The chorus of this song has been in my head a lot lately (if you want to strike up the chorus, start at 1:08, and then endure until 1:28 for the full effect). I only had to hear that song about one and a half times in my high school years to have it forever seared on my brain. Now I can completely appreciate why my country music-loving college roommate once asked, “Doesn’t it bother you that your kids will someday wonder why the music you listened to had people yelling instead of singing?”
I met the parents of twins in the family center during Week One here in the NICU. The father addressed me in a tone of voice and with a “street dialect” that left me completely baffled. I thought he had asked me, “So what’re you in for?”
What is this, a prison? Oh, yeah. It kind of is.
After pausing and rewinding what he’d said, I realized he had asked me how long I’d been there.
I don’t know. When did eternity begin?
We made small talk, the three of us, about C-sections and babies and twins and how long labor takes. The usual topics for strangers. Being an introvert, I was happy to get out of there.
Week Two in the NICU, I saw this couple again. But this time, something had gone terribly wrong. They were in the laundry room, and I have never heard a mouth in greater need of washing while near so much soap. This woman was shouting like a maniac. Everything was F-ing this and F-ing that, and her poor husband couldn’t do anything right. She came barreling out of there like a bull from a china shop, and I ducked for cover behind my cell phone.
Once again, I was happy to get out of there. Exchanging pleasantries is one thing. Trying to pretend I don’t notice a domestic dispute is beyond my acting abilities.
I saw her again at midnight. Nothing brings two strangers together like their need for a microwave oven. She had on her finger a big splint. Expecting to hear about a household accident, I asked what had happened. I couldn’t entirely follow her unfamiliar dialect, but I heard, “punched him,” and “don’t worry–I’m OK.” Her poor husband, I thought. Babies in the NICU and his wife punched him (it turned out to be someone else).
Other moms may have wondered why I would only smile politely at them and keep going. It was self-preservation. I didn’t want to know their deeper issues or get caught on the wrong end of a fist.
One night into Week Three, I decided it was stupid that I had passed the same darling mom a hundred times and never done more than offer a weak smile. So while I steamed my pump parts in the microwave, I casually asked her, “So what’re you in for?”
I asked her about her baby. I found out that he was nearly the same age and in the same circumstances as my baby. Even though I had griped about this slow “feeding and growing” process on Facebook and gotten several “hey, I was once in your shoes” responses, there was something extremely comforting about talking to someone who was going through in that very moment basically what I was going through.
And it was wonderful to actually speak honestly with someone face to face. Facebook, despite its name, cannot offer that luxury. It should be called Façadebook. I always forget that real people are behind the nice little portrait icons. The whole thing can feel a bit superficial.
Anyway, I wondered why I had been so afraid to open up to another mom. Sure, I was afraid of encountering a big mess (the next mom I spoke to afterward had given birth to twins three and a half months early–the day after their father was murdered. I remembered to express sympathy but stick to the topic of babies, which I could handle). But I think even more than that, I was afraid of making a mess. My job as a mother is to clean up messes.
When I am home for my 18-36 hour stints, my children make sure I have lots of messes to respond to. Most recently I dealt with scary toilets, mud, a bathroom drizzled with hand soap, a strawberry squashed in the carpet, squirt gun puddles indoors, cornbread crumbles, a gerbil soaked by a squirt gun, Legos, Magic Track knock-offs, seven thousand beads for craft-making, a flooded Mother’s Day plant, hot glue gun residue, soggy cereal experiments, a tub flooding down through the ceiling below, and ninety-seven feet of yarn. Yes, I had the kids clean up a lot of it, but even that is exhausting.
When friends ask me in-person how I’m doing, the mess starts with tears. Some friends get to hear bad words. Others just get the “I’m great” response so that I don’t break into my “I’m hungry, I’m dirty, I’m losing my mind–everything’s fine!!!” routine. But one of these days that mess will come out. And compared to the volatile mom, whose husband is on his way to go get her out of jail this morning, I really am fine.
But if I break down and make a mess in front of you, this isn’t just a case of new baby equals no sleep, ergo emotional wreck. A couple friends have hit one nail on the head: No one should have to leave the hospital without their baby. That one is hard in some ways, but I at least had a couple weeks to get used to the idea before becoming an emotional basket case. A lot of parents don’t get that much advanced notice.
Sometimes I want to wear a sign that says, “You can’t see my new baby because he’s in the NICU.” I passed my neighbor in the store yesterday. Clearly I’m not eight months pregnant. But I was in so much pain from a little breastfeeding issue I have that I just had to answer “Busy!” to her “how are you?” and keep going. It’s weird to have a baby who has only been seen by four other people I know.
The second nail is the feeling of being a caged animal. I took the kids to the zoo the other day. It was amazing how transparent the tiger’s cage was. She seemed to think my kids were there for lunch and came right over to greet (eat?) them.
