When I discovered I was pregnant, it was Christmas Eve. This was our first baby and the first grandchild. The excitement of the first kicks came at eighteen weeks exactly.
On the Monday of Holy Week I grew anxious that the baby had not moved for some hours. My midwife arranged to meet me in hospital and my husband, Gordon, took me in. Ultrasound revealed profound oligohydramnios and multiple abnormalities. The image on the screen became a hideous thing to me as the consultant described the many problems. We didn’t even think to ask the sex. All he could offer us, he said, was a diagnosis and it was important for us to reach one for the sake of future children. He didn’t want any decisions then but sent us away for three days to consider chorionic villus sampling (CVS).
Our distress frightened me. When Gordon tried to pray, he cried. That evening was our first Holy Week service. Gordon as minister, was only taking part on the Thursday evening. I had scripted Monday’s with Sam, our youth volunteer. The theme for the week was ‘Good News’ and Monday’s was ‘Good News for the unimportant’. The refrain throughout was, ‘How can I give you up? How can I abandon you? My heart will not let me do it. My love for you is too strong, for I am God and not man. I, the Holy One, am with you.’ God was talking directly to our baby – telling her how precious she was. We had to say, ‘Thank you Lord that all of us are important to You’ four times!! Tuesday’s service was ‘Good News For The Broken’. We could only wonder at the words of one song – ‘His hands though bloodied on the cross/survive to hold and heal and warn/to carry all through death to life/ and cradle children yet unborn’. I’d never known God speak to me so clearly – there was no missing the message of His love for our child and we were humbled to realise that He had prepared this package of care and encouragement for us.
We made many phone calls and wrote many letters seeking friends’ prayer and support. With each letter or phone call that was returned we gained more strength. It was hard however to tell people that our baby was ‘abnormal’. There is no vocabulary for what was wrong with her that doesn’t sound cold and detached and unloving. To say she was ‘sick’ resulted in friends assuming that there must be some treatment and there was none. We needed people to understand but using the words that would best make them understand seemed harsh and horrible.
I tried to think through the ethics of CVS. We were mourning the loss of our imagined perfect baby and bereavement is never a good time to make major decisions. None of the journals I had on medical ethics discussed prenatal testing and my books were out of date. If CVS could be of no benefit to this particular baby and might even harm her, surely we shouldn’t have it. I phoned another doctor friend who hadn’t yet heard of our situation and urged him to listen to my arguments against CVS to see if they made sense. What a terrible thing to do to him! – but he coped very well and felt sure that my thoughts were still rational.
On the Thursday the consultant answered our long list of questions. He said that, as we obviously wanted to continue with the pregnancy, it would make no sense to have CVS. As easy as that! He was kind and supportive and agreed to keep a careful eye on me for the next few months although he thought it most likely that I would miscarry.
We had to get over the grief for our imagined perfect child very quickly.
We had to begin the second phase of loving and caring for this other child. The adjustment was greatly helped, I believe, by all the talking we had done, and by a great mobilised praying army and by the assurances we had had of God’s presence and care. Also, the baby had been kicking nonstop since the Monday as if urging us to love her and give her attention. When the kicks stopped for a while on the Saturday however, I realised that there was going to be a third phase – that of grieving for this child whenever she died. It was very hard to be only beginning to love someone and at the same time know that we were very likely to lose her. So, although I talked through with my mother and two friends how to prepare for the baby’s death, I had to stop. It was too hard to think about her death and concentrate on loving her at the same time. Gordon was wise and said that while she was with us he wanted to enjoy her company. Those words transformed the pregnancy for me. We enjoyed everything and everywhere more, knowing that she was with us. We took more photographs of my pregnant shape.
There were times when I was angry with her. At first, on the morning of the scan, I was angry with her for having ousted our normal baby. Occasionally I felt angry that this pregnancy was keeping us back from starting a ‘proper’ family. I was most angry much nearer term when a further scan showed her likelihood of survival as minute, but she was breech and unlikely to be able to turn so the question of a Caesarean section arose. I knew that putting her first meant having a section as if she did survive a vaginal delivery she would be further traumatised but I was angry at the futility of it. How much was I to sacrifice for her to die anyway? What if the section made other deliveries hazardous? That was the time when it was hardest to love her. We opted for the section and so the consultant arranged for me to see a paediatrician. She was lovely and cried with me as we talked about the baby’s problems. She spoke with real concern for the baby and I realised that although our consultant and the midwives had been very caring towards us they had never expressed concern for our baby. The paediatrician approved of the idea of a section as she didn’t ever believe scans one hundred percent – things might not be as bad as they seemed. She was wrong but she gave me hope which was what I needed to love our baby. It was too hard for me to love her fully without a little bit of hope and so God in His graciousness gave me some.
Jennifer Grace was born by Caesarean section under spinal anaesthetic on 3rd August 1993. We had prayed that she would be peaceful and comfortable and she was. As a bonus she was beautiful! There was little sign that the oligohydramnios had caused any discomfort. All four limbs moved well, and a hand that had appeared useless on the scan grasped mine while she lay in the incubator. Her lungs were too fragile to be ventilated safely for long. The ventilator had to be switched off to prevent a painful and inevitable death so we were spared that last dreaded decision. We were given her to hold for her last five minutes. She had lived for five hours.
What helped during the pregnancy? People making contact; phoning, writing, visiting, sending flowers, assuring us of their prayers; people who put up with me talking or writing long letters; people who spread the news for us so that we didn’t have to do all the explaining and so less people received the news from us cold; people who accepted the gravity of the situation and didn’t try to persuade us that all would be well; people who asked us useful questions; people who acknowledged our baby in what they wrote or said or prayed; people who took photographs of the pregnant me and gave them to us after her death; people who allowed me to be with their children. That last point is important. I think any mother of an ‘abnormal’ child feels some guilt as if she made her child that way – she feels as if she is not worthy to be a proper mother. To exclude her from the world of children as is often done to protect her, reinforces that feeling of inadequacy and failure.
Why did it happen? I don’t believe that we can always know the reason God allows these things to happen. There’s a spiritual battle going on and often the devil appears to have his way. What we do know is that God our loving Father, cushioned us and sustained us with his grace. It wasn’t Him who hurt us – He hurt with us.
What did we learn? We learned that God is intimately involved with us and with a tiny baby. We learned that even such a tiny, damaged life is precious to Him. We learned better how to care for each other and our parents and friends. Our church learned how to care for us. We saw that terminating a pregnancy where there is an abnormality denies the parents and wider family the opportunity to grieve and remember a real and valuable member of that family. We learned that God answers prayer.
After Jennifer’s death, a steadfast friend said that when Jennifer arrived in heaven there would be great rejoicing and celebration because of all she achieved in her short life. I dream that when I arrive there people will say, ‘Ah! You’re Jennifer’s mother!’ and I’ll be so proud!
This article was taken with kind permission from Christian Medical Fellowship website (CMF.org.uk) A Life Precious to God by Karen Palmer 1995.