This Doesn’t Have To Be So Hard (part 1)

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I sometimes think that being a mother doesn’t need to be so hard, that most of the difficulty comes from my particular approach to parenting.  At first glance, my approach is simple:  If she cries, I soothe her.  If she is tired, I rock her.  If she is hungry I feed her and sing to her and clean her face and hands with a warm washcloth when she has finished her food.  If I am angry, I smile.  If I am sad, I smile and I sing.  If I am sleep deprived and dizzy, I smile and I sing with my eyes closed.

I make all of my daughter’s food from fresh organic ingredients from the local farmers’ market.  I allow no television or iPad or computer for her at any time, or for me when we are together.  I talk and play and interact with her constantly when she is home with me, and for fear she will feel lonely or unloved, I only leave her to play independently when she has expressed a desire to do so.  I am careful to avoid any overly stimulating toys, am careful to use proper grammar when I speak Greek to her.  My primary goals for my daughter are 1) for her to feel loved, and 2) for her to grow up to be the smartest person in the room, and I have read half a dozen child development books to help ensure I am supporting those goals at all times (I think there have actually been many more books than this, but I know how crazy this post is already making me sound so I’m going to round down).

The biggest challenge in all of this, surprisingly, is not the time management required to make and freeze ninety individual baby meals per month.  The biggest challenge is the guilt lurking in every corner of my kitchen, the worry hanging in the two miles of clouds between my office and my daughter’s day care, the fear in my throat as I drive every morning past the hospital where my daughter was born.

And here is your fair warning:  this is where my blogging gets a little dark.

My daughter did not have an easy entry into this world.  By all accounts I had a perfectly happy and healthy pregnancy, the kind of pregnancy other women wish for – no pain or discomfort, no morning sickness, no mood swings.  I was happy, healthy, and energetic, and by all measures the daughter growing inside of me was also all of these things.  Even as I hit the full-term mark with no indications of labor, all tests pointed to a baby that was simply so happy inside of me she did not want to come out.  No signs of distress, nothing to worry about.

At 6:40 a.m. on the Thursday of my forty-second week of pregnancy, labor was induced.  At 10:40 p.m. of the same day my daughter was born and placed into my arms.  At 10:41 p.m. my daughter was taken from my arms and given to a huddle of nurses in the corner.  At 10:48 p.m. my daughter was taken away.  Four hours would pass before we were given any news – my daughter’s lungs were not working, and she had been intubated and placed on a respirator to keep her alive.  The nurses couldn’t tell us any more than this.

At 7:40 a.m. of the next day I was allowed to see my daughter in the NICU – the neonatal intensive care unit, also known as the last hope for the sickest of babies.  She was sedated, stretched out in a bed with tubes and wires and tape and tags.  I was not allowed to hold her, was barely allowed to touch her, but she was so beautiful.  She was perfect, nine and a half pounds with dark fuzz for hair and the Spanos family nose, a giant among all of the preemies surrounding her.  She was perfect, except for the lungs that would not work.

My daughter spent the first eight nights of her life in the NICU, and no matter how many nights she has spent in my arms since, I will always be making up for lost time.

You see, I read the natural birthing books.  I talked to the ladies from La Leche League.  I planned with my doula how to keep the baby out of the nursery, how to make sure those nasty nurses wouldn’t sneak a bottle or pacifier into the room.  I made my Ob Gyn sign a birth plan with the guarantee of immediate skin to skin contact, my daughter was to go from birth canal to breast, the cord clamping could wait.  I understood that if these things did not happen according to plan, my baby would not attach at the breast and would not attach in her heart.  She would grow to exhibit signs of ADHD as an adolescent, signs of depression as a young adult.  She would have asthma and allergies and diabetes, and would almost surely be obese by the time she reached college.  My job as a mother was to not let these things happen, and a week into my new job I was already failing.

