Two days before Blessing’s birth, I received a message request on Facebook while I was on bed rest. In my last post, I mentioned that I was taking the highest dose of blood pressure medication the midwives could safely give me. It was essential to avoid anything stressful that could spike my blood pressure, which would have led to an emergency c-section. Curious, I opened the message: “I’m so sorry about the damage done to your house. If you and the kids need somewhere to stay tonight, you’re welcome to stay at ours.” I had no idea what my well meaning neighbor was talking about. Clearly she hadn’t heard that I was in hospital…
During the six weeks I was away my older children endured a lot of upheaval. Their father passed away in 2014 which means I’m their sole carer. For the first week of my hospitalization they stayed with friends. My oldest son, having completed secondary school, had been living with his American grandmother in Ohio. The two of them booked flights to Ireland and came to the rescue as soon as they could! It was such a relief when I knew all of them would be together- comfortable in my home- while I was away.
Beltane marked the beginning of summer in Ireland and warm weather arrived. The heating system was turned off. As a result the hot water disappeared. My oldest son (Mr. C, then age 19) flicked on the immersion for his grandmother before walking to the shop to get food. (Fortunately we live near town so the teenagers could walk most places and sometimes they had groceries delivered. Grandma M was too nervous to drive on the left side of the narrow Irish roads). I had never heard of an immersion before I moved to Ireland and neither had she. It’s an electric water heater inside of a hot water cylinder and works like an electric kettle. Our immersion is located inside the press beside our main bathroom.
Fortunately the following events occurred in the afternoon rather than at night when they could have been sleeping. Grandma M noticed a strange smell but didn’t know what it could be. When my daughter (Miss E, then 12 years old) arrived home from school, she flipped on Pretty Little Liars and zoned out. The awful smell grew more intense and suddenly it clicked- she thought she knew where it was coming from. She led her grandma to the press and opened the doors. To their surprise flames leaped out as the towels and wooden shelving burned before their eyes. There had been an electrical fault, but Grandma M wasn’t aware of the fire’s cause. She poured water on it, and my daughter says the flames grew bigger as in an oil fire. It’s a miracle no one was electrocuted!
My other son (Mr. T, then 14 years old) arrived home from school after the firetruck had arrived. By then neighbors had gathered around to watch smoke billowing out of the blackened windows. We live in a quiet estate with a cul-de-sac. The most exciting thing to happen in nearly 20 years was my house catching fire, and I wasn’t even there to see it.
Needless to say, my children were displaced once again. Unfortunately there was a shortage of rentals in town. For a time they stayed with various friends and relatives while Grandma M passed her days in a B&B. As school was still in session, it was important to find accommodation within walking distance. For one week the 4 of them crammed themselves into a 2 bedroom cottage at a local hotel. The kids enjoyed use of the leisure center- and their grandma constantly treated them to eating out- so the ordeal wasn’t without perks.
Thankfully a holiday home near my neighborhood became available for 4 weeks. Initially we were told our house would be habitable again within a month so that sounded perfect. (In reality renovations took 4 long months). The concrete blocks in the press had contained the fire until the firemen arrived, thereby preventing the rafters from catching fire. Most of the damage done to my house was from smoke, and we were able to salvage most of our belongings, with the exception of some family photos. I do have sadness about that, but overall I’m simply grateful that no one was hurt!
My house had been under-insured so we had to find ways to save money. A company came to clean everything in the house, but we cut costs by laundering all of the fabrics ourselves. The spacious rental home had its own laundry room which was perfect for us. Bless Grandma M for washing our clothes, blankets, coats, curtains, etc. from morning until night when I arrived home with the baby! Each item of clothing wreaked of smoke, but eventually everything was cleaned.
