It was a long drive to London with a new baby in the back seat.
Before we set off I had rigged up some fairy lights around the headrests to distract her. That worked fine until we were stuck in traffic, 13 miles of roadworks on the M6. She liked that even less than we did.
Everyone told me that my world would change when we had a child. “You can’t prepare for it,” they said.
But I was – we were – prepared. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, we knew there would be sleepless nights, dirty nappies and daily challenges. We were ready for that. And we had a car seat, a changing table, cute little sleeping bags. A subscription for nappies.
But no-one ever talked much about how it would make me feel.
I wasn’t ready for that. In fact, I was surprised at my own calm, two nights before the birth when we made a dash up the motorway to the hospital in the middle of the night. I was surprised how I kept my fear in check when I realised a road closure would add twelve miles to our journey.
But on the other hand I wasn’t ready for what I felt at 11am on the morning of the birth when doctors with worried faces took our birth in a direction we hadn’t expected, hadn’t prepared for.
And I couldn’t, in my wildest dreams, have imagined the strength of the rush when I heard my daughter’s voice for the first time, saw her angry pink face, her windmilling arms railing against the world. I didn’t know I would feel that way when she looked into my eyes for the first time, when she regarded me with serene trust and and eyes that seemed to say “I know you.”
I hadn’t expected the joy and relief that overtook me like a wave the following morning, driving back to the hospital at 7am to see my new daughter, tears streaming down my laughing face.
I didn’t realise how that feeling would grow day by day, despite the sleepless nights, despite the worry, despite the work. I hadn’t realised what I would be prepared to do, the new person I would become.
And I hadn’t expected to mind so little when the three and a half hour drive to London instead took us over 8 hours, how ready I was to change our plans to suit the little bundle napping in the back seat, eyes just visible in my rear view mirror.
We are beyond fortunate, we know that, we know how lucky we are that Georgie’s pregnancy was largely trouble-free and that despite our last minute scares, the story turned out well for us.
Our experience has led us to think again of the mothers who gave birth in the overfilled migrant boats on the hazardous trip across the mediterranean. The fear and pain they must have endured, their resilience and courage in making that trip. The desperation that would lead a heavily pregnant woman to climb into one of those deathtraps, the hope she must have felt at the prospect of a better life for her child.
And it’s reminded Georgie again of her time in Sierra Leone. She talks about the early days of the Ebola response, about the children that lost parents, the mothers that lost their children. Of a woman, alone in the Ebola treatment ward, losing her baby.
Last week marked one year since the country was declared Ebola-free. A milestone which felt especially poignant on Tuesday morning when a driver collected us and we set off for Buckingham Palace. As we travelled, three generations of our family in the car, Georgie told us about the families torn apart by loss. The survivors who would go home to find their families all gone, their belongings up in smoke.
I never expected in my life to be waved through the gates at Buckingham Palace, never expected to be welcomed by uniformed footmen, to be guided up the grand staircase towards the ballroom.
I sat there watching the other families filtering in, seeing the smiles of pride on their faces as each of them celebrated their loved ones’ proudest moments. I tried to freeze-frame the moments, the five Yeoman of the Guard standing proud, the grand tapestries on the wall, the sculpted angels above the golden thrones. The Queen walking in with her Gurkha bodyguards.
I thought about all that Georgie had done to get here. I thought of all the lives she had touched and all the suffering she had seen. I thought of how hard she had worked, of the long days and weeks apart from each other, the tearful conversations on Skype, the look of exhaustion in her eyes when she would come home at the end of each tour, and I thought about our new daughter. It was all quite overwhelming.
Georgie never sought recognition for what she did, she never worked to service her own ego. She worked only for those mothers and those families in Sierra Leone and in Syria who had lost everything and yet still dared to hope for a better future.
Her modesty is what made the occasion all the more special, when her name was called, when the honour was announced, when the man said “for humanitarian services, especially in Sierra Leone” and when the Queen took her hand and handed her the MBE she so richly deserved.