He lies face down in a glass box, his tiny face glowing golden from the red and yellow lights of the monitor nearby. The neo-natal intensive care unit seems at first to be a peaceful place. The lights are always dimmed. Visitors and employees alike adopt a quiet tone when talking. The machines attached to my son hiccup a gentle beep in time with his heart, often lulling my husband and me into a peaceful daze. Until, that is, the trance is broken with a deafening alarm that signals that someone’s heart is not beating properly. Then a wave of panic erupts across the ward.
During the first few days of our child’s stay in the NICU, this alarm jolted our fight-or-flight response. Each tone caused my stomach to plummet. I found myself gripping the arms of my chair as I frantically tried to get a clear view of my son’s heart and lung monitor.
After a few weeks of tenure, my abdomen still lurches, but I have learned to place my chair in the exact spot where I can easily see my son and the monitor at all times and yet not be in the way of the nurse who will come running when the bell tolls. I have learned to judge the tone and distance of the sound and recognize whether it belongs to my child, even when I am not by his side. I also can now distinguish the true danger involved by how fast the nurses appear once it rings. I have learned to distance myself — physically, emotionally — so I can allow the medical personnel to do the more distasteful tasks involving catheters and needles. I’ve learned. I’ve adapted. So much so that it almost becomes bearable.
Invariably, the first question that friends and family ask me is, “How does it feel to be a Mommy?”
I understand that this particular game of pretend is for my benefit, so I try to answer graciously. But the truth of the matter is that I do not know how it feels to be a mother. Not yet. My skills have not been tested. Nor am I sure when they might be. For now, my child is being mothered by the tubes and wires snaked around his minute body. My child is being mothered by those same alarms that seem to make my own heart stop. My child is being mothered by a different woman every eight hours: the nurse of whom I must ask permission to touch my own son. It would seem that I have little to do with any of it.
I never thought I would be strictly an observer in the first weeks of my son’s life. I imagined that I would be up all hours, complaining about too many night feedings. I saw myself tightly gripping his slippery body and singing silly songs as I bathed him each night. I pictured myself holding him, always holding him, rubbing my cheek against the silky down of his head, deeply inhaling his sweet scent.
And love. Oh, love. My Mommy friends told me about how I would fall in love with my son at first sight. They told me that life, work, even my husband would all fall away next to the all-encompassing love I would have for my child. It would hit me like a thunderbolt, and I’d never be the same.
But seldom does life unfold exactly how we expect.
Instead, I am the consummate onlooker. I am permitted to be at my son’s side for eight hours each day: three in the morning and five in the afternoon. In those hours, I watch my son intently. I observe the nurses tending to him. I stare at his chest, rising and falling in time with the monitors. I wait for permission to open the small doors on the side of his isolette and hold his tiny hand. I take note of, with some bias, my son’s appearance: clownish, between his premature body and those bright colors too well-used in children’s hospital wards.
His head is slightly too large for his spindly body, with dark, downy lanugo creeping over his back, arms, and even the tops of his ears. His arms are madly unfurled on the bright yellow towel rolled under him, making his veins appear Crayola-bright under his skin. A green gavage tube disappears into his nose, causing his left nostril to be in a permanent state of flare. Decals of tiny elephants vibrantly frolic on the sides of the incubator, playing leapfrog and peek-a-boo. These colors are meant to cheer us, to put a Pollyanna sheen on our situation. Instead, their intensity has the same effect as those blasted alarms: putting me on guard, in a constant state of disquiet. My son’s appearance is morbidly comic, and I find myself thinking that if all the world is a stage and men mere players, then by cosmic accident my son has been temporarily cast as some sort of sideshow freak, locked in this transparent case. And me — I do not feel like a mother. Instead, I am the naïve, eager spectator, always pressing her face too close to the glass, waiting for something amazing to happen.
Desperately hoping that despite all this, my son will be normal.
During my pregnancy, I dreamed of my son’s traits. He would be beautiful. He would be brilliant. He would be perfect. Ten fingers, ten toes, a killer smile, a keen intellect. But when my water broke prematurely at 30 weeks, I had to come to grips with the fact that those dreams might not come true. I didn’t like it one bit.
The doctors were optimistic about our son’s chances. They assured us is that medical technology had advanced to the point that babies born after 25 weeks are more than likely to survive. And since our baby was past the 30-week mark, the prognosis was good.
But survive was the key word there. When we asked what we might expect, what he would be like, we could get no straight answer. The doctors spoke as if reading from a brochure: “There may be short-term problems with his lungs, heart, and immune system. And there is the possibility of potential long-term learning, behavioral, and sensory complications. In theory, the later your child is born, the less likely he or she is to have issues. In the meantime, all you can do is hope for the best, be patient, and pray.”
