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Challenge: NICU Parenting

Today Marks One Year

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I remember a year ago in flashes of contorted memory; some are my own and some come from pictures I’ve been shown since then. For reasons beyond my understanding I haven’t been able to go back and look at the images from that day or that week in over 365 days. When I posted on Facebook the day we brought her home from the hospital, “I’ll write about this experience someday, but today just isn’t that day,” I never imagined that a year later I would not only have yet to pen my emotions from those moments but that I would—in some ways—still be grieving.

April 1, 2016: I wake up and something feels different. I laugh because of course my baby would come early and on April Fool’s Day. Fast-forward 24 hours of laboring at the birthing center and 2 bottles of castor oil later, still no baby, just a lot of painful attempts to get her here. Nada. Nothing but the aftermath from swallowing copious amounts of the garbage can swill that is caster oil.

They send me to the hospital after 36 hours to determine that my water had torn but not ruptured so they put me on bed rest for the day and sent me home. No baby. Back to work I go on Monday.

April 9, 2016: After the midwife has ruptured my membranes in a painful attempt to get Sparrow moving, still no baby. It is my due date and I am confused at where she is but determined to live on her time schedule.

April 17, 2016: I am teaching in class and start to feel lightheaded. I go to the bathroom and realize contractions are, indeed, no joke and I should maybe tell someone. There is a buzz of concerned and excited co-workers and students. My husband’s friend gets me in the car and takes the route he has pre-planned to be fastest to our house to meet my husband to take me to the birthing center.

My husband doesn’t answer the phone. He always answers, but not today. He was working out of service area so after tracking him down while I am frantically doing dishes and cleaning all the things, he gets home just in time for my contractions to subside. Nothing; labor pains for hours and nothing. I go and have my membranes ruptured again to try and encourage Sparrow to get this party started.

April 19th, 2016; 2:00am: I wake up from a dead sleep and assume it is just because Sparrow is making me aware that I have to pee for the 9 billionth time tonight. Ummmm, ouch. This pain feels very different from the first attempt at laboring, but I don’t want to wake Spence. If she decides to ACTUALLY make her appearance today, he will need his rest.

5:00am: I wake Spence. The pain is becoming pretty intense and pretty rapid. I call the midwife who determines by listening to me attempt to speak through contractions that I need to be brought in as soon as possible. We make arrangements to drop Briggs off at my in-laws on the way in and I take the absolute longest, most miserably painful hour-long car ride of my adult life.

You know that feeling under your tail when you accidentally drive too close to the painted line on the road and hit the rumble strip? It was like that…if it were made of knives and razor blades and you had to feel it while your uterus contracted in a murderous attempt to force a HUMAN OUT!

Fast-forward again. I have labored outside, I have walked hills, I have breathed fresh air, I have contracted against a tree, I have attempted to eat (and failed), I have labored in a warm birthing tub (multiple times), I have contorted my swollen body into some impressive positions trying to convince Sparrow that the time is now…for 20 ½ hours.

As I lay in the bed with Spence gently brushing the hair away from my face, I attempt to sleep for the 30 seconds between each contraction. I am praying that God will give me clear guidance on what to do because at this point, it is sheer animalistic survival mode and I. Am. Tired.

10:30pm: “We have to go.” All at once I whispered to Spence, “Something is wrong and we need to go.”

Without a question, a second thought, or a disapproving glance about my physical capabilities, he had our stuff packed and in the car with our midwife ahead of us on our way to the hospital.

Remember when I said that hour-long car ride was the worst? Correction. Eight minutes of “something is wrong” active labor feels like an eternity of wartime torture.

We made it to the hospital, the midwife briefed their doctors about the last 24 hours of labor and I was checked in. I was feeling so many things in that moment—defeat, disappointment, anxiety, excitement, confusion…but most of all fear.

After a failed epidural, I agreed to simply take a sedative so I could rest to get ready for getting Sparrow here. The doctors and midwife agreed that after attempting to get her here twice before, and being 10 days overdue, if it meant an eventual repeat C-section, Sparrow was coming out this time.

