Life

Thursday 23 May 2019

'We endured a nightmare to realise our dream' - Mum who fell pregnant aged 47

Siobhán English was overjoyed to fall pregnant at 47, but the next nine months were fraught with medical scares and worry. Here, she recounts the emotional journey to celebrating her first ever Mother's Day

Siobhan English will celebrate her first Mother's Day with her son Robert. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Siobhan English will celebrate her first Mother's Day with her son Robert. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Siobhan English and Robert Storey with their 6-month-old son Robert at their Dunlavin home. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Twelve months ago, Mother's Day came and went in our home as it did every other year, but I hoped that things would be different in 2019. Tomorrow, I will look at my son, Robert Junior, and be reminded of how fortunate we are to have him in our lives. For the entire nine months of my pregnancy, so many things conspired against us - and it was touch-and-go more than once - but here we are today with our gorgeous little man, happy and healthy. Having always marked the day for my own mother, it's a truly lovely feeling after all these years to finally be a mum myself.

Rob and I had met when we were both 43 and childless. It was fate that our paths finally crossed one September day in 2014. Within a few weeks of dating, I knew I had met my soulmate. A yearning to be a mother soon surfaced.

I suppose I had enjoyed the free life too much to think about having a baby before then. I had my own home. I enjoyed travelling, was self-employed and had a fairly carefree, but sometimes lonely, existence. Even when I hit my 30s, when most of my friends were having kids, I still hadn't met anyone who I considered to be 'father' material. By the time I got to 40, I had become too set in my ways and believed I was destined for a life of singledom. But Rob and I were just meant to be. We had so much in common: horses, dogs and the outdoor life.

We made our home on the family farm outside Dunlavin, in west Wicklow. I am a blow-in from Tipperary, but Rob has lived there all of his life and runs a sheep and beef farm alongside his father. Rob and I also keep some horses as a pastime, for breeding, showing and hunting.

Siobhan English and Robert Storey with their 6-month-old son Robert at their Dunlavin home. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Siobhan English and Robert Storey with their 6-month-old son Robert at their Dunlavin home. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Rob had been married before but, as he reached his 40s, he, too, believed parenthood was never going to be an option. He seemed content that it was just the two of us but, looking back, he now realises there was something missing in both our lives. The sad reality was that it was possibly too late - but I lived in hope.

I found out I was pregnant two days after my 47th birthday, in early February 2018. I had been feeling rather low with bad cramps and a thumping headache, but I had myself convinced it was nothing more than a bug. You can imagine the sheer delight when a positive result finally came after several years of disappointments.

Having suffered a miscarriage three years earlier at the age of 44, I knew that this was our last chance. "No hot baths, no hot showers and no heavy lifting," my local doctor advised. "And no horse riding either." She knew me too well. As an older mother, I was considered high-risk, so I just had to soak up the advice and lie low. Even if it meant lying in bed for months, I was going to do whatever it took to ensure the safe arrival of this much-wanted baby.

It was a stressful time. I constantly worried about the what-ifs and secretly shed a tear any time I encountered a mother and her newborn out and about. It was only natural to be jealous. I often asked myself: "Why should I be denied the same happiness?"

In the early days, we shared the news with only my sister and a few close friends. We had decided to wait until the 12-week mark to inform the rest of our families, but as it happened we couldn't wait that long.

On Valentine's Day, a Wednesday, Rob and I were chatting over lunch at home. Suddenly, I started cramping and bleeding quite heavily. I was two days shy of six weeks pregnant. I had been taking it easy, so this truly came out of the blue. Panic set in and I naturally thought the worst. Once I composed myself, I called our chosen hospital and the nurse told me to go straight there.

The hour's drive to Kilkenny was one of the longest of my life. So much negativity was going through my head. I was preparing myself for another miscarriage, but Rob says that the light never went from my eyes. He remembered my demeanour when I suffered the previous miscarriage. It was different, he said - I was acting differently. This time, somehow, he sensed all was okay and constantly reassured me of that as we drove.

