Of course, I was ready to be a parent. I had the world by the tail. I was twenty-nine, married and possessor of a lovely split level home in the suburbs, complete with mortgage, fenced yard, Newfoundland dog and retirement funds being marched into an iron-clad savings plan. My husband, John, an engineer and, more importantly, a planner from birth, had finished his Master’s Degree, achieved his Professional Engineering license, and was smoking his way to career nirvana. I’d wanted children since time began, and we were in the right place at the right time. The pregnancy itself was “normal” meaning I had the usual heaves, backaches, emotional swings and exhaustion, but frankly nothing to obsess over. I decided I was perfect for motherhood and motherhood was perfect for me.
I’m now fifty-seven and a lot more seasoned. If I’ve learned anything in the last 28 years, it’s that there is nothing more fragile than reasonable expectations and well-laid plans . . .
It was a dark and stormy night - it really was - and there was already an inch of ice on the road. It was 12:15 am on Monday, January 11, 1982. I was 7.5 months pregnant, my due date was February 22. Freezing rain was falling from the sky in the way it does in the East County of Portland, Oregon. East winds were blowing up the Columbia River Gorge, peaking at 60 mph bursts. Occasionally, a fir bough would break off from a tree and smack against a window, and the groan of the wind pressure was heaving on the east side of the house. Still, when my water broke that Monday morning, I snapped awake because I’d never heard such a “pop” when the wind blew.
When I felt the rush of the waters and the mattress soak, I knew this wasn’t “wind.” Our little person had decided to be born early and it was our mission to get my belly to the hospital ASAP. I woke my husband and for at least a full 10 seconds we stared at each other.
We had both planned our trip to the hospital, but surely after a full term pregnancy. Weren’t firstborns notoriously late? I did have the baby’s room ready, with crib, layette, diapers and pins (no disposables for me!), and a dresser filled with generic baby clothes (those days we never knew what the sex of our babies were). We’d attended our first (and, in the end, last) Lamaze class, and I had, actually, packed my bag. The Lamaze book was on the nightstand.
So much for planning -
We grabbed the bag and the book and headed off to the hospital, a slick and hideous 20 miles away. The wind WAS at our back, but with the roads icy, not a plus. John had dressed quickly and so did I. On the way to the hospital, John would ask “Have the contractions started” and I’d lie “No” then I would ask “Are the roads bad” and he’d lie “No.”
Amazingly, when we got to the hospital, the contractions stopped. But we were able to verify that it was amniotic fluid that was still leaking all over my clothes, and hospital staff scurried me off to change into a gown.
In the end, “real” labor lasted 12 hours, which really WAS a blessing since most first labors are much longer and harder. In prenatal classes, I had been properly programmed to decline pain killers, and in the panic of an early birth, stayed away from drugs. In my hormonal rut, I was still rational enough to decide that this baby had enough problems with prematurity to add drugs to the picture.
Labor progressed faster than John could read. He’d be at Chapter 4 of Ferdinand Lamaze’s book, and I’d be dilated to 8 - not a scenario we’d envisioned. When the doctor finally asked me if I wanted to push, I did, and presto - Peter was a one-push wonder.
He really was a little wonder, with a big head just like his dad’s. He truly was a preemie, but a BIG preemie at 5 pounds, 13 ounces. He still had vernix (that downy hair that covers most fetal bodies) and a form of respiratory distress syndrome that generated a hustle to the Neonatal ICU and an incubator. John said ‘bye’ over his shoulder as he followed his son into sterile oblivion and I was left to bond with the afterbirth, both physically and mentally.
For yuppies who are both control freaks and anal retentive to a microscopic fault, a preemie is a nightmare. Peter was minutes old, six weeks early, and screaming his immature lungs out. Neonatal specialists evaluated him and pronounced him a healthy pre-term baby. In addition, he was long and scrawny - and in the end we all decided it was a good thing he came when he did - had we gone full term, he would have been a double digiter.
His first 24 hours were nerve wracking - we had no idea what a little soldier he was - but things slowly improved. I rested for the first couple of hours after birth, then spent the next two days pacing my sore keester back and forth from maternity to the NICU. I learned all sorts of stuff about things I never knew existed. Peter hadn’t developed a suckling ability, so, although I’d planned on breast feeding him, he had other issues that had to be addressed first. Thus came the inevitable debate: breast milk vs formula, then Kaneson Manual Breast Pump versus the electric model. I learned about the different levels of respiratory distress disorder (Peter’s was less serious), jaundice (it’s more than just a dirty restaurant), and the gut-wrenching pain of being discharged from the hospital without your baby.
