From the perfect vest to the perfect dress (. . . and back again)

Editor Cyril Connolly famously lamented ‘the pram in the hall’. I write and parent simultaneously, sometimes expertly, sometimes not very well. But for me ‘the pram in the hall’, far from being a creative drain, has been the impetus for making a success of my writing career.

Today, Sunday 17th November 2019, is World Prematurity Day, a global movement to raise awareness of premature birth and the devastating affect it can have on families. A mum of three, my youngest son was born two and a half months premature. Less a matter of ‘pram in the hall’; try incubator in a hospital.FullSizeRender 2

There I was, absorbing the surreal shock of having a baby born to soon, full-time in the Special Care Baby Unit, juggling a regime of doctors’ rounds, kangaroo cuddles, milk pumping, worrying, hoping, waiting and trying to make sense of the senseless. And then my editor, unaware of my pregnancy drama, emailed and said: ‘Could we have those proofs back by the end of next week?’

Reader, I did it. I’m pretty sure, under the circumstances, said publisher would have given me an extension/found someone else to finish the task. But actually it was what I needed: a reminder that I was still ‘me’, a distraction from the desperate and relentless ping-ping-ping of the breathing monitors.

My son’s untimely delivery into the world left me emotionally bruised (I wrote a piece for The Guardian about my experience of post-natal post traumatic stress disorder – sorry, that’s a mouthful! – here), yet within the ordeal, I felt kind of elated. My son and I had been given a chance. We weren’t going to waste it. Soon after, I began writing a book about vintage wedding dresses that ‘whisper’ their stories. The Perfect Dress is now published with Transworld (Penguin Random House), with rights sold to the US, Italy, France and Spain. It happened. The book deal of my dreams. And, honestly, it was the pram/incubator that pushed me to go for it. Sorry Cyril.

FullSizeRenderFour years on, my twin worlds of children and writing are colliding again. In the wake of World Prematurity Day, it has occurred to me – given how I have written about meaningful clothing – that I indeed cherished my son’s first fashion. Not exactly a ‘perfect dress’, more a ‘perfect vest’. It was second hand – can I say vintage? – provided by the hospital, a hand-me-down from a previous incubator occupant. Up until then, my son had worn nothing but a tiny nappy, his body temperature stabilised by the heat of the incubator. Suddenly, there in a vest, he seemed less like a hospital patient and more like a baby; more mine, my child.


I treasured this vest. When we got home I even put it in a picture frame. It’s hard to see how tiny it is from the photograph, but it would fit a small doll. Today my son is a thriving, zestful four year old, who rarely gives me the time to contemplate those early weeks of his life, but occasionally I catch a glimpse of the vest and it stirs me. It’s not a sombre feeling, but a healthy reminder to have gratitude. I was lucky. My boy was lucky. A high standard of maternal and neonatal medical care enabled us to survive. I’ll never forget what one of my midwives said as I was being rushed to the operating theatre: ‘This is the time to be grateful you’re a western woman living in the modern world.’ Approximately 15 million babies are born preterm every year. Survival rates vary starkly, with low-income countries bearing the brunt. All those little potentials who never get their chance. I write this for them.

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