Sofia woke me at 4am, kicking and stretching, making my belly contort. “Good girl”, I thought, reassured. I’d been on bed rest for four weeks in hospital after my water broke 23 weeks into my third pregnancy. The complications were unexpected as my first two pregnancies had been normal. But this time after heavy bleeding for 3 months, I’d lost all my amniotic fluid and my uterus had subsequently shrunk, pressing down onto my unborn baby so I no longer even looked pregnant. Her strong movements reassured me that she was doing ok, more so than the endless monitoring, and I relaxed.
I woke again that morning at 7am but this time in sudden and breathtaking pain. An emergency buzzer, a whirlwind of nurses and doctors: “placental abruption, we’re taking this baby out now!” The memories are blurred but distinct impressions remain. Blood. My obstetrician simultaneously reassuring me and barking orders while I was rushed to surgery. A hurried phone call to my husband “it’s happening - come now!”, a dozen people around me in the operating theatre and a neonatal nurse holding up a tiny, pink knitted cap… “I’m going to put this on baby Sofia when she’s here”. Pain.
Late that afternoon I was wheeled down in my bed to see our new baby girl in the NICU. Beeps, lights, wires, tubes and an impossibly tiny, 832g naked person lay in the incubator. I couldn’t look at her. How was this translucent little human my baby? In the overwhelm of the past 12 hours, I felt indifferent to this miniature girl. Things definitely had not gone according to my plans, and our dreams of bringing home another boisterous baby.
As the days and weeks went on, my feeling of relief that the anxiety of the pregnancy had ended was replaced by the dread of twice daily hospital visits to the NICU, the guilt of leaving my baby behind in hospital and the overwhelming gratitude for the professionals in NICU and their baby saving work. In the all-important skin-to-skin care my husband found a purpose he’d never known while in the endless expressing of breastmilk, I felt I’d lost mine.
We were lucky to have lots of amazing support, without which we would have undoubtedly crumbled under the stress of our situation. However, somewhat understandably, several friends and close relatives avoided us completely, not knowing how to deal with us during this difficult period and only one person congratulated us on the birth of our daughter in the days following.
I learned recently that Sofia was among 308 887 babies born in Australia that year and one of just 1,267 born at extremely low birthweight (less than 1000g)1. The vast majority of babies born at less than 1000g were still born. And that was just the birth statistics. Post birth survival rates were another thing. While in hospital, one wise neonatologist told me to stop looking at the numbers; Sofia was already among the lucky ones.
85 days after entering NICU, Sofia was discharged. She was still tiny at around 2.5kg and required lots of care at home but we were happy to finally have the space to begin to nurture our very little girl in our family home and process the trauma of the past 4 months.
A couple of months later I broke the news to my husband that we were expecting another baby. In order not to cry, he laughed; I was reeling. While we had always wanted to have at least four kids, this timing was most definitely unplanned. The fear of another pregnancy, premature emergency C-section and an exhausting NICU experience like the one we’d just come out of was paralysing. I didn’t tell any but those closest that I was pregnant because I knew people would think we were deluded for going through with it, so close to our last seeming “disaster” pregnancy.
Sofia would be 13 months* when this next baby arrived and I had not bonded with her well at all, I felt I was utterly failing as a mother to all three of my kids and now I would be welcoming a new baby? My husband and I prepared for the worst and hoped for the best.
At 8pm on the first day of week 40 and after a text book pregnancy, Gisele was born naturally. For the first time ever I bonded instantly with my newborn. She was just dreamy; soft and squishy, no tubes, no beeps. She fed instantly and slept like an angel. And something in me changed...she fixed me (thank you oxytocin!). I suddenly remembered how to be a mother again.
It honestly scares us now to imagine what life would be like now if we’d not had our two youngest children, when the more (falsely) prudent decision for each pregnancy was termination. In recent months, the abortion debate in NSW was difficult to stomach for us, particularly the discussions around late term abortion and the treatment of neonates that survive an abortion attempt. I’ve periodically had flashbacks of Sofia in the incubator, and suppressed memories of all she endured and her sheer will to live have resurfaced.
I want to plug those memories into the minds of those who tell parents “it’s too hard” and honestly think that abortion is the solution to a crisis pregnancy, then to witness the whole messy, tough but somehow intensely joyful three years we’ve had since our fourth child was born. Attempting to eliminate the hardship of a difficult pregnancy or family situation with an abortion cannot leave women with love and joy; they get thrown out with the proverbial bathwater and women are simply left with more suffering. Paradoxically it seems in pregnancy and parenting, suffering, love and joy come wrapped in a bunny rug package deal.
Four-year-old Sofia still wakes me at 4am, trying to silently climb into bed with us and pushing her chunky 3-year-old sister out of the way so she can nuzzle right up to me. My husband and I often gaze at our two baby girls in wonder, that Sofia is even here and that Gisele, our untimely surprise, may well have been aborted had we not been her parents, because it was all too hard to have them so close together. It was a thousand times worth it.
Abortion is not the solution to the trials of women in crisis pregnancy, it is support through pregnancy and parenting, which is at a minimum what every family, mother and baby deserves.
It can be hard to know what to do or where to start when we want to contribute to a culture of life and genuine support, when there are already many great services out there for women. But we can start small, by supporting mums and families during various moments of trial: difficult or unplanned pregnancy, a child in hospital or a family just having a really hard time of it. Babysitting, meals, a phone call to check in, a grocery delivery or taking mum out for a coffee. One friend visited me while on bedrest and said “I don’t really understand the pain of what you’re going through but I’m here for you”, and it meant the world to me.
This is how we walk the talk. In this new era of abortion in NSW, it is no longer enough to be a keyboard warrior for life, everyone can in some concrete way support friends, family and others with small acts of service. Wherever possible we can also financially assist those working for policy change and the great services already engaging with mothers and families facing unplanned or difficult pregnancy, premature and sick babies and crucially, parenting in that first year, so that abortion will no longer be considered the best option for anyone.
Daphne Paris is a wife of 9 years, full-time mother of 4 young children and a Spatial Analyst with an MSc in Geoinformation Science for Environmental Modelling and Management from the University of Twente, Netherlands.
*Corrected age for prematurity.
1Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2017. Australia’s mothers and babies 2015- in brief. Perinatal Statistics series no. 33 Cat no PER 91. Canberra, AIHW