By Gabrielle. Micro Lemon Elephant via Made With Clay And Love.

Babies who arrive earlier than scheduled or with complications carry with them a bassinet full of feelings. There’s disbelief, sheer terror, a never-ending case of the what-ifs packed in with the daily now-whats, and then there is the guilt.

For Monica, the biggest surprise about becoming a parent is the ever-present feeling of guilt. There’s a quote I read once that guilt feels like carrying an elephant. It’s a weight that will crush you no matter if you deserve it or not. Oh, guilt, you are not the greatest parenting partner, are you?

Please join me in welcoming Monica, her heartening experience, and her guilt…which I hope is long gone, or at least the size of the tiny elephant above!

I have two wonderful children. A hockey-obsessed seven-and-a-half year old, and a feisty 18 month old…or rather, a 15 month old. It’s not that straight-forward, you see?

Neither of the births was straight-forward, either.

My son was five weeks early. My water broke at noon on a Friday, while I was at work. It was the day after a snow-storm and it took us an hour to drive to the hospital. I did not even get chance to really wrap my mind around what was happening because within three hours of my water breaking, I was given an emergency C-section after my placenta ruptured and by son’s heart-rate dipped to 60.

I was under complete anesthesia for the procedure, and did not get to hold him or even see him right away. My husband caught a glimpse of him as he was taken into NICU for observation. He was small at five pounds three ounces, but healthy, and we were fortunate to be able to take him home only a few days later.  Everything had worked out. He was healthy, and that’s all that mattered.

I occasionally had moments of regret that I did not get to experience that special moment when you get your first glimpse of your newborn baby, that enormous wave of love washing over you. Instead we felt relief that it had all gone well. After all, it had been a serious situation.

Aidan was a relatively easy baby. And the unexpected experience of his birth eventually faded into memory.

Six years later, my pregnancy with my daughter was considered high risk. Mainly because they were never able to figure out exactly what had happened the first time, and also, I was now 37. Even so, my mentioning that I was feeling contractions as early as four months did not really result in any additional observation.

You can imagine my panic, when at 28 weeks my water broke during a delicious dinner of ribs. We tried to keep calm. As calm as you can be in such circumstances. My husband drove us to the hospital, while I called my sister to come meet me and get Aidan. I was not ready, and all I could think was “Oh, no…not again.”

I knew it was early, way too early, and it was nearly impossible to keep negative thoughts at bay. The baby was breech and they were unable to stop or even slow down my contractions. The nurse was starting to look concerned when she realized that I had gone from level one to level three contractions in about half an hour. The Obstetrician on call was called out of surgery to see me. She let me know that there was no way around it: I needed a C-section…immediately. No time to argue, think, evaluate. Really, what other choice did I have?

And so, once again, three hours after my water broke, my daughter was delivered via emergency C-section. No magical moment, no personal space, no natural experience. But at least this time I was conscious for the procedure and was even able sneak a peek before she was rushed into the NICU.

We were numb. Scared. Completely disoriented.

It took another eight hours before I was able to go see her. I did not feel pain as I tried to get out of bed and into a wheelchair to make the 50m journey to her. When I first saw my newborn baby in the isolette, all I noticed was her full head of hair. Strangely enough, I did not take note of all the wires attached to her, at least not at first.

Sienna was a tiny two pounds and ten ounces. I always joke that she was the size of a rotisserie chicken. She did not have an ounce of fat on her, her skin was see-through, and she was still covered in a fine layer of hair. The cartilage in her ears had not yet formed and they looked strangely fragile and stuck to her head. I remember sticking my hand through the door of the incubator and fearfully touching her, surprised at how warm and dry she felt. I felt numbness, nothing else. I was afraid to allow myself to feel any other emotions, especially not that guilt that hovered around the periphery of my thoughts.

Thus started our eight weeks stay at the NICU. Talk about an emotional roller-coaster. We bounced around between feelings of panic, careful optimism, frustration, joy, impatience, pride. It was exhausting trying to absorb all of the medical information we were being bombarded with. We tried really hard not to Google anything and miserably failed at that, which of course only increased our level of anxiety. We would leave the hospital and keep hearing the beeping of heart-monitors and the alarms of different machines echoing in our minds. All this while trying to maintain a normal environment at home for my older son, who was dealing with being overshadowed by a sibling after having enjoyed his status of only child for a glorious six years. But in a way that helped. We would drop him off at school in the morning, head over to the NICU, spend the day with her, then pick Aidan up at school, and resumed our daily routine.

The hardest thing was leaving. There was no possibility of spending the night really. They encourage you to leave, get a change of atmosphere, but it is impossible to shake that nagging feeling of worry, and especially GUILT.  Oh, the guilt! The biggest surprise to me, in becoming a parent, is the amount of guilt that I feel all of a sudden. Or is it just me?