This is where things get foggy for me. I remember laboring. I remember the good things and the hard parts. I remember the relaxing water of the tub and how impressed I was that Spence never got grossed out (he’s the tattooed husband who gets queasy over needles and surgery shows). I remember praying…a lot. I remember seeing her little face in the times I was dreaming between contractions.

She was beautiful. She had a full head of black hair and little puffy cheeks.

Most of all, I remember being so afraid that Spence would be disappointed that I failed at giving birth to our baby girl at the birthing center and caused us a mountain of hospital bills on top of having already paid the midwife all of our savings. He never gave me a second thought of disapproval. He just kept telling me that I could do it and how proud he was of me. In that moment, you couldn’t have convinced me that I would ever love him more.

After 12 ½ more hours of laboring at the hospital, my water broke (for real this time) and the doctor came in to ask if I wanted to try some practice pushes.

Sounded reasonable enough. I never got to that stage with Briggs because he was an emergency C-section after a measly 15 ½ hours of labor so maybe I should see what these things are really like. This must be like stretching before a run, right? I’m funny sometimes.

All at once I pushed and the look on the doctor’s face changed. “Stop, stop pushing. Let us get gowned up.”

I remember thinking, “Clearly this woman has never given birth to a real, live baby human. You must be straight crazy! I am pushing, sister, so gown up, gown down, I don’t care but get your catcher’s mit out because she’s about to be outta here!”

1:03pm: With the next push, Sparrow was born; eight pounds, three ounces of rolly, beautiful baby.

Since I hadn’t had the traditional birthing experience with Briggs, I didn’t get all the flowery, beautiful mother-child bonding following birth. I was so excited to live my little movie scene with Sparrow.

But she didn’t cry.

I laid back to deliver the placenta and do all of the other less than savory things that follow birthing a baby and within what somehow seems simultaneously like 10 seconds or time stopping completely, where there once stood a single nurse and an ungowned doctor, there were a team of eight NICU doctors and nurses tending to my new baby girl and twelve doctors swarming around me.

I became frantic. I couldn’t see Spence. I wanted to hold my baby. “Where is she!?” I begged. A NICU doctor brought Sparrow over and held her beside my head and told me she needed to go get some help breathing. She assured me that they would take the best care of her possible and I needed to focus on healing myself.

I had no idea what she meant. Spence looked at me, terrified. He didn’t need to speak. “Go with her. I’m fine. Take care of our girl,” I told him confidently.

But I wasn’t confident. I had no idea what would happen with her and, until that moment, I hadn’t even realized that all of those doctors were there for me.

They stayed focused and said things in coded medical terminology to one another.

1:45pm: Spence comes back in and stops at the door. He told me later it was because it looked like, in his words, “a murder scene.” Gauze, towels, and smeared blood littered the floor. I was in and out of consciousness. He assured me that Sparrow would be okay and I needed to rest.

When I woke up later the nurse wanted to try and take me to use the bathroom. I was so grateful for her support and for being honest with me. She kept talking to me like I’d just survived some horrific car crash but I didn’t remember much. It seemed odd but I didn’t think much of it until she got me back into bed and leaned down next to me and said, “I am so glad you decided to come to the hospital. While your husband is up with your baby, I want you to know that this was very serious. You lost so much blood that you may still need a transfusion. Had you not come to us, we would have lost you.”

Um, excuse me? Lost me where?

I am still processing that one, single sentence.

The first night in recovery was the worst night of my life. I was in pain, sure, but nothing compared to hearing the cries of newborns in the rooms beside mine, knowing I couldn’t hold my own baby. I sobbed the entire night. I have never felt pain like that. The absence of a person I had only seen in real life for a few seconds left me feeling like a shell of my former self.

April 20-25, 2016: The next five days we went to see her around the clock. I nursed her every three hours as they permitted. We changed her and checked her temperature so the nurses wouldn’t have to because we wanted every opportunity to touch her and to know she was still breathing.

Seeing all of the tubes hooked to her and the red marks left by heart monitors and breathing machines were heartbreaking. Her IV was moved from one hand to the next, then to each of her feet, leaving behind it the markings of purple bruises. On day five we went in and it was in the top of her head. I cried.

