Continuing with our Story Week theme, I'm pleased to share Diane's story of her son's start in a NICU, and how breastmilk made all the difference. To the right is a picture of the first time Diane was able to hold her son.
Almost 5 years ago, I gave birth to a premature baby boy. He was 3 months early, less than 3 lbs, and born at B.C.’s Children’s Hospital.
I said one day I would write about it, about what it was like: this coming apart, this birthing. So, 5 years later, here it is.
I was 37 years old. I thought I knew what love was. I thought I
knew. But I have never loved anyone, anything, so fiercely, so
terribly, so wonderfully, so achingly, as I did my little son, my only
child, struggling in that incubator.
The day I remember most was about a week or two into it when his breathing kept slowing down, all day long. I watched him, all day, hooked up to IV lines, tube feeds, alone in his incubator, his monitor beeping on and off, his heart rate and breathing dropping precariously low.
Then I remember being huddled in the back seat of my car in the middle of a hot Vancouver day, sobbing on a long distance call to my mother: "My whole heart is in that incubator. Mum! My whole heart!" Surprised at my own intensity, wondering if she, or anyone, could understand what I felt, how much I loved that little child. But also somehow desperate that she understand how completely I needed him to breathe better, to live. How utterly alone I feel when I sit beside him and I can't pick him up, like I'm not actually watching this happen to my baby, but rather something in my own soul - my entire heart is torn open and taken from me. And there's nothing I can do to get it back. I'm alone in a desert that stretches out for miles ahead of me, behind me, around me, above me; there is no return, no options.
What I wanted my mother to understand is that when I said my whole heart, I actually meant it. That, at that moment, I understood love could never be fractured out or parceled here and there, doled out when I felt able, or familiar, or loved back, but was something indivisible, complete, piercing.
So I joined the other too-soon mothers in the special care nursery, us incubator-watchers. I would watch, hover, hang on every word from the doctors, every nurse's chart notation, IV change, tube feed. Everything. I, the big picture "don't bore me with the details" person became vigilant - nothing was too small to escape my attention. Because I couldn't do anything else. He was too fragile to hold much, too tiny to feed. I couldn't hold him, soothe him, nurse him. I could only watch him, monitor his machines with full aching breasts dripping milk, holding nothing.
There we were, hovering around like bees in a hive. Together in this clinical place, but also alone. Alone in our own worlds, our singular obsession with the child that it is ours in name and spirit, but who is caught in a sort of limbo world of high tech machines and medical care. Watching our babies whose bodies were held in this web that we weren't part of but somehow got trapped in.
I don't usually talk about this, partly because I have a hard time thinking about it still, and partly because it seemed like telling the story without telling the inner story would be dishonest, incomplete. Like how I kept dreaming of water, of being swept away in a flood and desperately holding on to my baby amid the raging floodwater - clinging to a rock or a tree or something on the side of river, desperately afraid, me and my baby, how there is no rescuer coming. I can only wait it out, hold on to him, alone, wet, scared. How I still have these dreams, dreams of water sweeping me away. Not having ground to stand on.
This is how I felt. I loved and still love that boy with all I have. Because I couldn't hold him much, and felt terrible guilt for not being able to 'hold him in' for the entire 9 months he deserved, I was determined to breastfeed. I pumped every 3 hours for weeks on end. That pump and the milk that came out of me was my lifeline. It was somehow the way I was going to make it up to him for giving him such a lousy start in this world. So when I read stuff like "The Case against Breastfeeding" I get so angry. I believe that my breastmilk, and the good care we got at BC Children's saved my child's life. It saved my life. If there is anything in this crazy, crazy world that is really is a gift from God it is the babies we can create and the milk that comes from our bodies.
If anything is pure and natural, and real and true, it's breastmilk. It made me feel like a mother when my baby was all alone inside a machine when he should have been inside me.
Anyone who dismisses breastfeeding so casually, or by their attitude or indifference creates an environment that doesn't hold up and encourage and cheerlead a new mom into a successful breastfeeding relationship has lost touch with something. They've lost touch with a sense of what it means to be a mother, what feeding a baby is all about, what it means to nurture, how significant that breastfeeding can be to both mother and child.
So how does the story end? Well, something amazing happens. He begins to grow. He puts his little mouth right on my nipple (then falls asleep, he is still too young to suck). Then they move him from intensive care to special care, from the specialty neonatal ward at BC Children's to the nursery at at a local hospital closer to home. One day, he is out of the incubator and in a little basinette. Except for the monitor wires and feeding tubes (which I barely notice anymore), he looks like a regular baby. And then one day there is no tube! He is feeding well, growing, healthy.
And then, one happy happy summer day my sweet husband and I pick up our son, put him in a car seat, and like regular parents, take him home.