The long trek from the maternity ward to the NICU requires a wheelchair and a hospital transporter. Michael has just left for a few hours to check on our two- and four-year-old daughters, who are at home and can’t meet their baby sister. I feel the shift as we roll from a floor of lactation consultants, sweet newborn cries, and pink and blue mylar balloons to a unit of tiny preemies in isolettes with feeding tubes, jaundice lights, and pulse ox monitors.
The woman at the front desk gives me a sticker with a barcode indicating that I am the mom of the Blackston baby and says, “You don’t look good.” It’s been just 24 hours since I had an emergency C-section with a blood transfusion of three units.
As I enter Charlotte’s room, I immediately ask the nurse if I can do skin-to-skin. The nurse hesitates and mentions that it will take several minutes just to move her from the isolette to my chest given all her attachments.
“It’s a lot to move her, so we are going to try to do this just a couple times a day. I want to make sure you will be here for several hours before we do it. She is still supposed to be in the womb, so these lights and sounds are a lot for her,” she explains.
At this moment, I feel a shift. I notice that the nurse is advocating for the needs of my baby, which is good and right, but involves setting a boundary with me.
I feel out of control.
With my first two babies, their breathing, temperature, and heart rate were regulated on my chest. Trying to pee after the raw pain and swelling of a vaginal delivery was my biggest concern, along with the question of what kind of mom I would be. I imagine the dark warmth of my amniotic fluid that Charlotte was supposed to be floating in, in contrast to the cold, bright NICU room.
With careful coordination, two nurses move Charlotte onto my chest. She has an IV in her arm, oxygen moving through a nasal cannula, and ECG leads on her chest. I am learning a new language. The head cardiologist is coming this afternoon to do another echocardiogram and give us her final diagnosis.
We move from a diagnosis that requires heart surgery at age one to a more accurate, rare diagnosis that indicates that she is slowly moving into congestive heart failure and needs open heart surgery ASAP. “Unfortunately, you aren’t going home until after surgery,” the cardiologist says.
The bad news is layering one on top of another, and I’m finding it difficult to breathe. Two days later, we find out she has a high level of bilirubin and is going to have to stay under the light for at least 12-24 hours without being held at all.
I begin to weep.
The idea of not holding my baby for this long seems inconceivable. Looking back, this moment feels like a foreshadowing of the days ahead, when I will go days without holding her during heart surgery and post-op.
While Charlotte is under the bilirubin light, I am discharged as a maternity patient. Later that evening, I lie in the vinyl recliner with a hospital blanket and attempt to close my eyes for an hour or two of sleep when a nurse comes in and says, “Okay, Mama, I hate to tell you this, but you can’t sleep in that recliner for the next few months. You are recovering from a C-section, and you need sleep. The body heals in sleep. If you don’t rest and recover, you will end up back in the hospital with an infection and won’t be able to see your baby at all. I know you don’t want that.”
I look at her with anger and disbelief and simultaneously notice a strange feeling of relief. A part of me knows that her words are true, and I hadn’t even admitted to myself the reprieve I felt when Charlotte was under a light and couldn’t be held. This gave me a chance to take a few minutes to get some fresh air, take a sip of hot coffee, and FaceTime with my children at home. These all felt like graces that allowed me to enter back into that room.
The words of a wise woman were a turning point for me. Julie Canlis, in the book, A Theology of the Ordinary, says, “Limitation was written into their perfection, because limitation put them in a proper relationship with the Creator.”
When I go back to the question of what kind of mother I will be, my hope is that I will be a mom who can not only name my limitations, but also find the relief and comfort in them that will open up my heart to trust God and others with my children’s lives, and ultimately with my own life.
Rachel Blackston loves all things beautiful…rich conversations over a hot cup of lemon ginger tea, watching her three little girls twirl around in tutus, and Florida sunrises on her morning walks. She resides in Orlando with her lanky, marathon-running husband and her precious daughters, priceless gifts after several years of infertility. Rachel and her husband Michael co-founded Redeemer Counseling. As a therapist, Rachel considers it an honor to walk with women in their stories of harm, beauty, and redemption.