22 May 2022

Derry woman's memoir of her tough journey to motherhood

Joanne Henry suffered a lot of heartbreak before discovering the joy of being a mum

Becoming a mother is rarely easy, but Derry woman Joanne Henry had a more difficult journey than most.
The mental health nurse suffered almost every kind of pregnancy loss and trauma imaginable during the ten years she spent building her family.
Joanne had an early miscarriage, an ectopic pregnancy and a touch-and-go pregnancy with her daughter Hannah, who is now 8.
But the stillborn birth of her son Jacob at 23 weeks left the biggest mark on the 43-year-old.
"I came back from honeymoon and I just thought I'd be barefoot and pregnant within weeks, but it didn't work out that way," she admits.
Joanne and her husband Lawrence were delighted when she fell pregnant, but their joy was short lived after she suffered an early miscarriage.
She got pregnant again soon after, but at 21 weeks Joanne went into premature labour and was taken into hospital for bed rest.
The couple were desperate to reach the 24 week mark, where premature babies have a chance of survival.
Tragically, their baby boy was born sleeping two weeks later.
"Jacob only got to 23 weeks," Joanne explains.
"I remember thinking, 'what's going to come out?'
"But he was perfect.
"I have a twin brother and he looked like him, but a wee bit angry.
"He just looked thin, because he hadn't filled out yet. 
"But he was a baby with ten fingers and toes."
Jacob is very much part of the Henry family, and they talk about him often.
"Premature birth and stillborn babies are still a taboo," says Joanne.
"When we had Hannah was we told her when she was two that she had a brother in heaven and we just kept it light."
Lawrence's mum Margaret passed away six months after Jacob was born and the couple told Hannah that Granny Margaret was looking after him in heaven.
Every September on Jacob's anniversary, the family release balloons in his memory and Hannah keeps a photo of her brother on her bedroom wall.
"When she was five or six her friends would come in to play and she's show them it and say 'that's my big brother, he lives in heaven'," says Joanne.
"We didn't know how their parents would react.
"But they all said that they thought it was lovely that Hannah has a picture of her brother and that it's important for children to learn about life and death, and that it's not scary."
Joanne has now published a book, 'Memoirs of a Mad Mammy', which she hopes will help break the silence around miscarriages and stillbirths.
"I'm starting to get feedback on the book and people are seeing it's ok to talk about it," she says.
"And if we do talk about it we aren't obsessing.
"I go to bed every night thinking about him and I wake up everyday thinking about him."
She also hopes the book will bring comfort to other mothers who have shared some of the same experiences.
"There could be chapters in the book about things you are going through and then there's other mammy stuff that will make you laugh."
Joanne admits she and Lawrence found reasons to laugh during even their most difficult days.
"When I was in hospital on bed rest and trying not to go into labour with Jacob I said to Lawrence 'please don't let me go mad' and then I looked in the mirror and there was this mad woman with her hair standing on end and I said 'sack it Lawrence, we're already there' and we just laughed and laughed.
"Maybe it's an Irish thing or maybe it's because I'm a nurse. You have that dark humour."
In the book Joanne talks about her pregnancy with Hannah, which was fraught with difficulty as doctors thought she may miscarry again, due to an incompetent cervix.
Terrified of losing her baby, she was put in six months of bed rest during the winter of 2008.
Their beautiful daughter Hannah was eventually born safe and well, following a caesarean section.
"I had to have a section because she was breach from 11 weeks," recalls Joanne.
"The consultant told me that's what saved her from going the same way as Jacob.
"They said she was standing up in my womb holding on to my ribs."
Joanne got pregnant again but the pregnancy was ectopic, a potentially life-threatening complication where the baby grows outside the womb.
The baby couldn't survive and the couple were told there was no option but to end the pregnancy.
The operation didn't go to plan and Joanne had to have one of her fallopian tubes removed and two blood transfusions.
"After I came back from surgery I was in recovery for hours and when my mammy saw me she got very emotional.
"She said 'I know you want to give Hannah a sibling but you are my child and Hannah needs her mother'
"I said 'right Lawrence, I'm not trying any more. We have to draw a line under it'.
"It killed me.
"I could still have another baby, but I know mentally that I couldn't cope."
Throughout her pregnancies Joanne had been keeping diaries of everything that happened.
"I've always written," she says. "Even before this book I always joked that I was nursing until I decided what to write about.
"I wrote a diary after Jacob and I still have it. I suppose it's like the mood diaries we use in work so people can see they are getting better.
"I made a diary of my pregnancy with Hannah and then after she was born I was content and I thought 'this is great, I'm finally a mammy'.
"I loved being in that mammy role and all the funny stuff that happened and I decided I really should keep a diary of all this."
Joanne sent her diary to friends who were living in America and Australia as a way of keeping in touch and gradually built up the confidence to show some work colleagues too.
"One girl at work has a sister who is a blogger 'The Red Duchess', and she told me I should share it as a blog.
"I had it all on my computer to show Hannah when she is older anyway so I did it and I thought 'sure this is lovely'."
It wasn't until she was forced to take three months off work after breaking her shoulder that Joanne started thinking about turning the blog into a book.
She contacted local authors Claire Allan and Felicity McCall for advice and they gave her the confidence to approach a number of publishers.
Despite receiving positive feedback, Joanne found the process a bit overwhelming and decided to shelve the plans for a book to concentrate on her career.
Around this time a promotion came up at work and Lawrence encouraged her to go for it.
"I thought it would be a wee challenge but I was sick nearly every day when I was studying for the interview," she admits.
"Doubts would pop into my head like 'well, you were s*** at pregnancy and stuff'.
"I did the interview and it was horrendous. Afterwards I cried so much and I knew it wasn't right.
"I was always grand at interviews and I never let it get to me. But I was just so low and couldn't get past it.
"The post came up again and I thought if I went to the doctors and got something to settle me for the interview I might have a chance.
"When I went to GP surgery there must have a pregnancy clinic going on and there were pregnant woman everywhere and I felt so emotional."
Joanne was seen by a young doctor and explained why she was there, but after reading her notes and listening to her story the doctor told her she didn't think the job interview was the problem.
"She said 'You've had 10 years of trauma trying to get pregnant'
"She said 'Joanne, you're a nurse - you've just bottled this up and done most of this yourself and this interview has just tipped you over the edge."
Joanne got treatment for her anxiety and kept writing to help her process her feelings and also record all the happy moments with Lawrence and Hannah and her stepson Dylan.
Last year, Joanne heard about Jude Morrow, a Derry man with autism who had self-published a book about parenting his son.
Jude's book was a huge success and climbing up the Amazon best sellers list, so she got in touch to see what he thought about hers.
He was hugely encouraging and told her to self-publish, advising her to spend a little money getting a cover designed for the book and to have it professionally edited.
Joanne says self-publishing was a journey into unchartered waters, but she had the help of her dad and her self appointed PA Harry McGarvey.
Just last week Joanne finally got her hands on the first copy of her book 'Memoirs of a Mad Mammy', but it was a bittersweet moment because she couldn't share it with Harry who was self-isolating due to the threat of the coronavirus.
"I left it on the garden wall for him and he was up at the window giving me air hugs," says Joanne.
Copies of 'Memoirs of a Mad Mammy' can be pre-ordered now on Amazon.
It is also available on Kindle and will be available to buy at 'Little Acorns' bookshop in Derry.

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