If only I had known then what I know now, if only the worst that could happen was really just an afternoon under heat lamps in the nursery.  The NICU was not listed anywhere in my birth plan, because the natural birthing community doesn’t want to talk about the births that do not go well, because the admission that sometimes medical interventions are good and necessary doesn’t fit with the natural birth narrative.  While I understand (and to a large extent still agree with) the basic principles of the natural birth/exclusively breastfed/attachment parenting movements, and while I understand these movements are a reaction to the other extreme of scheduling caesarian sections at 36 weeks of pregnancy to make it more convenient for doctor and for mom, as a terrified new mother whose newborn child was on the brink of death I could find no comfort in these communities.  In every book, website, and pamphlet, all I found was confirmation of all my worst fears.

Not only was I in shock, not only was I experiencing all the various stages of trauma and mourning and that my daughter might not live, I was also experiencing an insurmountable guilt from the knowledge that even if I were so lucky to bring her home alive, the damage had already been done.  All those hours when I was sleeping or pumping or vacating for the hour long shift change to occur – all those hours that she was in her hospital crib without me next to her, there was no way she would ever feel close to me emotionally.  There was no skin to skin, no co-sleeping, no swaddling, no rocking.  And she was given antibiotics at birth!  How would her system ever find natural equilibrium?

Hence the homemade baby food, the constant attention to the child and the constant attention to detail.  Still no one quite knows why or how my daughter got sick, but I’m sure that there is something that I could have done differently.  I understand the potential consequences of one little mistake, one well intentioned misstep, and I’m not going to get caught with my guard down again.

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30 thoughts on “This Doesn’t Have To Be So Hard (part 1)

  1. I don’t give parenting advice of any kind, anymore. My kids were born smack in the middle of our society’s construction of The Perfect Natural Parent, and I have long since stepped out of the resultant media-fueled Mommy Wars with my mouth firmly closed. I will say this, though: Your DNA remains intact in every mitochondria in every single cell in your daughter’s perfect, tiny body, and has since bare moments after she was conceived. Do you see? You could not touch her with your skin, during those hours apart. Nor could you feed her with your body, directly. But your DNA drove those microscopic engines which converted the food from your body into strength for her lungs, fueling her recovery then, and her growth ever after. How could you worry that her heart wouldn’t know you? Your heart was her first truth, and no volume of guilt, angst or non-organic foodstuffs can ever, ever change that.

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    1. Thanks so much for the beautiful perspective on this. I love the way you’ve described it and it’s really hit home for me. I’m going to go home tonight and tell my little Koukla that her mitochondria are all made of my mitochondria and no matter what happens that will never change (even when she turns into a rebellious, independent teenager and wishes with all of her might that it would!).

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  2. Oh love.. I am sorry you had such a traumatic first few days with your daughter but I second everything DesiValentine says. You really have to let go of the guilt. Things happen; non-smokers get lungcancer, fit and healthy people have heart attacks and sometimes – perfect new babies need a little bit of help to get them back to the lives they arrived here for. You are her, clearly loving, mother and you will always be there for her. When she starts toddling around, falls over and scrapes her knee. When she needs help with homework, has trouble with boys and needs someone to talk to. You got her back (and you’ve got her back) – just enjoy her and forget about being perfect. Us parents have this inbuilt guilt about everything but we all need to learn to go easy on ourselves.

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    1. Oh guilt, what would I do without it? I fear that if I let go of the guilt, whether it be guilt at feeding my daughter apple sauce bought at the market instead of boiled in my home, or guilt for not spending quite enough hours in my office, I will enter a steep, fast decline into laziness and ambivalence. I think I would also feel oh so lonely and off balance, since this guilt has been my closest companion for such a long time (it predates even my daughter, of course). I am working to rid myself of it, though, bit by bit – running helps, as does finding time even during the busiest of days to focus 100% on the joy my daughter radiates for even just a few minutes. I hope to explore this more in part 2 next week.

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    1. Thank you – my daughter is definitely an angel, and while I know a few people who might take issue with that descriptor being applied to me, I’m doing my best to be my best for her :).

