To all the mothers who must spend the first days or even months in the NICU
In the first trimester of a pregnancy, many women pray for the embryo to stick. The second trimester is usually too smooth to remember that one is pregnant. And the third trimester is when there are two voices in one’s head getting louder: I am so ready for the little one to come out, but please do not come out too early. As much as I firmly believed that the baby had left permanent bruises on my ribs with his kicks that left me in agonizing pain day and night, I was praying that he’d be a full-term baby and I would deliver him vaginally. I am no doctor, but there is something about a baby going through the birth canal that made me believe it would healthier for him than being pulled out from seven layers deep in my stomach. But deep inside—call it a woman’s instinct—I had a strong feeling that he would come early. And he did. My preemie baby boy was born at 35 weeks and 4 days through a cesarean delivery. I heard him crying, so crisply and loudly, and had only a millisecond’s glimpse of him before he was put into an isolette and walked to the NICU by a nurse and my husband. I did not see him again until fourteen hours later.
A premature baby is often not ready to be on her/his own, not even to breathe. Of all the premature babies in the NICU, my baby boy had the fewest wires attached to him. He was so tiny, but he was not the tiniest there. Nurses, doctors, social workers, lactation consultants and of course parents hovered over the isolettes to make sure the premature babies had the absolute best care and support to make up for their immaturity and sometimes the deficiency in their growth.
I was like every other parent I met in the NICU, focusing 1000% of my attention on my baby and his wellbeing. I bawled my eyes out when I had to check out of the hospital before he did, and that first night at home without him, my husband and I were like zombies. I was on my phone looking at my baby through the camera app that the NICU provided every few minutes.
Fast forward to today: 7.5 weeks later, my boy has doubled his weight since the NICU and has grown so tall that I started to worry about giant diseases. Still sleep-deprived and emotional about having created this little human being, I had the urge at 12:50 a.m. on Saturday night to walk down memory lane to the moment when I first heard my baby crying, which was also the moment when a premature mother was born.
My birth story started with me driving to the hospital to meet my husband for a baby care class on a Wednesday evening. The next thing I knew, I was walking to OP room 3 on the sixth floor of Lenox Hill hospital. We had nothing but our keys and wallets on us. At home, our hospital bag was still being packed. My mother had postponed her trip to New York, thinking she still had at least a couple of weeks before I might give birth. Two or three books on birth were lying somewhere in my apartment. I still hadn’t had a second appointment with my doula to start practicing breathing, and I had not even shut down my laptop at work, not to mention held the handover meetings I had planned with my replacement.
I was not ready in any respect. But I, as a mother, was born, like my baby, prematurely. The difference was that I had no isolette to create an artificially warm environment for me or sophisticated medical equipment to monitor my heart rate as a premature mother. From that moment when my baby was pulled out of my stomach, I was a mother. There is no practice or rehearsal for being a first-time mother, and there is no sympathy card for a mother who was born into the role prematurely.
Then the baby came home. There was no more Nurse Teresa or Nurse Mary to call on when I was not sure whether the baby was doing OK. I admit that I put my finger under my baby’s nose many times when he was sleeping just to make sure he was still breathing. I admit that I cried hysterically, agonizing over Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I admit that my husband did not let the baby sleep in the bassinet in our bedroom because I could not close my eyes and had to get up to check on him whenever he made the slightest noise. I admit that I rushed him to the emergency room because he had been screaming for an hour on a Friday night even though my husband thought he was simply being a normal baby—babies cry! I admit that I became overwhelmed by the sound of my baby trying to poop or to pass gas. He sounded as though he were in such unfathomable pain that my heart would start pounding in my chest, but I was later told that he was just a little colicky and gassy. I admit that I have taken him to the pediatrician’s office nine times over the past seven weeks, to the point that the front desk staff has started to ask me in advance, “Is George sick?” because most of our visits were for me to ask the doctor a bunch of questions whose answers were usually “It’s perfectly normal.”
Our pediatrician is a kind and comforting woman who always tells me, “You are doing great.” She can tell that most of these visits are for me, a new mother, who doesn’t know where to draw the line between normal baby behavior and reasons to worry and who would rather be overly cautious than risk delaying a diagnosis.
But on other occasions, I have felt so judged that I have wanted to take my baby and run to the next closed space to hide from the stares when I can’t calm my baby down. I will never forget a disgusted look I received when I was feeding my baby in the women’s lounge at a department store. I still don’t know what I was doing wrong to deserve that kind of look from a stranger, but I felt wretched.
In those moments, I feel so grateful to have a support system that includes my husband, who is on call for me at all times; my mother, who dropped everything to come stay with us to help, especially during the night hours so we do not need to spend $300/night on a night nurse if we want to get some sleep in; my in-laws, who drive to Flushing immediately whenever I tell them I’m craving authentic Chinese dishes and bring them over; and all my friends who have or don’t have kids who keep me company, give me invaluable advice, and most importantly make me feel confident, loved and supported whenever I feel overwhelmed.
