Today Hattie is 19. I remember her arrival as if it were yesterday.
A 9 am admission to Kettering General – to be induced – on a brittle English winter’s morning.
‘Walk to get it going’, advised my consultant.
So I did. Up and down the hospital corridors, up and down, hearing the arrivals of other new babies, witnessing the race to get early twins to Special Care, a boy and a girl, their mother’s first.
At 4 there was movement, by 4.10 there was a rush. Midwives strapped the foetal heart monitor to my belly, my baby was coming so quickly they used a marker pen to draw crosses on my tummy to keep up with her descent. Though, I didn’t at that stage know it was a Her.
There was a shout for extra hands, no time for pain relief other than gas and air, I clutched the mask to my face and pressed hard, so that the next day my eyes were black, in the other hand I gripped a midwives fingers (I felt mildly ashamed when I considered my reflection the following morning).
Hattie arrived 50 minutes after the first twinges, the cord wrapped around her neck, twice, her small face black with contusion, like a tiny cross boxer.
The speed of it all left me astonished – ‘oh boy’, I kept gasping, ‘oh boy’, no, no urged the midwives, a girl, a girl – and my little daughter traumatised; she was bundled off to Special Care, with the tiny twins, to warm her up, pump her tiny system of meconium, help her breathe.
I stared at her in her incubator. She looked too big to be here: a full termer against prems dressed in dolls’ clothes. Recovering, hours later, I slipped down to SCBU again and sat amongst the clicks and winks of monitors and the whispers of Special Care nurses and fed my daughter, I watched the deftness with which those nurses handled newborns, born too new, and an incredible peace washed over me.
I was 31 when I had Hat, my third. 25 when I had my first, my son, I had imagined that motherhood would play out as I had read in textbooks, the piles and piles that teetered on my bedside table, I had imagined, really imagined, he would only need to be fed every four hours. I perceived there ought to be Routine. There was not. There was only tears and hunger and not enough sleep: for either of us. At his three month check up, my paediatrician, a glorious old man sized us both up and said, ‘you’re both too skinny, give him a bottle’. I did. He ate, slept, smiled, so did I.
When my eldest daughter was born, two year later, I told myself, I’ll get it right this time, I’ll Relax into motherhood. I tried but at less than six weeks my daughter grew so gravely ill that we were evacuated from home in Africa to hospital in London, her diagnosis a broad, but dangerous ‘failure to thrive’, she was unable to tolerate either my milk or formula. We spent four months in and out of the best children’s hospitals in London, her on a specialised, prescription diet until she began to gain weight, tolerate soya and then we flew home.
So Hat’s arrival was met with trepidation, would it be ‘Third time never like the rest’, I wondered, worried.
And despite a distressing start, it was. Within days her facial contusion had subsided, she was feeding with the relaxed contentedness that I had read about but never witnessed in either of my other children’s early days. She slept, she ate, she found her thumb. She gazed with wide eyes around her and considered the world with a careful wisdom that has sustained. And she delivered this extraordinary calm. I’d done this before, I followed my instinct, did what felt right, fed her on demand so that it no longer felt demanding, ate bread and jam and drank a Guinness before I went to bed to keep us both going overnight, kept her in a crib beside me so that I could reach out a hand to sooth her or a foot to jiggle her back to sleep.
Being a mother has taught me many, many things. With Hat’s arrival I had the confidence to understand that Routine really meant whatever worked for you and your baby and wasn’t a timetable prescribed in the pages of an Expert’s tome. I threw the books away.
And I learned a new lesson: in the end, there’s no right and wrong in this job, there’s only the right way for you.