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.