For months, while lying in bed, examining my underwear for blood, and staring at sonographers’ screens, I’ve wondered: when something seismic happens, will I recognize it?
On message boards, when women ask how to tell the difference between Braxton Hicks contractions and the real thing, consensus seems to be that when it’s the real thing, there’s no mistaking it. “You’ll just know,” writes one woman after another.
But will I really? That’s not how it happened with my miscarriage last year. I’d been Googling “How do you know if you’ve had a miscarriage?” for a week, but it took a baby falling from my body and into the toilet bowl below for me to know.
Maybe this time will be different. I’ll feel a gush of fluid, or a rush of pain, and think, “Something’s happening.” Or perhaps I’ve been so numbed by this pregnancy’s many false alarms – by the bleeding and leaking that preceded my admission to the hospital for an amniotic rupture ten days ago – that I’ll dismiss the big moment as just another anomaly in this turbulent pregnancy?
I didn’t consider the possibility that nothing seismic would happen. That it would fall to a blood test and a monitor strapped to my stomach to tell me something had changed. That the machines would be so much more finely tuned than my own senses. That, while I blithely characterized some minor cramping as “nothing to worry about,” the machines would be sounding the alarm to save my son’s life.
But that’s what happens. On a Saturday evening nearly two months before my due date, a test result reveals that my white blood cell count has skyrocketed. An electronic monitor, meanwhile, tells me that my mild cramps are in fact contractions: 6 of them in 20 minutes.
And so, an emergency c-section.
So much for that “You’ll just know” wisdom.
The intimate quartet present when the machines made themselves known—one nurse, one patient, one husband, and one baby—is augmented now by a pack of medical professionals. First comes my obstetrician, fresh from another delivery. Then the hospital’s attending physician arrives, trailed by a small classroom’s worth of residents. Last on the scene are several people who seem to be there for the sole purpose of thrusting iPads in front of me, asking me to consent to every possible outcome of tonight.
It’s only now, as I’m experiencing the first literal emergency of my life, that it dawns on me how every other emergency I’ve faced has been figurative.
“It’s an emergency!” I’ve written in so many work emails, as I clicked that aggressive red flag that marks a message as high priority.
“It’s an emergency!” I’ve shouted on customer service calls with insurance companies and airlines, hoping to skip the 30-minute queue to speak to a representative.
“It’s an emergency!” I once texted my husband Emmett, when I forgot my keys and was sitting, uselessly, on our front porch.
But now, it actually is an emergency.
Emergency isn’t the only word I’ve lost the privilege of being quite so cavalier about.
As one bout of bleeding after another dragged me into a depression, I stopped flippantly using phrases such as “I want to die.”
As months on bedrest bent the bounds of my sanity, I no longer criticized others for “acting so crazy.”
And when a blood test revealed my son was at risk of chromosomal abnormalities and developmental delays, I exorcised “He’s on the spectrum” from my vocabulary.
Once, long before I was pregnant this time or the time before, I was standing at a New York City crosswalk when I overheard one man say to another, “She looks like she didn’t get enough time in the oven, if you know what I mean.”
I turned to the friend I was with: “What does he mean?”
“Like she’s ugly because she was born prematurely?” she ventured, then shrugged. “Hell, I don’t know.”
As I scribble my signature onto consent forms without reading them, I wonder: will my baby look underbaked?
And if that’s all that goes wrong—a child for whom the consequences are purely cosmetic—will I consider myself lucky? Or will I mourn the absence of some ineffable appeal, some sort of beauty or symmetry, as deeply as any parent who hadn’t been pre-conditioned to expect the worst?
I’ve always felt both my good and bad luck so acutely.
I had an unhappy adolescence, during which I saw myself as an extraordinary person with the bad luck of being born into ordinary circumstances. So from ages 13 to 15, I set that ordinary life aflame. I debased myself so boys would love me. I asked my eating disorder counselor how many calories were in a multivitamin. I got caught shoplifting a Lip Smacker from a mall department store and stonewalled a security guard so he couldn’t call my mom. I had both low self-esteem and delusions of grandeur, feeling at once entirely unworthy and so much better than everyone around me.
Later, I had a streak of incredible luck, a time when I felt like the only person in the world who was truly living. From ages 22 to 24, I started an MBA at Yale, moved to New York, and met Emmett while backpacking in Prague. I felt chosen then— special and sun-kissed and somehow ordained. Blessed with some self-fulfilling sureness that I’d come through everything just fine.
