Real Life: Lisa and the instant baby: Jane Harrold tells how her sister had no idea she was pregnant until she was about to give birth

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Indy Lifestyle Online
EARLY one morning in January my sister Lisa woke up with an excruciating pain in her stomach. It felt like a very nasty period pain, she told our mother downstairs in the kitchen. She couldn't think what else it could be. She hadn't been feeling ill the day before: in fact she was very healthy.

She had recently returned home after working abroad, and had moved back with our parents temporarily. She was planning to pick up her career as a teacher, and was shortly to celebrate her 28th birthday. We all thought she was looking very well and very happy.

By midday she was crawling around her room in agony and that afternoon my mother drove her to the doctor's. Our family doctor had seen us through all kinds of ills - and she gave Lisa a thorough examination. She was visibly shocked as she gave her diagnosis: 'You're not having a period. You're nine months pregnant and in labour. The baby's going to be born tonight.'

There was uproar in the surgery. Another doctor was called, a monitoring machine was set up, and Lisa, by now beside herself with pain and fright, suddenly heard two heartbeats - her own and that of the baby inside her.

The doctor broke the news to our mother. 'In all my medical career,' she said, 'I've only ever seen this once before. It's absolutely bewildering.' But there was so little time to take it in - frantic phone calls were being made to find a labour ward which could take her and a few moments later Lisa was on her way to hospital in an ambulance. Just before they left, my mother rang me from the surgery. There was an incoherent edge to her voice. 'Sit down,' she said, trying to prepare me for the shock. I felt near to hysteria, but there was no time to indulge it. My father was on his way home from work and my husband and I had to meet him and try to explain. I expected him to break down. Instead he was totally bewildered. He kept saying 'I can't believe it,' over and over again.

For women who know that they are pregnant, the thought of the pain and trauma of childbirth can be frightening enough. For Lisa, with just a few hours' warning, it was terrifying. There was no time for any preparation, no time to tell her what to expect and how to react. And there was of course no supportive partner to encourage her - the baby's father was a man she had met the previous year while she was working abroad. Their relationship had been short-lived and he was now hundreds of miles away, completely unaware that his child was about to be born.

We gathered at the hospital and waited. Lisa was in one of the labour rooms in a hospital gown, surrounded by nurses. She was white faced, and in tears from the pain of the contractions and the shock. Half the time she could hardly believe what was happening to her. Then her mind would turn to the baby and the implications of what was about to take place. And then it all would be engulfed in a huge wave of pain.

My mother stood at the head of the bed showing her how to breathe and what to do. I held her hand and tried to tell her that it didn't matter, that she should concentrate on having the baby and then we could think about everything else. An hour or so later the midwife said that her cervix was fully dilated and that birth was imminent. The nurses needed more room, so I had to leave, but our mother stayed throughout.

The rest of us waited in the small narrow room to the side of the labour ward. There were patterns of blue clouds on the walls and a television bolted to a bracket. We sat in the hard plastic chairs, our hands clenched on the wooden arms, hardly speaking. From time to time a nurse brought us tea. 'She'll be all right,' she said. 'She'll be fine.' But our minds were in turmoil. Lisa had had no antenatal care. No one had monitored the foetus. What state would the baby be in - would it be handicapped? How would Lisa cope with being so suddenly thrust into motherhood? At just after half past ten that night, only five-and-a-half hours after being told that she was pregnant, Lisa gave birth to a beautiful healthy boy weighing 7lb 13oz with a head covered with fine dark down. She lay exhausted with the tiny bundle lying on top of her and we gathered round tremulously. My sister was still in shock; she could hardly speak and, although she tried to breastfeed, she was too tired. We kissed her and the baby and went home, leaving them to sleep. The child didn't even have a name.

