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Part of our Journeys into Motherhood series, in support of our Selfish Mother collaboration raising money for Refugee Support Europe, this time we talk to Clinical Psychologist and Dear Orla blogger, Michelle Cottle. Michelle lives in South London with her husband Andy, who works as an accountant. The couple have two daughters Orla and Esme.
Michelle started writing her blog after Orla heartbreakingly came into the world stillborn. She began writing a letter to her every day, as a way to keep her memory alive.
Michelle’s beautifully written blog also documents the couple’s journey as they faced pregnancy after loss and continues to tell their story now that Orla’s gorgeous little sister Esme has arrived.
Find out more below…
HI MICHELLE, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR TALKING TO US ABOUT YOUR MOTHERHOOD JOURNEY. YOU HAVE BEEN INCREDIBLY BRAVE TO TALK ABOUT THE HEARTBREAKING LOSS OF YOUR DAUGHTER ORLA. WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO SHARE YOUR STORY?
When Orla died, I honestly thought that we were the only people that this had happened to. I didn’t really understand stillbirth, that it could happen when your baby was full term and healthy and that it tragically happens every single day. I was 37 weeks pregnant, very active and healthy and no problems had been indicated with Orla or my pregnancy. Yet, without warning, Orla died and I had to give birth to her knowing that this was the first stage in saying goodbye. In the days that followed, Andy and I literally read the whole of the internet to find other people who had gone through the same; we sat in the garden with our laptops just looking for stories of people whose babies were stillborn, on forums and charity websites such as Sands and Tommy’s. We needed to know that we weren’t alone and that there was hope: that people survived and were able to find purpose and meaning in life again, and that is was possible to go on to have another baby. I remember us turning to each other saying ‘have you read this one?’ and finding some comfort in the common ground we saw and realising that we were normal in what we were thinking and feeling. The relief that this provided undoubtedly helped us to survive.
I knew from that point that I needed to write our story too. I wasn’t sure how or where, but I just knew that I wanted to tell the world about Orla, how she existed, how she made us parents and how losing her had impacted us. The motivation to do this was multifaceted; I felt that I owed it to the baby loss community to add our story, to let other people know that they were not alone and to hopefully provide some hope or comfort for others in the same way that other people had for us. But I also wanted to keep Orla’s memory alive – she is not something that happened to us, she is not merely a statistic, she is our daughter and she is loved and missed immeasurably.
YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND ANDY HAVE DONE SO MANY AMAZING THINGS TO KEEP ORLA’S MEMORY ALIVE, INCLUDING WRITING A LETTER TO HER EVERY DAY SINCE SHE WAS BORN. HOW DID THE IDEA COME TO YOU?
As a psychologist, I use letters a lot in my therapeutic work and will write to clients at various points throughout therapy. Letters are powerful tools as they allow an opportunity for you to demonstrate that you have listened, that (hopefully) you have understood and that the recipient matters to you. Writing a letter at the end of therapy also gives the client something physical to take away with them, reminding them of what they have achieved and the strength and bravery they have demonstrated in doing this. I have always spent a lot of time on the letters I write as I want them to really capture the feelings behind the words.
The day after Orla was born, we woke up at home and as I looked over at her empty crib, I felt completely desolate. The physical and emotional emptiness was overwhelming – I was a mum but I had no baby or bump to mother or pour my love into. In that moment, I sat up in bed, created a new Instagram account and wrote my first letter to her. When I finished, I turned to Andy and showed him what I had done and he loved it so much that he asked if he could be involved too. So, from that day onwards, we have taken it in turns to take a photo and write a letter each day. It has been our way of keeping Orla at the forefront of our minds as well as in our hearts, but has also been a way of supporting Andy and I in talking about how we are feeling. Sometimes, we might add a letter that will spark a conversation that we may not have had otherwise. Loss can place such a huge strain on your relationship, so this has also been a way of solidifying us as a team by keeping communication going.
THE HUGEST CONGRATULATIONS ON THE ARRIVAL OF ORLA’S GORGEOUS LITTLE SISTER ESME. COULD YOU TELL US A LTTLE BIT ABOUT HOW IT FELT WHEN YOU DISCOVERED SHE WAS ON THE WAY?
We discovered that I was pregnant with Esme whilst we were travelling in America fundraising. Andy was cycling over 1800 miles from Canada to Mexico (#CyclingForOrla) and I was his support vehicle. It was just over three months since Orla had died and we were staying in a particularly unglamorous motel after some long and challenging days on the road. I had convinced myself that we hadn’t conceived that month, and alongside a clumsy pregnancy announcement from a friend, I spent the whole weekend in tears. Despite this, I decided to do a test on the Monday morning ‘just in case’ (having had an ectopic pregnancy in the past, I felt that there was no way I could trust my body again, so I have always tested a lot since then) – and lo and behold, a positive result came up.
