My daughter will be seven this week, her birthday is just a fortnight before Christmas. And our first Christmas with her was, as anyone would expect, very different from any that had gone before, or indeed any we have had since.
Merchandisers bank on the “uniqueness” of this occasion – you can buy embossed cards, or bibs and babygros embroidered with the phrase “My First Christmas.”
No-one sent us anything like this. In fact they didn’t know what to send, because our daughter was not supposed to arrive until March and her first Christmas was spent in an incubator, in Intensive Care.
When I went into labour three months early, there was no hospital in London that could accommodate me and my premature baby at the same time. It was a bit of a Mary and Joseph moment – except that, had Amelie been born anywhere other than a hospital with the highest level of neonatal care (for example in a stable), she would not have survived.
Christmas is a busy time in neonatal units. The pressure of all that present shopping and dancing in stilettos at office parties brings babies, who are not ready, popping out all over the UK. So it was not only London where there was no room at the inn, it was the whole of the South East.
Eventually a hospital 50 miles away, that had already turned us down, said they would take us after all. So we ( me and the baby) were whizzed down to the south coast, sirens blaring, blue lights flashing and patches slapped on my arm to delay labour. ( There was no room for the husband. He tried to keep up with us in the car – but of course he couldn’t ignore the red lights and was soon left behind). Meanwhile the midwife turned green and confided she got carsick. Her notes flew off her lap as we went round corners at speed. Fortunately I was strapped to the trolley. I tried to push thoughts of Carry on Doctor and Kenneth Williams out of my mind.
And so it was that, at 28 weeks, my daughter was born, not in London, but in a hospital with a sea view. As I gulped gas and air, my husband watched football on the TV over our heads, to take his mind off the stress. Yes, I was surprised they had a TV in the labour suite. He was surprised I didn’t complain. But I was busy protesting , between gulps of gas, that I didn’t want to have the baby yet – it was too soon.
She came out anyway and was immediately surrounded by a SWAT team from neonatal, hooked up to various forms of life support and whisked away.
My own medical problems meant I could not see her for several hours – though they did give us a Polaroid – showing a tiny, bright red, fuzzy-skinned creature covered in wires and naked - but for a nappy up to her armpits and a pink hat.
Eventually they wheeled me into the neonatal unit on my hospital bed. They told me she was feisty, which made me laugh, though this may have been hysteria. Then they showed me my daughter inside a transparent plastic incubator with portholes I was allowed to put my hand through – after serious slathering with anti- bacterial gel – to touch her coin-sized hands.
We spent two weeks next to that incubator. All day and half the night, while the doctors and machines kept her alive. We were given a side room in maternity, so I didn’t have to see other mums snuggling up with their babies and my husband had a camp bed in the corner.
I remember venturing out of hospital occasionally for a shot of caffeine and sea air and being confused by the Christmas lights and the bustle of people shopping or heading off to parties. Friends sent relaxing bath oils and flowers. Another strung fish-shaped fairy lights round my bed to brighten the dark December days. At that stage few dared send congratulation cards, or presents for our daughter.
We went to a Christmas service. I hoped for comfort or perspective. However, I found myself trapped in a pew listening to a comic tale about Panettones and how families in Italy recycle them, taking the one they were given at their drinks party, to their neighbours drinks party, and so on. Then the comedy choir put nursery-school actions to “The Holly and the Ivy”. They were only having fun, but we couldn’t take it and left.
Three days before Christmas we were told Amelie was stable enough to be transferred back to London. We were worried about her being moved, but keen to go home. By then we were living in a Ronald Macdonald hostel, where the television was chained down, with an additional warning that it had invisible security coding, and the salt and pepper pots were labelled DO NOT STEAL. This was a hostel for stranded families with children in hospital, but apparently things had been stolen in the past – including pepper pots.
A transfer date was set and cancelled. Then another. The problem was apparently not our daughter’s health, but the lack of specialist ambulances.
Finally we were booked to leave on Christmas Eve. I almost wanted to stay. We hadn’t been at home since December 6th. We didn’t have a pint of milk, let alone a turkey or a tree. And we still couldn’t be sure the move would go ahead.
This time it did. We were not allowed in the same ambulance – for health and safety reasons – but followed on behind, arriving at the London hospital at about 7pm on Christmas Eve. The neonatal unit was virtually deserted. We found our daughter’s incubator and as we stood there a smiling male nurse in a Santa’s hat put a teddy bear on the top. It was far bigger than she was.
Finally at midnight we arrived home, to find my mother in situ with “the very last turkey that Sainsburys had left”, potatoes, sprouts and a red, miniature wooden Christmas tree that slowly turned round to Brahms lullaby.
On Christmas morning, Mum stayed home to cook, while we took our daughter her first Christmas present, some doll-sized babygros, and unwrapped them around her “crib”.
We had Christmas lunch at home and mum rivalled Peter Mandelson in her determination to put on a positive front. Then it was back to hospital with mum, until Christmas Day became Boxing Day.
Spending 12 hours a day at hospital with Amelie was the norm. She needed feeding and caring for like any other newborn baby – and over the next two months we learned to administer medicine, give emergency oxygen and resuscitate her.
In February 2004, she came home. She weighed only five pounds, but was able to breathe for herself and feed from a bottle. We had no idea whether she would ever walk or talk, she’d had two major brain bleeds, but we were hopeful.
Watching other people celebrate at Christmas, or any other time, when you are having “a bit of a nightmare” to quote a friend, is like an out of body experience. For me there was no feeling of bitterness; I just felt no connection with that other world at the time.
Now it all seems like a nightmare that happened to somebody else. But I can’t regret what we went through. Our daughter does walk, talk, sing and shout. But I made two close friends that Christmas, who both lost their daughters after weeks of anguish. So when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the madness of Christmas, the endless shopping and cooking and family squabbles, I try – and sometimes I have to try hard – to remember how incredibly lucky we are.