It occurred to me that I have given up most of my privacy as well. The front of my room is all glass. Even though it is my baby under observation, I can’t escape the feeling that I am under scrutiny as well.
A couple weeks ago, a very efficient and task-oriented nurse arrived on the scene. Up to that point, we had had very sweet (young) nurses whose looks and voices were more like beauty queens than healthcare professionals. They all could have won the Miss Congeniality award, at the very least, for making the parents in the glass-front cage feel important and needed.
This older nurse, however, was primarily concerned with adherence to rules. Within minutes of meeting her, I learned that my daughter’s two artwork pieces were hung in off-limits locations and that I would not be needed for my usual 8 am baby interactions. I had also had a full week of “new baby equals no sleep,” and it had finally set in that I was under scrutiny. I texted my husband “Pray for me to get along with today’s nurse.”
And the third nail in this coffin: guilt. My mom has always said that if you look up “motherhood” in the dictionary, the entry reads: “See guilt.” It is nearly impossible for me to not place blame on myself for my children’s struggles. If they’re acting out or wetting pants more lately, it must be because I’m away so much. It can’t possibly be because summertime means all three kids are together, so they’ll fight more, and that potty time is less interesting than playing outside. [Note: sarcasm is my new coping mechanism]
So I found a way to turn this experience into an opportunity for more guilt. My husband and I have noticed over and over that we have a hard time praising our oldest because we’re always surprised and bothered by how much she forgets to do. By lunchtime on this difficult day, I texted my husband:
“Well if nothing else, I’m learning sympathy for [child] CM, who gets told far more what she is doing/has done that’s wrong instead of what she is doing/has done that’s right. It’s infuriating and demoralizing.”
Not only did I feel infuriated and demoralized, I felt guilty because of the way I had gotten to that point. I didn’t even want to be in the NICU with my baby because I didn’t think I could handle being corrected one more time. I was afraid of the mess I would make if someone messed with mama bear (I’m not a tiger mother).
I took another break from Nurse Ratched after lunch and then realized how ridiculous my reaction was. Did I really feel so sensitive about my performance as a NICU mom that I would rather hide from some feedback than be near my baby? Within an hour, I had this to tell my husband:
“I’m feeling better about the nurse now. I took some time to acknowledge that I was feeling picked on and then I decided to not let that perception keep me from doing what I came here to do.”
I also owned the realization that as a PICU nurse, I had probably on many occasions been a stickler about rules instead of helping parents feel included and important. Karma sure is a…great teacher.
I have a hard time acknowledging my feelings, so I was quite pleased with myself for working through my heightened emotional status without doing anything I regretted. (I saved that for my tirade as I got ready to return to the hospital on Thursday. The kids got to hear Mom yell a bit before she offered hugs and kisses. Just trying to keep things normal.)
That evening I saw a fairly together-looking mom whom I’d avoided ever since that first NICU parent conversation. It turns out we were next-door neighbors, and her baby was born just two days after mine. It was her first pregnancy and she’d been on bed rest in the hospital almost as long as I had, but the whole experience had her so freaked out that she didn’t plan to have more kids. We talked for a bit (we both even got teary-eyed), and I told her that even though most people would wonder, “What’s wrong? Your baby is fine,” it really is traumatic to have a baby’s birth go completely differently than planned. It’s just scary to find out that you can’t control how your body treats the life you would do all in your power to protect.
She had also had Nurse Ratched that day (whom I had actually come to appreciate), and she told me about a night nurse she and her husband had struggled with their second night here: “My husband and I talked the next morning and realized we’d been on the brink of homicide we were so mad at her.”
You just can’t tell who’s going to go crazy on you, but messing with a parent’s child is a pretty good way to find out.
And the fourth and final nail is disorientation. Sleep disruption is one thing. Not being allowed to eat except in certain places and with a limited variety of foods, living out of a suitcase and using sketchy facilities where a lot of other new moms are losing various bodily fluids, and then having multiple people telling you how to care for your baby and his environment every day and night–on top of disrupted sleep–is absolutely maddening.
To top it off, everyone asks the same question: “When does he get to come home?” The answer is “we’ll get there when we get there,” and that doesn’t feel at all like an answer.
Three weeks ago I left the comfort of my bed rest quarters to face the uncertainty of my baby’s new life in a labor and delivery room. The risks of having him stay inside me outweighed the benefits of waiting any longer. I had called that experience my calm before the storm. I am now in that storm, but it is interesting that from my baby’s room, I can see where I once prepared for the storm. The building is built on a solid foundation. I have seen it withstand snow, sleet, hail, rain, and childbirth. I am also built on a solid foundation.
I trust that just as I adapted to the calm while it lasted, I can adapt to this storm while it lasts. I want to wave to myself across the courtyard and assure my bed-resting self that my baby and I really will make it through. Somewhere in the near future, I am waving back at my NICU self. I might still be hungry, dirty, and losing my mind. But when it comes down to it, really, everything’s fine.