Happy Valley

‘Club foot? I imagined everything from the Elephant Man to thick leather boots’

Charlotte Cripps is a single mum living in yummy-mummy Notting Hill. This week she wonders if having a second baby with her dead partner is really pushing her luck

To have one baby with a man who is dead is one thing – but to try for a second felt like I was really pushing my luck. I haven’t even got room in my two-bedroom flat for Muggles the Golden Retriever – let alone a second child. I’m obsessing about the height of the ceiling in the spare room where the nanny sleeps, working out how on earth I am going to squeeze in a set of bunk beds – when they need their own room. It has to be a girl because ultimately they will be sharing a room forever – whether they like it or not.

I call ahead to the IVF clinic in Russia, which had rescued my sperm and embryo from being binned in Alicante, to try to get some idea of the gender before I book my plane ticket. Praise be – it’s a girl. I’m ready to roll but sadly my womb isn’t, so I have to wait patiently for six weeks in the UK to get it primed with oestrogen before the next incubation.

It’s all very thrilling – but also terrifying – a bit like being on the top of a roller-coaster ride. My best mum-friend Mel tells me having two kids is “crazy wonderful”. But I tell myself it will be fine as long as baby number 2 follows the same model as Lola: asleep by 8pm, awake at 8am, refreshed after a full 12-hours sleep, night after night.

I had no idea if it would work or not – but I really felt this urgent need to have a sibling for Lola; that way they would always have each other. I got Alex’s old calculator out and did the sums: I would still be a mum when most of my friends had moved on to being grandmas because I had left it so late.

Eventually, 18 months after having Lola, I set off for the clinic in St Petersburg to have the embryo implanted – and this time, I took my old friend Simon along. At times, being in St Petersburg with Simon felt like a romantic getaway – sightseeing and visiting the Hermitage, wonderful suppers eating beetroot and eel salads. But as I kept having to remind myself, as lovely as the walk along the canal to the clinic was, I was trying to have baby number two, with the love of my life, Alex, who had died in 2014. This time I had planned ahead. Luckily, after the procedure, when I needed to take it easy, Simon carried all my bags as we left the hotel with medication and Russian goodies, including a Russian doll for Lola. Perhaps it was all the hormones, but I had a passing fantasy about him moving in with me – I wouldn’t be able to lift anything for three months if the embryo was successful – but I realised the situation was a little more complex.

I was going to have to get on with it on my own. No man was going to slot into this scenario yet, even if I had been ready, which I wasn’t.

On the plane journey home, Simon wasn’t really clear about what had happened at the clinic – or the status of the baby – nor was my dad, who thought I had only gone to Russia to have a farewell ceremony for Alex’s sperm – throwing it away and waving goodbye to the prospect of more children. I was scared to tell him the reality: he might be funding another grandchild. It wasn’t long before I found out I was pregnant and I bought Lola a I’m A Big Sister book. I had never stopped eating after having Lola so getting pregnant again was just adding more fat to the existing collateral damage.

 When they picked up on a routine scan that Liberty had a club left foot, otherwise known as talipes, I was horrified and imagined all sorts of things from the Elephant Man to big, thick leather boots

I was definitely more prepared the second time around, but when they picked up on a routine scan that Liberty had a club left foot, otherwise known as talipes, I was horrified and imagined all sorts of things from the Elephant Man to big, thick leather boots. I googled talipes and tried to get to grips with my child having a wonky foot. Would she ever walk? Little did I know that one in 1,000 babies gets it and it’s easy to rectify.

Luckily, this meant I was given Guy Thorpe-Beeston on the NHS again – the man who delivered all Kate Middleton’s babies. He reassured me that indeed, apart from the foot, nothing else appeared to be wrong. After another C-Section. this time elective rather than an emergency, Liberty was born. I was so in love with her that I didn’t even notice a tiny foot that was literally pointing the wrong way.

We got home and Muggles, in a state of shock, starred at the wall for a few hours – but then he got up and touchingly licked her hand. A week later, we were back in the Chelsea and Westminster hospital, to sort Liberty’s foot out. She was put in a plaster cast that was changed every week as they moved the foot into the right position, which took about six weeks.

Each week, after Liberty had soaked in a bath to soften the cast, an intense-looking Polish woman, brandishing a loud electric circular saw, would cut the plaster cast off her leg shouting over the sound of it: “Sometimes, yes, it might nick the skin – what can we do? We try. We try not to hurt little baby. But don’t you worry, I be very careful with your little precious one here. Liberty. Oh sweet baby. Beautiful baby.”

It was like a horror film playing in my mind until I got back to the other room, where the team of physiotherapists re-cast her foot and leg in plaster. Once the foot was in the right position, they cut her tendon to allow the foot to drop – a procedure apparently used on Spanish prisoners of war so they could not run away – but in Liberty’s case, it would heal quickly, once back in a plaster cast.

Then they moved her on to boots and bars, which she had to wear 24 hours a day for three months, and which aesthetically panicked me. I was on a shopping spree to buy her long dresses to hide it when I finally got fed up with people asking me what had happened. When they saw her plaster cast, I was asked: “How did your baby break her leg?” As if I had carelessly dropped her.

As it was impossible to hide the boots and bar device, another asked, with a terribly concerned expression: “Is she going to be OK mentally?”

It was then I decided I would just take her everywhere in a blanket in the pram and wait three months before I showed her off to the world. It was the hottest summer on record. And anyway, her foot would be fine and she would be able to walk and run at the same age as any other baby. I was shocked to hear of all the developing countries where this simple technique is not available, and where people who are disabled are unable to marry. I look at Liberty and realise, I have to be grateful we don’t live in Africa but in Notting Hill, where, despite NHS cuts, maternity and paediatric care is, in my experience, second to none.

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