Being pregnant during a global pandemic has been a minefield. For anyone expecting since Covid-19 became part of our vocabulary in early 2020, it’s been a time of heightened anxiety. Even though restrictions on partners attending scans and labour have now been lifted, some pregnant people are still facing challenges with experiencing birth alone. And that’s not to mention the people who are still reeling from the impact the restrictions had on their access to maternity services when the pandemic was at its peak. We’re gathering the voices of those affected by those restrictions at various points through the pandemic. Here we speak to Charlene Littlefair.
I found out I was expecting Phoebe (baby number 4) when I was just a couple of weeks pregnant in January 2020. This was shortly after I miscarried in October 2019 which actually resulted in me needing a surgical removal of the baby and a further operation following infection to remove placental tissue. Due to two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy previously I was called in for an early scan at 6 weeks gestation (February 2020) before lockdown. They found a small bleed around the anterior placenta. This was obviously a worry but my husband, Dominic, was able to be with me. I was told unless I started bleeding to only return for my routine scan at 12 weeks and just to take it easy.
Reassurance snatched away
My 12 week scan soon approached and unfortunately we were in lockdown which meant I had to attend alone! It was my worst nightmare. The anxiety that surrounded this appointment because of previous trauma loosing the babies was horrendous. Then there was the bleed they had found at 6 weeks. I had lost my last baby at 10 weeks so my nerves were all over the place.
I had my first panic attack in three years as I arrived at the hospital. Due to no parking. I abandoned my car on double yellows , ran into the hospital hysterical trying to explain to the receptionist that I was here but couldn’t find a parking space. I was worried they wouldn’t see me if I was late. They reassured me I would still be seen and to take a minute to calm down before heading back outside to park. I had no one there to reassure me or hold my hand or calm me down. My husband usually calms my anxiety and keeps me grounded.
Everything went OK at the scan, the bleeding had stopped and baby looked well. I was told at this appointment that because my son Charlie, now 6, was born with multiple heart defects which where missed in pregnancy, I would be referred to a foetal medicine unit where they would look in closer depth at this baby. I had already been given this reassurance whilst discussing trying to conceive and it was one of the reasons we went ahead and tried. Unfortunately due to Covid we could no longer be seen by foetal medicine. They where only seeing ladies who had problems with their current pregnancies, not problems with previous ones. The reassurance I had been promised was snatched away from us and I was devastated and felt really let down.
Fighting alongside #ButNotMaternity
My local hospital offered me a 16 week scan with a consultant in place of the foetal medicine consultation and of course I agreed. I’d have taken any extra reassurance. Unfortunately my husband couldn’t come along again which was really difficult but again thankfully everything looked well.
Along came my 20 weeks scan. A local lady, Jade Miller, had been in contact with our hospital trust and was fighting along side the #ButNotMaternity movement. Jade had convinced the trust to lift the restrictions which were stopping partners being at the vital 20 weeks scan. My husband was able to come with me, which was a huge relief! I am so glad he was able to come that day as we unfortunately learned that there was something wrong with Phoebe’s kidneys. They predicted she had bilateral multicystic dysplastic kidneys. Most babies with this condition do not survive birth but we would need to be seen by foetal medicine to confirm her diagnosis.
Foetal medicine luckily allowed my husband to attend our first appointment where she was diagnosed with left sided multicystic dysplastic kidney and hydrophenosis of the right kidney. It was a much better diagnosis than we originally thought. They agreed that Dom could attend all future scans due to the nature of our babies condition and our history. I was and still am so thankful that he was. It made a huge difference to my pregnancy and gave Dom the chance to see and bond with Phoebe before she was born. He could listen and understand all the information and I wasn’t drowning in it all myself. It was a chance for us both to be able to ask questions together.
