I was six months pregnant with twin boys when I went for the routine scan that would change everything. They scan you a lot when you’re having twins, so I’d told my husband not to miss work for this one. When the sonographer started, she spent a lot of time on the twin by my cervix (we’d already named him Lucas), but just did a quick flick over the higher twin (Fletcher). I didn’t think anything of it and she made no comment, just said that she needed to go and get a consultant to finish the exam. I lay there mentally making a list of the things I needed to pick up from the supermarket on the way home. After a few minutes, the consultant strode in, picked up the wand and, without any preliminary chit-chat, scanned Fletcher. ‘Yes,’ she said, as if I’d been privy to the conversation she’d obviously just had with the sonographer, ‘that baby has no heartbeat. It’s dead.’ It was brutal and the shock was overwhelming. I’d had no inkling. Only that day I’d marvelled at the gymnastics that seemed to be going on inside me – but one baby kicking had masked the fact that the other had stopped. Minutes later, dazed, crying and distressed, I was ushered into a back room, then left on my own with a promise that a midwife would be along shortly. I called my husband, but when he picked up, I could only make a strangulated noise and he hung up, not even realising it was me. I couldn’t just sit there waiting for a midwife and made my way home, numb.
I was later told that my body would probably reject the dead foetus, so I was at high risk of going into early labour with both babies. Having got past 24 weeks, Lucas might survive but would be very premature. ‘Just try to get to 30 weeks’ was the advice – although doctors also said there was nothing I could do to influence that; what would be would be. Work were great and told me I could take as much time as I needed or even start maternity leave early, but that was the last thing I wanted. Time at home to think and worry about every twinge? No, what I needed was the distraction of busy days and deadlines.
This was partly driven by the guilt that had set in almost immediately when I was given the bad news. Because the truth was I hadn’t wanted twins. I already had a three-year-old daughter when we opted for IVF. I’d only wanted one embryo implanted, but the doctor said that, given my age (38), he advised two. So two it was. I was thrilled when the IVF worked – first time! At seven weeks I went for my first scan. ‘Were you hoping for one or two?’ the sonographer asked. ‘One,’ I replied. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Well, it’s two, congratulations.’ I stumbled out of the clinic and I confess my mood was not one of joy. What had I done? Why couldn’t I have been satisfied with the daughter I already had? I’d been greedy and now I was in a mess. I’d have to give up work – there was no way I could afford two nursery places. But I loved my job. I’d gone back to work part-time nine months after having my daughter and knew, even before I had her, that I would return to work, not just for the money but for my identity, my sanity. Twins would mean no job, loads of new equipment to buy – even a new car to fit us all in. In short, we would be ruined financially.
As the weeks went by, I tried to get my head around the idea of twins. But at my 12-week scan we were told that the upper foetus might have Down syndrome. Already not sure I could cope with a four-year-old and newborn twins, never mind one who might be disabled, I agreed to an amniocentesis test. A few weeks later, I lay on a hospital bed as the doctor produced the longest needle I’d ever seen. She checked that I was aware there was a 1% chance** the test could cause miscarriage, which would happen almost immediately. I did know that. What I hadn’t realised, naively, but she explained now, was that if that happened I would lose both babies. I became slightly hysterical. How could I make this decision that could potentially terminate both my babies? But she reassured me the odds were stacked in my favour, and she’d never had it happen on her watch. I decided to go ahead. She told me I had to keep completely still as she inserted the needle, especially when she punctured my womb to extract a sample of amniotic fluid. I managed it, terrified, then waited to see if the worst would happen. As the minutes passed and nothing changed, I was able to breathe again. I wasn’t going to miscarry.