Yes, mothering can feel overwhelming BIG TIME; fathering too. I post a lot of happy pictures on social media, where I receive compliments about my positive spirit and my speedy postpartum recovery. Those things are mostly true. However, behind each happy picture that captures a funny or a meaningful moment, there are countless moments I never really speak about: holding the baby even though our arms are sore, soothing a screaming baby at 1 a.m. while worrying that the neighbors are coming to knock on the door, and not leaving the emergency room until 3 a.m.
Speaking of the unspeakable—milk production. Breastfeeding and milk production are difficult for most new moms. Getting the baby to latch onto the breast, pumping and possibly enduring a painful engorgement in public are extra challenging for a premature mother, who has to be at the hospital.
I thought A LOT about milk production throughout my pregnancy. For as long as I could remember, my mother has been preempting my disappointment about my supply. She told me that she only had a mere few drops after I was born. She believes genetics determine the milk supply. I am not sure whether this is her actual belief or whether she just wanted to protect me from too much disappointment, but it worked. I told my husband and my friends from day 1 that I didn’t expect to have a lot of milk. So when I was five months pregnant, I bought twelve cans of the best formula I could find, which is only available in the U.K.
I actually have milk. I was overjoyed when I could produce a good amount of colostrum after delivery and my breasts grew 1.5 sizes overnight, according to my husband. In the NICU, my baby also latched onto my nipples from day 1. But then, the shortness of breath, the shivering and the painful engorgement happened in the middle of my first night at home. I woke my husband up crying, telling him I didn’t feel well and I was scared. I called my OB and sobbed heavily on the phone before I could describe my symptoms to her. She consoled me and told me not to worry, my milk was coming.
I was relieved and I continued with the triple-feeding plan—pumping, breastfeeding and bottle feeding—for my baby. Day after day, week after week, I started to get anxious because my milk production remained at the same level. I asked everyone I know who had prior experience and I tried every imaginable supplement on the market. I even followed a nurse’s advice and taped two wet warm diapers on my breasts to help the letdown. Because I do not know how much my baby gets from my breasts, I count how much we have to supplement for him with formula. Every time he seems to need more formula afterward, my heart sinks a little. I count how much I pump so carefully that I cried when my mother accidentally poured some pumped milk out, thinking it was a used bottle. My husband knows how much I dream about filling those bottles with my breast milk. He has started to tell “white lies,” such as “you produced a little more now,” when I know for sure that I didn’t. Sometimes when I feel frustrated, I think that maybe I’d be better off just not producing anything, so I wouldn’t have to feel beat up multiple times a day.
What I am trying to say here, as a new mom who tried everything to promote milk production and to breastfeed, is that society and the experts really have no fucking clue about how much pressure they have put on women in this regard. I know multiple friends who shared openly just how beat up they were about not producing enough or any milk for their baby or how frustrated they were because their babies didn’t latch so they couldn’t breastfeed. And based on the number of posts on social media to encourage women if they didn’t breastfeed or didn’t have enough milk, it is clear just how prevalent this struggle is among women everywhere.
China recently announced that May 20th would be Breastfeeding Day, and it listed a large number of benefits of breastfeeding for the baby. Many research articles and even hospitals promote breastfeeding. What I want to know is whether they really think that most women don’t want to breastfeed. Do they have any clue how hard we try to get the damn milk out of our bodies day and night, and how frustrated we are when we realize we can’t pump out enough milk for our babies? Do they know just how hard women try to get the babies to latch onto their nipples, even when they bleed or crack? We shouldn’t need to feel so bad about how our bodies function, and we especially should never be judged for it. Otherwise, what’s next? Do we need “viagra” for milk production dysfunction?
All of the above is made just a smidge harder for premature mothers like myself. Most mothers can stay at home to keep the first days of mothering private, but not a premature mother like me. From the first time I went to the NICU to see my baby, everything I did was in the open. How to hold the baby, feed him, burp him, change his diaper and breastfeed him—trust me, I felt so insecure and exposed because I had no clue how to do those things and I know I would make mistakes. The baby would cry, or not eat much, or not latch onto my breasts, and I felt that everyone was scoring me on my mothering skills. The mom who always sat next to me would panic when her baby was breathing hard and would yell out, “Somebody, please, he is choking.” The mom who sat across from me decided to pay out of pocket for her daughter to stay one extra night in the NICU because she had a last-minute panic and didn’t feel ready to bring the baby home. All the moms had a mere screen to try to cover themselves when breastfeeding, and they couldn’t care even if they knew their breasts were still visible to the male visitors in the room.
My heart aches for all the premature mothers who have to spend the first intimate days with their babies in a very public place. So this piece is dedicated to all the NICU mothers, including my very good friend JoAnne, the mothers I met in the NICU where my baby was kept, and the millions more out there. Sometimes, a little heartfelt storytelling and experience-sharing can be therapeutic. I hope my story as a premature mother is relatable and that whoever reads this can be a little kinder and more supportive of new mothers, especially premature mothers, along the way.