Porter and Mommy around 3 weeks old
That sunny day in late August of 2006, I really, really did not think I would have a baby that day. It wasn’t time for him to come. He was due October 2. I’d been going about my business as usual that day, taking our dog Tinkerbell for her walk, doing laundry, even doing my yoga routine, for goodness’ sake.
I must say, though, that even though I knew it wasn’t time for him to be born yet, I was done sharing my body with this little alien being who was sucking the nutrients out of my body. Pregnancy was not a glowing, relaxing, time of contemplation over new life for me. I was tired of getting fatter for the sake of someone I didn’t know yet. I still bore the scars from the miscarriage in 2005. I knew, I just knew, that if I had an early baby, that the baby would die.
In fact, the day before Porter arrived, I’d composed a birth announcement to send out to a few family members and friends, in case the baby was stillborn. That’s where my mind was at that time.
Our doctor in Grinnell was one of the truly greatest doctors I’ve ever had. He was very kind when we had the miscarriage. I knew if I went into preterm birth before 36 weeks that he would not be delivering the baby in Grinnell, that he would send us to Iowa City. He sent me there at 32 weeks, when we first discovered I’d been having contractions. But at that time, he just called ahead and let Jared drive me in at 32 weeks.
I remember our doctor’s face when I just blew him off and told him I could easily drive myself to Iowa City. I genuinely believed that I could drive myself there. The doctor’s face was pained. “I know what can happen out there,” is what he said quietly. For those of you not familiar with the Iowa landscape, there’s not a lot between Grinnell and Iowa City, other than pasture. No close hospitals, for sure. Our doctor was not releasing me to drive myself.
The doctor’s office was never over-crowded. I mean, it was a town of 9,000 people. But he certainly had a busy practice. Nevertheless, he shut down his entire practice and made me and the baby his priority for the afternoon. He saw to it that we got the iv started there in Grinnell. He waited with me, in the hospital room in Grinnell, while we waited for the ambulance to come. This was no small amount of time because the ambulance had to come from Des Moines to take us to Iowa City; that ambulance had been on a call with another patient and there were only two servicing ambulances at that particular time, for our particular region. And then, our doctor himself rode in the ambulance with us to the hospital in Iowa City.
Porter was crying before he was even out all the way, a blessing to this mommy who had been so convinced he would die. I will never forget the scene: the lights were off except for the soft spotlight the doctor was using. I was not at all interested in holding the baby because, well, I was shaking from just having given birth. So Jared held him and I remember just being so proud that Jared finally had a baby of his own to hold, that I had given him a son. I don’t need a picture of that moment, it’s burned in my memory forever.
Porter was actually in really good shape when he was born. His Apgar score, for those of you who know what that is, was 8.9 and he weighed 4 pounds 7 ounces, which was a higher weight than they expected him to have based on how tiny I was at the time and how little weight I’d gained. I’d gotten a betamethasone shot a couple of weeks beforehand, to help speed up his lung development. But there were still problems with his lungs. They didn’t do an emergency-style rush off to neonatal intensive care, but they told us he would have to go for observation, at least.
And that’s where our NICU roller coaster began, where my angst and loneliness and anger and mistrust of the well-meaning, really, originates. We were there in the hospital with Porter for five weeks. Our doctor from Grinnell was our first visitor, something we did not expect him to do at all. I will never forget it and I will be forever grateful to him for his generosity and kindness to our family. Our parents visited the first week. My aunt e-mailed me every day. Some very good Grinnell friends visited. But the reality is, we had not involved ourselves in a church yet, and there was no one else. So for a large amount of time, we sat there watching and waiting, alone. Let me clarify: for a large amount of time, I sat there watching and waiting, alone.
I was scared my baby would stop breathing, that his heart would stop beating, and there was no one but Jared. And Jared’s first semester of graduate school started the week Porter was born, so he was busy a good portion of the time. I will say that the blessing was that he had paid paternity leave for six weeks from work, otherwise I’m not sure our marriage or my sanity would have survived. And they moved Porter back and forth from the NICU to the pediatric wing because, thankfully, even with all of his problems, he was still one of the more stable babies and the NICU was crowded.