A few days later I got the all-clear; there was no genetic abnormality. It was a turning point mentally. Having had to contemplate losing them, I now knew I wanted both babies. I’d also started feeling them move – a lot – and they became more than an abstract idea. At the next scan, seeing them wriggle and wave at us, we named them – Lucas and Fletcher. Now we had passed the danger part we could relax and try to enjoy the pregnancy, or so we’d thought…
In the end, I made it to the magic 30 weeks - and beyond. But it was a stressful, miserable six weeks. I remember the grim determination to soldier on and the odd yet also strangely comforting feeling of carrying around my dead baby. It was a horribly lonely time too. Friends expressed their sympathy but then didn’t know what to say. I don’t blame them; I wouldn’t have known either, in their shoes. Seeing their discomfort and awkwardness, I felt I couldn’t talk about what had happened. Everyone focused on the baby that was still alive and pretended things were normal. I started avoiding them and going to the shops at odd times so I didn’t bump into anyone I knew. I got the feeling people were relieved. There it was – the taboo that left me feeling isolated at my most vulnerable time.
Once I’d passed the 30 week milestone, doctors started planning for the birth. Because Lucas was breech, I was to have a C-section (a huge relief – I couldn’t imagine going through hours of agonising labour knowing one of the babies was already dead). I was booked in and told I’d have two midwives on the day – one for each baby. The operation went well. Afterwards, Lucas was laid on my chest, and later Fletcher was brought to me in a Moses basket. We were able to spend time with him. He was tiny and a slightly strange colour, having passed away but been preserved in the amniotic fluid, but otherwise every inch a baby, a tiny human. Seeing him felt surreal. The bereavement midwife took photos and made footprints.
As Fletcher was over 24 weeks old when he died, we would need to organise a funeral (or let the hospital do it). We chose to arrange one ourselves and had a humanist ceremony and cremation. My husband and I were the only ones who attended – it felt too intensely personal to have anyone else there; we were the only ones who’d met him. And again there was that nagging feeling that I shouldn’t burden friends with my grief because of the shameful knowledge that I’d brought it on myself by not wanting him enough. I’m a logical, practical person. I believe in science and reason; I don’t believe in god or ghosts; I’m not superstitious. And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d caused Fletcher’s death by not wanting twins.
I also didn’t want them to witness my raw, ugly grief. At the end of the service, the floor opened to take the tiny coffin down into the crematorium and it was the bleakest thing I’ve ever had to watch. The pain felt physical and all-consuming. But there was no time to sit with it – my leaking breast milk reminded me that I had a three-week-old son and young daughter at home who needed me.
A year after having the twins, I went back to work. No one ever mentioned Fletcher, myself included. He was my sad secret. As was customary at my workplace, when I’d given birth my husband had emailed the news of our arrivals to a colleague in the office to share with the whole team – ‘Lucas, born 10.52am on 24 August, followed by his brother Fletcher, stillborn two minutes later.’ About six months after I was back at work I came across the email by accident when searching for something else. I saw that when it was forwarded to the wider team a well-meaning colleague had removed all mention of Fletcher – presumably because it was too downbeat, not the happy news people wanted to hear? But I found the fact he’d been erased devastating. Once again, I internalised the message that stillbirth was something shameful you should keep to yourself.
In the years since I’ve though about Fletcher often, but it’s not every day any more. When I go for a run round our local park I stop at the bench that we bought and dedicated to him, instead of a headstone in a cemetery. I still haven’t looked at the photos the midwife took but they are there when I’m ready. But Fletcher is still not someone I talk about; it still feels like a taboo. Which is why I’m sharing my story now – because we should share all the realities of motherhood, so that the next woman who experiences a stillbirth doesn’t feel alone.
A stillbirth is when a baby is born dead after 24 weeks of pregnancy (the point at which a baby is considered to have a chance of survival if born; although the youngest recorded baby to survive was born at just 21 weeks and 5 days). Before 24 weeks is a miscarriage.
It’s more common than you might think, occurring in 1 in every 200 births in England*.
The risk of stillbirth is two to three times higher for twins.
For help and support visit sands.org.uk and tommys.org
*NHS figures. **Now 0.5%, according to the NHS