I drive past it at least once a week. I come around a curve and it looms at the end of the street, an oldish building that reminds me of my high school, but taller. Windows outlined in metal with white and green and blue flat outer walls. The West-Pfalz Klinikum, the center of our lives during the summer of 2008, when our second daughter was born two months premature. I remember, every time I see it. Fear and hope and sadness and anticipation and love and exhaustion and fear and fear and fear. And not being able to breathe as I drove back toward the hospital, suddenly sure against all logic that I was too late, would be met at the door with bad news. And crying in the car as I drove away, getting out all the tears and desperate prayers before I arrived home and tried to give my older daughter some semblance of normality.
A few months ago, I went to a baby shower. The mom-to-be was beautiful, even though she clearly didn’t think so. Thin with a big baby belly and a 5-year-old daughter. The new baby will be a daughter, too. Even though I didn’t know very many people, everyone was friendly and I had fun. As we played that silly game where you cut lengths of string to estimate the size of the mom’s belly, I suddenly thought, “By this time in my pregnancy, Annika would have already been born.” And I felt a twinge of jealousy, that I had missed those final weeks. That I had missed that sticky-outty belly button, the supposed nesting instinct, the easy confidence that a baby would actually come out of this.
Even as those days recede, as my clearly healthy and robust toddler asserts her healthy and robust independence, I realize that my infertility/childbearing experience has marked me.
I feel cheated of what I think is a “normal” experience. Left out again. Those long years when I began to think we would never have a child of our own, when I walked around with an open wound barely covered under a veneer of pleasantness. Unwomanly. Failure. Deformed.
Miscarriage. I think most women would tell you that pregnancy after miscarriage is different. The innocence, the blind confidence that a pregnancy will of course lead to a real, live baby, is shaken. And me being on the anxious side to begin with, well. I counted the weeks until the 28th week. Only then did I even start to think that it “might really happen.” 28 weeks, when something like 80 to 90 percent of babies actually survive if born too early. I know this because I looked up a chart with survival rates of premature babies. And I tried really hard not to think about things like cord accidents, which could happen at any time.
So when my water broke in the early morning of June 16, 2008, it was shocking and scary, but not a total surprise. My first was born at 34 weeks, also because my water broke weeks too early. She, however, was a whopping 6 pounds, the biggest baby in the neonatal intensive care unit, where she stayed only a few days.
I prayed. How I prayed, as I called my husband, called the hospital, got Katrina out of bed and dressed (it was the first day of her summer vacation). Desperately worried, but remaining calm—even faux cheerful—so as not to panic my sensitive 6 year old.
No comical mishaps or huffing and puffing through contractions while stuck in traffic, like the movie versions of birth. Just a grim silence, punctuated by endless questions from Katrina, and even-toned answers from hubby, as I tried to keep my tears at bay.
Then the waiting, the confirmation that indeed I was in labor, the problem of who to call to take care of Katrina. We had made no babysitter plans, because my mom-in-law was coming a full month before my due date—but her date of arrival was a week away. Thankfully, it took only one call and generous friends to get Katrina squared away.
I got to ride in an ambulance, which was less interesting than one would think. No sirens for me. Just two young German paramedics, one of whom had enough English to chat with me briefly, kindly. He looked as nervous as I felt.
Waiting, waiting, waiting, shots, IV, more waiting. Hubby went home to sleep. They hoped to keep the baby in as long as possible, but my body didn’t cooperate. At midnight I called my hubby back to the hospital. I was being prepped for surgery.
There was a surreal interlude while I waited for the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, my husband. The German soccer team was playing in the European Cup, and had just played that evening. So the nurses and the intern sat around me in an unused delivery room and talked about the game. It was after midnight, and the intern was the same woman who had done my intake at 11 am that morning. They were a little punchy, I think. It was comforting.
Hubby arrived as I climbed onto the operating table, dizzy from some sort of pre-anesthesia. They couldn’t do a spinal, so it would be general anesthesia for me. The last thing I remember is shivering, and seeing the door close on my husband.
I came out of anesthesia to see my husband sitting on the edge of my bed. “Is she okay? Is she okay?” He said something about her lip not being fully formed. I didn’t care. “Is she breathing on her own? Is she on oxygen? Is she REALLY okay?”
He assured me that she was better than okay. She was breathing on her own and had no need for oxygen, a rarity for babies born that early. Our girls both have good lungs, which our eardrums are reminded of nearly every day.
Then the coughing started. I had an asthma-like reaction to one of the medications. The medication probably saved my life, but it also gave me a 12-hour respiratory hangover that landed me in intensive care. Poor hubby went back and forth, from one end of the hospital to the other, from his new daughter’s incubator in the NICU to his wife struggling to breathe in adult intensive care.
It was more than 24 hours before I got to see my baby in person. The hospital kindly gave me a few pictures, and my husband took more. I stared and stared, trying to believe she was real.
The first time I saw her, with an IV attached to her foot and a feeding tube up her nose, I cried. I couldn’t stop crying. I just whispered, “I’m sorry, baby,” over and over. In that moment, it was my fault, my body’s failure. Already I had failed as a mother.
The doctors and nurses in the NICU seemed to think we’d be upset about her cleft lip. Every time we talked to a doctor, they brought it up. They would get a referral to a plastic surgeon, they said. They had a call in to the specialty center in Mainz, they said. Hubby and I cared nothing about her lip. It did not involve her palate, so it was a cosmetic issue, not a health one. We were just grateful she was alive.
After Annika was more than a month in the hospital, we finally heard noises about when she could go home. She was “stepped down” to the non-critical care unit. A day or two later, she was back in intensive care with an obviously painful but mysterious gastrointestinal issue. A frantic 24 hours followed, with the prospect of exploratory surgery hanging over our heads.
No one ever knew what it was. But she got better. So much better that she could come home.
Our German cleaning lady, herself a force to be reckoned with, calls Annika her “fighting princess”. Like Xena, she says. “Annika fought for life.”
So. I go to baby showers, and I’m happy and I’m wistful for the fearless birth I think we were cheated of, that mountain-top experience that many parents describe. Both of our daughters were whisked away to be poked and prodded and kept alive. Both times they seemed like little strangers to me. One cannot bond with a picture.
But both times, we were incredibly grateful just to have them. Glowing orange from jaundice? A cleft lip? Nothing. Nothing compared to being here.
I’ve been struggling with motherhood lately. Some days my two little strong-willed extroverts seem to need more than this compliant introvert has to give. The arguments pile up, with the older one chanting her “it’s not fair” refrain while the younger one screams incoherently and stamps her foot. Until I am DONE.
Sometimes I feel cheated of the compliant, no-fuss child my mother says I was. (And sometimes I wonder if my mother has a selective memory of her children’s behaviors.) And then I remember how each of my children came into the world. How each one survived my inhospitable womb, her early arrival, her time hooked up to IVs, her frightened, scattered mother. Of course they have strong wills.
They had to have strong wills, strong lungs, a fighting spirit. So they could survive their precarious arrival and come out of babyhood healthy and happy. Thanks to modern medicine and the strength that God put into their spirits, my girls cheated death.
And THAT is the only cheating that matters.