On Birth (Part 2)
Thanks so much to all of you for your wonderful response to the first part of my birth story. It’s just a great reminder that sometimes writing on the internet can be an invitation for wonderful community. You can read part 1 of the whole thing here.
I have struggled with how to write about what came after the birth. It is very fuzzy to me. I cannot remember the exact time I got to hold my daughter for the first time. I don’t remember the first time we tried to breast feed. I know that I was not the first one to bathe her, change her, dress her, rock her, comfort her. I do remember that first night post-birth, trying to sleep. I was hooked up to all sorts of monitors and IV’s. I was on magnesium, which was there to help lower my blood pressure and prevent stroke (which, side note, causes extreme irritability). I was filled up with medications, and yet I could not sleep due to the blood pounding in my temples. It was my first time I had ever been a patient in a hospital. It was the first time I had been flattened by pain, how I discovered there is nothing you can do but go on to the next minute, and the next, and the next.
There are other memories. People came by to visit, to drop off tiny clothes, to touch my arm, to bring us food. Such wonderful people, too many to even thank. I am sure I looked terrible, but people tried to be nice. I would be up for visitors at first, trying to be cheerful, waving away what had almost happened. Look! We are OK! Isn’t the baby beautiful? But then the reality would crash on my and I would just need to be alone. I would realize once again that I was not fine. I asked my husband why I can’t remember holding our baby very much those first few days. Because, he said, you couldn’t get up to go visit her in the NICU, and when they brought her to you it would tire you out so quickly.
The nurses. Oh, let me talk about the nurses. They were so beautiful and kind and good. There was the motherly one with extreme blonde highlights in her perky brown bob. She said Christian-y things to me and I didn’t want to kill her. She assured me she was taking good care of me, and I believed her. There were the baby nurses. The ones who worked overnight will always be in my memory. Megan, who couldn’t have been any older than 25, curly brown hair. She would dote on my daughter, she would always bring her in to see me more than she was supposed to. There was Joon, an older Korean-American woman, who was possessive of protective and prayed all the night long for my baby. I will never forget those women and the job that they do.
Eventually, I got out of the tangle of wires and monitors. The baby was too small to nurse (we tried a time or too) but I started pumping—and lo and behold that actually went ok. They fed the baby first through a tube, and after a few days she started on a tiny preemie bottle. They took my milk and mixed it with formula. A large concern was getting her back to her birthweight (4lbs) and passing the dreaded “carseat” test (wherein a baby is placed in a carseat and monitored for 90 minutes to make sure their breathing/heart rate is stable). Everything we did was to get her stable enough to pass that damn test, so we could take her home and start our life as a normal family. Every three hours they would wake her, change her, feed her, and hold her for a bit. Our life started to be lived in those three hour increments.
After 5 days, I was discharged. I was sure there had been a mistake, since I still felt like death (and was recovering from major surgery, besides). The nurses, those angels, arranged for my husband and I to stay in an empty room on the same floor so we could be closer to our daughter. It makes me teary to think about it even now. I didn’t have the strength for much more, so being able to be so close to her was a gift I cannot ever repay. My blood pressure was still all over the map, the doctors were still trying to get the medication right. A few times I almost fainted, and there were some feeding times I just didn’t have the energy to walk down the hall. I couldn’t do it. The guilt, ebbing and flowing, was always there—but so was the gratitude.
We didn’t have a middle name picked out. A nurse brought by the official birth certificate form, and we were floored. My brain felt like marbles. I was sitting in a small room, holding my tiny baby to my chest. The doctor who had saved my life was outside the door. If you want to see what the glory of God looks like, peek into this room, he told one of my nurses. She poked her head into the room and burst into tears. Glory, we said, my husband and my mom and I, glory. And glory it was.
At some point, all the rooms in labor and delivery were in use. The nurses arranged for us to stay on the 4th floor, still in the hospital, all for free. My husband and I took our bags upstairs and found ourselves on an abandoned floor—empty waiting rooms, darkened offices. We found a room and pushed two hospital beds together and huddled together, watching TV sitcoms in a daze while we waited for the next scheduled feeding session. The sense of isolation and eeriness of that room was not lost on us; nothing was as it should have been. We cried and slept and were suspended in that strange sphere known only as Hospital Time. I was surprised that it was still summer, still August, the few times I stepped outside of the doors.
Finally, after 2 weeks, the day came: we brought her home. I do not remember much about that at all, just the sense of utter relief. No more hospital, no more machines and beeps and hundreds of people to talk to and smile at and make conversation with. Our apartment, the late summer light streaming in, a baby who needed two more months inside of me. My family came with us and we all sat on the couch and stared at the sleeping elfin child who was now officially ours. She did not belong to the hospital anymore. She was mine. And it was wonderful.
A week after we brought her home, I stopped producing milk. I was in the throes of the cycle of trying to help my baby—pumping every three hours, cleaning the machine, feeding her, rinse and repeat—when I got a bad case of mastitis and everything stopped. Nothing. I tried everything, drinking fenugreek by the gallon, sobbing into my husband’s shoulder, reading everything I could no the internet. Nothing worked. I went back to the hospital, where the lactation consultant told me kindly: oh honey. It’s not ever coming back. After what happened to your body, you should just be happy to be alive.
This was the proverbial straw that broke my back. It unleashed the floodgates of sadness and resentment and unmet expectations that had been simmering under the surface. It enabled me to finally voice all of my questions (which were all just a variation of why me?) and to wallow in how unfair it all seemed. I never knew how important of a dream breastfeeding was for me until it got taken away. Even now the sting of this is there. I remember the mothers looking at me in the park as I mixed up her bottle. The WIC offices telling me that “breast was best” and that I really should have more concern for my baby. The lack of perceived closeness I felt, fretting about whether or not my baby and I were truly bonding.
But in the end, we did. It wasn’t just my daughter and I against the world, however—it was my daughter and the doctor who saved my life, the nurses who sustained us, my beautiful husband, my bad-ass mother, my sisters and my dad and our friends. Raising my baby became a communal effort, she was never just mine to keep and possess. She was all of ours, and she continues to be to this day.
And for this I am grateful. Glory be, indeed.