Raising awareness of premature birth
I’d always feared having children. The upheaval it would bring into my life, the worries that it would bring, and of course the fear of labour and all that it entailed! However, after plenty of thought and discussion, I decided that I was willing to face those fears and start a family with my husband. In November 2013 I found out I was pregnant. We rang in the new year of 2014 wondering what lay ahead, but with no idea just how things would unfold. I was due in July 2014, but in early May, at 29 weeks pregnant, I was admitted to hospital as my waters had started to break.
The doctors told me I would remain in hospital until baby arrived – and that that could be a matter of days, or could go right up to my due date. I resigned myself to playing the waiting game, and was pleased to make it to the 30 week mark while still in hospital with my feet up! However at 30 weeks and 2 days, Seb crashed into our world. The labour was traumatic – not because of the physical pain that I’d always imagined, but because of the emotional pain. I was petrified, willing my body to hold on to him for a little longer, but nature took over, and Seb was born 10 weeks early weighing 1.3KG (2lb 13oz).
The second he was born he was briefly flashed in front of our faces so we could get a glimpse of him, then he was whisked off to the neonatal intensive care unit. My husband and I were in shock, not quite sure what had just happened. I was taken back to a ward where other mothers lay with their babies in bassinets beside them - the nurse who took me to my bed swiftly moved the empty bassinet away from my bedside. I lay in shock for some time, crying at how I had not been able to physically hold on to that little boy in my body for any longer. I felt like I had let him down and my body had rejected him.
Such was the guilt, and being fully convinced that he would not make it, I did not even want to see him, and it took some convincing (and a Polaroid photo!) for my husband to get me down to the NICU to meet our little boy. The staff offered to let me hold him and I refused, thinking I’d hurt him, but they urged me to do so and the minute he lay on my chest I felt the rock in my chest dissolve, and instantly a sense of responsibility kicked in. From that moment on, I went into full mother mode, expressing milk to tube-feed him and educating myself on all the medical knowhow I needed to read his monitor and charts. Four weeks later, at only 34 weeks gestation and just over 2kg / 4lb in weight, Seb came home. It was a tough road but we got him there, and now he is a smart, funny, active little boy, thankfully with no long lasting effects. He also has two younger sisters….
We debated risking a second pregnancy, worried that the same thing might happen again as I’d never been able to find out what exactly caused Seb’s early arrival. I was assured that, while the same thing could happen again, there was every chance I could go on to have subsequent “normal” pregnancies. So, we took a chance on having a second “child”. Within seconds of beginning our first scan the obstetrician assured me that it I would definitely be monitored very closely throughout pregnancy as there were two heartbeats!!!
It sounds ungrateful, but I was devastated. I saw this as having doubled my chances of something going wrong and following the same path again. At 28 weeks, I had to make a swift dash to the hospital knowing I was once again in early labour. There was no long wait this time - Zoe and Eve arrived less than 24 hours later, both weighing even less than Seb at 1.1Kg (2lb 7oz) each.
We were in for a very rocky road. While I didn’t realise it at the time, Seb had done everything by the book in the NICU - all he needed to do was grow. With the girls, no two days were the same. We went through blood transfusions, meningitis scares, lumbar punctures, cranial bleeds...and all this with an 18 month old son to care for. But, once again, we had fighters on our hands, and 6 weeks later Eve got out of hospital. Zoe came home 1 week later and we finally had all our family under one roof.
It's fair to say that 2014-2016 were the most challenging years of mine and my husband’s lives to date. The Irish Neonatal Health Alliance (INHA) asked me to share our story for World Prematurity Day in 2016 and I was happy to do so as I felt it important to raise greater awareness of the issues surrounding premature birth.
When the press interviews were done, my husband remarked to me that one of the things I’d commented on was how I felt robbed of my maternity leave. He was right. In Ireland, maternity leave commenced the day the baby was born. And, while most mothers got to take their baby home after a day or two in hospital, a large chunk of my maternity leave was spent abiding by visiting hours, peering into an incubator, asking permission to hold my baby, and feeding them via a syringe.
Even when I got them home, I was unable to take my baby out or even have many visitors to my home as their immune systems were so vulnerable. Having reflected on our experiences, I felt an urge to take action. I approached the INHA and together we lobbied the Irish government for a change in statutory maternity leave. In October 2017, legislation was introduced to extend maternity leave in the cases of premature birth to include the time between the actual birth date and the due date. That was a proud day for me, and gave me a real sense of closure. I finally felt I was able to put the trauma of the premature deliveries and the challenges thereafter behind me.
I’ve taken this opportunity to share my experiences:
1. Choose an employer that cares
When it comes to considering starting a family I think that it is really important that you’ve selected to work for an employer that values family. And when it comes to pregnancy and birth, it’s important to expect the unexpected and this is where working for an employer that cares is so important. One of the core global values at PwC is ‘Care’ and I really experienced this first-hand. The team at PwC Ireland were amazing. There was endless support while I was off on leave, and on return to work (both times!) I was never made to feel that my time off had hindered my career development in any way. They were happy to support me in my new life as a parent with a 4 day working week and there was never an issue with me taking time off for the many, many hospital appointments we needed to bring the kids to. It was a very proud day when the kids were strong enough to be brought into the office to meet all of the team.
2. Expected the unexpected
Pregnancy and birth is different for everyone. I recommend that anyone planning to or embarking on this adventure think and stay positive while being aware of any ‘challenges’ that might arise. While the general trend on one’s first is that they tend to go over their due date, worldwide a significant one in ten babies comes too soon. Should you find yourself suddenly in this position, it is good to have some pre-awareness of what lies ahead.
3. Take one day at a time
It is much easier said than done, but in this situation I had to learn to take each day at a time. I found keeping a diary really helped me in this regard, and now I can revisit it to remind myself how far we have all come. We also accepted all of the help and support offered by family, friends and colleagues. We could not have gotten through any of it without their help and patience, for which I will be forever grateful.
4. Take what time you need
I’m lucky to live in Ireland, a country which provides 6 months statutory maternity leave, and even luckier that I worked for PwC Ireland who offered full pay for the maternity period. Still, despite this, our situation left me feeling robbed of precious maternity leave and that I would need to return to work before I or my babies were ready. Other parents who find themselves in this situation may want to consider having a discussion with their employer to request more time before returning to work. Be it through paid, unpaid or sick leave and whether it can be offered or not, it is at least worth having the conversation.
5. Be kind to yourself
I really beat myself up, and I wish I had been kinder to myself. This was one of the toughest experiences I’ve been through, but it made me stronger. I honestly feel like I am more prepared to take on any challenges that motherhood may throw at me. I also feel like a more tenacious and confident person, little did I know that I would turn activist and be a big catalyst for changing how statutory maternity leave is offered here in Ireland. It’s an amazing feeling writing this blog (with three crazy kids upstairs asleep) knowing that we have all survived these experiences and that they’ve made us stronger.
|Based in Dublin, Ireland, Mary McCluskey is Employee Engagement Manager with Permanent TSB with responsibility for engagement, wellbeing, diversity and recognition.
Mary is a PwC Ireland Alumni, where she was responsible for driving PwC’s CSR and Wellbeing programmes.
She is passionate about diversity and raising awareness of premature births. She is proud wife to Marc, and proud mother to Seb, Zoe and Eve…..all of whom arrived into the world in rather dramatic circumstances.
You can learn more about Mary here or find her on twitter: @MaryMcCluck