SPOILER ALERT – This post relates to the real-life inspiration behind one of the key storylines in Christmas Miracles at Hedgehog Hollow so you might not want to read this if you haven’t read that book just yet…
Do you read the acknowledgements at the back of the book? I do. They’re mainly about the author thanking various people who have provided advice, support and encouragement in that particular book’s journey to publication, but they sometimes give details of the real-life inspiration behind elements of the storyline. I find that touching and fascinating so it’s something I always try to include in mine. If you’ve read the acknowledgements at the back of Christmas Miracles at Hedgehog Hollow, you’ll know that the story of Samantha’s baby coming into the world is my own.
I met my husband Mark in 2003 and we married in September 2005. I was 33 and he was 35 at that point and we knew that our ages meant it was probably best not to delay starting a family, especially when we wanted three children, both being one of three ourselves.
Our baby was due on 4th January 2007 but a routine consultation with my midwife in early December 2006 saw me being referred straight to hospital with hypertension (high blood pressure) and suspected pre-eclampsia. I had an overnight stay for monitoring and was released only to be sent straight back as my BP soared even higher. The pre-eclampsia remained mild but the BP was cause for concern and I spent December in hospital on constant monitoring. It was awful. I was worried about what might happen to the baby, especially as I’d had a miscarriage prior to this pregnancy, and being stuck in hospital on your own for weeks is a lot of time to think and to fret.
There was a lot of talk about inducing the baby but I experienced several cancellations due to lack of staff or a full delivery suite. Each day was another opportunity for my baby to grow and gain strength, but also another day to fear something bad. Eventually it was my turn. I was taken to a separate ward, just like Samantha, and given a pessary but the first one didn’t work. Other mums came onto the ward after me and headed off to give birth before. When my editor Nia read the book, she made a comment that it was just like when Rachel in Friends is waiting to give birth and it really was like that. When would it be my turn?
The second pessary worked and, on the afternoon of 19th December, I was whisked off to the delivery suite with my husband, Mark, and labour started. Everything I describe in the book is what happened to me including the very scary moments… Ashleigh arrived into the world at 11.45pm at such speed that she shot across the bed and had to be caught. The heart monitor was tangled in her mass of dark hair. She wasn’t breathing. She was blue.
Mark and I felt so helpless, desperate to hear that first cry, fearful for the worst as our baby was rushed to the side (clip now free) and medical staff rubbed her with towels. We didn’t even know if we had a boy or girl at this point! Thankfully a cry filled the room and our daughter was handed over to us, wrapped in a towel, but it wasn’t over yet. She was unexpectedly tiny at 4lb 11oz. Nobody had picked up on that in the scans I’d had in hospital so it took them – and us – by surprise. She was only a fortnight early and they’d thought she’d be bigger. Although not premature, she needed to spend some time on the Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU) as she might need some additional help feeding. We’d have been discharged later that morning if she’d been 5lb or more.
I had a massive panic about our baby being taken away from us. All sorts of scary possibilities like her being switched, stolen, or falling ill filled my mind and I asked if Mark could go with her. That wasn’t a problem so I sent him off, begging him to make sure she was properly identified as ours. Mark returned assuring me that Ashleigh was fine and, after I’d finished with all the post-birth aspects, I was wheelchaired round to see her. It broke my heart to see our tiny little girl in a crib hooked up to wires with a tube up her nose. I’d wanted to breastfeed but it wasn’t possible. She was too small/tired/weak to latch on so she had to be fed by the tube up her nose which went direct into her stomach.
The days that followed were so difficult. I moved into a small private room along the corridor from the unit so I could be buzzed from the SCBU when Ashleigh woke up. I kept trying to her myself but it didn’t work. Some midwives helped. Some made me feel completely useless and inadequate. I spend a lot of the days that followed in tears, not able to pick up my baby, not able to feed her, not able to do anything I’d expected to do. I knew I was fortunate – there were premature babies in incubators on the ward who had more of a battle ahead of them than mine – but it was still really hard.