Truly the best midwife
My local hospital did not follow suit with my husband being present and I had to attend all my antenatal appointments and scans there alone, which was really difficult for me. I truly did have the best midwife who I’ve actually become good friends with, I cannot fault the care she gave me at all. There where times I was worried about Phoebe, reduced movements, having signs of pre eclampsia etc. I would have to go up to the triage unit and be assessed and monitored alone. Every time I went I was convinced they would be told there was no longer a heartbeat.
I truly lived my pregnancy in doubt that she would survive and that was heightened every time I had an appointment alone. One of the memories that will always stick with me is being told my baby might not be “viable for treatment” at birth and to prepare for the worst. Imagine being told your baby might die, on your own, with no support. I sat and cried in my car alone that day. When I walked through the door and saw Dominic, I broke down. I still think about it often and replay the consultants words over and over in my head.
Due to my mental health, I opted for an early induction. I wanted to be as prepared as possible for what was to come: the complete unknown. We had no idea how her kidneys were going to affect her at birth. My waters broke at home and 38 weeks following two membrane sweeps. Myself and my husband were dropped off at the maternity unit but he was made to wait downstairs in the main hospital waiting area until they had confirmed my waters had gone.
My heart broke in two at this point. I really didn’t want to go up onto the ward on my own. I had a long wait for a doctor to decide what was best. Should I go home and see if I start contracting naturally or go ahead with induction. I was alone the whole time, as was he. Nervous incase he missed it, worrying something might happen and he wouldn’t be there. I had two very quick previous births so we were really concerned I’d give birth alone.
I was panicked
In the end, the induction went ahead and I was reunited with my husband. It was my lovely midwife who I had seen all the way through who delivered her, what a difference it makes having a familiar friendly face in the delivery suite with you. Phoebe was born kicking and screaming, showed us her bowels and bladder where working as soon as she was born! I’ve never cried so many tears of happiness and pure relief!! The mess that was all over me meant her kidney was working!!
It was 6:18pm when I had her so by the time I was put on the ward Dominic couldn’t come with me. I was wheeled to the ward in the middle of the night, no hand to hold, nobody to help me. A baby needing me, wanting a nappy change, a cuddle, a feed. I could feel my sanitary towel about to leak, I was panicked. I couldn’t find anything, baby in one arm, on a dark ward where everyone was trying to sleep. Everything was packed away and in that moment I felt an overwhelming sense of emotion and I just wanted to cry. For someone to help me. I felt abandoned.
The sun soon came up and I hadn’t even been to sleep yet. I had doctors, midwifes, consultants, all giving me information, talking to me about my baby and her condition. I was half asleep, world spinning, wishing I had someone to take all the information in for me. Visiting was allowed but it was limited to one person and between certain times.
“I wish I was allowed to hug you”
We were discharged the day after birth even though the plan Manchester foetal medicine had put in place stated that Phoebe should have an ultrasound of her kidneys to confirm her diagnosis before being discharged. My local hospital did not follow this plan and instead brought her back after five days to perform the scan. They allowed Dominic to attend with us due to the fact I’d given birth not even a week ago. The scan confirmed her condition and many scans and test have been performed since again with only one parent allowed.
This has all affected my mental health tremendously. I have anxiety and suffer with PTSD from my son needing open heart surgery and my other daughter having been through a really difficult time prior to the pandemic but I had overcome it. Panic attacks I hadn’t had for around three years returned during pregnancy. I now have anxiety surrounding appointments alone, anticipating I’m going to be told awful news every time. I’ve had to pull my car over on my way to appointments because of panic attacks and anxiety. I remember crying after an appointment. One of the midwives said to me “I wish I was allowed to hug you”.
As humans we crave that touch, love and support. We need it, and it was all stripped away from us. A hug might have helped me heal a little that day but we weren’t “allowed”. Maternity rights were completely taken away from us. While the rest of the country was out of lockdown, while the pubs re opened and everyone enjoyed some normality it felt like women were being punished for giving birth.
We’ll be sharing a few voices around the theme of #NotMaternity in the coming weeks. Keep an eye on Happy Mum Happy Baby for updates. Read Twin Perspectives’ story now.