The Penis Chronicles presents “Growing a Baby – Journey of a Mother”
The bright florescent lighting in the main bath barely casts any light into the aged and worn shower stall. The dimness is intensified by the faded grey tile displaying calcium build-ups like a medal of honour. The water just won’t reach the level of hotness I’m craving, that burning feeling that tries to scrub the shame away all on its own. Instead I am left staring at my hand on the faucet and I can’t move my eyes from the red skin trapped beneath the tape marking the ugly spot where the intravenous needle punctures my vein. I feel scared to move my hand suddenly as if any movement could cause the needle to tear free and leave another part of me aching, so I leave it there. I need it to steady myself anyway as waves of dizziness seem to come and go, my energy is a wave that crashes and recedes.
I cast my eyes down in an attempt to refocus my thoughts on motherhood. A mistake on my part as my eyes can’t help but see my naked body and a message of confusion is transferred around in my brain. My breasts remain larger from the pregnancy but the milk ducts hidden beneath the surface of my skin are inactive and may never produce that life enhancing substance that I spent the last 28 weeks and 1 day reading about. A twinge of shame washes over me again and my tears fall faster like they are trying to compete with the shower. The lack of control over my body that has afflicted me over the last 24 hours seems to have affected my eyes which travel lower past my breasts to my stomach. The hard beach ball shape that I carried in pride is gone, replaced by a saggy and distended flab of skin that is so clearly empty.
Empty. I close my arms protectively around my stomach trying to protect us from the feeling of failure that is coursing through me. My legs weaken and I slowly crumble sliding down the dirty tile wall that I tried to use as a distraction moments before. The nurse’s voice carries into me over the water and grief and I dig deep and force myself up. She can’t find me this way. “I’m okay,” I call back praying she can’t hear the pain in my voice. Breath held I wait, and when she doesn’t enter I exhale and open my eyes to resume a confused categorizing of my useless body.
The floor of the shower is tiled in the same faded grey and slopes gradually towards a stained and damaged drain. The water is pale red and as I watch it swirl around the drain and disappear I realize with horror that my womb is crying for the loss we share. Medium and small blood red tears fall to pool around my pale swollen feet before disappearing in a washed out mix of blood, salt tears and shower water. My husband’s voice fills my ears blocking out the noise of the shower and mixes with responses from the nurse. He’s returned. I turn the shower off eager for news and a wave of dizziness hits me, I grab the wall and slam my eyes shut waiting for it to pass.
Behind my closed eyelids I get a vivid picture of my husband’s face when I saw him last, was it hours or minutes ago? I hold the image there studying it for the emotion he tries to hide, fearing that I might find anger or hatred for my failure. Knowing I failed him, failed myself and most of all failed our tiny son. What I see clearly is pain, fear, and confusion. I can see him now as I did in that moment, unsure of what way to go; stay with me or go with the tiny baby that we may only have for precious moments. Here now standing in the shower, reliving it, I can’t swallow and I can hardly breathe. I hear my voice inside my own head telling my husband to go with him and that I will be fine. I can hear desperation and pain in that voice, a silent bagging to be with him so he isn’t alone, to be with him because I can’t and couldn’t give him that comfort and companionship.
I force my eyes open and my lungs to breathe. I reach for the towel and on wobbly legs try to dress. The glare from the fluorescent lights is overpowering and nauseates me. As I exit the bathroom the bed where I lay for 20 minutes pushing out a baby I desperately wanted to keep inside me looks crisp and clean again. All evidence of my failure wiped clean, my body is the only evidence in the room now. I search my husband’s face pleading with my eyes and heart, still unsure of what I see masked in his pained eyes and grimacing mouth. I feel sick in the seconds it takes him to respond but it is followed by a brief wash of relief.