It is a peculiar feeling discovering that you are pregnant after loss; it was everything we wanted and hoped for, but it was also utterly terrifying. We had lost two babies within the space of 16 months, both in very different ways. Early pregnancy felt risky, whilst the thought of surviving the whole nine months seemed insurmountable. Yet we so desperately wanted a baby to bring home and parent in the traditional sense, not just through writing and fundraising. We felt excited and hopeful, incredibly luckily to have conceived so quickly, but also pragmatic and fearful. Being away from home was both a blessing and a curse; I really craved my home comforts, but also needed the distraction of the trip in order to protect ourselves from the overwhelming terror of losing another baby. In many ways, we almost had to put the pregnancy to the back of our minds just to get through each day. We didn’t tell anyone apart from our midwife and to be honest, this bubble of just the two of us knowing until we were 13 weeks was actually quite protective for us, as we only had our own emotions to manage rather than other peoples.
WHAT WERE THOSE 9 MONTHS LIKE AND WHAT WERE THE THINGS THAT REALLY HELPED YOU THROUGH?
I can honestly say that they were the hardest nine months of my life to date. On reflection, I can see how I was still acutely grieving for Orla, whilst trying to manage the overwhelming anxiety of pregnancy after loss. Grief has no shelf life; it is always there and follows a chaotic and unpredictable path, but those first few months are incredibly tough and raw. So that, alongside intense fear and the normal aches, pains and nausea of pregnancy was difficult.
However, we had a wonderful midwife, who looked after us in both Orla and Esme’s pregnancies, and she was our absolute rock. Michelle was always at the end of the phone when we needed and she set out a plan for scans, consultant appointments and reassurance monitoring. I only ever had to get through a few weeks between appointments and towards the end I was seen every couple of days – I was a very regular face at the Maternity Assessment Unit and even had my own personal straps for the CTG machine!
Looking back, Andy and I really did just batten down the hatches for those last few months and adopted a survival mode. We didn’t go out much, mainly because I was anxious about being too far away from our hospital. However, we did keep ourselves busy – I went back to work which helped to keep my mind occupied and I continued to write when I could. I also returned to pregnancy yoga and also completed a mindfulness course, which really helped me to manage the intensity of my emotions, particularly in the final few weeks before Esme was induced.
HOW DID IT FEEL WHEN ESME ARRIVED AND WHAT WERE THE FIRST FEW WEEKS WITH HER LIKE?
It is almost hard to describe in words what it was like when Esme arrived, and even now almost six months later, it feels like a blur. She came into the world grunting (her discharge record says ‘grunting baby’!) and she has continued to bring a lot of noise, chaos and love to our lives ever since!
We spent a lot of time in the bedroom during the first week and there was lots of skin-to-skin and getting to grips with feeding. Esme hated to be put down (and still would much prefer to be attached to us most of the day!), so we had to do a lot of shift work. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing, but each and every day felt like a huge achievement. I remember the first time we left the house about a week later and how thrilled we were – it took us until about 4.30pm to get ourselves together and even then only made it around the block, but it was amazing!
It is very confusing bringing a baby home after the death of another; the memory of coming home with nothing but a box was still so raw, as there are just 11 months between Orla and Esme. Add hormones and sleep deprivation into the mix and it is a recipe for many, many tears and intense emotions. Before she arrived, I wondered how it would be possible for me to love another baby as I loved Orla so much, yet I needn’t have worried – Esme brings us so much joy and has filled so many of the cracks in our hearts. She is a beautiful soul and we feel so lucky that we have her in our lives.
WHAT ARE THE MOST POSITIVE THINGS THAT HAVE COME OUT OF TALKING ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY PUBLICLY?
Primarily, talking and writing has enabled me to connect with many amazing parents who have also lost their babies. I have made lifelong friends and feel connected with a community who are some of the most supportive and kind people you could ever hope to meet.
I have also been contacted by many people who have found some comfort or clarity through what I have written, in particular when I speak from a psychology perspective. I feel that discussing my thoughts and feelings so openly, and the discussions I’ve had as a result, will truly help me to be a better psychologist. I love my career and I really hope that I can use my own experience of loss, trauma and heartbreak to be more empathic and understanding in my work.
But I think ultimately, speaking out and telling our story has helped to keep Orla’s memory alive. So many people now know her name and that alone brings an incredible amount of comfort and warmth to our hearts.
AND FINALLY, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO OTHER PARENTS WHO ARE GOING THROUGH SOMETHING SIMILAR?
I would just like to be able to tell them that they are not alone, but that their own experience is unique and valid in its own right. Whether you have lost one baby or many, whether your loss was early in pregnancy, later or post birth, how you feel matters and you should never let anyone dictate how you should react. If you want to talk, then talk, if you want to throw yourself into fundraising or work, then do whatever is right for you. Your journey and experience of grief is your own and there is no correct way or timeframe. And in the days that you feel you have no hope, know that there are other people out there who can and want to help – and that asking for this is the bravest and strongest thing you can do.
Michelle and Esme are wearing items from The bonnie mob X Selfish Mother 'SHARE THE LOVE' campaign to help Refugee Support help mothers and newborn babies in Greek refugee camps. If you would like to show your support with your own sweater or playsuit, check out the full range here >
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