Trigger warning: babies, hospitals, mental illness.
I didn't go into motherhood with much of a labor plan other than "get the baby out, please and thank you." After a straightforward but miserable pregnancy filled with nausea, heartburn, and back pain every day of the third trimester, I and everyone I knew were ready for me to be not-pregnant. I figured I'd go into labor on or around my due date and use painkillers as necessary. I had every intention of breastfeeding—sure, it's good for the baby, and also, I'm cheap. We'd spend the 2 or so days in the hospital and go home and my husband and I would spend the next few weeks getting to know our newborn.
There are any number of adages to describe what really happened: "Man plans, God laughs." "Shit happens."
First, the baby didn't want to engage in labor. We ultimately opted for a c-section after reviewing all of the options with the obstetrician. I wasn't crazy about the idea of abdominal surgery, but I had been feeling so sick for so long that I honestly felt I couldn't take it anymore. I already have an anxiety disorder; sitting at home waiting for *something* to happen wasn't conducive for preserving my mental health. The operation went smoothly and my nearly 9-lb baby was finally external to my body.
While in recovery, though, the nurses began to notice some problems with the baby. Specifically, his blood sugars were dangerously low and were not improving even with a formula feeding. I held him for about three minutes before he was whisked away by the doctor to the NICU for iv treatment. The nurses patted my shoulder as I cried for my baby and reassured me that he'd be back with us most likely in twelve hours.
Twelve hours turned into twenty-four when his blood sugar remained low; when he showed little interest in eating, twenty-four turned into three days. The doctors began to run more tests—blood cultures, a spinal tap. His white blood cell counts were dramatically elevated, which pointed to some sort of an infection, and eventually the professionals decided he had somehow contracted meningitis and would need to spend an ten days in the NICU. There were no risk factors for it. Nothing in my medical history or the delivery of the baby gave any clue how this happened. That didn't stop me from blaming myself, because 1) motherhood and 2) excessive self-blame goes hand in hand with my anxiety. If I'd only exercised more, or drank more green smoothies, or not had those over-easy eggs, or stood on my head during the full moon, he wouldn't be sick. I cried so much over my baby during my four days in the hospital. I couldn't look at his going-home outfit because I'd be going home without him. Well-meaning people played the "at least" game. "At least they caught it early." "At least it's only ten more days." I ungraciously snapped that I wasn't at the stage where I could just be thankful that it wasn't worse, because this already was pretty much the worst.
Somehow we got through. I give a lot of credit to the nurses for that. Every day we got up, went to the hospital, spent a few hours there, left to deal with the obligations of daily life that don't go away even when you're dealing with a crisis, and came back. We spent hours watching him sleep and learning all kinds of medical terminology that had been meaningless until it suddenly applied to our child.
The experience also highlighted just how much middle class privilege we have: we are college-educated professionals with good insurance and a working car in a region where public transportation is nearly nonexistent. My husband has paternity leave and could drive us (a necessity because I wasn't permitted to drive due to the c-section). We have nurses and doctors as family members who knew what questions to ask. During our son's hospital stay we got to know parents who were not nearly so fortunate as we were. Their stories are not mine to tell, but believe me when I say that there were mothers there who are stronger at their worst than I am at my best. Also believe me when I say that PAID PARENTAL LEAVE SHOULD BE A THING FOR EVERYONE. GOOD MEDICAL COVERAGE SHOULD BE A THING FOR EVERYONE. We worried about so many things, but we didn't have to worry about how we'd pay for it all.
The best part about my son's hospitalization is that it ended. On his last day there we finally got to hold him without also holding the wires that attached him to the monitors. We watched the nurse take out his IV after his last treatment of antibiotics. We got to dress him in his own clothes and put him in the car seat. We got to take him home. Right now he's camped out fast asleep on my chest like a barnacle and farting like a full-grown man and you wouldn't know he'd ever been sick. He's awesome, and I love him.