Every time the low oxygen alarm went off—whether for her or a baby beside her, my heart stopped. Every time another doctor came to give us an update and tell us we had more decisions to make—do we agree to a spinal tap, do we have them test her for X, Y, or Z, my life was on pause. Every time I had to press the button for the seventh floor I felt a pit in my stomach.

My family had driven in from Ohio for the second and third times and couldn’t see her for longer than an hour at a time.

She lived next to babies whose weight was immeasurable and some who’d called the NICU their home for months. I looked at other parents across the room and knew their pain but felt like all I could speak was silent suffering.

Compared to most families whose newborns are born premature or who have serious complications, our weeklong stint in the NICU may seem trivial. But to us, it was the worst week of our lives. It seemed like we were having an out of body experience to have to leave late at night and drive to a sterile hotel room because we lived over an hour from the hospital. We relied on the incredible, overwhelming support from family, friends, and churches who reached out to be sure we could stay close to our daughter and have meals and to care of our then four year old son who we honestly couldn’t even think of caring for at the time.

I remember crying while eating dinner with my parents, our son, and my father in law because the food was taking so long and I felt totally out of control. “You just don’t understand. I can’t be away from her any longer. I need to go nurse her. We have to stay on a schedule. If we miss our window, they will bottle-feed her. I need to get to her NOW.”

It all felt like I was watching someone else’s tragic Lifetime original movie play out and I was just floating above my own body.

April 26, 2016: After a rigorous car seat test where they had to prop her up with burp cloths because her tiny body didn’t fill out the seat space, we were granted permission to take our baby girl home. I squeezed her tightly as we wore our IV bruises like matching tattoos.

Driving away, I felt like we were doing some thing wrong; like leaving with her was going to set off an alarm and they’d come for us and drag her back to baby lockdown. But they didn’t. We were free; free to go start our lives as a tiny family of four. Free to pretend the last week never happened and start fresh.

April 19, 2017: It doesn’t feel real. Yes, I am the typical emotional mother as my baby girl turns one, but it is more than that. See, a year ago on this day my baby came into the world, yes. But she wasn’t really living yet. She was a prisoner to monitors, feeding schedules, and breathing machines.

Staff only new her by the tag crudely taped to her plexiglass crib. She wore a generic Pampers diaper like every baby beside her; no cute layette or “going home” outfit. No personalized baby gear or ruffly headband. Not on this day a year ago.

I still remember sitting up at 3am in the lonely hotel bed with my hands over my nose, breathing deeply. Somehow I felt that smelling the remnants of the scent of hospital sanitizer I bathed in before holding her would make me feel close to my baby girl.

Celebrating hardly seemed like the appropriate thing to do.

April 26, 2017: THIS is the day our daughter started living. This is the birthday I choose to truly celebrate. On this date, one year ago, we brought our baby girl home. We were able to leave the confines of a rigid schedule and doctor check-ins, monitors and blinking machine lights, pumps and breathing tubes.

Raising Sparrow has been completely different from bringing up Briggs—not just because he is a boy and she is a girl or because siblings are just so different. Raising Sparrow has been a moment-by-moment ride where my brain seems to play things in slow motion.

I have had a much harder time letting go of things. I want to hold her just a minute longer, let her sleep beside us before moving her to her crib just one more week, hold her for just a few more moments before leaving for work. It is like I am living each day as if at any moment, she could be taken from me.

While this one week in our little family’s insignificant history may seem like a blip on anyone else’s radar, it has been a defining moment for us. It is one that has made us painfully aware of our friends and loved ones who suffer from infertility, miscarriage, and loss of a child.

In no way do we pretend to know that level of pain, but for us, this was nearly unbearable. Watching our little girl smile each morning we truly consider a gift. I pray daily for friends by name who know this pain.

There is no magical thing you can say to someone who goes through this, but we should—as a community, a nation, a church—be more sensitive to these types of trials. They are very real for the people going through them and they can be painful in indescribable ways.

So raising Sparrow will be exciting in a different way from bringing up Briggs, but for each of them we are thankful.


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