But you don’t get to keep that feeling. And you don’t get impartiality either. So I’ll never know whether the woman I am now—average, human, fallible—is the woman I always was, and I’ve just grown more self-aware with age. Or, alternatively, is she simply what was left when the untouchable version of myself wore away?
Of my luckiness, I’ve come to this conclusion: I’m mostly lucky—by place and parentage and pure chance. And until recently, my unluckiness could largely be attributed to my skill for picking up on the fine gradations in circumstance that separate me from the luckiest of all. But this pregnancy, and the miscarriage that came before it, have been unlucky by just about any measure. Neither easily won nor easily kept. Neither healthy nor happy.
Now I wonder: will my son’s birth make me luckier or unluckier? And what, given this pregnancy’s circumstances, constitutes good luck? Would merely surviving be good luck? Would my son being able to breathe on his own be good luck? Would getting to fulfill the principles my baby books espouse—the skin-to-skin, the breastfeeding, the bonding—be good luck? Would looking fully-baked be good luck? Or is it not good luck unless my premature son emerges from me in perfect shape, as if none of this ever happened?
No, not the last. That would be a miracle.
Since my first night in the hospital, when I surrendered my street clothes and jewelry and assumed the role of anonymous patient, I’ve been slowly clawing my individuality back. First, I began wearing yoga pants beneath my hospital gown. Then, I added a top layer of roomy cardigans. Finally, I dug a necklace I’d previously worn every day for nearly a decade out of my change purse and put it back on. Like a Catholic school student surreptitiously shortening her skirt, I thrilled in these small acts of subversion. I loved, and have always loved, the feeling of getting away with something.
But, I hadn’t been, not really. As I heave myself out of bed and towards the wheelchair that will roll me down to the labor and delivery unit, a nurse holds up her hand to stop me.
“No, no, no,” she says, wagging her finger back and forth. “You have to get rid of all this stuff.”
“All this stuff?” I ask, feigning innocence.
“Lose everything but the gown.”
So I peel off the things that make me me and slip back into anonymity. Open-backed, butt-bared anonymity.
All the evening’s developments—the infection, the contractions, and the frenetic energy all around me—feel manageable until I approach the operating room.
Until Emmett is on the phone in the hallway, telling my mom to get in the car and start driving south to New York.
Until I ask to go to the bathroom and a nurse checks his watch nervously, as if the 90 seconds it would take could make us 90 seconds too late.
Until I enter the operating room, take a seat on the cold metal table, and have the only panic attack of my life.
The effort of sitting, of holding my upper body upright as I await the insertion of an epidural into my back, is Herculean. My vision blurs, my limbs tingle, and I feel both impossibly hot and bone-chillingly cold. As lights dance in front of my eyes, I catch my reflection in the pockmarked aluminum operating table. At first the reflection gently quivers, then it quakes. Nobody seems to notice, because even though the dozen or so people in the room are ostensibly there to tend to me, I’m just the vessel. And then, as I start to pitch forward, as I see the ground rushing towards me, the same nurse who almost denied me permission to pee catches me.
“I got you,” he says, breaking my fall. “Just try to stay calm.”
Maybe, I think, I should try the Serenity Prayer. ‘God grant me the wisdom’ and all that.
For this entire pregnancy, I’ve resisted the urge to recite its pat wisdom, to submit to the rote repetition advocated by the same message board posters who prescribe mantras, vision boards, and power poses to stressed mothers-to-be. Plus I don’t want to be the godless person who reaches for a higher power in a moment of crisis.
But then I reason, if not now, when? If ever there was a time to break a principle, to say or think or self-soothe in whatever way works, it’s now. So I ask. For the serenity to accept what I can’t change. For the courage to change what I can. For the wisdom to know the difference.
And I’m not sure if it’s the prayer that works or the epidural (probably the epidural), but time slows, and when it speeds up again I’m on my back, splayed out like a game of Operation, a scaffold of surgical apparatus rising around me. Emmett stands next to my head, in full scrubs, holding my hand. It’s so strange to see him dressed like this, as if he could switch places with the doctors at any time. “Dr. Fraser, time to make the abdominal incision.”
As the anesthesiologist asks me a series of questions—Can I feel my thighs? Can I feel my calves? Can I feel my toes?—I listen to one of the residents chat with our obstetrician. The resident is from Vancouver and our OB’s son went to school at Queen’s, so the two of them begin to talk about Canada as they prep my body for our baby’s removal. I feel vaguely frustrated—my cousin lives in Vancouver, my brother went to Queen’s, and I’m Canadian. I have something to add to this conversation! It takes me a moment to realize that here, for one of the first times in my life, my ability to make conversation is immaterial. If anything, it’s a distraction.
