It is only recently that I am able to look at the period following my daughter’s birth and understand how totally out of my mind I must have been to get upset that the doctors were treating my hours old child with antibiotics when her life was on the line, or that her first taste of breast milk came from a bottle because she wasn’t yet strong enough to nurse. I look at her now and see a healthy, exuberant child, and yet still I can’t quite shake the feeling that I owe her a debt from not having kept her safe from all of those chemicals that were pumped into her little body that first week, all of those hours alone in a scary place, all of those times she cried out for me only to find I wasn’t there.
From the day my daughter came home, I spent three months of extended maternity leave barely leaving her side for more than the fifteen minutes it took me to shower once a day. When I went back to work, she stayed with my mother, close enough to my office that I could see her every day for my long lunch (my ever patient boss understood I would be losing that work time pumping anyway), and she was nearly nine months old before I spent a full day away from her. I worked from home whenever I could, cancelled meetings, did not see friends, stopped exercising, stopped reading, stopped writing.
I have gotten better about this, but only so much. I manage to see one or two friends every month or two. I manage to fit in one or two runs midweek, but only if I am out of bed in time to get out of the house and back by the time the baby is waking up. I manage to keep up with my blog (assuming I count the midweek photo posts, which feel a bit like cheating), although a month into the semester I am already a month behind on my reading for school. As I look ahead to each weekend, look at the ever growing “Life Maintenance To Do” list that is sadly the only interesting document in my Evernote account right now, I tell myself – just take an hour or two in your den, take care of your work, two hours are not going to make or break the mother-daughter bond. But even if it means that I’ll be sleep deprived from here until eternity, I just can’t leave her.
Every night when my daughter goes to sleep I am both relieved that I will finally be able to get some work done and sad that I won’t see her again until the busy busy morning, when it’s just about getting myself dressed and getting her dressed and getting everything packed, when by the time I am putting her into the car to leave I am already missing her again, I am already disappointed that the next time I see her there will be just enough time for her dinner and her bath and her story and bottle before bed. Some days I can’t help but feel I am so busy taking care of her that I barely get to just see her.
This week I tried to go a little easier on myself (thanks in no small part to all of those wonderful, supportive comments I received on part 1 of this post). I skipped a couple of runs, didn’t bother putting away the clean laundry, threw last week’s market vegetables into the compost bin and fed the baby out of the freezer instead. I let myself spend some absolutely beautiful stretches of time playing with my daughter rather than worrying about the dozens of other things I needed to be doing at any given moment, and after she went to sleep at night I actually let myself go to bed too (well, one night at least).
I thought I was making progress until we had our final NICU related follow up a couple of days ago, an EKG and ultrasound to make sure her heart had developed the way it would in a normal, healthy baby (the doctors always say “normal healthy” baby, but what does that mean, anyway?). Aside from the struggle of holding a screaming twenty-five pound baby in my arms as dozens of electrodes were attached and detached and goo smeared all over her bare chest, the appointment went well; she was finally given that clean bill of health I have waited so long for. But somehow the experience knocked something back out of place inside of me. Maybe it was the ninety minutes of her crying nonstop, maybe it was seeing her hooked up once again to machines, or maybe it was simply the reminder of where we had started – the tone of the cardiologist’s voice as he announced that she was okay was so similar to that of the NICU doctor on the morning he told us we would be taking our daughter home, a very specific tone of happiness and of relief that a child’s life had been saved, that he would not have to give this child’s parents any more bad news.
In that moment this week in that dim little room lit only by ultrasound screens, I recalled all over again just how close to her death we had been, and within hours I was back into my old routine. I cleaned the house frantically for fear the baby would catch germs, re-baby-proofed the living room, washed and folded all of her clothes. I bought so many pounds of vegetables for organic baby puree that my husband earned the nickname Mr. Sherpa as we walked home from the farmers’ market. This week, once again it seems, will be a struggle to find my balance again.
I’m looking at my word count and thinking that it’s time now for me to put my optimistic spin on this, that it’s time to wrap it up on a high note. Who wants to read a post that just leaves them feeling down? But this time it’s a little complicated. This new version of life with child is hard and it continues to be hard, and I understand that I am not the only mother (or father) for whom parenthood is hard. I don’t believe that I love my daughter any more than any parent loves their child, I don’t believe that going back to work after maternity leave and learning a new juggling act on a high wire is easy for any mother, and I don’t believe that there is any magic trick we can do with our lives to fix it. As my husband and I say, the modern world is fucked up, this just isn’t how it was meant to be. But meant to be or not, this is how the world is, and all we can do is make the most of it.
Despite all of the sadness, I do also see so much good that has come from my daughter’s complicated entrance into the world. I saw her strength so clearly in the hospital, saw the signs of so many strong women in her lineage while in that place of ghosts and spirits that one inhabits when spending time around the edges of death. I saw it in a way that makes me see her very differently than I might have otherwise as she grows now into a strong and strong-willed child, and it keeps me from losing my patience.
In the hospital I also saw myself differently. I saw myself change, saw my husband change, saw our families change. I saw how this experience was an opportunity to purify and renew those relationships, and my life now is better for it.
These days my stubborn little daughter is walking joyfully into her first steps of toddlerhood. She is happy and healthy and quick witted, reticent with strangers and exuberant with her friends – she is everything I knew her to be when she was growing inside of me. And despite the sadness, her joy infects me and it infects everyone around her. Her joy is contagious, and my life is not only better for it, but better than I ever imagined it could be.