Within 20 minutes of arriving, I was seen by the sonographer on duty. "The gestational sac is where we would expect to see it and it looks fine," she assured me. With the bleeding stopped, I was sent home - but later that evening I found myself back in a hospital bed with another significant bleed. I was admitted and tests were run to gauge my levels of hCG, a hormone that is an indicator of pregnancy.

In a normal pregnancy, the hCG levels should double every two to three days. When I was tested the following morning, I was horrified to learn that mine had dropped from a reading of 2,323 mIU/ml to just over 1,500 mIU/ml. "It doesn't look like it's a viable pregnancy after all, but we will scan you again before we prepare you for a D&C," the nurse said in a sympathetic voice. My heart sank and I began to shake from the shock. I was inconsolable.

A dilation and curettage, known as a D&C, is a surgical procedure often performed after an early miscarriage to remove the contents of the uterus. If a pregnancy fails, women can wait for this to happen naturally, which can take several days, or opt, as I did, to have a D&C under general anaesthetic.

It was just after 11am on the Thursday morning when the nurse took us to the ultrasound room. I lay on the bed, fully expecting bad news. However, a glimmer of hope returned when Robert smiled at me. As a farmer, he could read ultrasounds as well as anyone qualified for the job. "It doesn't make sense," the obstetrician said. "The falling blood levels and what I am seeing do not match. There is no breakdown evident." I asked what that meant. "There is something there so we won't do anything for the moment and check again tomorrow," he replied. He thought he saw a very faint heartbeat, but at that stage it was still too early to properly detect.

Tears of disbelief rolled down my face as I stared at the screen. To me, it looked like just a blob, but Rob's face said it all - he could see that it was the start of a life.

But why, then, were my levels dropping? All sorts of scenarios went through my head. Against all advice, I took to Google and found lots of possibilities, but no real answers. There was such a feeling of helplessness, but I could do nothing but place my trust in the medical team and wait.

Another 24 hours passed before we had another update on the hCG levels. It was now Friday. Remarkably, they had begun to rise again, with a new reading of 5,700 mIU/ml. Another scan was planned for that afternoon.

"There's the heartbeat and there's the foetal pole." The obstetrician conducting the scan seemed as gobsmacked as I was - so much so that she asked for a second opinion. Our little baby was still hanging in there, against all odds. We hugged as we cried with tears of relief.

I must admit, however, that I struggled to believe everything was really okay, even when the blood test on the Sunday showed a reading of 8,700 mIU/ml. The following morning I was allowed to go home, but with the warning to take it easy.

I put myself back on bed rest, continuing to work from my laptop where I could, but within a fortnight I suffered another threatened miscarriage. This scare could not have come at a worse time - right as the Beast from the East arrived with heavy snows in late February.

I was admitted to hospital on a Monday with another episode of heavy bleeding. No source could be found, however, so doctors were happy to release me 48 hours later, after a subsequent scan revealed a healthy growing foetus. There was a problem with getting home, though - Rob was now snowed in.

I spent one night alone in a near-empty hotel in the city. Then, there was nothing for it but to call my brother, who lived near my family home 40 minutes away. He came to my rescue before the snow storm arrived on the Thursday evening.

I hadn't yet told my parents our good news, so it came out in the most bizarre fashion when I arrived to their house with a suitcase and overcome with emotion. The thought of not having Rob at hand, should something else go wrong, was proving just too much to bear.

My mum and dad knew how much this meant to me and were overjoyed at the prospect of being grandparents for the seventh time - after a 15-year gap - although they would now share my worry for the rest of my journey. For Robert's parents, it was even more special, as this would be their first grandchild.

While I rested up with my elderly parents in somewhat milder conditions, Rob endured some of the worst weather ever on the farm, with snow drifts of up to 8ft in places. Five days passed before he finally dug his way out.

I was glad to get back home, but it wasn't an ideal environment either. Sheep farming is a tough occupation and brings with it many hazards. I was aware of the dangers of toxoplasmosis, which can cause miscarriages, so I had vowed that when the lambing started again in March, I would stay well away from the farmyard. That meant not seeing the horses, too, which wasn't easy for someone who saw them every day. Even handling their straw bedding was too much of a risk.

