Night in the NICU

My daughter’s birth, as one might expect nine years after the fact, is wrapped in a blissful cloud of memory where I remember the arrival of her presence more so than the pain or endurance of the process. But there are two particularly memorable events surrounding her birth that solidify for me the first moments when I knew, with illuminated clarity, what it means to be a parent.

Act 1: Separation and Attachment

One of the great gifts that labor and delivery nurses seem to posses is finding subtle ways to help mothers shift focus to their own recovery during the immediacy of childbirth. I wanted to cling to the sweet little, wriggling mass of person that had just emerged into the world, but my body needed to recover. The sage experience of the labor and delivery nurse recognizes the human, mammalian instinct to stay connected. So, they subtly suggest that its time for Dad to do his part of the work, to cut the cord and help with the first bathing. Thus, Dad and nurses can take the baby with Mom’s blessing, and Mom can get some nourishment, rest, necessary separation. Why necessary separation? Because for nine months or thereabouts, there has been continual, physical connection between mother and child. My body was home to the tiny multi-celled embryo that would divide and grow and become a fetus which could nourish on my body’s supply of food and water and oxygen. Eventually, the formation of the fetus is completed and the birth process (and it is a process) prepares the way for the baby to emerge into the world, to take on independence in breathing and eating and free will of being human. The process of separation requires faith, in the form of letting go…to the Universe, to a nurse, to a co-parent, to God. But parenting is also about attachment. And, as attachment theorist John Bowlby points out again and again, separation and attachment are intrinsically linked. So, these thoughts swirl in my labor-tired mind as I feel the separation from this tiny person, and long for her presence. She returns, swaddled and clean, gone for a short time but also an eternity. She wraps her perfectly formed fingers around my pinkie finger. We are connected again, in recognition of each other’s personhood and our relationship to each other. This dance will be repeated again, and again, and again. It has a deep human poignancy because I already know, and she will learn over the course of her life, that there will be a final separation at some point in our future. It is a good thing, though, that we do not how or when. The precious and fleeting nature of life allows us to be truly present in the gift of living. This awareness of deeply connected relationship allows us to live fully both in separation from and connection with each other.

Act 2: Protection and Vulnerability

We are ready to go home, a mere 24 hours after your birth. I have been discharged, and they check you over head to toe. And take you away. And check again. It’s a fever, they tell me, and they cannot let you go home. My mind swirls with all that I know could go wrong. You are small and fragile. My body was your home but could have exposed you to Strep B in spite of that antibiotic drip coming from the bag on the pole. Or it could be something else, worse. Or it could be that you are just warmer blooded and unique. We don’t know, so I am sent home and you are taken to the NICU. But, I don’t go home. I go to the NICU right behind you. I take up residence on a couch in the hall or a rocking chair by your bassinet. I insist on my presence to feed you when you are hungry, to hold you against my skin. I burst into the NICU at nighttime when I see the old-school nurse put you on your stomach to sleep and take on my professional health educator role amid my postpartum emotion to instruct her about Back to Sleep. I cry, my spouse tries to console me. A nurse who has been in my shoes before comes to sit with me, and we share stories. I realize in her stories that I am not the first parent here in the NICU nor the last. I am visited by the social worker because the staff are frustrated with and worried about me for not leaving your side and going home (although home is here, with you). I laugh and have a good chat with the social worker, who was once my student (the staff did not even know that I teach social workers; to them I am just a Mom in the NICU). I am teaching them, too. They are trying to protect you from some unknown germs but I know you are vulnerable. I am teaching them the way that I have been programmed to parent, and teaching them that parents come with all kinds of capacities as well as limitations. But, I am also learning. I am learning how to be a protector and advocate, learning how to cry before total strangers, learning when to stand firm and when to bend with the wind, learning to accept help and support. Learning to be your Mom.

Even at night in the NICU there is still a small point of light.

It is called motherhood.

It is from God.

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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