None of these issues were covered in my mommy-to-be manuals in those days. During pregnancy I’d read a couple of books, my favorite being “A Child is Born” with all the photos of infants during different phases of gestation. I’d decided to breast feed the first few months, then I would decide how I wanted to address the choice of returning to the workplace vs. remaining at home. Once reality arrived in the form of a premature baby, however, I realized what a luxury the option of “choice” really is.
Before discharged from the hospital without the baby, I learned how to pump my breasts, store the milk in sterile containers, freeze it, then transport it to the hospital to be fed to Peter via little bottles with preemie nipples. After 24 hours, my milk was coming in so well that I was able to both supply the neonatal unit with milk for Pete AND stockpile it as well. This was a good system since the milk from mothers of premature babies is different than full term mommies. Also, since Peter was premature, the antibodies provided by this mother’s milk were crucial to his still forming immune system.
Two days after Peter’s birth I was discharged from the hospital with a Kaneson breast pump (much easier to use than an electric pump in my opinion) and a millennium supply of preemie bottles and nipples. But the hospital, in the huge faux pas of administrative procedure, made me attend the class for new mothers discharged with newborns. As a result, I spent an hour in a classroom with other mothers and their babies, sobbing, whimpering, and frankly, wailing since I was going home empty-handed. All kept glancing at me WITHOUT a baby in a blubbering puddle of tears. I don’t know who this experience was worse for; the staff, the other mommies, or myself, but we all got a pragmatic lesson in post-partum depression.
Once discharged, I spent the next week or so pumping my breasts, visiting the hospital, bringing the frozen bottles with me and taking clean bottles home, feeding Peter with a preemie nipple while my fresh milk ran hysterically from my breasts, and sobbing frequently. For all the waking hours I spent in the NICU, I might as well have remained an inpatient. Exhaustion was a word I finally understood.
In the early eighties we didn’t get “post-partum” depression, we got the “baby blues” and were told to get over it. During my “home hours” I spent time rocking in Peter’s nursery, folding, then refolding baby clothes, and just generally waiting for my husband to get home from work so that he could take me to the hospital to visit Pete. After a few bumpy days, Peter simply started to thrive, so even though he was taking milk from the bottle rather than the breast, he was discharged when he was 9 days old. He was off the respirator, off the iv’s, gaining weight, eating like a wolf and wetting his diapers like Old Faithful.
We were ready. We saw ourselves as responsible, mature adults who could handle a little chaos. At night, I pumped milk, fed Peter, and then John would put him to bed while I ‘stripped’ my breasts of any residual milk for freezer storage. This was a rather lovely arrangement since Peter was a “rocket pooper” and John subsequently became a “rocket changer.” During the day, I pumped milk, fed Peter, changed Peter, cleaned myself up, drank a beverage, took a nap, and then repeated the whole process. John was able to escape to work. Things settled down quickly and we took comfort in our little system.
When Peter was six weeks old, almost EXACTLY on his due date, he latched onto my breast when I offered it to him. I’d been advised to do it and to get him on the breast naturally - but, frankly John and I treated it like a joke. The night he decided that “fresh was best” I already had a freezer full of frozen milk. But honestly, it was such a blessing. John could start sleeping through the night, and a few weeks later, so did Pete and I. We eventually dumped the frozen milk.
Once we all were sleeping, I thought about the work issue, and realized, with children, you will be working forever, be it in the kitchen or the workplace. I decided to just chill out and enjoy the peace as long as it lasted, and John was ok with it as well.
After that, all was normal until, in usual Peter fashion, he decided to start walking at ten months (yep, that’s nine months if you start from his due date). Peter has always been a determined soul with a mind of his own and the spirit of a restless old man. Before he was born, I had no idea that a baby could be so driven, so determined. But that was Peter, born when HE decided it was time, nursed when HE was ready, and walked when HE wanted. The first year of Peter’s life, I learned to put aside personal expectations and just go with the flow.
You can’t block an avalanche.