Despite all of our precautions, at 10 weeks pregnant, I suffered my third scare when I suffered a blood clot in my leg. I had just returned from walking the dogs on the farm when I developed major pain and swelling in my left calf. In the 1990s, I'd had a bad fall from a horse, resulting in something called 'compartment syndrome' in my left leg, which left me at increased risk of clots.

Both myself and the baby were now at major risk. We rushed to A&E in Tallaght Hospital, where I was immediately put on a high-strength blood thinner. It was after midnight and it would be touch-and-go for the next few hours. I was told I could possibly die if the clot moved to my heart, and the foetus could die if the clot made its way to the placenta and stopped the blood supply.

We were enduring a living nightmare. As I waited for medication in the wee hours, we talked and talked, trying to make sense of it all. To think we had gotten this far with the pregnancy and for this to happen was just too much.

It was 12 hours before the swelling in my leg went down and the clot started to slowly break up, by which time I was back at home. But that evening I suffered another heavy bleed which resulted in me being admitted to Kilkenny for the third time in as many weeks.

This time, the stress of it all became too much for me and I broke down as the scan got under way. I had myself convinced that the blood thinners had caused a miscarriage. This was, without doubt, the lowest point in the entire pregnancy - I really felt that our luck had finally run out.

Thankfully, I was wrong. Yet again, no source of the bleeding could be found and we were reassured that everything was right on track.

From then on, I was monitored weekly, but not even our fantastic private medical team could have predicted my fourth bleed, at 16 weeks.

It was late April, after a day's racing in Wexford, and I was doing a quick grocery shop in Gorey. I was still taking it easy, though not entirely on bed rest, and just needed a short day out to break the monotony.

This time, we were a good hour from Kilkenny and my maternity charts were at home. After a few frantic phonecalls, we managed to meet a family member and pick them up while on the road. Within three hours the bleeding had stopped, but again I was kept in for a few days as a precaution. Thankfully, that was the last time I required an overnight stay in hospital before the birth of our son.

Between severe morning sickness, heartburn, gestational diabetes and other pregnancy-related issues that so many mothers can relate to, the next few months were nonetheless rather tough. Although I was reassured during the weekly scan that our growing baby was healthy, I still never stopped worrying. I would worry when he kicked at 4am, I would worry when he didn't kick at 4pm, and sometimes I would worry over nothing. Not surprisingly my blood pressure was often high.

I would often break into a cold sweat in the waiting room of the clinic, worried that they would find something wrong. However, he always met his targets, and was often above average in measurements. "Look how active he is, kicking and rolling. He is so, so healthy. That is all thanks to you minding yourself and eating well," our sonographer would say. To hear those words each week was just magical. I can't tell you how much they kept us going.

The sonographer might have said "he" - but that's not to suggest that we knew whether we were having a boy or a girl. There are few surprises in life, so we decided to wait and see.

When we finally reached the critical 20-week mark and the anomaly scan was clear, we started to reveal the good news to our wider circle. Most were thrilled, while a few others looked at me in bewilderment, knowing well I was on the wrong side of 40. "Left it a bit late, didn't you?" was one remark that stuck clearly in my mind.

Over the next few weeks, as our confidence in a positive outcome grew, we picked out the essentials and started to make plans.

Robert Edward Storey made his entrance into the world at 10.15am on September 25, 2018. He arrived by elective C-section three weeks early, weighing 7lb 5oz, with eyes as blue as the sky on a sunny day. He was named after his father and grandfather.

He was perfect.

From that moment, all the worry and pain vanished and only tears of joy remained. Looking back now, I accept that everything that happened during those nine months was out of my control. I just had to place my trust in God that he would watch over me.

Today, as I sit here with my son, I believe everything happened for a reason. I was not ready to be a mum until I met Rob. Even though it was going to be a long, tough road, I fought hard for that dream to become a reality the day Robert Junior was born.

To those who still yearn to be a mum, please do not give up on your own dream. You may have to fight for it, and at times it will not be easy, but I can guarantee you that when it does happen, it will be worth every tear, pain and worry.

This Mother's Day, I may not receive pretty flowers or a fancy card, but that's okay. Instead I will be given unconditional love - and that is priceless.

 

Pictures: Steve Humphreys

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