At that last instruction, I felt adrift. Pray? At first, I was angry at the implication. Pray? All these machines, all this science, and the doctors’ answer was to pray?
I was not the sort of person who prayed. Sure, I had thought things like, “God, don’t let me fail” or “God, if you get me out of this mess, I promise to be a better person” at various crossroads in my life. But I was fairly certain that I was more taking the Lord’s name in vain, as opposed to actually praying. I hadn’t prayed since I was a little girl, and then I did so mostly because I thought of the little prayers I had been taught as being in the same category as nursery rhymes and lines of Dr. Seuss. I simply didn’t pray. I didn’t even know if I believed in God.
But as I lay in my hospital bed for the tenth straight day, with my amniotic fluid slowly dampening the large pad between my legs, I had nothing left to do but try. I closed my eyes and thought, “Please let my baby be normal.”
From the little religious education I had, I knew this was a shitty prayer. I was supposed to ask for the grace to accept what God had in store for me. I was supposed to ask for strength to weather what might come. I was supposed to ask God to make my heart big enough to love my son even if he was imperfect. Instead, I was treating prayer like a drive-thru order. But when I tried to transform my prayer, it would not come. I just lay there, repeating, “Please let my baby be normal,” over and over again. And I cried because I knew if there was a God, he had no reason to listen to me. I despaired that if my baby was disabled, I would not have the capacity to love him.
Each day, my husband and I go through the same procedure: gown on, hands disinfected, pleasantries exchanged with the nurses on duty and the other parents. We set up our chairs around our son and settle in to watch. I leave my son’s side only to enter the blindingly sterile breast-pumping room and produce his next meal. We wait. We see. We prepare to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. We don’t address that we don’t know when he is coming home. We don’t discuss our fears that he might not be all that we had hoped. Instead, I find myself, over time, pruning my expectations. It is self-flagellation at its best.
Once a day, the doctor stops by to examine our son’s chart and briefly talk with us. We ask the simple questions: How is he doing? When will he be able to come home? And each day, we find creative ways to reword the question that never leaves us — what long-term complications will he have? — in hopes of getting some new glimmer of information.
But the doctors merely shrug at our queries. They have the same answer for everything.
“He will tell us,” they say. “He will tell us when he is ready.”
This answer tells us everything and nothing, all at once. And like the instruction to pray, it gives me no comfort. No matter how many times I hear it, I cannot accept it. My son, entrenched in his isolette, can tell me nothing at all. He has yet to open his eyes and even look at me. What is it that he will be telling us, exactly? But each day, we hear variations on the same theme. And as it sinks in, we realize that we will be waiting and seeing beyond our tenure at the NICU, beyond his infancy and toddler years. We will be in limbo indefinitely.
Finally, one afternoon, after a particularly uninformative Q&A session with the doctor, I find that I’ve reached my limit. When I next leave to empty my breasts, the whitish fluid slowly dripping into the bottle in my hand, I cannot prevent my tears. A nurse walks in and catches me unaware. She puts her hand on my shoulder, gently patting me, and stays quiet while I cry.
I look up at her and start to apologize for getting emotional. As I’m trying to explain away my tears, I accidentally say, “I just don’t feel like a mother. I don’t feel like his mother.”
I am aghast at my admission.
The nurse looks me straight in the eye and says simply, “Only a good mother has the ability to endure this. You are a good mother,” and leaves before I can respond.
I start to weep again with the relief I find in her words.
I dig deep and find the energy to continue as a spectator but also search out ways to become more involved. If I cannot feel like a good mother, I certainly can act like one. I will learn.
I commit to memory each part of his small body; I memorize each step the nurses take for his care. I tell my son about the life he will come home to: his room, his dog, anything I can think to say. I make up silly songs about the leapfrogging elephants on his incubator. I read from books until my voice wavers, alternating between Dr. Seuss and J.R.R. Tolkien to pass the hours. I am discovering reserves I never knew I had — patience, grace, optimism — that help me get through each day. I find comfort in the fact that these traits are a benefit to any mother and will serve me well if my worst fears are realized.
I wait for my son to open his eyes. I hope that he will recognize me from all my long hours here at his side. I dream that he will hear my voice, and then his eyes, unaccustomed to the light, will blink a few times before seeking mine. I daydream about it often.
But when it finally does happen, I am surprised. I smile at my baby, call him by name, and reach for his hand through the small plastic door of the isolette. His gaze is unwavering and, in response, my heart opens wider than I ever thought possible.
And as promised, it comes.