“The lack of neonatal leave and pay had a knock-on effect” – Gemma’s story

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Gemma gave birth to her twin girls, Grace and Mia, at 32 weeks at Wishaw General Hospital. Gemma shares how not having neonatal leave and pay made such a big impact on her family, as her husband Arran had to return to work when Grace and Mia were receiving care in a neonatal unit miles away from home.

About an hour after the girls were born at Wishaw General Hospital on 9 September 2021, they were transferred to Forth Valley Hospital for two weeks, 50 miles from home, because there was no space for us on the unit due to Covid.

After having the girls I was quickly discharged - I gave birth just after 1:30pm, and by 4pm I was up at Forth Valley to be with them. It was very much a quick process and really quite frightening.

The staff were all amazing and they were doing everything they could for us, but at that time my husband Arran was still working, and I was still meant to be working too. I hadn't started my maternity leave so I had to try and contact my work to put that in place while he was trying to reach his work. Even that was stressful.

Because I had been discharged so quickly, my body went into shut down and I started to develop postnatal eclampsia. I had quite a lot of swelling and it meant that I couldn't drive up to the hospital.

All the Covid procedures were still being strictly followed and daily testing had to be done to go into the hospital so initially only me and Arran were allowed in. Eventually, after the first week, they allowed one visitor so my mum could come with us.

The twins needed support with breathing, and it was a traumatic time, so I wanted Arran to be there on the unit with me. However, this meant that he had to take statutory sick pay for a few days, which is a lot less than his salary before his paternity leave started.

We kept asking whether the twins would be transferred to another hospital closer to home but it seemed to never happen, so every day we were having to make that journey back and forth – travelling around 500 miles a week.

We looked into renting a hotel to save us the journey but that was going to cost a fortune, so we had the stress of having to pay for all the fuel, plus the normal bills that we had.

It was just so draining, stressful and overwhelming, especially being a first-time parent; it was a totally new experience that wasn’t what it was meant to be, and it was awful seeing our babies so unwell.

Arran’s paternity leave ran out while the girls were still in the hospital, so he was commuting to the hospital, then to work and back, and I spent a lot of time on my own.

Luckily my work gave me extended maternity pay, but it meant that when I came home with the girls, I was at home with them by myself – we didn’t get that special time together as a family.

When Arran took days as annual leave to be at home with us, it meant he used all of his days for the year so quickly and then couldn’t have any holiday days for six months – the lack of leave and pay from work while the girls were in hospital meant that it had a total knock-on effect.

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Eventually, when we were transferred back to Wishaw Hospital, it was easier because I could get my mum or dad to drop me there and pick me up. But it still felt really hard to leave strangers in charge of your children and have to leave them in the hospital, never mind with the pandemic and the financial aspect of things and the commuting. I still feel overwhelmed by it all when I think about it now.

It was a juggling act – we also hadn’t known how premature the babies would be and the size of the clothes we would need, or car seats, which meant we had to buy new stuff for the girls before they were discharged. I relied a lot on other people, my mum and dad for example, who were making up meal parcels for us.

NICU was lonely and isolating, even without the extra stress of worrying about money. Every day, even every hour sometimes in NICU is different, and you go up and down on this rollercoaster with the feeling that you're never going to get off.

I felt like I couldn’t speak to Arran sometimes as he had to leave the hospital every day to go to work - I didn’t want to burden him more, as him leaving us was difficult enough.

We found comfort in the other parents once we went to SCBU – we were closer-knit by that point and it felt like we were able to talk about it more. Nobody else can understand the experience unless they've been there themselves - just how emotional it is and how quickly things can change.

The twins are doing amazing now – they’re thriving – and I've got another little girl too, born one year after the twins. Giving birth to her was a totally different experience, so much more relaxed and I’m enjoying every moment of us all being together.

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