A Short Story by Rachael Jordan
I sat with one finger on the back of his hand. A pudgy hand for my big baby - nine pounds four ounces - who had come two days late in a flurry of contractions that felt more like earthquakes. When my water broke brown across the linoleum of the hospital bathroom floor, I knew something was wrong. Fourteen hours later, my intuition was confirmed. I couldn’t rub the back of his hand, the movement would have been too provoking for his hibernating body. So, I sat with this one point of contact to my baby, the only place I could touch on his fresh body as the iv dripped morphine into his miniature veins, the needles etching his brain waves onto a screen, the monitors beeping a steady refrain. I chanted along in my head, please stay alive, please be okay, please stay alive, please be okay.
See, I thought I knew how to be a mother. I had been a mom for six years at that point. Though my first son’s birth also ended with cutting him from my body, he was okay. He cried after a moment, wailed his entrance, and I got to hold him next to my shaking arms; kiss his forehead, smell the mix of my body on his fresh one. I thought back to when I learned him. How I had been sitting in my car in the uncharacteristic Southern California rain, crying into my hands. I was twenty-four, in graduate school, single, and had messed up my birth control. He had been a shock, a surprise, a fear at first. I cried that day thinking I had to mourn my life, that I ended what I knew of myself in deciding to keep him. All of that, eventually, would change. But, in that moment, I called my dad.
“I’ve become my mom,” I told him in sobbing desperation. Though he assured me that them getting pregnant with me at 19-years-old was not the same as me being in graduate school, living on my own, and with some semblance of a “together” life, I still thought of how I am half her. The same DNA spirals through my body. I had not planned on becoming a mother in large part because of my own mom. As a kid, my own relationship with my mother meant a combination of pain, love, and confusion. Pain in the loud moments - door locks breaking away, fists pounding on walls, hands pelting as I hid under covers -- with love and confusion in the moments after. Her crying face, her arms around me, so soft and warm.
“I’m sorry. I love you,” she would say. Every. Single. Time.
I had learned from her that motherhood meant hurting the people you loved the most. Yet, he was the size of a rice grain and, already, I could not imagine hurting him. I didn’t realize then, but learning about the life inside of me was going to mean unlearning everything I had ever associated with being a mom. That fear, though, marked the first half of my first pregnancy. I was not the glowing, excited mother, embracing the changes in her supreme body. Instead, my body felt discordant and I felt disconnected.
So, when I made the choice to have another baby, I thought that meant things would be easier. With no complications, with a strong pregnancy history, the thought of ending up in the NICU had not even crossed my mind.
Yet, there I was, aching with desire to hold this baby I had held in my body for so long. They covered the needles in his head with a soft, blue blanket. This nurses decorated his crib pod with his name, surrounded by blue and green sharks, foam seaweed dotting the bottom of the name tag, jeweled, blue plastic rhinestones affixed by the “D” and “n.” The catheter jutted from his belly button, other wires protruded from his hands and chest. When I drowned in my own thoughts and worries, they wrapped his body, arms, and legs in a white material that had begun to cool his body five hours after being born. At the first hospital, they had whisked him away the moment I first saw him, limp and tired, two and half hours after his birth. In that original NICU, he had a seizure, had shown signs of depression on his brain, and was taken to another hospital across town. My body, raw, still oozing, still bleeding, felt him wrench away from me.
If there is anything I’ve learned from motherhood, it’s to always expect the unexpected. It’s to learn to love the kid you have; not wish for the one you’d thought you’d get. In so many ways, motherhood is devastation.
For three days they cooled his body a few degrees, to keep him, and his fragile brain, in a sort of hibernation. After 72 hours, they would warm him back up, easing his body out of the half-sleep they hoped would heal and regenerate his brain. We would have answers after that. Hopefully. So, we sat by his bed, collecting breast milk droplets in syringes until I could pump more sustenance for him. I watched him, watched his monitors though I did not know what anything meant, had half-conversations with the nurses. I only cried at night, though, when I would try to sleep in the hospital room. I never cried in front of him.
All of this was so different from my first son. When I held him the first time, I felt strange, but excited. I have pictures of sticking his tiny fingers in my mouth, of making silly faces with his brand-new face. We had to learn each other. Contrasted with those pictures, I also spent most of the first month of his life crying. Crying into pillows and blankets, crying at the microwave, crying at my stupid breasts that would not make enough milk, just crying. He cried, too, as if his whole life were one big cry. He howled all the time and we just could not figure out what was wrong. No one prepares you for a collicky, overly sensitive baby. I would sit on the floor, holding him as he screamed in my ears and cry. Early motherhood for me tends to be tears, blood, and pain. That first year tried to eviscerate me.
