“You doing okay, mom? Warm enough?”
I’m back in the OR again.
“As soon as we get you numbed up, dad can come in, alright? It won’t be too much longer.”
It looks like I am answering a question about my baby girl as I order coffee and hold my son’s hand. He’s twisting toward the pastries behind the glass. She’s babbling, “baa baa baa” in her car seat. But my mind is in the hospital seven miles away. All it took was the question.
I turn to my husband. It is not a great turn. My arms are strapped down and I’ve lost control of my lower half. It’s all the turn I can muster. I turn and I ask, “What’s that smell?” He puts his head down. He doesn’t answer.
I pay for my drink. Ah, yes, I’d smelled that before. When I had the root canal that spontaneously devolved into oral surgery. That smell is cauterization. That smell is burning flesh.
The very moment the smell is gone I hear them say it. “She’s here. We’re going to hold her up for you, mom, but it will only be for a second.”
I shake my head at nothing, publicly. A second apart sounded fine to me in that moment. I was going to be holding her forever in just a few minutes, after all. That was the plan I’d nodded along to. My baby was going to be passed through a window just to my right, have a lightning fast exam, come back across the window and be handed right to me. A nurse was standing by to help me hold her until my arms could be freed. It was all planned. It was all going to go according to plan.
It was only going to be ten minutes, maximum. (It was 5 and a half hours).
It was only going to be an NST. (I ended up having a c-section).
I stare at the bin of bottled waters. How much water had I consumed when I went in that morning? Even a half cup? No, probably not even.
I should have been drinking more water. I knew better.
I should have demanded more time on the monitor before the surgery, or an ultrasound at least. Maybe then we could have known she had fluid in her lungs. Everyone on the internet says I have to be my own medical advocate. I should have been a better medical advocate.
It was only supposed to be ten minutes.
I look at the clock, then at the nurse who let my husband go to our baby. A bad feeling is coming on strong now. “I thought it was only supposed to be ten minutes?
My daughter’s birth haunts me. She is two months shy of a year old, and that birth still knows where I live. I am admitting this now, more often. I’m traumatized. I said it. I’m calling this by its name.
It took a while for me to see the depth of my wound. For the first month after her birth I existed in a state of exhaustion, euphoric love, ravishing hunger, and wee hour Netflix. I wasn’t shrinking myself.
I wrote her birth story during her second month. Every time I read it I discovered something new I’d left out accidentally. The exact medicinal scent of the pink NICU soap. The simultaneous feeling of bliss and dread as I rounded the corner to room 5: I was getting to see my baby, but my baby may have gotten worse. The box of protein bars I ate at her crib-side. All the times I held it when I had to pee. The way my heart broke thinking of my confused son waiting at home for a mom who never seemed to come all the way back. The time the grandpa of the patient next to us called my daughter beautiful. He had just gotten terrible news. He was crying.
I kept trying to edit the story. The writing process wasn’t nearly as cathartic as I’d hoped it would be.
But then she was three and four and five months old, and it was summer! Time to move on! Get wet! Get a margarita! Smile! I’d had a baby, a beautiful, healthy* baby. The hard birth was behind me. Let’s talk about something else.
I told myself people expected this of me, an onward and upward attitude. I’m now convinced that too is something with a familiar smell: bullshit. At the time though, I thought that’s what everyone wanted, so I pretended it was behind me.
It wasn’t. The hard birth was still right in front me. It was right there each night when I gave my daughter a bath and thought about seeing her naked body for the first time, five days after her birth. I didn’t know her belly was so round. I’d never seen her back. Mothers should know these things. I should have seen her first.
It was there each time I bombarded strangers with details of her story. “When was she born?” innocent grocery store clerks would ask. Then me, always, unable to stop myself, “March 27. She was in the NICU for seven days. I didn’t get to hold her for a while.” They’d click their tongue, what a shame, and run my eggs across the scanner. “Look at her now,” they tended to offer brightly. People are always saying something like that when I force her birth upon them.
I should have seen it was getting too heavy for me.
I should have drank more water.
(*after 7 days)
“Look at her now,” is my problem. Because it all turned out okay, because now is a time I can look at her in a blessedly healthy state, and because now started only seven days after her birth, I never allowed myself to grieve the was.
Because the worst things didn’t happen, I didn’t think I had any right to be sad for all of the hard things that did transpire.
Because I felt profusely thankful for her life, I didn’t want to seem ungrateful by feeling sad, or admitting to feeling that way at least.
I had to get eight months past room 5 to learn none of that is true. Grief doesn’t negate gratitude. We’ve never been asked to celebrate suffering, and illness, and babies taken from their mothers. God doesn’t expect us to root for that.
Jesus wept, after all. Surely He doesn’t mind me crying a bit every time I see a Facebook post of a newborn placed bloody and wailing on their mother’s chest.
And a really great thing happens when I start telling the truth. When I say, “My daughter’s birth was hard. I laid alone in a recovery room staring at a door that never opened. I saw my baby through the cracked, 5 inch screen of my phone as my husband sent texts from NICU triage.” The great thing is, when I share my story, others are quick to balm my wound with their own.
They say, “I remember that feeling. My baby was in the NICU for three days. I think I cried the whole time.” Or, “I will do things so differently next time. With my oldest, everything went downhill as soon as I got the epidural. I wish I would have been more firm.” And sometimes, “I should have just gotten the stupid epidural. I wanted a natural birth, and I ended up with a c-section and didn’t even get to see my son until the next day.” And almost every time, “It was awful. Even thinking about it now. I mean, you know.”
I know. We had a plan. It fell apart, disintegrated on sterile floors. Our babies needed help. Our hearts broke. Months, years, several happy births later, and we still can’t seem to avoid tears when we talk about it.
I figured something out: that’s okay.
Tears don’t make God uncomfortable. He doesn’t try to change the subject or go refill His drink. He says He’ll dry them in heaven. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. That’s from Revelation. I think it means I can be honest about this.
I will be 67 and still upset about my daughter’s birth. If my memory lasts, this will still hurt when I’m 90.
I had a hard birth. I’m waiting on the hands of a King.