So I fall silent, lie numbly, and pray to a God I don’t believe in as the small talk wanes and the doctors begin the serious business of bringing my son into the world.
I don’t remember if my son cried when he was born.
If he was relaxed or writhing.
If he was red rather than blue.
If his arrival was greeted happily or frantically.
But I do remember that they brought him to me.
That a nurse held him next to my face, and I craned my neck to see him.
That all I could manage to think, as I gazed upon his tiny, blanket-wrapped body, was that he looked like a baby.
And then the moment was over. So quick that I didn’t have a chance to hold him, to smell him, or even to take in much more than the fact of his existence. So quick that I didn’t have time to memorize his face before it would be buried beneath breathing tubes for almost two months.
As he’s whisked away to the NICU, a pack of people trailing behind him, I turn to Emmett. “Go with him,” I mouth, and Emmett does.
The doctors put me back together and move me to a recovery room. I wait for the anesthesia to wear off so I can move the lower half of my body. I watch indifferently as a pump pulls milk from my breasts. I feel numb and think of nothing. It’s the blankest I’ve ever been.
I don’t check my phone for word from Emmett.
I don’t worry whether my mom is safe as she speeds down the highway in the middle of the night.
I don’t dissect the brief flash I’d seen of my son for signs that he’s disadvantaged, disabled, or doomed in some way.
I just wait.
Occasionally, someone comes by to ask me if I can move my toes. When I can’t, they note as much on an iPad and promise to return. And so I lie there, for one minute or perhaps ten or perhaps thirty, willing my toe to wiggle, so that I can answer definitively, when they do return, that I am ready to go see my son.
By dawn, Emmett has gone back and forth between my room and the NICU several times. He bears bad news with each visit.
“His breathing is labored,” Emmett says.
“His knees seem to be reversed or dislocated,” he reports.
“There’s a whirlwind of activity around him, but the doctors are keeping me pretty far away from it,” he complains.
I nod, but I still feel blank. All I can manage to think, as Emmett tells me these things, is that, objectively, they sound very bad. “Go back,” I say, and he does.
Finally, when I successfully wiggle my toes, Emmett is allowed to wheel me upstairs to the NICU.
We’re waiting for the elevator when my mom arrives. She steps out of the elevator that we’re about to get into – a confusing and strangely cinematic moment that I react to as woodenly as I have to everything else these past few hours.
“Oh honey,” she says, looking down at me, her eyes full of tears. “You’re a mother.”
“Yes,” I reply, saying it but not feeling it. “I’m a mother.”
Though it may not feel like it, though it may not feel like anything, I’m a mother now.
A mother clutching a near-empty specimen tube of the thick yellow milk a machine managed to coax from her breasts.
A mother made formless by the mountain of blankets on her lap, yet still shaking violently from the after-effects of anesthesia.
A mother who has barely seen her own child.
I tell my mom we’ll meet her in the recovery room once I’ve remedied that. Emmett and I take the elevator up one floor, pass two security checkpoints, wave our hands beneath automatic hand sanitizers, and finally reach the NICU. Though it’s now blazing bright outside, it’s disturbingly dark in here. The blinds are drawn and the light is limited to bits that manage to leak in through tangled slats.
“What part of the unit is he in?” I ask Emmett.
“Towards the end.”
“How close to the end?” After I was admitted to the hospital and it became obvious that our son would likely be born very early, one of the neonatal residents who stopped by my hospital bed to introduce herself told us that the u-shaped NICU is organized by severity. The healthiest babies are near the entrance, at the top of the unit’s first long limb. The most endangered babies are at the end of the second arm.
“We’re almost there,” he says. “You’ll see.”
At first, I don’t.
When we turn a corner into the room where my son now lives, I don’t see anything except for machines. My eyes skip from one plastic surface to another—a blue plastic machine thrumming, a white plastic machine humming, a tan plastic machine tethered to a metal pole beeping infernally—as I search in vain for something soft to settle on. Like bodyguards protecting something precious, these machines surround the most important machine of all—a clear plastic incubator so riotously reflective that my son remains hidden from view. As Emmett slowly rolls me forward, I’m flooded by an involuntary reel of analogous images—of glass jewelry cases and Popemobiles and the acrylic plastic cage I kept my hamster Hammy in when I was a child. I see, in my mind’s eye, dozens of things designed to secure, to shield, and to contain. But I don’t see him.
