My life was changed by these three words. Not because I was a new, first time mom, those changes I expected and even looked forward to. Rather because these words were spoken two months too soon.
Her tiny, purple body was held up briefly for me to see, before the pediatric staff swooped in. She looked unreal. It felt like a dream; a bad dream. Leaving the surgery, she went left, to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). I went right. Like many expectant moms I had fantasized about my first moment with my little one. Our eyes would meet. We’d connect. The closest I got to my daughter was holding a blurry Polaroid photo my husband brought from the NICU. Still numb from the shock, I laid in my room listening to the new mom in the bed next to me, enjoying her baby. I felt awkward, like I didn’t belong among the congratulatory flowers and well wishers.
Day 2. Once in a private room, we no longer felt the need to whisper. We talked about giving our little girl a name. Visiting her in the NICU was my motivation for getting out of bed. While doing the slow shuffle down the hall, I worried about how I would feel when I actually saw her. Would I feel connected to her? The purple blob and the blurry Polaroid didn’t stir any maternal feelings in me. The entrance to the NICU felt like that of a high security facility. I sensed the sympathetic glances of strangers as we waited in the hallway. Inside we were greeted by one of the nurses. She ran us through the Dos and Don’ts. DO wash your hands thoroughly. DON’T have more then two people visiting the baby. DO visit anytime, day or night. She led us across the room to a small incubator. Inside laid our tiny girl. She looked nothing like the cute baby’s you come to expect from all the books and magazines. No chubby legs. Her limbs looked so frail and transparent. No cherub smile. Her face covered by an oxygen mask. Wires and tubes ran from her body to machines outside her little cocoon. Under her cap, little black curls peeked out. I wanted to cry. Partly from guilt, what had I done to cause this turn of events. Partly from happiness, my daughter was here and she was mine, no matter how small.
Day 3. My shuffle down the hall was a little quicker. The NICU entrance procedures were routine to me already. I watched in awe at the ease in which my daughter’s nurse changed her diaper, adjusted her feeding tube, and turned her over. I felt guilty being her mother and being afraid to touch her, afraid I might break her. When the nurse left, I reached in and stroked my daughter’s arm to reassure her that her mom was there.
Day 4. The gray, cold weather mimicked my feelings. I was happy to be going home. But I’d be leaving without my daughter. Her long hospital stay was just beginning. Beside me in the elevator, a couple cooed to their new baby. They were going home as a family. I counted the elevator buttons until the door opened. It wasn’t all bad news. That night my daughter’s oxygen tube had been removed. She was breathing without assistance. She looked so different without the mask over her face. Her features looked tiny as she slept peacefully.
Day 5. Although my leave had started, my husband had to go back to work. Already stressed about visiting the NICU on my own, I found out that my daughter was having difficulty breathing and had been placed back on oxygen. The Dr’s tried to reassure me that things would improve, but I couldn’t help but feel that this was a step backwards. I stayed beside her all day.
Week 2. My daughter had been breathing without assistance for a few days now. With the oxygen mask removed, I was able to hold her. Holding your baby is usually one of the first joys a new mom experiences. I had waited patiently for this moment. Although unsure and nervous, I eagerly accepted my bundled angel. Once in my arms all I could do was stare at her tiny face. The bright lights and beeping sounds from the machines around us faded away and it was just the two of us. If I had any doubt left about connecting with my daughter, they vanished completely during that moment.
Week 3. Early on the nurses encouraged me to talk to my daughter. Hearing my voice would comfort her. All through my pregnancy I talked and read to her. It was easy then. But now the incubator created a mental barrier. Pregnant, I looked forward to our cooing conversations. But talking to her now felt awkward, even though I could see her. Instead I took to reading to her. Anything. Everything. Everyday.
Week 4. Breastfeeding my daughter now meant pumping regularly, at home and in the hospital. I had snuck out one of the blankets that she used in her incubator. It smelled just like her. Home, at 3 a.m., I’d sit in the dark, the pump attached to me and smell the blanket for comfort. It reminded me why I was doing this. One exhausted night I stumbled. My legs crumpled under me as I watched the result of my hours work spilt over the floor. I cried uncontrollably. I cried about the milk. I cried because I missed my daughter. I cried from being tired. The toll from the last few weeks had finally caught up to me.
Week 5. My daughter graduated from incubator to cot. The nurses, who took care of her needs when she arrived, were slowly transferring care and responsibility to us, her parents. We learned to change her, bathe her, feed her and give her medication, all under the watchful eyes of the nurses.
Week 6. My daughter could go home. My smile of joy was followed closely by a sense of panic. In the beginning, the staff, equipment and rules of the NICU were intimidating. Now, accustomed to them, I feared leaving. We would be on our own.
The first few weeks at home we were very diligent with recording every diaper and temperature reading. We scrutinized everyone who came into the house. Our hands were chapped from the constant washing. But slowly we became comfortable with our abilities as parents. We relaxed a little and enjoyed more. Even though we made it through those long and stressful weeks, we vowed not to go through it again. This little girl would be our one and only.
Six years and three kids later, I sit watching my daughter race around the school yard. It’s hard to believe she was that little, frail girl that caused us some much concern. The whole experience is not something I’d want to go through again. But, good or bad, those events helped mold us into the parents we are and my daughter into the joy she is. And that isn’t something I’d change.