During that time Miss E graduated from primary school and morphed into a teenager overnight. While I was in the hospital she acquired her first iPhone, makeup, and a hair straightener. We’d always been close so it was a shock to discover she had a new best friend and wasn’t interested in hanging out with me anymore. I felt like I’d lost control of everything. Meanwhile my partner was still away at work on the other side of the country managing the most difficult and stressful project of his life.
Looking back it’s a miracle I didn’t succumb to postpartum depression. Breastfeeding continued to be a challenge causing some anxiety. I had to rely on using plastic nipple shields because my premature baby wasn’t able to latch on properly to my breast. A lactation consultant at the hospital assured me it was only a temporary measure and not to worry; she was right. I had an oversupply of milk and frequently became engorged. I worried about getting mastitis as I had with my firstborn.
I experienced the usual difficulties that new moms face: exhaustion, hormonal mood swings, and the feeling that there wasn’t enough time to do everything that needed to be done. My baby was only happy when held. He was less than 5 pounds and too small for baby slings, making it difficult to wear him while doing chores. Fortunately I could pass him around to other family members and Grandma M absolutely loved his cuddles. I also had to remember to give Blessing the vitamins his neonatal doctor had prescribed. My blood pressure medication was slowly reduced but I still had to take it several times daily, in addition to giving myself injections of blood thinners every day for 6 weeks postpartum. Fun times!
The challenges I faced were counterbalanced by moments of joy . It was magical introducing Blessing to his other two half-siblings (on his dad’s side), to his cousins, aunts, uncles, and our friends. I enjoyed having visitors and appreciated the thoughtful baby gifts, food, and good company.
During sleepless nights when I felt overwhelmed trying to feed and settle my newborn, I reminded myself that it would be so much worse if I didn’t have his cries to wake me. In a way that became my comfort. We’d been so close to not making it, that even our challenges felt like blessings simply because we were both alive.
As the weeks went on I became braver about leaving the house with Blessing. In hindsight I may have been overprotective since he still looked so frail. He steadily gained weight and the public health nurses were happy with his development. Slowly I felt more confident and even managed a day at the beach with my teenagers and Baby B.
In addition to managing normal family life, I also had to oversee the restoration of my house. Thankfully my partner’s sister was a massive help in that department. I couldn’t have coped without her! She liaised between me and the company she found to do the work. Since we were already not living in the house, I decided to have the disaster repair company tackle extra jobs which I’d been planning to do. It was exciting to design a new kitchen, renovate the bathrooms, and lay new flooring. The whole house needed a fresh coat of paint because of the smoke damage. An interior designer chose neutral colors in varying shades of gray, as well as a gorgeous black and white leaf print wallpaper for my bedroom. Otherwise I made all of the decisions about window blinds, counter-tops, cupboards, handles, lighting, tiles, sinks, mirrors, faucets, appliances, and even the inset stove for the new heating system.
* I’d like to add a side note for readers abroad: Had I been living in America, I could have also been dealing with financial ruin as a result of our extended stay in hospital. Despite spending 4 weeks in the maternity ward, plus my baby’s 3 weeks in neonatal care, our hospital bill was nonexistent. Maternity care is free in Ireland. Public healthcare has many benefits! America could learn a lot from its European neighbors if it wants to create a more humane society.
Thankfully I was in a financial position that I could make home improvements, even if the timing of everything was extremely inconvenient. I can still clearly remember one trip to the local bath and tile shop. I was served by a man who happens to be the father of one of my daughter’s classmates. We made pleasant chit chat as he showed me around. I was picking out a new shower and completing my order for the main bathroom. As we walked back towards the till, I felt my milk let down and noticed with embarrassment that I was leaking. I had rushed out of the house without putting in milk pads, and at that stage my supply was large enough to feed quintuplets. “F$*k!” I actually didn’t realize I’d been swearing out loud until the man turned in surprise and asked me what I’d said. Seeing the expression on my face, and my growing wet patches, he kindly said, “Wouldn’t it be worse if you weren’t able to feed your baby?”
Motherhood doesn’t get any more real than that.