This Doesn’t Have To Be So Hard (part 2)

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.

Joy

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18 thoughts on “This Doesn’t Have To Be So Hard (part 2)

  1. Having spent many hours herding my daughter through specialist’s offices and insanely large machinery, I can say with certainty that parents walk a fine line between worry and joy, fear and happiness. That you question how well you balance it all speaks volumes. Our children learn from watching us just as much as they do from direct contact. I’m sure your daughter will benefit from watching you learn to balance your writing and professional life with family and everything else that comes your way.
    Congrats on the ‘clean bill of health’. Nothing puts a smile on a parents face faster than that.

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    1. Though I know that there will always be something else around the corner (like with the constant ear infections that had nothing to do with her NICU stay), it was quite a relief to hear the doctor say “No more follow ups!” – I may have given my daughter a few extra hugs and kisses when we got home that day. At least for one afternoon, it was nice to be firmly on the happiness side of that fine line you’ve described.
      Thanks so much for your kind words, and I hope that all of your bouts with the pediatric specialists also ended well for you and your daughter.

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  2. I think the adjustment after having your first child is incredibly hard – I can’t even imagine having to go through it while also dealing with a traumatizing birth and hospital experience like yours. When it was just me and Fiona, I used to look at mothers of multiple kids and wonder “How in the world do they manage it? I struggle so much with just one child.” And now that I have two children, I still look back on that first year with my firstborn as the toughest time for me, emotionally.

    I think the best way to survive the steep learning curve is through the fellowship and support of other moms – new moms, in particular. (I have a sneaking suspicion that grandmother-types look back on the baby period with rose-colored glasses.)

    And I hope you can continue to shake off that feeling of “making it up to” your daughter. You did what you absolutely had to do to keep her alive, even if it was agony to not hold her in your arms at every moment. You did right by her from the beginning. And with all the love you show her on a daily basis, there can be do doubt that she will feel your love and support, regardless of the details of her first few days on this earth.

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    1. Oh yes, I definitely look at moms with multiple children now and wonder that exact thing – how on earth do they do it?? Whenever I think about having another child I try telling myself that the work and stress won’t exactly double, since I’ve already got some idea of how to manage this mothering thing, but my goodness does it look hard. I do also, of course, have an extra helping of fear mixed in with the purely practical considerations, knowing as I do that things don’t always go as planned. My guess is that the further away I get from that fear, the further I’ll get away from feeling like I’m constantly making it up to my daughter, and the easier it will be to think about starting the process all over again with a second.

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      1. I second what Julia said. All of it. Well said, friend. As for the multiple children, I can honestly say that since the boys have been born I have never been more physically exhausted in my life. But, like Julia, I look back to when Mia was born and that first year was full of so much anxiety and depression, a loss of identity, guilt, always second guessing myself. Over time and through trial and error, you learn what works for you and yours. It’s clear that your daughter is your priority and you give her so much love. At the end of the day, if we do at least that, we’re ahead of the game.

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      2. Thanks Lara, that’s definitely encouraging – though I think if another baby makes me even more exhausted than I am now I’ll just collapse into a useless heap! But it’s so good to finally feel like I’m getting past that first-time mother adjustment period, where I sort of ceased to exist as anything other than support for my daughter. I’m learning – slowly – to make her my first priority while still allowing a little bit of breathing room for those other parts of myself. Hopefully that’s a skill I won’t forget if my husband and I decide to have another child.

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  3. Sometime in the early teens you will learn – I cannot protect my child from all harm but I can always be here for them. Comfort them and do my best to be there. The times I am not will only make them stronger, but if I do my best than that is all he asks. Unconditional love is hard to find, we rely on it from our parents.

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    1. Every time I think about my daughter becoming a teenager (particularly when I think about the fierce independence she is already exhibiting – how can she want to be independent at just a year old?!?), I feel a deep sense of panic start creeping in… Hopefully I will have the next dozen or so years to distance myself from the fear I’ve described in these two posts, since I know how important it will be to not let myself be ruled by that fear when it comes to demonstrating the unconditional love that you’re talking about. If only the hardest part of parenting were those first weeks of newborn care that everyone seems to focus on when you’re pregnant!

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      1. The one thing that stuck through the years that someone said to me way back when my son was an infant. If you question if your a good mother – than you must be an amazing mother.

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  4. What a joy this post was to read! I remember those preemie follow up visits. When the girls were around two years old we saw one of our two assigned Neonatologists during the checkup and I hugged him and busted out crying. I did what Oprah called the “Ugly Cry”. The snot and tears were flowing, as was the absolute flood of relief that we made it through safe and sound and the absolute thankfulness to God that I have for those two doctors in particular.

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    1. Oh those NICU doctors! What angels, I just don’t know how they do what they do everyday. I’m at a conference this week for work, and the conference next to me is for pediatric and neonatal critical care nurses – it’s all I can do not to run over to their main hall and just start hugging everyone in there 🙂

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      1. I think you should! They will see the crazy look in your eye and say to each other, “oh yeah, she’s a NICU Mom.”

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