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  3. Although my son’s own start wasn’t as severe as all that, I can empathise with you. My son had failure to thrive starting in week 2 of life, and was diagnosed with a UTI at week 7 (which I now suspect was contracted during our post partum stay.). We didn’t have to deal with NICU, but I did have to deal with grow clinics, frequent peds appointments, and specialist appointments. I had to cope with the fact that my plans to breastfeed exclusively until we introduced solids failed because I wasn’t producing enough; which was probably partially a result of his not feeding well while sick, and my own stress about his health.

    He was hospitalized for 4 days at 7 weeks old. Fortunately not in the NICU, so I was able to stay with him the full time. I still have trouble looking at photos of him when he was 1 and 2 months old because although I didn’t notice then, now when I see them, he looks so sick to me, and it breaks my heart and renews the guilt and feelings of failure I had back then.

    Things happen. Sometimes there might have been a way to prevent them. Sometimes not. But we cannot hang onto guilt over what *might* have been preventable. Sometimes these things truly are just out of our hands. And in those times we have to realize that in the end, the most important thing is that we love our children and are as responsive to their needs as we are able to be. And somewhere along the way, we need to forgive ourselves of our shortcomings.

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    1. You are right – both that the most important thing is to love our children, and also that at some point we need to forgive ourselves. Clearly I have found the former much easier than the latter, but I am working on it! I understand that my daughter’s happiness is only possible if I too am happy and able to share in her joy for life, but it is definitely a struggle to balance all of my residual fear and worry with my desire to be fully present for her.

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  4. Oh my, I am so sorry for the uncertainty of those first days, but please give yourself a break. We’re NICU alums as well, and I didn’t breastfeed the twins because my milk never came in. I don’t beat myself up about these things, they’re just little bumps that make up our journey. It’s easy to get wrapped up in guilt when you feel like you’re failing (we all have our moments), but you have to believe that you’re her entire world regardless of how those first few days went, and let the rest go.

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    1. I love that you’re able to have such a levelheaded perspective in regards to your NICU experience. My husband and I talk all the time about how lucky we are that our daughter has been so healthy since she came home, and I know that one day that gratitude will finally come to blot out the sadness surrounding her first trying week. It’s smart advice to just let the rest go.

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  5. What a lucky, blessed child your daughter is. You sound like a beautiful mother. I don’t know if my story will help — it’s from the other side of the fence.

    My mother had a difficult birth with me; she was very sick and I was prem, so she had a Casearean and I spent those first days apart from her. She had to wait a week before she saw or held me, and only then because a nurse snuck me in to her room and tucked me up in her bed for an hour. Breastfeeding never really took either, so it was a hard start for her as a mother. But she was the dearest of mothers, and the bond between us was very close. We knew each other at the deepest level, and that rocky start was just a small — a very small — part of our intertwined lives.

    She told me some of these stories when I had my boy; I think she had to wait until then before I could understand what we had been through together. And when she told me, I felt sadness for that time, for her fear and vulnerability as a new mother and for the time I had spent outside her arms, longing for her as she longed for me. But I also knew that those arms had been there for me ever since, and that was all that really mattered. And so we just held each other, my mother and me and this new little baby squooshed up between us, adding a new layer to our stories of beginnings and endings, of troubles and celebrations, of comfort and love.

    And I guess this is what I would want for you and your daughter too. That you will keep writing your story together, and not with guilt, but with openness and compassion and joy. And I hope that you find healing as you go — you’ve had a rough start and need some gentling now.

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    1. I love that you’ve shared this story from the other side of the fence! I can only hope that someday I’ll be able to talk with my daughter in the way your mother talked with you, and that someday I’ll be there to support her in the birth of her own child. It’s wonderful to hear about the beautiful relationship you and your mother have. Thank you!

