A toxic environment.
That’s what my doctor called my uterus.
He didn’t really mean it to sound so harsh. “The infection in your uterus made it too toxic an environment; we had to get him out fast”.
Getting him out fast meant distress, which earned Oliver an express ticket to the neonatal intensive care unit, Das Piper told me later that at one point his heart rate went from a terrifying 189 beats per minute to an even more terrifying 45 beats per minute just before he was pulled out.
Getting him out fast meant less time for my body to adjust to Oliver’s shape and size, which earned me a long and painful repair and recovery. All told Oliver and I were not discharged from the hospital for 5 days after his birth.
At the beginning of our 5 day stay in hospital, I thought little about it. The doctors and nurses assured us that we were both healthy, and that the IV antibiotics were routine and harmless. In short, we would be bringing home a totally healthy and normal bouncing baby boy, just a few days later than expected.
A number of contributing factors meant that we would be spending this time in a tiny curtained off corner of a larger public room watching other families come and go. There was the teenager who spent most of her stay alone and crying while frantically text messaging on her phone, the east Indian family with the delicious smelling food that made me even less excited about the hospital slop I was eating, the family from out of town who were evidently hard of hearing judging by the astronomic levels of their television’s volume.
I took it all in stride. I smiled and nodded at the nurses trying to tell me how to breastfeed, all of whom had different ‘facts’ and opinions about how I should be feeding my child. I didn’t punch the lab techs that came in every morning to draw blood from my baby right there beside my bed. (They don’t just use a needle on infants; they cut their little feet and squeeze out drops.) And I stayed calm and optimistic while learning to clean, calm and feed my son around the IV and the hoses attached to it, all the while telling myself that after 5 days, I could bring him home and never have to think about it again.
On the 4th day, when Oliver was in the nursery receiving his daily medication, they told me that his IV needed to be redone, again. I'd heard him crying on my way back from a soak in the gross hospital tubs. I entered the nursery to see his arm swollen around the IV. I had just enough time to kiss his head and find out that the IV had slipped out of his vein and allowed some of his antibiotic to be injected into the tissue rather than his blood stream, before they whisked him away to the NICU for the third time to have it fixed. When they brought him back I lost it.
For lack of anywhere else to put it they had stuck an IV line in my son’s head, then handed him back to me along with a bag of the hair they had to clip away to do it.
I know it sounds really stupid to be upset about a few little pieces of hair, especially when it was medically necessary and part of keeping him healthy. But that little bag of hair completely ruined every ounce of strength, patience and calm that I had in me. That little bag of hair, and the barely noticeable bald patch it left behind on my son's head would be a constant reminder to me that my body had made my baby sick.
When I saw that little lock of hair, the one that looks almost identical to the one my mother still carries with her from my late sister, a little voice in the back of my head said ‘There! You see! Proof, physical proof of your negligence.’ That same voice that had been quietly asking why I hadn’t mentioned having a slight fever to my doctor, why I had been so quick to assume that my flu like symptoms were one final bout of morning sickness, and not a sign that my uterus was infected and becoming less hospitable by the day.
That little bag of hair was a reminder that my uterus had been a toxic environment for my baby, and I was suddenly terrified that the toxicity wouldn’t end there. What if there was something wrong with my milk? What if there was something wrong with our home, and the environment we were taking him to? What if I dropped him, or bumped him, or somehow injured him by accident? What if I fucked this kid up so far beyond repair that he became an axe murderer or something and the police and all the news papers would say that it was as a direct result of his toxic home environment?
Thank God for Teresa the night nurse who sat with me and rubbed my back while I clung to my baby (who was fine and slept through the whole procedure by the way) crying how sorry I was for the 15 minutes it took Das Piper to throw on some clothes and drive like a mad man back to the hospital. And thank God for Das Piper, who managed to calm me down and reassure me enough to breastfeed and then go to sleep.
Since being home I have calmed and reassured myself that everything will be ok. I’ve come to accept his little tiny bald spot that no one but me notices, but even more important than that I have come to accept the profound vulnerability that comes with being a parent. I have come to accept that pretending everything was ok in those first 3 days in the hospital would never have worked even if they hadn’t cut his hair, because even without the bumpy start, I would still be worried about doing the right thing, I would still be worried about being good enough for my son.
Today Oliver and I attended our first Y’s Moms group. Y’s moms is a totally free walk in social group for mothers of small children held at the YMCA. The purpose is to have a place to talk about what has been going on in yours and your child’s life, whether that is good or bad, and to provide a support group of other parents. When I mentioned this vulnerability, that I hadn’t been prepared to be suddenly so fragile, there was nothing but complete understanding in the eyes of the other mothers there.
‘It’s that vulnerability that makes us good mothers’ one woman said. ‘If there was nothing on the line we wouldn’t work so hard to give these babies the best we can give.’
Now, instead of symbolizing all of my guilt and terror over an infection that was not my fault, and not something I could have prevented, that little bag of hair is a reminder of the extraordinary change that this little boy had made in me. For better or worse, I am his mother, and I am giving him nothing but my absolute best.