“You’ll understand when you’re a mother,” she used to tell me. I’ve written these stories hundreds of time, looping back and over the moments, where my own mother became a monstrous version of herself. I write her as kitchen walls, the broken leg of a limp chair that sags under rippled yellow curtains. She is spit-spotted cheeks against dry cupboards; sweat and words broken on air. She is bird baths and hollow wind chimes over oranges sour with dirt. I wonder if my kids will write me. My mother is a chickened apron; her mother is flowing skirts and the smell of acrylic. Blue-glass jars blown and set to catch the sun.
Those wounds, though, are healed or healing. She tamed whatever demons she had with the help of medication that she now, finally, consistently takes. We are alright. Her and my older son better than alright. Where she lacked being a mother she now more than makes up for being an incredible grandmother. However, I slipped back a bit after having my older son. After that first month of body-wracking change, I would watch him and wonder how my own mother could have hurt me in the ways that she did. Logically, I know all of these reasons -- the depression, being a teenage, single mother, having her own life thrust in directions she never expected -- but after having my son I could not emotionally understand. For a few months this new dawning made me hate her again. Made me revisit those moments of hiding in the bathroom, of calling my grandma because my mom had threatened to kill herself, of listening to her and my stepdad fight, of those first ten years of living in a house that felt like it was choking on anger, anxiety, and fear. I was the bone against which my mother threw herself and fractured. How, how if she had felt for me what I feel for my own son, could she ever have put me through that?
The years change everything, though. Therapy, then forgiveness, then more therapy. Learning that I can’t control other people, only how I react to them. Learning to love the mom I got; not wish for the one I thought I’d get.
One night, when the NICU was sleepy, quiet but for the monitor beeps and whistles, our baby’s nurse looked at me, my forehead against the edge of the plastic crib, my finger tucked on top of my baby’s foot. He had been warmed back up, his eyes had opened a sliver for the first time in four days, their blue, grey slate focusing on us. They had removed the tube from his mouth, but the rest of the wires remained. He was doing okay and “okay” was much better than dead.
“Do you want to hold him?” she asked.
For the first time, I felt a bit of happiness burst back into my heart. All I could do was nod. She lifted him from his crib, wrapping and tucking the wires together so that we would not pull on them.
“I don’t care that I’m not supposed to do this,” she said. “You need to hold your baby.”
Four days. It had taken four days to feel his weight in my arms. To be able to lean my head to his face and kiss him. To smell him, keep him safe. I finally cried in that room, tucked behind our thin curtain as I sat in the blue rocking chair so many other mothers had sat in before me, and let my tears fall onto his face and hands.
Six days. We were in the NICU for six days. In the moment, six days felt like a lifetime. My universe became the short orbit from our room to the NICU, and an occasional blast to the cafeteria downstairs. But, we got to bring him home. Some babies stay much, much longer. Some babies never come home. On one of those nights when he was still “cooling” another baby was wheeled into the pod next to us. With only the thin curtain between our pods, the words, “premature,” “25 weeks,” “breathing assistance,” floated down and shattered on the white ground. I snuck a side glance at the new baby the next day, her miniscule hand reaching up towards the light in her enclosed crib. A day later, another baby was wheeled to the pod across from us, “blood infection,” they said. The moms of these babies and I shuffled past one another in the halls, to and from, waited in line to wash our hands at the sinks, but never said a word. We were all too blanketed in our own grief. I wonder about those babies. I wonder about those moms. I wish, with everything, we talked about the pain of loss, of almost-loss, more.
But, I got to bring my baby home. He’s thriving now. Everything is fine other than constant check-ups mandated by the hospital. Other than small bursts of anxiety during those assessments, our baby made it through. The cooling process saved his brain and his life.
So, now I’m back in the weeds of learning how to mother two humans. They are seven-years old and fifteen months old. I was not prepared for how I would feel when I see them together. When my younger one walks up to his big brother, wraps his arms around his neck, and says, “Brada!” my heart feels so big it could swallow us whole. I fill to bursting. Watching my older son, my happy accident, become his own person, to watch him weave stories from the air, cartwheel and jump, and show me the world from his eyes, has been an experience I could not have imagined.
There are days when I’m excited and happy to share this life with them. There are also days where I lock myself in the bathroom and cry from the overwhelming feeling of doing everything wrong, of being a broken person trying to raise unbroken people, of feeling lost. There are days where I cuddle my boys to my body and do not want to be anywhere else in the world. There are also days where I want to drink whiskey-gingers, smoke a cigarette again, play my favorite music so loud the walls crumble, and have sex at the exact moment my desire surfaces.
There are days when I want to end this story by writing that I’m not, and never will be, enough. There are also days where I want to end this story by writing about how, in the quiet moments of the night, I reach out in half-sleep to touch my son’s pudgy toddler hand. There are days when I want to end this story by trying to explain how, sometimes, I can regret being a mom, but I never regret my children. There are also days where I want to end this story by writing that I’m trying to love this life that I’ve got; not wish for the one I thought I’d get.
I don’t know which day it is today.