Because he’s mostly machine too, a boy beset by breathing tubes, IVs, sensors, syringes, and gauze dressings that obscure half his body. But beneath it all, he’s there, a composite of so many lovely little details—smushed ears, downy limbs, creased wrists, arched brows, and legs that don’t resemble any legs I’ve seen before or since.
A few weeks before my son’s birth, when Emmett and I were decorating his room—assembling shelves and arranging books and eyeballing the evenness of picture frames—I pulled my old American Girl doll out of the closet and added it to a box of his would-be toys. Always self-centered, I’d customized the doll in my own image rather than buying a ‘Kit’ or ‘Samantha’ or ‘Addy’ off the shelf. She had my brown hair, my blue eyes, and my upturned nose, all rendered in the appealing neutrality that is the brand’s signature. But when I reached for my doll doppelgänger, the elastic that had once tightly tethered her legs to her body gave way, and “Justine’s” legs flapped wildly, twisting and turning beneath her jeans. When I set her down, her feet faced backwards.
And so, when Emmett told me our son had dislocations in his legs, I imagined something like that—otherwise ordinary limbs that had slipped free from their sockets and gone slack. I didn’t understand all the ways that a limb forged in a bleeding, leaking, claustrophobic womb could bend – how his hips could splay, how his feet could rotate, how his knees could bend backwards at such an angle that his bones became visible beneath his thin skin.
Now, as I gaze down at our silent, sleeping boy, another set of analogous images comes to mind—twisting strands of DNA from medical segments on the news, gnarled tree branches, and logarithmic spirals. Because rather than bending into that prim, vaguely frog-like position so common among infants, my son’s legs instead stab dramatically up and out into the air, turning at angles I couldn’t have imagined and still don’t have the language to describe. He does share one thing in common with my doll, though; his feet are completely reversed.
I turn to Emmett, who, having apparently already assimilated the state of our son’s legs into his conception of what life is like now, seems more sad than shocked.
“His legs look like someone turned a sweater inside out,” I say.
“Yeah, I mean I guess they’re a little wonky,” he concedes, trying to smile.
“That’s an understatement.”
“He’s alive, though,” Emmett says, his eyes getting watery “I almost don’t believe it.”
“Is he going to be alright?”
“I don’t know. Nobody’s said much to me.”
I look around, craning my neck in search of someone who can help. Who can tell me what the presence of so many machines means. Who can explain the cause and consequences of these backwards legs. Who can reconcile the difference between the baby-looking baby I saw in the operating room and the machine-looking baby I’m staring down at now.
“It’s OK,” Emmett says, one hand on my shoulder and another on the top of the incubator. “I’ll go find someone.”
Someone eventually comes, and though I don’t remember who it was or exactly what they said, I do remember feeling comforted. I remember someone explaining the difference between the feeding tube snaking down our son’s throat and the nasal cannula tethered to his nose, and feeling like both were temporary. I remember the word ‘resilient’ being used to describe him. I remember laughing at our boy’s little raptor cry, and how it was the sound that made me realize, really realize, that he was real, living outside of me, and alive enough to be irritated. I remember someone urging me to return to the recovery room, to tend to my own throbbing wound and rapidly swelling ankles, and I remember listening to them.
It’s in that room, not an hour later, that a doctor I’ve never met comes to tell me that our son has a pneumothorax. When I stare at her blankly, she clarifies: “That means he has a collapsed lung.”
Emmett has gone home to get some sleep and gather supplies, and so she’s asking me, just me, for permission to insert a port into our son’s chest to give him some relief. They also have to intubate him, the doctor explains, which means putting him on a ventilator that will breathe on his behalf. Of course, of course, I mumble, pausing the machinations of my already omnipresent breast pump to squiggle my signature onto yet another iPad. When she leaves, I ask my mom to look up what it means to be on a ventilator. When she won’t answer me, I Google it myself.
Being on a ventilator means being on life support.
It also means, and somehow this hits me nearly as hard, that as long as he’s intubated, I won’t be able to hear his little raptor cry. The tube that doctors will insert into his airway will stop him from making any sound at all.
“How do you know if it’s bad?” I enter into the search bar of a baby message board.
“You’ll just know,” it replies.
This time, I do.
Justine Feron lives with her husband and son. Her writing—also on the subject of motherhood—has appeared in Slate, the Huffington Post, Globe and Mail, and Motherwell. She’s currently working on a memoir about the many ways someone can be a mother without having a baby at home.