22 weeks into my pregnancy, I was going into labour — and my baby girl, my little Marianne, was just too young to survive.
Despite major technological advances in ante-natal care, there is still little known about why so many healthy babies die as mine did — why 17 women every day have a stillborn child.
Despite this startling statistic, the subject remains a taboo, something to be swept under the carpet. And this secrecy only deepens the feeling that you’ve done something wrong, that you’re somehow to blame.
My husband, Adrian and I had been married for seven years before I fell pregnant last August at the age of 31. I had been lucky enough to conceive straight away after we decided to start a family, and had been filled with such excitement for our future.
But right from the start, my pregnancy was fraught. At six weeks, I started to bleed and was told I had a huge benign tumour called a fibroid and that the pregnancy was ectopic: the baby had apparently implanted in my fallopian tube rather than my uterus.
I grieved for my baby then, but within weeks it emerged the doctors were wrong and she was fine.
The relief I felt when Marianne’s heartbeat was picked up for the first time is indescribable. I sobbed and stared in pure wonderment at the scan showing the little life growing inside me. It was — and still is — my greatest achievement to date.
But during the following months, I continued to suffer pains and heavy bleeding. Each time, I would go to hospital, only to be sent home after a quick scan showed my baby’s heart was beating. No one explained why the pains were happening, nor did they seem particularly concerned. Yet I couldn’t shake the terror that something wasn’t right.
Dissatisfied and anxious, I tried to find some answers but was dismissed by my GP (who refused to refer me to a consultant) and every other medic I saw as worrying about nothing. Finally, after seeking private medical advice, I was diagnosed with a short cervix, meaning my body was getting ready to go into labour months before my due date.
Back home, I took to the internet and discovered that the medical term for my condition is an ‘incompetent’ cervix; not a very comforting phrase. It felt like a judgment, confirming my inadequacy as a woman. Surely, my purpose in life is not to have friends, to travel or do my job as a journalist, but to be a mother? That’s what my body was made for, so why couldn’t it carry out this task which is performed by billions of women all over the world?
Within a fortnight of my diagnosis in early December, I had a stitch placed in my cervix in a bid to keep my baby girl inside me for long enough. It was an invasive and complicated procedure that came with the risk of miscarriage.
I later discovered that to be most effective, the stitch should be inserted within the first ten weeks of pregnancy, but because of the delays, and the dozens of ineffectual NHS hospital scans and appointments I had attended, it was now my 18th week.
The private consultant I saw couldn’t hide his horror that it hadn’t happened sooner. He told me to go on bed rest, to stop working and to move as little as possible to give my baby the best chance that I could.
After the operation, every day that passed felt like a victory. I prayed and wrote letters to my baby, dreaming of the day I could cuddle her for the first time.
I had already named her — as soon as I had found out she was a girl, at around 14 weeks, I chose the name ‘Marianne’, inspired by the character in Jane Austen’s Sense And Sensibility. To me, she was Austen’s most vibrant and ebullient character, and I hoped my daughter would be just like her.
Worried that it would tempt fate, I did not buy anything for my unborn child. I did, however, allow myself to commission a woodland scene mural to be painted on her nursery wall — something, in the end, which was never even started.
The cervical stitch held for one month before that dreadful day in January.
On the phone to the hospital, while Adrian slept, I was fobbed off once again. The midwife seemed unconcerned and told me not to worry, to take some paracetamol and wait until morning. But I knew that if I went into labour, my stitch would tear and I would haemorrhage, with potentially life-threatening consequences. I explained this to the bored, nameless voice at the end of the phone, but she didn’t seem to care.
At around 4am, I took a bath to ease the pain, which is when my world started to fall apart. A stream of water gushed from inside me. I knew instantly that it was the special cushion of liquid that had been keeping my baby safe, letting her swim and kick and grow.
My husband heard me screaming, something I didn’t even know I was doing. It must have been a primeval and instinctive response. Somehow I must have known that my baby, my little Marianne, was going to die.
Barely dressed, we drove in a daze to our local hospital in West London. Just a few days earlier, I had been there for a scan and had been told everything was fine with my baby. I had seen her kicking and covering her face with her hands, as a kind lady tried to take pictures of her. I had marvelled at the clear outline of her lips and nose.