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  6. Anna,

    This is such a heart felt recount of your precious angel’s birth. A mother’s worse fear, become a reality. But fortunately she’s relentless and has her mommy’s strength and spirit to fight! She’s a beautiful and very much loved sweet little thing! You are doing an amazing job as her mom, while managing 100+ more things!! You are admirable, inspirational, and a perfect role model for your daughter. Thanks for writing this.

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  7. I have a similar story for my third baby girl. To this day, 18 months later, I would give anything to have that time back with her right after the birth. It was painful time, it breaks my heart everytime I think about it, and if I allowed myself a moment, I could certainly still cry about it, like it happened yesterday.” Most people tell me, “I’m being too hard on myself, and that she doesnt remember it, therefore, you should let it go”….but how can I? It happened. I will forever be making up for lost time with her.

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    1. I’m so sorry that you too have gone through the difficult, difficult experience that I described in this post. I’ve also gotten the “she doesn’t remember it” comment, but somehow I just don’t buy it. I think the key for me in coping with this sadness is related to what you’ve said: “If I allowed myself a moment, I could certainly stilly cry about it.” There is so little time as it is that I simply don’t allow myself to have that moment. I find that there are so many wonderful moments to enjoy with my daughter, generally speaking it’s not too difficult to keep myself in a place of gratitude. Generally speaking, that is, but then there are those other times… and all we can do in those times is try our best to appreciate everything we have – and blog about it, of course!

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  8. wow, i cried after reading this. as a mother who is hyper-aware of EVERYthing that I do (and more often what I am unable to do) for my children i can feel your pain. It’s like I see the future of my every action, every word, and every moment I think I f*@k things up. All I want is to give my girls the most love and best foundation for a limitless future. It is hard to live this way. I’m still learning to give myself a break, but I don’t know how to forgive myself my imperfections yet. However, I hope and I’m sure my girls will. I am also sure, just from reading your blog, that you would be an amazing role model and mother even if you weren’t trying to compensate for those lost moments in the very beginning. I try to remind myself that to give love out of fear or guilt is a dangerous thing to do. Best to move forward and give love out of love.
    I am thoroughly enjoying following your insightful and inspiring blog.

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    1. It is so hard to live this way, but I’m sure that your daughters can sense how much love you have for them in every single big and small gesture. There are so many challenges involved in modern parenting – we of the therapy generation especially have such a keen understanding of how our actions as parents can impact our children’s growth and development. I mean, how many new approach parenting books are on the best seller list at any given time? I think the biggest challenge of all is learning to give yourself that break, but it’s just so hard.

      I’m so glad my blog is speaking to you on a personal level, and thank you for this beautiful comment!

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  9. I was a NICU baby. I am now 27, healthy, happy and a mom myself. I love my mom fiercely and have never thought for a second she wasn’t there for me from the first minute. I too was in distress, and did stop breathing. That NICU and those Drs. saved me those first days, and I saw them until I was 18 years old.

    Don’t ever beat yourself up for things not going as planned. That’s so much like parenthood, for things to not go as planned. For them to challenge you and change the game on you when you least want/expect it.

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    1. Thank you so, so much for sharing this with me. Some days it feels like no matter how far away from this experience I get, the fear just doesn’t seem to go away – fear that maybe she’s not going to be okay after all, fear that something else will happen, fear that she’ll remember me not being there every minute of every hour during that first week. I can’t tell you how much it means to hear a story like yours!

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  10. I can so relate much of what you have written. Our first year everything had to be ‘just right’ = exactly how the nurses did it. My poor, poor husband. I hope your anxiousness lessens over time, that you can step back and feel the guilt press on you less and less. Best wishes to you. This was so beautifully written.

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    1. I’m glad to know that I am not the only one who felt this kind of pressure after bringing home a child from the NICU. I think it’s something that all parents go through to a certain extent, but it’s heightened for those of us who had that heart-wrenching period of not knowing whether or not our children would ever even come home.
      I can’t say in my particular case the guilt has diminished over time, but I think I’m finding new ways of living with it. It’s still there, but at least the intensity has lessened somewhat.

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