Health-wise Sienna was stable, but since her lungs were underdeveloped she was intubated to help her breathe. It took about two weeks for her to open her eyes for the first time. At first, she was fed through an IV. Because her veins were hair-thin, it would sometimes take up to 45 minutes to insert the needle. And the IV had to be replaced almost daily as her veins would eventually give out. This meant that we had to watch her go through this torture on a regular basis, and also that eventually they ran out of veins to use, and had to shave her hair in order to put IV’s into her scalp. (I would end up bringing her home completely bald.) She was jaundiced, so had to spend a few days tanning. The nurses would fashion a bikini from a surgical face-mask to cover her up, which was adorable, but also gives you an idea of her size. We were told that she had a heart-murmur.

It took me about a week to bring up the courage to hold her. I was terrified. Who is afraid to hold their own child? But there you have it, I was afraid. And there it is again, that nagging, ever-present guilt.

So the days ticked by. Some were better than others. We were ecstatic to hear she would not require surgery for her heart; they were treating it with medication and it was showing improvement. Then again, one day we noticed that she seemed less responsive, very lethargic. We mentioned it to her nurse and she promise to keep a closer eye on her. It was especially hard to leave that day. That motherly intuition was setting off alarm bells. Sure enough, at 11:00 pm we received a phone call. Blood tests had shown that she had caught an infection and was septic. She needed an immediate blood transfusion to treat it. We did not sleep all night, we cried, we were terrified, we felt guilty for not being there with her. She recovered, we started feeling positive again. Up and down it went like that.

Progress was painfully slow, but it was progress. We kept telling ourselves we were lucky, she was strong, and there was nothing to worry about. More days passed, she was stable, and eventually she was ready to be bottle-fed. There was no question of nursing her, she was already six weeks old, and it was imperative that we know how much milk she was taking. And thus we had our next challenge. Turns out she had laryngomalacia (a soft larynx, mainly due to her immaturity), which meant that she would choke several times during a feed, complete with alarms going off because the machines she was attached to would signal low levels of oxygen. On a few occasions she needed oxygen as she had turned purple and her tiny fragile lungs could not recover on their own. She would also take forever to finish a bottle. A quantity of 60ml could take up to 45 minutes. It was torture. As much for her, as for us. But until she mastered the art of feeding, there was no leaving the hospital. She got better at it, but it was painfully slow. Eventually we were told that ready or not, we would be discharged, as she was considered stable enough to leave and the feeding would simply take time and practice.

But not before we faced one more challenge. A few days before we were scheduled to leave, her blood tests showed that she was anemic. Premature babies often are. The situation was monitored, but in the end she was anemic enough to require another blood transfusion.

And then all of a sudden, we were told, she was ready to leave. After having waited for weeks to be able to take my baby home, and care for her myself, full time, in the comfort of our own house, I have to say, I was terrified. Of course the amount of terror I felt was matched by an equal amount of joy. After all, being sent home, meant that she was doing well, was improving, getting stronger, better. The first weeks at home continued to challenge us. I was plagued by insecurity. She was still choking while feeding, and now I had no machines to rely on, to tell me if she was recovering fast and well enough. Would I have the presence of mind to know what to do if something happened? Would she continue to thrive? Would I be able to recognize the signs of a new problem? I felt completely inadequate, but…what choice did I have?

What I came to realize is that you have to dig deep, to listen to that motherly instinct, to your common sense. That bond between mother and child is there, no matter what course a birth takes. In a way, for me, I think that bond is even deeper, because I had to wait for so long for her to be mine, because it was all shrouded by such worry and concern.

It took months for me to be able to stop worrying and actually start enjoying being her mother. I loved her from the moment that I knew she existed, but I only allowed myself to feel that love much later. It was too scary and painful before that point.

She is now almost 18 months old (15 if you count from her due date), and she is a handful. She has just taken her first steps. I feel that I am in turn taking my first steps to see her as regular child, and no longer the fragile, vulnerable being I was afraid to hold. I am catching up on cuddles and smiles, kisses, and hugs. And I am acutely aware of how lucky we are, because many mothers in my situation do not get such a happy ending.

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Oh, Monica. Thank you. “It took months for me to be able to stop worrying and actually start enjoying being her mother.” Isn’t that the reality when something goes awry with one of our own? And the way you describe finally bringing Sienna home, without the safety of the monitors and medical professionals two steps away, really hit me. This baby business is scary, isn’t it?

Here’s a question: For all those with babies who came to the party early, how do you calculate their ages? Do you find yourself explaining the numbers like Monica did?

P.S. – Find all the stories in this series here. Do you have a story about birth, pregnancy, adoption or infertility? Send your story to me, will you please?