Trying for a baby when one of us felt incredibly dysphoric in their body was one of the most uncomfortable things we’ve ever had to do as a couple. My wife struggles with depression caused by her dysphoria, so using parts of her body that we both would rather weren’t there was very diﬃcult.
We were incredibly lucky as I fell pregnant the first time we tried, in early 2018. This is something we don’t take for granted as we know that fertility is a struggle in itself and not everyone can easily become pregnant.
Our baby came at 22 1/2 weeks
I started a new job on Monday 17 September; the weekend came, and Willow came with it. On the Sunday evening, we went to hospital because I’d had pain and bleeding, where they found my cervix had opened and my waters were pushing against it.
They said that if I gave birth in the next few days, it would be too early for the baby to be saved. After 23 weeks, doctors will decide whether babies are ‘compatible with life’ and try to save them if possible. But our baby was 22 ½ weeks.
We were taken to a delivery room to prepare; they said it was entirely ours and they were so sorry but the usual room they had for this situation was currently occupied. This made me sad because I knew that someone else was losing a baby that night.
“I could hear babies being born and the cries of life coming into the world, just after being told that our baby was going to come too soon – that our tiny baby would die.”
My sister arrived, as she was meant to be our birthing partner. She could never have known that she would have to help us bring our baby into the world without a single breath.
At 2am my waters broke while I was sat on the toilet in the en-suite. The pressure of my waters being so low against my cervix meant that when they broke it was powerful and explosive.
I screamed in terror, thinking somehow I’d given birth to my child already. My sister put her hands down the toilet to check for me. I hadn’t. My baby was still inside me. I could still feel movement.
“I wanted above all for my baby to be able to stay there and grow just a little more, just enough so that they would try to help them live.”
When Willow was born at 9am on Monday 24 September, I held her against my chest and sobbed.
Creating memories with Willow
My family came as soon as they could: all my siblings around my bed, with my mum and wife. They held Willow and we all cried so much.
By then, the bereavement midwives had arrived. They specialise in helping people whose babies are born too soon or die after birth. They’re truly amazing people; we’ll never forget their love and care through the worst time of our life.
The Tommy’s nursery room for cuddling Willow while we arranged her burial was appreciated beyond measure, and absolutely essential for us in our grieving. We spent precious time holding her and memorising her little face, hands, feet, her entire self.
"I’ve felt sadness before, but nothing like the crushing pain of having a life taken from within you and handed to you sleeping. It was like hope had been removed from my body at the same time as Willow.”
My wife was in shock. Having to watch me give birth to Willow, and realising that we could never take her home, really hit deeply.
The search for answers and support
We’ll never know exactly why she came early. My placenta came away a little, which caused the bleeding and early labour, but no-one knows why this happened to me.
The support from Tommy’s rainbow clinic at St Mary’s has been amazing - I cannot thank them enough. In those worst moments of our life, Vicky and the amazing bereavement team helped keep us from losing ourselves in grief. The love they give every day to parents going through the darkest times is so deeply important and needed.
When Vicky came into the room with Willow cradled in her arms, in a tiny crochet basket and little light green hat, I could feel how much she cared for us and for our beautiful baby. With her love surrounding us, and her attention to making sure that we had memories made of our daughter, we took home a memory box donated by 4louis that she put together. She took photos of our baby girl, made handprints and footprints, even a cast of Willow’s foot which we hold regularly.
“Though we never got to see her eyes, I know that she looks so fondly upon us from the other side.”
We went to the coffee mornings and met other parents who had lost their babies. I now have friends for life who I could not imagine being without. Though we met in the worst possible way, we have each other and know that we understand grief together.
Our rainbow baby
In our journey to meet our rainbow baby, we went back to St Mary’s hospital in Manchester because fortunately there is a Tommy’s clinic there. I felt the empathy that every single one of the receptionists, midwives and doctors have for all the parents who have lost babies.
They never asked the questions that so many people ask, which hurt like needles to the skin. They never minded my constant worrying and panicking. They were there for us each step of the way. We knew we could call them any time and they’d be there when we needed them.
“Everyone at the Rainbow Clinic knew our story: that Willow was our first baby and that we were already mums.”
Our rainbow baby also came early at 34 weeks, and he was born in the exact same room as Willow; midwives oﬀered to swap the room for us, but we decided we wanted to be in the place that Willow came to us. We named him Riley, after the bear who was given to us, and his middle name is Willow which we hope will bring him closer to his sister.
I remember feeling absolute terror for a moment when my waters were breaking, because I thought I would lose Riley like we lost Willow - but he wasn’t going anywhere. My labour was fast and intense, with no time for anything but gas and air.
Riley was in NICU for 9 days, and I got to stay with him almost every night for that time. We were so scared, but we knew that St Mary’s would take care of him.
Parenting after loss
We celebrated Riley’s first birthday with a cake and lots of cuddles - but I didn’t realise how hard it would hit me that our son is 1 and our daughter would be 2. Willow’s absence from our celebrations hurt. She will never hold hands with Riley, they will never cuddle together or get in the arguments that only siblings can ever understand.
I cry regularly for Willow and still sometimes have panic attacks on the toilet or wake up in the middle of the night thinking I can feel her moving in me. These are things I will live with forever.
“We sit with our grief and allow it to settle. Riley is in our arms and Willow is in our hearts.”
For the rest of my life, I will know that Willow made us mums. She touched the world with her toes before she went, and felt my hand on her skin. I’m lucky to have had that moment.
My advice to anyone reading this is to be open and loving - if you know someone who has lost, please talk to them. Don’t shy away from pain but embrace it. Hold the grief in your arms and give it the time it needs.
Through everything, we will never forget the care we had at St Mary’s and the Tommy’s Rainbow Clinic. I wish there was a way to thank everyone to the level they deserve. I would give the world to see Willow one more time, and they gave us the memories we keep so that we can see her every day.