We were told that Lisa had had what doctors term a 'concealed pregnancy', a phenomenon more often seen in young girls than in a woman of nearly 28. Some women - especially teenagers - deny the signs of pregnancy because they are unable to face the responsibility of carrying a child. But in my sister's case she had genuinely not known. Most women, by the time they are nine months pregnant, have a sizeable, obvious bump, caused by the accumulation of fluid around the foetus and the fact that the uterus falls into in a low position.

Lisa's uterus had been extremely high during the pregnancy and there was very little fluid surrounding the baby in the womb, so that, to the untrained eye, there was no real bump at all. She had gone from her usual size 12 to a size 14, which we had hardly noticed. She had not had any obvious signs of pregnancy. While she was living abroad she had had irregular and often heavy bleeds. She had sometimes felt nauseous, but had put it down to eating unfamiliar food and being in a foreign country. She had never felt the baby kicking. The only thing which had been strange had been what she thought were her period pains on the morning of the birth, when she felt as if she wanted to push.

The hospital kept Lisa in for four days, to keep a medical check on her and to give her time to make what would be the biggest decision of her life. Did she want to keep the baby - or did she want to have him adopted, to free herself from this unexpected burden and to resume her life as it had been only a day before?

At first, the reasons for giving him up looked obvious. My sister had had no time to cultivate maternal feelings or to prepare herself for the way in which her life would change. She was living in her old bedroom at our parents' home with no steady job and no wish to pursue the relationship with the baby's father. She would be a single parent with all the ensuing responsibilities. But weighed against this was the presence of the baby itself. He was so beautiful and, in a way, such a miracle.

It was agonising for her and also for my parents. They didn't want to influence her decision, but that in turn meant that they couldn't get too close to the baby. It was so ironic. Here was their first grandchild - they wanted to rush out and buy arms full of baby clothes, toys and a cot. But they had to hold back for Lisa's sake - and for themselves, in case she decided not to bring him home.

The nursing staff at the hospital were magnificent. No one judged or criticised. Instead they gave Lisa superb care, and the space to think. But on the day after the birth, when we went to see her in the maternity room, she talked about having the baby adopted. It had been, she said, too much of a shock. She wasn't ready for the responsibility and she wanted her independence and her career. However, the next day, as she bathed and fed, held and marvelled at her new son, we could see that the process of bonding had begun and that she was growing closer to him. By the third day she had given him the name Daniel and was talking about bringing him home.

To help her make a final decision it was suggested that the baby might be temporarily fostered. Lisa could then come home and see how she felt away from the atmosphere of the maternity ward. The social services made arrangements to place Daniel in the care of a local foster mother, with 24 hour access for my sister if she wanted it. There was only one problem - the foster parent was unable to take him until the following day. It was decided that Lisa would come home but that Daniel would stay in hospital so that she wouldn't have the emotional trauma of taking him with her, only to part with him again the next morning.

Lisa came home utterly exhausted. All she could talk about was how desperate she was to have the baby back, but she knew how important it was to make the right decision for his future and for herself. Then events began to decide themselves. The social worker rang my sister to say that the foster mother felt unable to take on the child. A new foster family had been found but there were several children there already and there would be no one-to- one care for Daniel. It all began to feel wrong. In the end my sister did what she had wanted to do all along. She went back to the hospital and brought him home.

We bought babygrows and a car seat. We bought toys and blankets and found the old Moses basket in which both I and my sister had slept when we were first born. There was no longer any question of adoption. Nobody even wanted to discuss it any more. This was her child and of course she was going to keep him.

It's now more than two months since Daniel was born. He has almost doubled his birthweight, his eyes are a deep, clear blue and he adores his mother and his grandparents. My sister is still living at home but is looking for a place of her own. The decision which she reached will dominate the rest of her life, but she is deeply happy and very fulfilled.

There will be hard and sometimes lonely times ahead and she will need enormous determination to cope. But she has discovered the strength to take on this challenge, to accept the suddenness of the birth, and to give all the love that a mother is capable of giving to what is, in a way, a miracle baby.

All names have been changed.

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