The nurse tries to force a wheelchair on me so we can go and see our boy. I refuse. I will walk. I need to be strong for my baby boy since I couldn’t give him my body I will give him my strength. The hallway seems long, never ending when I just want and need to be there. I see three nurses at the Neo-Natal reception desk. They are staring at me like they are amazed that I am such a failure. I avert my eyes to hurry past and through the locked doors to my son but not before I see them lean together to whisper. As the door buzzes open I hear one of them whisper, “Oh my god she’s walking.” Before I can process this thought I feel panic as I look around at the maze of incubators and nurses bustling around, how will I find him? My husband’s voice grabs me back from the abyss of panic I almost plunged into and directs me to the right and finally to my son.
Suddenly he is in front of me housed in his little incubator and I have a moment relief from my pain as a title wave of love envelopes me. At 2.7 pounds and 15.5 inches he looks so alien, a baby but not quite a baby. The tiniest diaper I have ever seen covers his bottom half and even it is too big. The top of the diaper is folded back so that his belly button could be accessed and now has intravenous in it, it looks invading and painful. A nurse’s voice behind me tells me we are lucky because sometimes with them being so small they have to put the intravenous line in the head. I don’t move my eyes from my son as she talks.
There are little white and pink stickers all over him that are attached to white and black wires. His rib cage seems to be like a forced outline in his paper thin skin. A tube is rammed down his throat and there is tape on it that must have been on his face at some point because his cheeks look red and aggravated. There is no tape on his face now; that comes again later. His eyes are closed. His little head has a thick scattering of what looks like dark hair but on closer inspection is a dirty blond. I scan my eyes over him again, he’s perfect. I start to categorize his 10 fingers and 10 toes…and an absurd horror overtakes me, he doesn’t have nipples. I failed to help him grow nipples and I feel a wash of shame and anger at myself.
His skin looks tanned almost brown. This turns out to be jaundice and special lights are placed over him to help him remove the bilirubin. His little eyes get covered with white fabric sunglass that has a picture of a sheep drawn on them in black. Days go by. I walk back and forth between my hospital room and his incubator. When I am not with him I am frantically trying to produce milk by hooking my breasts up to a breast pump. Every time I hook up I sit hunched over staring at my nipples trying to pull milk from them with my will; I can’t fail him again!
When I see that first tiny drop of milk bead on my nipple I’m ecstatic and want to show the world that I have accomplished this! I stare at the tiny amount I accumulated this time, not enough to feed a baby mouse and my feeling of elation withers. It looks discoloured too. My nipples are so raw from the pump that it wouldn’t surprise me if they were bleeding and that is why the milk doesn’t look white. I hide the bottle, holding this tiny precious drop in my hand, not wanting anyone to see what I am starting to perceive as another failure but as I try to figure out how to hide it permanently the nurse enters.
She takes the bottle from me and I put my head down waiting for her to comment on the tiny amount and sad colour. I’m shocked when her pleasant voice fills my ears with praise about what she calls “precious gold”. She isn’t even paying attention to me as she bustles around the room making a box up with my name for the freezer. She rattles on about how the amount will increase from there and that the colour will shift as the milk changes to mimic the changes required for a breast feeding baby’s proper nourishment. Then she is gone. I sit there and stare at the door she just scurried out of and can’t quite figure out how I feel, so I shove all feeling down and plod my way to my son’s incubator bedside.
No part of me is free from exhaustion; my body actually seems to droop with it. My back aches as I perch on a ridiculously high swiveling stool with no back waiting for my tiny son to peek his eyes open for just a second. I know when he wakes that I can open the oval window in the incubator and put my finger in his tiny little hand for a few moments so he knows I am there with him and he isn’t alone. I relish any tiny moments I get to touch or mother him. They are so short and small because he has to remain warm and too much stimulation is upsetting to his tiny person. I find this statement ironic after seeing some of the intrusions they have suffered on him to reveal that there are no “artifacts on his brain” (good news) and that his bladder and bowel are not mixed up and he can void properly (good news). They also test to tell me that he has 3 small holes in his heart one they can treat with aspirin or something and it should close but the other may require surgery (bad news)! Heart surgery on something so tiny? I can’t breathe! Another intrusion of a blood transfusion leaves me feeling completely helpless and frightened beyond belief.
