And her second.
And her third.
And I don’t actually know how many others because I was too embroiled in my emotions, simultaneously outraged and heartbroken, to ask.
Scarlette was born at twenty five weeks. At one pound, eight point six ounces she fell into the category of “Micro-Preemie” and she was fragile.
Her skin was stretched paper thin and a web of raw nerve endings, having never completed their development in the womb, left it raw to the touch. So we didn’t. Touch her, that is. Not in the way that nature and nuture propel you to touch your baby, with a gentle stroke against baby soft skin.
Micro-preemies require a harshness befitting of the world they entered too early upon exit from the comfort and shelter of a mother’s body. We could let her grasp our finger, or cup our hand firmly and fully around her legs, exerting pressure that seemed at odds with the frailness of her body. A soft touch would cause alarms to ring out as she lost her breath, her undeveloped nerve endings unable to cope with the sensation.
I was a mother who could not caress her child.
We learned about touch times, when a nurse would lift the lid on her isolette and turn the lights on dim so that we could see our daughter as she took her vital signs. For one entire week I watched as other people changed her diaper and took her temperature and gently re-positioned her body in the bed and did my job while I sat helplessly by, pumping and praying and singing whispered songs.
I wanted to do those things.
I wanted to mother my child.
I did not know that I could because no one offered.
It wasn’t the fault of anyone in particular. They are busy, nurses, saving tiny little lives and each assumed that someone else had told me that I could be involved in the touch times. That I could change her diaper, the one that was smaller than my credit card. Or take her temperature with the standard issue thermometer that was larger than her entire arm.
I did not ask because I did not want to be an annoyance and also because I knew how sensitive to stimulation she was. I didn’t want to overstimulate her and make her uncomfortable. I assumed that no one was offering because I wasn’t allowed, that maybe it wouldn’t be good for my baby for me to do so.
On the day I found my voice and asked when I might be able to change her diaper our nurse raised her eyebrows at me. “You can do it now,” she answered and my eyes pooled with tears.
“Oh honey. I am so sorry. I didn’t realize that you wanted to. I didn’t realize that no one had told you.”
You miss so much as the parent of a preemie, when they whisk your baby from you before your first glimpse and put down a feeding tube before you can put her to breast and cradle her in cotton before you can cradle her in your arms.
I was so looking forward to her first bath. I was going to do that. I was going to give her her first bath. Me, her mother. It would be my first act of motherhood that was my own in this foreign way of mothering.
I waited in anxious anticipation for the day that they announced she was big enough, stable enough, strong enough for her first bath.
Finally, I couldn’t wait any more and I asked.
She had been getting baths for weeks.
I spent ten to twelve hours a day at the hospital but they bathed her at night, late, long after I was forced home.
And I missed it.
I missed it and it broke me.
I vented my anger at the staff because how could they take that from me? Didn’t they know? Didn’t they know I wanted every opportunity to mother? Didn’t they know I wanted the firsts?
But they didn’t and the reason they didn’t know is because I did not tell them.
And I had not asked.
After that I learned quickly. A note on her chart “Do not attempt X without speaking to Mom! Mom wants to be present!” for the things that weren’t pressing, like giving her the first bottle or dressing her in her first outfit.
This is what I mentioned to the nurses, that sometimes? Sometimes we’re scared to death that touching our baby is the wrong thing to do because everything else in this prematurity scenario is so counter-intuitive. Sometimes what we desperately want is within our reach but we don’t know it because every bit of this is journey is new and not a hint of it was covered in the baby books we read. So sometimes? Sometimes we just need to be asked.
But the most important thing to remember is that that baby? That baby is yours. Despite everything else that was stripped from you, your pregnancy and your birth experience and your expectations, you still have this.
This is what I tell every person who reads Scarlette’s story and emails me overwhelmed to say they just had a preemie or that they are on hospital bedrest and hoping. I offer my love and my prayers and then I tell them: Do not be afraid to ask how you can be involved in your child’s care. They will let you do as much as you and they are comfortable with, you just need to let them know you want to.
And it will make the unfamiliar seem a little less daunting.
The first night I was able to give Scarlette a bath, at 9 actual weeks/34 gestational weeks old: