If you know me at all, you know that I am a compulsive planner. I want to know what’s going to happen before it happens. I want to know what other possibilities there are and the percentage likelihood that they will also happen. If you were to come by my house right now (please don’t) and look at my kitchen cabinets, you would find meticulous daily schedules, weekly meal plans, and corresponding grocery lists all compiled weeks and weeks ago in an effort to make our lives easier once our Little Man, Carter, came home. You see, we’re first time parents. But that was ok. Because I had it all together. I had it all planned. I knew all of the possible scenarios and I had prepared for every single one of them. I was ready.
I was an idiot.
People have asked me to tell my story about how our sweet boy came into this world. It was messy and gut-wrenching and heart breaking and wonderful. If you don’t care, don’t read it. If you’re about to give birth yourself, don’t read it. That’s the beauty of blogs. It’s completely socially appropriate to just walk away mid-story. Go ahead. I won’t judge. Come back later when I’m telling funny stories about poop or something. But for those of you who DO care, here we go. This is a story about our journey through the labor, delivery, and NICU stay that I, the compulsive planner, didn’t plan on.
We knew from Day 1 of this pregnancy that I would be induced. Diabetes will do that to you. My doctor was fantastic (Dr. Sandlin – use him and you’ll love him forever) and worked closely with me to make sure I knew what to expect (ha). Induction at 39 weeks was ideal. I asked for an anesthesiologist to meet me at the car. I wanted to feel nothing. I was going to get what I wanted. It was all planned.
We jumped through the typical high-risk pregnancy hoops; after 2 years of fertility treatments, constant tests and procedures, and a scare around week 8, we weren’t taking any chances. There were weekly and, near the end, bi-weekly doctor’s appointments. There were insulin injections. There were non-stress tests. There were ultrasounds. There were serious conversations at every appointment about the importance of understanding the risks – the chance that the baby might not make it. The chance that the baby would have significant complications. The chance that, even if I did everything right, it could all turn out very wrong. But it was fine. It was worth it. Because, in the end, I knew I was going to have a perfect baby. All I had to do was get him to term. If I could just get him to term, everything would be fine. Because God wouldn’t let anything else happen to us, right? I mean, we had been through everything already. This would be it. Wouldn’t it?
We made it to 39 weeks. I just wanted him out of me. Nine months of constant fear was quite enough. The feeling that your own body is the most dangerous place for your baby to be is horrible. I was ecstatic and terrified to head to the hospital for the induction. I asked for my epidural at the door. Still in control. But soon after that, it all fell apart.
The epidurals didn’t take. None of them – I had three. I overheard one of the residents say the words “wet tap,” but I didn’t know what it meant. I had doctors in and out, poking at me, running ice down my sides. “Can you feel that? How about that?” Yes. I could feel it all. The contractions were in full force with no relief in sight. Not in the plan. The doctors finally worked up the nerve to tell me that they had done all they could. I would have to tough it out.
Jason and my mom got me through. I kept my eyes closed for the entire thing – 16 hours. I just listened to their voices and nodded when Jason asked if I wanted ice chips. This wasn’t the plan, but I could do it. I could be tough. I mean, women have babies all the time, right? Pain is temporary. Just don’t cry, Andrea. If you start to cry, you’ll never get it back. Deep breath. Take a deep breath. My mom’s voice. She’s amazing. Then the nurse, telling me something about meconium. The baby wouldn’t cry when he came out, she said. Don’t worry if he doesn’t cry. We don’t want him to inhale it. It’s not a big deal. We’re gonna get it out. Everything is fine.
I pushed for two and a half hours or so. That’s what Jason said, anyway. I don’t remember. The doctor didn’t know that the epidurals didn’t take. He told me to push as hard as I could. It was time to get this baby out. The nurse said to get mad. I did. And then the bomb went off. An explosion of arms and legs. My mom said she saw the entire thing. Her heart broke. A 4th degree tear is what the doctor called it; a rip from hole to hole. He said it was one of the worst he’d ever seen.
I didn’t get to hold the baby. They whisked him away to clear his lungs, check his sugars, and get him cleaned up. I went to the OR for a 2 1/2 hour repair on the assumption that everything was still fine. But when I got back, Carter wasn’t there. Jason explained to me that his breathing had become labored and that he had been taken to the NICU. I later found out that he had been intubated twice due to the meconium aspiration.
When I was up for it, Jason rolled me down to the NICU. Carter had a feeding tube, oxygen, and two lines for antibiotics and other meds. They wouldn’t let me hold him for days. It was too risky, they said.
The rest is a blur. Between healing from my tear and the 3-week long spinal headache that started the day after delivery, I could barely handle visiting Carter once a day. We were exhausted. Doctors came in and out constantly with new information and very few smiles. There was concern of a seizure disorder. A small hole in his heart had been found. His sugars weren’t improving. He needed to stay on oxygen for a bit longer. He had “feeding difficulties” as a result of being IDM (infant of a diabetic mother). The blows kept coming. My perfect baby, not perfect.
Eventually, he was weaned off of oxygen and antibiotics. The seizure scare was dismissed as a fluke. The heart hole was deemed insignificant and would probably close on its own. We just knew we were on the downhill slide. But then, Carter wouldn’t eat.
We tried everything; getting even a few milliliters down him was a struggle. Speech worked with him daily. Nothing got better. Days passed. We were numb. Here is our baby, our boy, full-term and healthy, but unable to do something so basic. Unable to eat. So upset. Obviously in pain. And all we wanted to do was take him home. I watched other moms. I saw when their husbands brought the carseat upstairs, the clear sign that they were finished, that they got to leave. I cried in front of doctors and nurses. I cried when we had to leave him at night. I cried when we tried to stay with him. I cried when we were transferred to Children’s Hospital for further testing. I cried when I had to learn new nurses, new doctors, and new procedures. And do you want to know what I learned? I learned that there is not a single place in a hospital where you can go and truly be by yourself. Any time I cried, there was someone there watching me. A doctor. A nurse. A patient. A parent. A cleaning lady (who tried her best to be invisible, but failed, bless her heart). Hospitals should build single occupancy, totally enclosed, kleenex-stocked crying rooms. Just a thought.
We stayed in the NICU for 32 days. That’s how long it took to finish the tests and figure out exactly what was bothering our Little Man – GERD, edema (from his intubations), and a milk protein intolerance. He learned to eat quickly once everything else was addressed and his bottle was thickened. When we left, Carter was no longer a newborn. We missed it. We missed the tininess. We missed the newborn baby pictures. We missed the newness of it all. And I struggled.
Now… here’s the transparent part. The part that I’m embarrassed about. My feelings. Because I’ve had a lot of them – some expected and some not. Some understandable, and some horrible. But I feel the need to share them simply because we’re not the only ones who have gone through this, which means I surely am not the only person who has felt the way I felt. Which brings me to my first feeling:
I felt guilt. My baby was born at term and, while he had his problems, was fairly healthy. Every tear I cried in the NICU was accompanied by horrible feelings of guilt, particularly at Children’s where we didn’t have the luxury of a private room. I spent my days surrounded by other mothers with their babies, some far worse off than mine. And I felt guilty. Guilty for complaining. Guilty for crying. And, in the end, a little bit guilty for going home and leaving the others behind to wait for their turn.
I felt jealousy. Every time I saw a family headed home, I was jealous. Every time I saw a baby sucking down a bottle like his little life depended on it, all the while knowing that the mother had no idea how lucky she was, I was jealous. Every time I saw a perfect pregnancy, a perfect delivery, a perfect home-going for someone else, jealousy… which, in turn, brought more guilt. Why could I not be happy for others?
I felt cheated. Cheated of the perfect experience. Cheated of the perfect labor and delivery that I had imagined. Cheated out of the first time to hold my baby. Cheated out of the first family pictures where everyone is all smiles. Cheated of the joy.
I felt regret. This one breaks my heart, but I feel obligated to share it because I know I’m not alone. In the middle of the night, with the monitors beeping and the baby screaming and the stress building and the hopelessness ever increasing, I felt a twinge of regret. I questioned whether or not this was the right decision, to have a baby. I wondered if I was good enough. I wondered if I could really do it, if I was meant to be parent. I wondered if it was all worth it. Regret – it was debilitating and soul crushing. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
And finally, I felt angry. Angry at doctors who couldn’t figure things out, angry at nurses who didn’t treat my baby the same way that I would treat my baby, angry at triage rent-a-doctors who wouldn’t listen to me. Angry.
Are these feelings right? Absolutely not. But are they valid? Before this happened, I would have told myself to suck it up. People out there have it way worse than you do. Get over yourself and push through. But now, I feel completely validated. Having a NICU baby is hard… the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. Having a traumatic labor and delivery is hard. Having a difficult recovery is hard. I’m honestly impressed that I had any feelings at all… that I didn’t just shut down. I make no apologies for my feelings. But I’m not proud of them.
There was one feeling, though, that was completely unexpected but, without which, we wouldn’t have made it through. Hope. Never in my life have I felt so surrounded by hope. The overwhelming love and support that we received from friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers was the most phenomenal experience of our lives. We received cards, gifts, money, surprise visits, and promises of prayer from more people than we could count. We cried daily, not because of sadness, but because of the all-encompassing feeling of hope that we received from others. We survived on it. We drank it in every chance we got. It got us through.
Some of you reading this are no doubt the same people who helped us. I want to say thank you. Thank you for the words of encouragement. Thank you for driving in horrible Little Rock traffic to come and see us. Thank you for the cards – they were a welcome piece of mail in a sea of bills. Thank you for the cash – it helped with gas and dozens of fast food meals while we were away from home. Thank you for the gifts of encouragement – the prayer blanket from a church in Little Rock that we had never even visited made us weep. But most of all, thank you for the kind words, the prayers, the hugs, and the kisses. You have no idea how much they meant to us. They helped us survive.
A friend told me a couple of weeks ago that I would pay this kindness forward for the rest of my life. You can’t help it. It’s the only way to feel like you, in some way, are paying back the kindness that was shown to you. I hope she’s right; I hope I have the opportunity.
We’re home now and adjusting to our new lives. Carter is slowly moving away from the NICU schedule into something more manageable. He is eating well and has follow up appointments scheduled at Children’s in the next couple of months. I am healing well enough, but it will be a long process (probably six months or so) before I’m back to 100%. Jason is back at work and we are blessed that he is able to work from home, which is a huge help during this adjustment, especially since his paternity leave was used up in the NICU. I am beginning my new life as a full-time stay at home mom. I didn’t think in a million years that my background in speech pathology would come in as handy as it has as a mother, but I’m grateful for it. Grateful that I have been able to follow and understand the doctors, nurses, and therapists regarding Carter’s feeding issues. I will never doubt that I was supposed to go into that field, even if I’m not longer working in it officially.
So… here we are. Starting our new lives. I hope to fill this “book” with stories, some funny, some serious, but all to be remembered. The ride started out with a shock and will no doubt continue on to be one of the greatest adventures of our lives. I hope we can hang on.