Last March, like this one, was placid and mild; it was a true and distinct season instead of the usual Northland spring, which is often held hostage in an icy chokehold by winter. No, the days slowly and confidently transformed from ash and smoke into gently unfurling golds and greens.
This seems like an odd observation for someone who spent most of it in a dim, whispered wing of St. Mary’s Hospital. My second born, my new baby daughter, made an alarmingly early entrance into the world, interrupting a Friday afternoon’s planned errands: Target for hand towels, aspirin, and an indulgent Starbucks latte, and maybe the children’s boutique, Sproutlings, to fawn over tiny, unpractical pastel things — booties and bows and expectations of the chubby baby thighs to come.
For two days in that early March week, something was off about my pregnancy and I was torn between taking my intuition seriously by calling to move up a scheduled prenatal appointment or discrediting the feeling as merely nerves. The former won the battle. I hadn’t felt much movement out of my usually active, somersaulting babe. After a nurse on the phone recommended I head into Labor and Delivery at the hospital for a non-stress test, my husband left work early to accompany me and our 3 year old. We’d just pop in — it was probably nothing — and then head off to do some quick shopping before the weekend.
It wasn’t nothing, as it turns out. The weak afternoon light had been fully snuffed out by the time I was reclining on a hospital bed across from the on-call doctor — three tests and a shift change had occurred in the interim — and my bored preschooler was being bribed into patience by vending machine goodies. Without much explanation or fanfare, I was told that I was having my baby now. Tonight. Six weeks before we expected her to make her entrance into our lives.
My placenta had two jobs to do: provide both protection and nourishment to my growing baby for 40-ish weeks. But it decided to quit doing its second task early — it just gave up on the nourishing part. Much time and space has passed since the doctor first explained this to me but, despite reading my medical report and asking questions during multiple follow up appointments, this reason for early evacuation has never become sharper or more well defined. Medically, I had a baby with IUGR (Intrauterine Growth Restriction), but most OBs say a variation of the same thing, “We don’t know why, but sometimes placentas just aren’t as virile as they are meant to be.”
I sat in a faded, open-backed gown in front of a doctor I had met 10 minutes earlier while he looked through a folder of paperwork searching for a more concrete reason for the deterioration of my placenta. He listed possibilities as to why my body wasn’t sustaining this pregnancy: was I over 35? No. Did I have gestational diabetes? No. Pre-eclampsia? No. There didn’t seem to be a condition to blame it on.
To me, this meant that I had failed because of Some Secret Thing: I ate too many Girl Scout cookies and not enough organic vegetables, I didn’t enjoy or savor my pregnancy enough — complaining too often when I should have been marveling at the miracle of motherhood, or guiltily wondering if I could love my second baby with the same vigor and wholeheartedness that I did my firstborn. I did this, somehow, and through the karmic shift of the universe I was now stripping my baby of her first most vital and basic needs: a safe place to grow before a joyous and organically beautiful birth into the world.
I lay there under a sympathetically twittering nurse who said soothing words while she shaved off my pubic hair to prep me for a C-section, my shame deepening at my incompetence, at my inability to accomplish even this most sacred and primal of tasks; my body rejecting its role to nurture offspring.
She was born in short order, or rather ejected from the sliced layers of my midsection, into a room smelling of sterile rubber gloves and sweat, her eyes still shut against the painfully blinding overhead surgical lights. A neonatal team swiftly swallowed her into their fold, their machines whirring and whooshing and their whispered voices following, but I heard no cry from her. From my spot on the operating table, strapped down and numbed up with the surgeon’s hands still deep inside my opened body, there was no way for me to know if she was well and breathing.
Then, rising above the murmuring room of doctors and nurses, her wail unfolded. Faint at first, as if she wasn’t sure this was the way things worked — or, as if she was testing to see how many pieces my heart would shatter into — and then it strengthened and grew into a confident and unrelentingly healthy howl. Because I couldn’t physically crumple to the floor in an act of relief and endorphins and fear for the next part of her journey, I let my silent tears absorb the widening refrain of her cries.
She spent twenty-six days in Neonatal Intensive Care. When I tell people this, I say it almost apologetically. I’m not sure if I’m sorry because I feel like I’m unloading a problem onto them — turning a pleasant conversation about babies into a talk about constant struggles with low weight and feeding hardships as I recall the tubing and the wires and the relentless hum and beeps of monitors. Or maybe I’m sorry because I feel like I have to put a spin on it: “She’s healthy, and so we’re so lucky.” So many other babies aren’t as healthy. Their families face more adversity than I could ever comprehend and I can’t shake that age old idiom — there’s always someone worse off than you.
But inside, an overwhelming wave of rebellion rushes through me. I don’t want to apologize. I don’t want to dismiss the trauma of it all. The bitter weeping, the uncertainty, the exhaustion — oh, so much exhaustion — the engorgement, the blood, the reflux, the fractured existence, the lunches alone in a hospital cafeteria, and the mothering through a thick plexiglass isolette while my three-pound baby girl struggled to learn how to swallow even a single milliliter of pumped breast milk from a twig-thin syringe.
I need this part of her — no, our — birth to still exist and be acknowledged. It isn’t merely something that happened; an aside or a clause in the story of her beginning. It was an alarming and desperate time in our lives, all of us, and we endured it because there was no other alternative. And this spring, this slowly waking season, finds me living with memories that haven’t yet dulled with time. I nurse her sweet self to sleep, brushing the thick red hair off of her forehead, and find that connection to who we were on this day last year: a mother and her baby, carefully clinging to each other around the IV wires and sensor leads while the melting snow ran in rivets through the streets to announce the arrival of an early spring.
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