Two months. A lot can happen in two months; you could try and abandon a fad diet, your heart beats seven million times, and you take more than a million breaths. If you happen to be residing in utero you are busy with tasks like doubling your weight, learning to do your first headstand, and building the skills to survive in the outside world.
In the last two months of pregnancy I can make dozens of to-do lists: feed the freezer meal plans, what to pack in the hospital bag, birth plans A, B, and C, and the million tiny details that still need attention. Instead, I had a baby.
I didn’t have a list for that.
A million doctors, nurses, and specialists came to tell me what to expect as I struggled to make sense of the words they were saying. I lay shaking on the operating table too overwhelmed to even understand the fear.
How could a day be simultaneously the best and worst day of my life? A healthy baby and mom are all that matter, or so we are all told frustratingly told ad nauseum. At that moment I had neither — I had blood pressure that would not settle and a baby for whom “breathing on his own” was worthy of a gold star. Nevermind that he could not regulate his temperature, remember to breathe consistently, or eat.
We weren’t the only ones who had to figure things out, everyone who knew us struggled to find the right words. As compassionate friends and family they wanted to bring solace, to find a bright side, and to ease our suffering. In the middle of trauma and grief I found it difficult to anticipate my reactions to even the most well-meaning words of wisdom. Sometimes I would even find myself saying the same words that cut into me when I heard them from others. I knew everyone was trying to navigate these turbulent waters with love, and sometimes the words did not strike deeply until much later.
One frequent “silver lining” went something like this, “Aww! Think of it this way, you got an extra two months with him!” I could intellectually see where this point was coming from, but inside it made me feel guilty for my lack of gratitude. Guilt is an emotion that runs deeply in the NICU, coming at parents from all angles.
They’re right. People who have lost children would kill for these extra two months. And we’re going to be OK. I need to stop feeling so sorry for myself. I should be more thankful.
Being told what to feel, even when it is coming from your own brain, rarely results in anything more than failure and frustration. I loved my son intensely, but I wanted to love him while he was snuggled in a nest of amniotic fluid, not a nest of cords and blankets.
The extra two months were tacked on before the newborn period even got underway. A period of sleeplessness, hormonal fluctuations, and helplessness as you figure out how to be a parent to this new life, and I got to do it with an audience of doctors and nurses. It felt like a marathon with extra miles added to the beginning — by the time I got to the starting line I was already exhausted.
Longest. Newborn. Stage. Ever. became my overused joke that wasn’t a joke. I felt crushed by the number of times I had to learn and relearn things like feeding and holding my baby. Before he ever arrived home I had already spent 40 days learning the various beeps and alarms and watching numbers drop while wondering if the nurses would do their brisk walk that indicated seriousness. My baby had gone through more in those weeks than many of us go through in a lifetime, and he was not even supposed to be here yet.
I was amazed at his tiny feet and madly in love with his squeaks. I would find myself smiling as I stroked his tiny furry shoulders, and cupping his head and body that should have been hidden away for many weeks to come. He was all sharp angles and red skin, and while I was desperately happy every time I held him, I could not help but feel like I was privy to something not meant to be seen. These months were turned upside down as the inside became the outside and his development was put on display. Two million lungs full of air rather than fluid.
I learned to be simultaneously grateful and devastated — to love someone I didn’t want to meet for two more months. I had to learn to extend grace and understanding to my loved ones as they tried to show empathy in ways that sometimes struck something painful inside me. We were all doing the best we could, and sometimes we tripped ourselves up in our path through those scary days.