The entire month of June slipped by without me writing a word here and being my favorite month, it deserved at least a nod. June is also when my favorite season begins but much more significantly, June is when my daughter was born. This year, perhaps because she is across the country and we did not get to celebrate together, I was recalling our rocky start. Because she was born almost 2 months before her due date of August 1, Molly did not get to leave the hospital until July 5. Not until then did I feel like she was mine. The hospital was in charge and I felt like a devoted visitor.
During the weeks after her birth, I went to the hospital as if to work – although with infinitely more love and excitement than any job I’ve ever gone to. Neil worked at the United Nations base in Brindisi which is also where the only hospital in the area with a neonatology department was located. He would drop me off at the hospital gate by 8 AM and I’d take the elevator up to the ward, my heart pounding. You know, when you first fall in love and feel the thrill of getting closer and closer to your adored one? That was the feeling. After hurriedly scrubbing up and putting on a green gown, I’d go in to the room where her open incubator was, lean over and aiming between tubes, kiss her impossibly soft skin. My day of vigil sitting would begin.
Molly’s eyes were covered to protect them from bright lights shining on her to get rid of jaundice. It was days before I got to hold her and see her gorgeous blues. One of the nurses placed her carefully in my arms, tubes still attached. She was lighter than our smallest cat. When the nurse lifted the gauze off her eyes and blinked at me like a little bird, I wept.
I always get a pang watching on-screen birth scenes (Call the Midwife anyone?) when the baby is handed over to the mom for a first cuddle, all swaddled and wet. No such luck for me. Molly was swept off in an ambulance to Brindisi, 40 minutes away from the teeny hospital in Ostuni where they kept me for 3 days. Neil followed the ambulance to the hospital and because of visiting hour restrictions, did not return until the following day. Pre-cell phones, I didn’t know a thing until the next morning when Neil came in with the polaroid photo of her all tubed up. I thought she was beautiful even then.
I’ve never been one to get too excited about babies – or even kids. But I really wanted this child and I fell hard for her during those weeks in the hospital. Being a parent of a premie is initially different, from what I can tell. That is, until they catch up to where they should be. And then you mostly forget that they ever were behind and forget that you once were worried sick about them 24-7. Until then, the fragility of their life is non-stop right in front of your nose and terror always lurks around the corner. Those weeks, sweltering in the south of Italy, in antiseptic rooms darkened to keep the heat out, I existed in a kind of other-zone. Progress was measured by weight. We were lucky with Molly’s little lungs and our brilliant neonatologist who was a believer in low-intervention and never intubated her. She was a champ but we kept a nebulizer around for a few months anyway. It’s all about the breath, life.
It’s also all about feeding and as a UNICEF project officer, I knew the benefits of breast milk and was determined. And bless those Italian nurses who did everything to support us moms. It took about a week before Molly was released from the tubes and I was encouraged to try and breast feed. The routine was, all of us mothers would take over the nurses’ rickety chairs and wait for the nurses to weigh our infants. Then we’d get our breasts out and give it our best try for about 10 minutes. But premie babies usually aren’t very good suckers as the follow-up weighing revealed. While in the hospital it was rare that I ever received any report besides ‘niente‘. The scale revealing no intake. That’s when the bottles of breastmilk we’d pumped for back-up were brought out. Now I understand this weighing business is flawed but at the time, it was disheartening. Still, I persisted and by the time Molly was home, she was breast-only baby and I continued nursing until well past a year and yes, I’m still proud of that.
From the time I was 28 I knew I really wanted to be a mother. Of course deciding you want a family and making it real are two different things so I was in my mid thirties by the time I became a joyous mom to my beloved girl. I was ready, so ready to welcome this girl into my life. At 18, I was not ready. To this day I am grateful that I had a choice. My daughter should have a choice. EVERY woman should.