I startle awake from an exhausted, dreamless sleep with the distinct feeling something is missing. I’m disoriented, the kind of confusion that can only come from the toxic combination of pain medicine and 25 minute increments of sleep, and it takes a moment for me to remember where I am. Without my glasses, the room is blurry and dim, and I feel around for them before remembering they aren’t there.
Slowly, sleepily, it all comes back to me. The routine 40 week OB appointment turned surprise induction. The panicked phone call to my husband, asking him to pack my things and meet me at the hospital. The contractions, the vomiting, the pushing, the chaos.
The blood pressure cuff on my left arm crinkles as I struggle to sit up, and suddenly, I’m fully awake. Panicked. Where is my baby?
I remember the nurse taking him for his newborn screening, and her saying she’d keep him for a few hours afterward so I could get some sleep. But she should be back by now—something must be wrong.
My body feels empty, his absence from it palpable, and I stagger to my feet, wrapping the black jersey robe tighter around my hollow, bloated belly. The room’s darkness closes in on me in my near-blind state, and I frantically pat the bedside table to find my contact case. I find it, and with unwashed hands and shaking fingers, I fumble it open and shove slippery contacts into my dry, swollen eyes.
I slip my feet into my flip flops, and hobble toward the door. Grasping the cold metal doorknob of the heavy hospital room door, I replay last night’s meeting with our pediatrician again in my mind.
He’d sat in the chair next to my hospital bed, examining our new baby on the long thigh-bones of his lap. He ran his finger along the uneven line of the cleft in our son’s lip, and listened, again, to his heartbeat. I watched, my legs tucked under my torn, bleeding body, unable to see past the crooked line of my baby’s mouth.
“It’s pretty mild, as clefts go. I’m not surprised they missed it on an ultrasound.” He said.
My husband and I remained silent, and he cleared his throat, then continued. “Clefts can be associated with other, more complicated, syndromes. Most often, they include heart defects and hearing loss. I’m encouraged by the fact that his palate looks to be intact, but I’d like to have a specialist confirm that. His heart sounds fine, but we’ll continue to monitor him closely for irregular rhythms…”
His voice trailed off as he looked between my husband and me. I avoided eye contact, afraid if I met his kind and pitying gaze I’d crumble.
“His newborn screening tonight will be especially important. In addition to the blood work, the nurses will test his hearing, which will help us rule out any of those syndromes I mentioned. Have you had a chance to ask your parents about any family history?”
My husband sat with his elbows on his knees, his hands folded under his chin. Earlier, I’d listened to him talking to his mom on the phone. His back was to me, and he rubbed the base of his neck as he listened. Our son nursed at my left breast―a miracle according to the grey-haired lactation consultant.
He’d hung up, and turned to look at me, his face serious and sad. “I guess my mom had an older sister I never knew about. She lived for a month before she died, but she had a cleft lip and palate, and a hole in her heart, and my mom thought she remembered she couldn’t hear either.”
Biting my lip, I’d held back tears.
The doctor watched me, waiting for an answer to his question. But I looked away, my eyes unfocused.
A door slams in the hallway, bringing me into the present. A baby wails somewhere outside my room, and I strain to open the heavy door. The fluorescent lights are blinding, and the cold air of the air-conditioned hall raises goosebumps on my arms. I trail my left hand along the wall beside me and shuffle toward the nurse’s station.
The dark-haired night nurse has her back to me, watching a TV show on the laptop in front of her. I’m struck by how little her life has changed in the last 24 hours, and how much mine has. Beside her sits the clunky hospital bassinet, where my sleeping son sucks contentedly on an enormous orange pacifier. I’m annoyed and relieved by its presence: offended I wasn’t consulted about its use, but overjoyed his cleft hasn’t affected his ability to suck.
I clear my throat, and she stands, surprise contorting her face.
“Sorry.” I say, though I’m unsure what for. “I think he’s probably hungry?”
Her head jerks in a nod of sorts and she reaches one hand out for the bassinet as she grabs his chart with the other.
“Lets see.” she says, running a finger down the form I can’t see. “Screening went well. And...” she keeps searching, her eyes running back and forth across the page. “Oh. He failed the hearing test in his left ear. We’ll re-test him before discharge.” Her tone is matter-of-fact. Emotionless.
