The sterile smell of antibacterial soap trailed us as my husband, Zach, wheeled me slowly toward the incubator containing our three-pound son.
What would he look like? My one glimpse of Rowan in the operating room the night before had been of his face. The rest of his body had been bundled to replicate the warmth of my womb.
Two weeks before his birth I had been diagnosed with severe preeclampsia, which came with a one-way ticket to hospital bed rest. My friends and family had cheered me on, as if I had any control.
“You’re doing such a great job of giving Rowan more time to grow!”
If staying pregnant was an achievement, where did it leave me when he was born two months early? Intellectually, I knew that nothing prevents preeclampsia. Still, he didn’t ask for a head start on life. I had failed him already, and we hadn’t even been properly introduced.
Zach parked me in front of the incubator. Rowan was curled into a question mark, naked except for a preemie-size diaper reaching toward his armpits.
With one hand on his bottom and one at his head, giving what they call a “hand hug,” my fingers almost touched.
His hand was taped to a board the size of a nail file to prevent his IV from being dislodged. A tiny purple pacifier covered the bottom half of his face.
“Would you like to hold him?” the nurse asked as she gathered wires and tubes.
I struggled to stand as she helped me lift him out of his plastic enclosure.
Tape, staples and miscellaneous office supplies held my abdomen together. As my uterus threatened to go full-on Alien out of the incision site, I wondered, “What do I do now?”
Embarrassed, I admitted, “I can’t hold him and sit down at the same time.”
The nurse cradled him against her arm as I settled into the rocking chair. With ease, she tucked his soft, doll-size body into my shirt. I breathed against his hair, trying to find traces of the sweet newborn smell buried under the sharp scents of antiseptic and medical tape.
I studied the IV threaded into his nearly microscopic veins and the spaghetti-thin feeding tube snaking from his nose to his stomach. His palm was the size of a quarter. He felt like a fragile stranger.
Each morning, I arrived at his bedside to receive an update of what had happened in Rowan’s world overnight.
“Just to warn you, he blew all the veins in his arms and feet. We had to put the IV in his scalp.”
“His bilirubin levels went up; we’ve got him under the lights.”
“He isn’t digesting food properly. We’re running some tests.”
Many decisions were made without me. I had signed the consent forms, but I knew from the beginning that I was only playacting the role of someone in charge.
Even his nourishment — varying between donated breast milk dripping through a feeding tube and a nutrient solution through an IV — cut me out of the loop. I had been the provider of life, and now I sat tethered to a hospital breast pump, an accessory, redundant and worn out.
How did I fit in the picture? Did he need me at all? Was I a disposable mother?
The morning of day three, I looked at my breast pump and saw the first colostrum smeared on the flange. I buzzed the desk, and the dutiful nurse appeared to chase each smudge of liquid gold with a syringe.
Where was my standing ovation?
On day five, I looked at my chest, wondering who had replaced my apple-sized breasts with cantaloupes. With the milk came the hormones. Everything was leaving — the milk into the bottles; my tears into my shirt; and me, leaving Rowan each night in the care of those better equipped to keep him alive.
One evening when Rowan was a week old — still almost eight weeks before his expected arrival — a nurse asked, “Would you like to try breast-feeding?”
In neonatal speak, breast-feeding practice is called “lick and learn,” although nobody says it with a straight face.
For lick and learn, my breasts had to be as empty as possible. Nursing requires too much energy for premature babies, and trying to swallow milk could have choked him. Weeks would pass before he would be coordinated enough to swallow between breaths. I was playacting my role in feeding Rowan.
Until that point, hunger had been a self-resolving phenomenon with food appearing in his belly at regular intervals. We wanted him to begin connecting the dots between milk, satiation and me.
With his palm-sized head cradled in my hand, the nurse helped me maneuver him to my chest. His mouth opened instinctively as he latched on, his head dwarfed by my breast.
The taut coil of anxiety and sadness inside me loosened for that long minute into intense solace. For the first time, my muscles relaxed, and I let gratitude break through the cloud of guilt that had surrounded me since his birth.
To find my place and connect with my child, I had to give up the fight against the realities of being the mother of a premature baby. I had to lean into the ever-shifting goals and broken expectations.
Resting my head against the back of the chair, I closed my eyes and felt the tug of connection. I could finally see myself in the picture.
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