That fateful morning, new scans showed my baby, still alive, her heart beating strong and clearly. But there was no amniotic water left and Marianne’s body was slumped, helpless and unable to move without it. I was told she would not develop and even if we made it to 24 weeks — the earliest age a hospital will try to save a premature baby — she could not survive being born so early.
How had this happened? Just the morning before, I had been looking at prams, dreaming of taking my little girl to ballet class, thinking about good primary schools near our home in Ealing, West London. As I had embraced Adrian on his return from work, I had imagined him picking up our little girl and giving her a kiss, what a wonderful a father he was going to be.
Back at the hospital, I was given my own room with a double bed so that Adrian and I could be together. Despite this much-needed privacy, I could still hear the constant screams of women giving birth around me, followed by the miraculous noise of a baby crying for the very first time. It felt so unfair — why couldn’t that be us?
After my cervical stitch was removed, a harrowing and painful experience in itself, I was asked how long I wanted to leave it before I was induced. I didn’t really understand what was happening, but I knew I didn’t want to delay if there was any chance my baby was in pain. I was told that wouldn’t be the case because her nerve endings hadn’t yet developed, but do they really know that? How could they be sure?
I was kept in hospital and 36 hours after my waters had broken, I felt the contractions start again. Unlike a normal birth, my agony and anguish was to be for nothing; my baby, if alive on being born, would die soon afterwards.
Thankfully, the midwife was incredible, keeping me calm and helping me stay focused. Eventually, at 6.50pm on January 25, Marianne Grace Evans was born.
I lay in a sweat and blood-drenched daze, clasping the hands of my mother and Adrian, who had rubbed my back and soothed me with words of love and support throughout. The midwife rushed my baby’s body away, and when she returned she told me Marianne had died during the labour.
At the time, I did not want to see my daughter. I don’t know why — maybe I was in shock. But two days later, after being released from hospital, I changed my mind.
Having never seen a dead body before, I was worried what to expect — would I be haunted for the rest of my life? But I had agreed for the hospital to carry out a post-mortem examination so if I didn’t seize the chance then, I would never know what my daughter — my first and only child — had looked like.
Adrian and I were taken to a room where Marianne lay in a Moses basket, covered in a pink blanket. I needn’t have worried — she was just perfect, with dark hair, lips like Adrian’s and a flat, fat nose like mine. She was so very, very beautiful, just tiny.
That was the first time Adrian truly broke down. We sobbed and held each other, wrought with grief and despair. I could have stayed in that room for ever, staring at my little baby girl — my beautiful little Marianne who will never go to ballet class, school or university. She will never have a first kiss, get married or have children of her own. I will never hear her cry or laugh. I will never see her smile. It was just too much to bear.
She had been dressed by one of the nurses in a tiny, white knitted bonnet and jacket, such a wonderful thing for someone to have done. I was filled with such sadness that this little outfit would be the only one my daughter would ever wear — there would be no Babygros or party dresses.
The following days were a blur. Guilt as well as grief cloaked me. I felt less of a woman, as though I’d fulfilled the doctor’s diagnosis of ‘incompetence’. I felt as though I’d let down my parents, who’d been so excited about the impending birth of their granddaughter — the clothes and toys they had bought in preparation are now shameful reminders of my failure. But, more importantly, I felt as though I had let my husband down by failing to carry our child for long enough.
To make matters worse, a week later my milk came. I woke up in the night drenched, and it broke my heart even more. I kept thinking about how Marianne’s lips would never suckle at my breast, how this futile substance was just another reminder of my body’s ‘incompetence’.
I was told by the hospital that because Marianne had been born before 24 weeks — ‘the age of viability’ — I did not have to register her death, because what I had been through was classed as a late miscarriage, not stillbirth, something that seemed so arbitrary and cruel. In the U.S., the cut-off point is 20 weeks.
Two weeks after Marianne’s birth, we held a small, simple funeral. We scattered her ashes in the bluebell woods at Kew Gardens, on the snowdrop-covered soil beneath a beech tree.
It has been a year since she died, and I still feel sadness whenever I see a baby. I’m tortured by thoughts of how life could have been, how Marianne would have grown. It is something I am steeling myself to deal with.
Maybe in time, we will try to have another baby, but I am terrified it could happen again. I hope I can, somehow, prove my diagnosis wrong, and fulfil the role I know I’m meant to have: that of a mother.
Throughout it all, Adrian has been my rock, and our marriage is stronger than ever. I just pray that one day, we will know happier times.
By Rebecca Evans