A letter to baby Pumbaa, from your mum, Annabel

Annabel and her partner have been trying to start a family for 8 years having sadly lost their first baby, Pumbaa conceived through IVF, at 12 weeks. 6 subsequent cycles, 5 miscarriages and 4 years later, Annabel finds herself in what she describes as 'maybehood' – not knowing if she will ever become a mother. Annabel has written a letter to baby Pumbaa, reflecting on how life has been over the past 4 and a half years.

Our darling Pumbaa,     

I cannot believe it has been four and a half years of what might have been, since I last felt and carried you. For most of our friends, this chronological time frame has seen a whole raft of life change: new homes, new jobs, new babies. I guess this is true for your dad and I too, but they haven’t been the changes we wanted or anticipated, even in our wildest nightmares.

As we move into our forties we can reflect on how we’ve survived it all together: the grief, anxiety, the saturating feeling that the shine had come right off life. The days we looked at each other and our eyes said it all when no words could come (I know right?! Usually your dad would think there are too many). The years somehow passing with no let-up in circumstance and what we most desired. The continued sacrifices, the hope that drove us. I say hope, but really I mean you: our start, our end, our in between.  

I would have given everything and then some to be parenting you through lockdown, no matter how bone crushingly hard, but there are many times I recognise – seeing our friends working, home schooling, hanging on by a thread - that would have pushed me to the edge as well. This newfound reality check of motherhoodis a far cry from the vision I had on my 36th birthday when we couldn’t wait to see you again at the 12 week scan and believe me, I’ve used this bonus time wisely.

Should one of your brothers or sisters ever wish to appear, they will now receive an elevated service from me. I can now bake respectable children’s birthday cakes, manage two children’s bedtimes simultaneously and not cry after reading bedtime stories. I can delicately separate my grief from other people’s joy and take strength that if it happened for them, hopefully somehow, in some way, it will happen for us.

Lockdown has allowed me to finally accept where we are and paradoxically explore the emotional and physical reality of not having children. All these years of rank anxiety and panic attacks, wondering why, wondering when will it end: I’ve been so grief stricken about never having children I’ve not seen the truth right in front of me. We’ve been living this dystopian reality for the last eight years.  

You came to us in year four and it had been hard, so hard. Our training ground. I remember the counsellor at Guy’s explaining to us that IVF is the most existential experience to have to go through, the stress of it up there with life changing diseases. Going into the menopause. Ramping up your eggs. Seeing the moment of conception on the screen; seeing yourself technically pregnant within a matter of minutes.

Getting past the fertility potholes to even get to that point. The lottery of it all. So much seeming awareness about infertility and babyloss – if you’re in the club – yet the isolation seemed to begin, formally, in the waiting room. There had already been much physical anxiety, longing, disappointment and depression, a lot of it locked away behind smiles and life and drinks and holidays.

If I’m honest, the isolation was already there, inside my head. I remember wandering around life not really knowing my purpose, my place; rightly or wrongly putting everything into the pursuit of motherhood.

If I could only hang on in all senses and put my faith into IVF, this would all come right. We would not be one of those couples – my mind could barely grasp this concept, the right language – who did not ‘make it’.

That would and could not be us. And then you arrived at the start of February 2016 and you grew bigger, more settled and I didn’t feel isolated anymore because I had you. I started talking to you straight away, reassuring you. Immediately in love with you. We rolled around the block, you protected by an extra layer of IVF drug bloat, stopping at Bianca’s for the best decaff coffee in south east London.

You ate like your father, the charmingly referred to brabantia bin of husbands. Many days required a second lunch before our obligatory three hour afternoon nap. We had no idea how fortunate we were to get through the seven week heartbeat scan; the nine and a half week scan.  

You died at around eleven weeks, give or take. The isolation I had felt having never got pregnant was of a different depth and note to the desolation I felt when we lost you.

We were assured another baby would come along, like a metaphysical London bus, and now that my body knew ‘what to do’, it would indeed play ball again. So we did embryo transfer, after embryo transfer, after embryo transfer. Another egg collection. Another embryo transfer. Tried the old fashioned way.

The irony that our best possible intentions, our bravery and courage, only served to increase the trauma and isolation I felt, as hope and fear battled each other every time we endured another two week wait, had another appointment with a specialist who claimed to have the answer. All roads came back to you little one – we, and a kick ass laboratory of wonderful NHS women had made you, and I had carried you. That was all the evidence the medical profession seemed to need to hold aloft the flickering beacon of hope, and you became the lighthouse to which each attempt battled towards.  