Christmas was rapidly approaching and I hadn’t expected to spend December in hospital. I hadn’t put the tree up, hadn’t done my Christmas shopping, wasn’t prepared at all. One of the kinder midwives suggested I take a day off – 23rd December I think it was – to go home for the day and do some Christmas prep and she’d do the tube feeds for me. I was so grateful for that but I didn’t enjoy my day, worried about Ashleigh. Like Samantha, my feet had swollen and only my flip-flops fit. It was winter and cold so my priority was to get into town and buy some bigger footwear. After a huge amount of effort, I managed to get my feet into some lace-up boots two sizes bigger than normal. I was drained and emotional. When I went to the shoe shop till wearing them, the assistant insisted I removed them so she could make sure I’d picked up a pair of the same size. I burst into tears. Thankfully the manager was nearby and she understood my emotional gibberish about just giving birth/swollen feet/exhaustion and she gently led me to a nearby chair and removed my shoes, checked them, then put them back on and laced them as though I was a toddler. I was so grateful for her kindness.
Back at hospital, all I wanted to do was get Ashleigh home for Christmas but nobody ever seemed to be around to give me an answer. There was a midwife who scared me – the ‘Brenda’ character in my story. She’d been extremely unhelpful when I asked her for some support breastfeeding and she was all about the snide comments and sneers. But that evening she was the only person available to ask whether there was any chance Ashleigh would be home for Christmas Day. She laughed at me. Who does that? So I cried again and can honestly say I’ve never felt so alone or vulnerable in my whole life.
We didn’t get our Christmas miracle. I woke up on Christmas morning in my single room and padded along the corridor to the SCBU where I dressed Ashleigh in a reindeer onesie and booties, like Samantha does in the book. They were too big but they were adorable, even if I didn’t feel very Christmassy at all.
I was ‘released’ on Christmas Day to go home for Christmas dinner. My parents had come to stay as we’d anticipated a lovely first Christmas at home with our baby. I don’t remember much about that day other than not being able to enjoy a moment of it, knowing I needed to get back to the hospital.
When we returned to the ward later that day, we finally had some good news. Ashleigh had woken up and demanded a feed so, if that continued during the night, we could take her home on Boxing Day. I was allowed to move into a special room on the SCBU with Ashleigh that night and I prayed it would be our last one. It was. She came home at lunchtime on Boxing Day but the difficulties didn’t end there. I still wanted to feed her myself but, with it being Christmas, there was no support available. The midwife from my local surgery did visit but she terrified me too. Each time I’d seen her before my hospital admission, she’d made comments about how old I was and how fat I was. When she’d first called the hospital to have me admitted, I was in the room with her at the surgery and she described me as ‘enormous’ over the phone, looking me up and down with disgust. I actually wasn’t enormous. Already a size 18 before expecting Ashleigh, I barely gained any weight during pregnancy, my body shape simply changing. She therefore wasn’t the empathetic carer I needed.
The next couple of years were the hardest of my life. I’m convinced I had post-natal depression but I was too afraid to open up to the scary midwife about what I was feeling for fear of judgement from her – old, fat mum can’t cope – so I battled it alone. The whole experience drained and traumatised me so much that I couldn’t face going through any of it again. Ashleigh doesn’t have siblings.
When I wrote Samantha’s story, I hadn’t intended to mirror my own experiences but it made sense to do so. They say write what you know. This was what I knew and I had directly felt every exhausting and heartbreaking moment of it. But, being fiction, I could also change a few things. Samantha was able to take her baby home on Christmas Day, and she got the support she needed to breastfeed Thomas in the end. As for whether baby Thomas gets any siblings, you’ll have to read Christmas Miracles at Hedgehog Hollow to find out.
It was Ashleigh’s sixteenth birthday at the start of the week so I’ve inevitably been reflecting on that difficult time sixteen years ago and it still hurts. I’ve blanked so much of it out but parts of it such as my local midwife calling me ‘enormous’ and the ‘Brenda’ I encountered on SCBU have definitely scarred me for life. If anyone else has experienced anything like this, I sent you hugs because it’s horrible.
To finish on a happy note and a spooky coincidence, when I was expecting Ashleigh my mum was going through a phase of knitting toys to raise funds for charity and she asked which one I’d like her to knit to celebrate Ashleigh’s birth. I was particularly drawn to a town crier so she knit that and my dad printed off Ashleigh’s birth announcement for the town crier carry. What’s the town crier? He’s a hedgehog!
I hadn’t finished writing my first book at this point and Hedgehog Hollow wasn’t even a twinkle in my eye but it was as though I knew! I’d actually forgotten about the town crier being a hedgehog until after I’d finished Christmas Miracles at Hedgehog Hollow. How wonderful that I’d incorporated Ashleigh’s birth story into my final hedgehog book and her birth announcement had been a hedgehog!
Wishing you a fabulous Christmas and hope some Christmas miracles come your way.
Big festive hugs