Keep in mind that this entire time, I was not under the care of a psychiatrist or a therapist. I was in denial about my bipolar disorder and I did not have time to do checks on myself to see whether or not postpartum depression was setting in. There just wasn’t time to take care of me. I spent all my time pumping for the hours that we spent away from the baby, away from the hospital.
I know there are those of you who cannot imagine having a baby in the hospital and leaving it for one moment. I myself was one of those people before Porter was born. Jared himself was a preemie; he spent his first 30 days in the very same NICU as Porter. And my in-laws had no choice at the time but to commute back and forth to visit him. I remember Jared telling me the stories and I remember saying to him, “But why didn’t they stay with you every second?”
I’ll tell you why I couldn’t stay.
One reason is because of the constant switches back and forth between the NICU and the peds floors. Different nurses, different sets of rules. It can drive a person mad.
Another reason is the blasted alarms that were constantly attached to my child. Alarms that showed his breathing rate. Alarms that showed his heartrate. And, alarms that were going off every couple of hours or so, because his breathing rate and his heartrate would cut in half. That’s what was wrong with him. That can drive a person mad from fear alone. I remember the doctors and nurses kept telling me constantly to look at the baby, not at the monitors.
Another reason is there is stuff to do to get ready for a baby to come home. Laundry still had to be done. Errands had to be run. Those things don’t just get done by themselves.
And then there was Tinkerbell, our dog. She was my saving grace, my angel here on this earth who loved me and sat with me and ate her silly cigarette butts when we went on walks. Jared and I never smoked but there were enough people in our neighborhood who did and there was a never-ending supply of the leftovers. She loved those stupid things. It’s bizarre for a dog to have a nicotine addiction, but I think she did. Tinker had to be taken care of, but in those 5 weeks while we waited for Porter, she really took care of me as much as I took care of her.
So I simply could not stay at the hospital with Porter 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 5 weeks in a hospital is nothing like 5 days or a week in a hospital. It’s just not like it at all.
I bear scars from the time when Porter was in the hospital. There’s no doubt about that. Healing is slowly but surely taking place for me, but I know it will be a life-long process. What I’ve learned is that one has to have the wisdom and strength to ask for help. It’s not an easy task; I know from experience. For me, it boils down to the fact that no one can read my mind. I used to expect that people should know what I need and that what I need should magically appear. It takes trust that the person you ask will not turn you down. And then, it takes resolve to remember that we’re all only human: if someone says no or does not follow through, that doesn’t mean that the next person will say no. I reached out to a few people, but when they were unable to visit, I gave up. What I know now is that one should never give up. Luckily, I’ve since been reminded of the kindness that exists in this world. There are people who want to help. You just have to be strong enough to keep asking until you can find it.
No one should have to go through a family crisis alone. That much I know for sure. But I desperately want to grow past the outrage I’ve felt when I look back to that time in my life. It colors various relationships to this day and it’s a stumbling block in my growth.
The experience changed my entire outlook on being a parent. It affected the way I parented Porter as an infant when we came home with him. Not only was I not becoming the “attachment parent” I wanted to be, I was becoming detached from him completely. I know that detachment has gone on in various ways to this day. I’m snapping out of it, but it’s taking conscious work on my part and continued therapy.
And then there’s making my peace with God. You see, there’s one person who would have been there for both Jared and me. There’s one person who would have likely practically moved in with us for that time Porter was in the hospital. I knew it then and I know it now. Jared’s mom would have totally gotten it, because she had been in my precise position.
She would have been there anyway because she was Jared’s mom. She would have been there for us as Porter’s grandmother and as my mother-in-law. But I suspect she also would have wanted to be there because she would have remembered first-hand what it was like when Jared was that little baby in that same Iowa City neonatal intensive care unit. Had she still been alive, there would have been someone very close in the family who would have understood exactly the terror that I felt for those five and a half weeks. She would have understood it because she lived it herself.
So, there you have it. I’m angry at God for taking away Jared’s mom two weeks after I married Jared. I loved her a lot anyway. But she alone would have understood where I was at in my desperation for Porter in his early days, and she was gone.