Your dad has been amazing. I know. Not only could he now retrain as a nurse with his drug mixing and injecting skills (BTW - still needs to work on the sight of blood), his emotional intelligence and empathy is right up there.

It’s not been easy, living without you and having to watch your wife adjust to an empty motherhood, at times clawing her way forward when each sibling after you didn’t materialise.

Watching the fatherhood you wanted basically slip away. He’s still cooking like a demon, still not keen on early mornings but I know if the day ever comes we see two lines on a pregnancy test again, he will be ecstatic. He doesn’t understand, and neither do I, quite how we’ve reached this point, but we’re here and we’re determined to do our best. Do you see him as well with the children? If there is ever an image to keep me going, it’s that. I did grow up with the Athena man holding baby poster after all. 

I know you laugh watching me do burpees in the gym – who wouldn’t - and to be honest even I’m ashamed of never stepping foot in one until I decided I wanted you. But this has been my saviour and now I’ve upped yoga to cardio and weightlifting and kettlebells, back row obvs, I know I’m doing the best I can to heal and keep myself and all of this in some sort of check.

Coming out of a class and running into the Mumhood crew took those endorphins and cried a river over them but now I tell myself very maturely – I am in the fifth decade after all – that we never know how things will turn out and perhaps one day that will be me. In the interim, I’ve learned how many ladies are pitching up at Frame in the same state looking around the room silently, alone in their minds, perhaps wondering if anyone else there is in the same boat. It appears there’s enough ladies to crew at least several yachts.  

Thanks to Covid I’ve had to stop seeing Sue my counsellor and Emma my acupuncturist, but to be honest they’ve done such brilliant work with me over the last two years I feel in a much better place. If there can ever be such a thing as a silver lining to infertility and babyloss, it has been to learn and grow from these two ladies.

Their wisdom and care, and the space and support they have given me at my most isolated and in sheer despair of my soul, has allowed my mind and heart to settle. Together we have agreed it isn’t fair; that sometimes people do not have the language or desire or ability to engage and talk about a grief that is ultimately terrifying. 

If you want children, society still projects this expectation you’ll get them. I’ve learned from Sue that that is not always the case and that, whisper it, couples like us can be happy in the long term without children. Sue’s hair is ridiculously on point thanks to her Dyson hair wrap, so if you could have a word with your father for Christmas, I’d be grateful. 

Not a week has gone past when our friends haven’t checked in. Willing us on, being the shoulders to cry on, the distraction to laugh with, the champions of our hope and resilience. They took it in turns to get in touch, see, and care for us over the last four and a half years. With no handbook they have found the words or in the boys’ case, the pub.

They have been generous with their attention, time, children; sensitive to dates and times of the year. They have got in touch many times ‘just because’. Not once has their support or understanding wavered. And here they are, still cheering us on.

My work colleagues have been extraordinary. My GP has been with me every step of the way at inhumane times of the morning where he shouldn’t have even seen a coffee let alone me (big up the NHS for 7am appointments. He had to see me). Even with all this extraordinary support, we have had to live in a world where babies in prams and pregnancies announced have sometimes been like a dagger in the heart, and the longer we have lived with this grief, the greater at times the emotional and mental isolation. The rank unfairness. Even our parents unable to find the right words to reassure and comfort – how could they make this right? - their hearts breaking as well. Gentle suggestions of adoption, surrogacy, egg donation. Silent hope that nature miraculously intervenes.   

Not everyone of course is as thoughtful and sensitive to this infertility and babyloss fatigue. We’re beyond exhausted, but everyone has their own lives to lead, their own challenges and upsets. Sometimes it’s simply not in their sphere of consideration at that moment. Sometimes people will simply disappoint you.

I’ve learned to not expect something that isn’t there; just seek the people that are. That’s the beauty of life I guess; you never know who will surprise you with a message, card, gesture or conversation. Losing a baby, and subsequent babies, is one of the most isolating, raw, life changing experiences you can go through; life is re-drawn and your support network sometimes reframed. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just a thing.  

Time has taken on another quality as my grief has processed and slowly settled for you. I now accept it will always remain and that the time we had together was precious beyond words. You will always be my first child, whatever happens. You brought us so much joy and happiness. You’ve inspired so much love, so many wonderfully kind words, thoughts and gestures. You’ve inspired us. You’ve inspired me.  

You can find Annabel on Instagram and over on her blog

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