At night I lay awake beside my husband reliving every moment of our son’s tiny life and wondering frantically what I could have done to keep him from being born premature. Nobody can provide me with any answers about why he was born at 28 weeks and 1 day. Tonight though, I stare blindly into the darkness of the room where we have been staying since the hospital forced my discharge, I know that my husband isn’t sleeping by his breathing pattern. I hear my voice come out choked and horse as my throat and heart constrict with the words, “do you think we need to consider the possibility that we won’t be bringing him home?” My body actually starts to ach as tears spill in an endless flow from my eyes. I feel my husband’s arms close around me trying to stop my tremors. I am vaguely aware of his voice assuring me that is not something we need to consider, but I can’t get control enough to respond and eventually an emotionally exhausted sleep steals over me like a leaded weight dragging a struggling swimmer to the bottom of the sea.
Intense aching in my breasts wakes me at dawn. I am aware of wetness over my chest as my engorged breasts try to relieve themselves of some pressure. Beside me my husband is locked in a restless sleep and doesn’t notice as I slip from the bed to find the rented breast pump I keep in the bathroom. I flick the light on and blink till my eyes adjust. The front of my night shirt has 2 large wet stains and is stuck to my breasts making a slight discomfort as I tried to remove it. A glance in the mirror throws back an imagine I don’t recognize. Haunted eyes stare back at me through red and swollen slits that barely constitute eye sockets, my skin looks dried and aged. There are frown lines etched deep in my forehead and the space between my eyes. Disgusted I look away and set about relieving the pressure in my breasts so I can get ready to spend another emotionally crippling day at the hospital.
Today is different though, I feel relieved and a joy that seems to know no limits courses through my entire body. He is five days old today and I finally get to hold him. I sit smiling stupidly in another uncomfortable hospital chair; my shirt and bra are tossed hap hazardously in a pile beside the chair in my hurry to get into a hospital gown to hold my tiny angel in what they tell me is called “kangaroo care.” His tiny little body nestles into my chest and his eyes remain closed as the warmth from my body comforts his tiny one. I cup his tiny little bum in the palm of my hand to keep him from sliding down into the gown. All that is visible of him is his small little head covered in a white hospital bonnet and the breathing apparatus that encompasses his face. Mother and child in a moment of bliss, finally together. I don’t want it to end, but his tiny body can only take so much and his monitors start to ding and chime, a noise that I have grown accustom too. The motherly feeling of loves hovers with me the rest of the day as I remember the feel of his tiny little body snuggled into my mine.
Time passes in a blur, May’s bizarre snows behind us, June’s thunder storms quieting and July’s heat starting to settle in. Still I sit perched by his bed side. The incubator gone, he lays bundled in a blanket in a crib sleeping soundly despite the noise of other preemie monitors chiming around us. He breathes on his own now, developing that strength so proudly that he displayed right from the beginning as he rushed into a world that wasn’t ready for him. They tell us that he will have lung trouble all his life, chronic lung disease, but we will cross that bridge if it develops. The last bits of tape have also come off his face; he no longer requires a feeding tube another strength he has developed on his own. I can finally see his face without obstruction and it is so perfect. Blue eyes, rosy round checks, a button nose and a smiling little mouth; no hint of the obstacles he has overcome! I can finally take him home…
Today I hold the camera in my hand and gaze through the lens at a young boy turning 4; he smiles back at me with a mischievous grin. His blue eyes alight with mischief as he and his friends yell “cheese” and blow out the candles on his cake. His laughter mixed with theirs is refreshing and a complete feeling of luckiness washes over me, a joy at being his mother, as a life so precious and such a miracle continues to grow and shape my life in ways I could never imagine on my journey in being a Mother!
By Shari Marshall – Written 2014, edited in 2018.
The Penis Chronicles is a weekly platform for sharing childcare stories, advice & etcetera. Raising children is an adventure! And please, I know the title says “penis chronicles”, but stories about raising girls are very much welcome. Please post and share your link and/or your comments in the comments section below.