Why I wrote a book about our neonatal journey – Francesca’s story

Award-winning author Francesca Segal gave birth to her twin daughters at 29+6 weeks. Ahead of the launch her book Mother Ship, Francesca reflects on why she felt that her story had to be told.

I went to a twin talk when I was only a few months pregnant, covering everything from pregnancy to prematurity. On the latter they were reasonably thorough, warning us that fewer than half of twin pregnancies go over 37 weeks. But I took in very little of that lecture, despite my diligent notes. I still couldn’t quite believe I was pregnant at all, let alone with twins. What stayed with me most vividly was a video in which a heroic and indefatigable mother tandem breastfed two bonny and squirming eight-month-olds, which looked as much like herding cats as anything I have ever seen. Curious, distractible and contrary, the babies cooed and waved and arched their backs like trout, gazing in every direction except that crucial one, the direction in which lay their dinner. Eventually they both latched on and fed with gusto, but not after a great many shenanigans. Everyone involved looked happy, if a little tired, but it seemed unthinkable that any of us could fight such a battle more than once a week, let alone six to ten times a day. That mother on the video became muddled in my memory with the woman in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days – just a head, or in her case a head and a pair of full breasts emerging from the huge pile of pillows required to position two babies. It was comical and ludicrous. But then comical and ludicrous pretty much encapsulated how I felt about having twins in the first place.

I was only eight weeks pregnant when a sonographer gave me a slow smile and asked, with the impeccable timing of someone who has delivered such news before, whether I had any twins in the family. I laughed, in delight and disbelief. It added yet another risk factor to my pregnancy – I was already over 35 and a first pregnancy – but I was uncharacteristically optimistic. That lecture had covered prematurity in reasonable detail, yet it still came as a shock when, at 29+6 weeks I began to haemorrhage.

My identical twin daughters were born at 30 weeks, weighing 1290g and 1175g. Mother Ship is my diary, recounting the fifty-six days they spent in hospital.

I wrote the book that I longed to read – an honest account of that long, strange journey from early birth to due date, not only what happened but, most crucially, how it felt. On the neonatal intensive care ward I consumed every Bliss leaflet with gratitude and I studied them like bibles – About neonatal care, and Look at me, I’m talking to you in particular. But once the initial shock of our first days receded and I settled into the quotidian anxiety of NICU parenting, leaflets didn’t tell me the rest of what I wanted to know. We were encouraged to talk to our hospitalised infants. But what, for example, did everyone else talk to their babies about? Was anyone else reading to them from Twitter? Was it alright that what I most often found myself singing, apart from Christmas carols, was Queen’s anthem, Fat Bottomed Girls? Cut off at the wrist by the portholes of an incubator, I became aware that my hands were the only part of me visible in what were now to be my first ever family photographs. Did anyone else secretly hope for the magical appearance of a manicurist, in between the consultants, pharmacists, dieticians, physiotherapists, psychologists and nurses who passed through the ward? And what was with the sweating? Bliss leaflets were helpful, but crucial gaps about the everyday moments remained.

And so Mother Ship came about, a love letter at once to my children, to the tireless staff of the NHS who worked so hard to save them, and above all else to my fellow preemie mothers, the crew of that strange mother ship that is neonatal intensive care. Unexpected trauma isolates but, because of them, I was not alone. Support and solidarity were forged in the expressing room (otherwise known as the milking shed). By their side I learned, slowly and painfully, to be a mother. We were learning to take care of our children but we took care of one another, too, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Mother Ship by Francesca Segal is available for pre-order from Penguin on their website.