My heart pounds in my ears and beats so hard I’m sure she can see it from the outside. I can’t hear anything else she says, and the next thing I know I’m back in our room, the bassinet in its place beside the bed. My husband is awake now, and I sit beside him on the green vinyl window seat. His hair sticks up in tufts, and he rubs his eyes with a work-worn hand. I stare across the room, toward our sleeping son, then turn to meet his gaze.
“He ... he failed the hearing test in his left ear.” The words come out in choking sobs, and I search my husband’s face for reassurance, pleading with my eyes for him to make it all ok. He stares back at me, trying to make sense of my words, and it feels like forever before he finally speaks.
He looks straight ahead, avoiding my eyes. “So, he can’t hear?” His voice is angry. Harsh. But I know him well enough to know it’s fear he’s feeling, not anger. And I know without asking that he’s blaming himself. Blaming his genetics. He buries his head in his hands, and I lean against him; silently begging him not to withdraw and terrified that if he does, I’ll be left to face my fear alone.
“I don’t know.” I mumble through the tears streaming down my cheeks to soak the shoulder of his wrinkled plaid button down.
We sit there in silence for a long time. The light coming through the window behind us strengthens as the clock on the wall above us ticks softly, and voices waft in from the hallway as nurses prepare to change shift.
Footsteps sound outside our door, and I sit up. The nurse enters and I wipe my swollen eyes in a feeble attempt to pull myself together.
She checks our son’s vital signs, and scribbles numbers in his chart before turning her attention to me. “Ok, mom, your turn.” She says in her brisk, no-nonsense tone, motioning to the hospital bed beside her.
I shuffle over for her to check my temperature, my blood pressure, my stitches. Then she hands over my pain meds and says her goodbyes, pausing to scribble a new nurse’s name on the whiteboard on her way out.
My body aches and throbs, but as I swallow the pills I’m given, I know they won’t help—the ache I feel is too deep to be alleviated by 800 mg of ibuprofen. It’s the ache of disappointment, grief, and fear, not muscle pain.
I stand and walk to the bassinet. My son stretches in his sleep, and wriggles one tiny mitted hand free from the tight flannel swaddle. His pacifier falls out and I stare at the crooked line of his lip.
My whole life I’ve believed I could guarantee a certain outcome by following the right steps. I became valedictorian by studying hard, and got into a good college by taking the SAT twice and writing a killer essay. I got jobs I wanted by perfecting my résumé and practicing my interview skills, and got pregnant exactly when I wanted to by faithfully charting my cycle in a fertility app. I was in control, and I liked it that way.
I approached pregnancy with the same attitude I approached everything else in my life: as a problem to be solved. I followed all the steps. I did everything right. I took prenatal vitamins and exercised until my due date. I ate two servings of low-mercury fish a week, boycotted deli meat, and avoided caffeine. I even started using organic, paraben-free shampoo. But this time, my approach had failed me. And laying in the plexiglass bassinet in front of me is tangible evidence of my failure, physical proof that I’m not in control at all. He opens his eyes, blinks at the bright overhead lights, and lets out a wail. I pick him up and cradle him to my chest.
I never imagined I would be talking to specialists while the tags still hung from the nursing nightgown I’d packed. I never dreamt I’d look at my baby and consider the chance he might not live.
This was supposed to be the most amazing experience of my life. I was supposed to give birth to a healthy, perfect, baby boy. And I’m supposed to be feeling a love bigger than anything I’ve ever felt.
But it wasn’t. I didn’t. And I don’t.
In that fragile hospital room, the walls practically pulsing with despair, I could never have imagined I’d be scrubbing spaghetti sauce out of his hair on a Tuesday evening and feel such a tremendous wave of love for him I’d need to steady myself on the edge of the tub. I couldn’t know a day would come when I would whisper to him “I love you SO much, buddy,” as tears of relief, and gratitude, and love threatened to spill over onto my cheeks.
But it did.
Just not today. Instead of the deep, undying love I’ve heard so much about, I feel inadequate, and afraid, and numb, unsure of where we go from here.
Guest post written by Cara Stolen. Cara is a ranch wife and work-at-home mama of two living in rural Washington state. She loves exceptionally early mornings, strong black coffee, and listening to her children giggle. You can find her hiding in her pantry sneaking chocolate chips by the handful, or on Instagram. She also blogs occasionally.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.