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When I dreamed of forging into womanhood as a child, my ideals invariably encompassed three primary events: Fall in love. Get married. Have children. Immediately after the birth of my son in 1995, I quickly learned that parenthood was about more than baby showers, tiny layettes, charming little baby clothes, a few sleepless nights, and proud morning strolls around the neighborhood with a perfect little baby in tow.
When I dreamed of forging into womanhood as a child, my ideals invariably encompassed three primary events: Fall in love. Get married. Have children. Immediately after the birth of my son in 1995, I quickly learned that parenthood was about more than baby showers, tiny layettes, charming little baby clothes, a few sleepless nights, and proud morning strolls around the neighborhood with a perfect little baby in tow. I learned within minutes of his birth, perhaps seconds, that I wasn’t the least prepared for what motherhood was really all about. The sheer amazement of my husband’s two little eyes gazing back at me from a tiny, blue blanket in a stark white delivery room. The enchantment of watching five, powerful little fingers wrap themselves firmly around the timorous forefinger of a proud new father. The undistorted feeling of honor the first time I nursed my newborn son. The inexplicable thrill of watching two, precarious little legs stand erect for the first time or witnessing their first endeavor at a stride. But there I was. Without any effort at all, nobly joining the ranks of millions around the world, evolving every day into an integral part of an elite camaraderie whose members shared one distinctive bond – the gift of parenthood. So this was what motherhood was all about.
When we learned of the pending arrival our second child three years later, we experienced all of the same emotions and exhilarating fears all over again, honoring every minute of it, virtually holding our breath until that 40-week mark arrived when we would finally meet the newest member of our family. Our daughter, however, had other plans. 27 weeks into my pregnancy, I went into preterm labor. I felt obscurely removed from the entire birth experience with every passing contraction and with every member of what would later be her neonatology team calmly marching across the delivery room, various medical devices in tow. I had worked so diligently to attain the vaginal birth I had craved after a surprise C-Section with my son, yet, as I was succeeding at pushing my daughter through the birth canal, something that I had once thought would be one of the most profound feelings of accomplishments in my life, I thought to myself, "This doesn’t count." She entered the world, weighing a mere 2 pounds, 7 ounces and measuring a diminutive 14 inches long. I watched intently as this tiny creature, whose eyes opened wide and met my own at the same moment, was immediately whisked away. I observed helplessly as she was bestowed to a team of neonatologists and nurses whom I had never before met. And later, as she was nonchalantly escorted from the room, not knowing if I’d ever see my little girl alive again.
In all of scenarios I fashioned in my mind about having children, never once did I ever imagine having a premature infant. Perhaps because I knew in my heart that seeing my child clinging to life, struggling to breathe, was something that I would never have been able to handle. I had seen "them" before in magazine articles, human-interest television programs and occasionally, in person, yet I never envisioned myself as the parent of one of these tiny creatures. But here I was. Faced with a whole new sensibility that I had never before equated to those I had once experienced as a mother. No baby showers. No tiny layettes. No morning strolls around the neighborhood. Just a tiny, helpless human being cleaving to her own spirit with the aid of unfamiliar wires and beeping machines. A tiny creature who, I was told, was my child. And the dim prospect of a long walk in the direction of my home down a hospital corridor with nothing in my arms but a plant with a little white card that, instead of "Congratulations!" read, "Our Prayers Are With You."
The first time I saw her after delivery, I watched as her delicate, almost lucid, chest rose and fell with startling intensity, as her tiny, perfect nose and brow twitched in retort to the resonance of the machines that surrounded her. It was a while before something inside of me told me that it was acceptable for me to touch my daughter. And I did. I watched in numb bewilderment as her hand, no bigger than a silver dollar, touched mine and wrapped itself around my finger and as her dark blue eyes opened and met my own once again. It was then that I knew my daughter would be coming home with us.
I pledged to procure some semblance of normalcy back into my life and with each passing day, I found myself misfiring more and more miserably at my endeavors, asking God, "Why? Why did You do this to us? What did we do to deserve this and why are You taking it out on this helpless little baby?" I resented these feelings, but the pain I was feeling from the separation of my daughter was so intense that it literally stung me 24 hours a day.
Over the next few weeks, I listened intently to doctors and nurses discuss the prognosis of my child and with confidence, cultivated my knowledge of terms such as bradycardia, retinopathy, bronchopulmonary dysplasia, patent ductus arteriosus, intraventricular hemorrhage, necrotizing enterocolitis, and other combinations of vowels and consonants that I would have never dreamed would be components of my vocabulary. Knowledge was power, after all, and I was determined to thoroughly understand every medical term that was thrown my way in hopes that it would somehow ease my suffering. Somewhere along the way, I hung up my neonatology dictionary and began to position my focus on my daughter and the intuition that I was blessed with as a mother. I watched quietly with my arms folded neatly against my chest as the ventilators on which she was dependent for breath were carefully withdrawn from her tiny lungs -- reminding myself that her body, at the time, weighed less than the encyclopedia from which I had done my research -- and I studied the perplexed faces of the medical staff as they stood back and watched her hold her own.
I silently squealed in elation each time I was "allowed" to change her diaper, each time I was asked to take her temperature. Prototypical tasks that I once took for granted were suddenly illuminating and extraordinary. I recited a silent prayer of thanks each time she gained weight, sometimes smiling at the concept that I was now counting growth in grams instead of ounces and pounds. I tenaciously analyzed the gestures of friends and family who visited as they walked into the neonatal care unit with tightly clenched fists and forged assurance for my benefit, unsure of what they would find within the walls of her acrylic bunk, only to remit their grips and breathe an honest sigh of relief at the first sight of my daughter. Her strength was visible and astonishing, almost startling, and I realized that not only I had been effortlessly drawing from it with every passing day, but that she was touching others around her as well. She was healing me.
Ten weeks later, the word that we had been waiting to hear was finally pronounced: "Discharge." Our daughter was coming home. The emotions traveled all the way from euphoria to concentrated waves of doubt – "You mean I’m in charge of her now?" I momentarily regressed back to the days immediately following her birth and challenged my abilities to cope, but my lack of confidence quickly diminished as I looked at her in her tiny pink going-home outfit and contemplated the odds she had already overcome. And reminded myself of the personal odds that I had conquered myself.
As the hospital staff was scrambling to gather her belongings, disconnect monitors, and compose discharge instructions, I reflected on what this experience had meant to me (of course, my thoughts were somewhat cluttered over the chaos of the marching band and the balloons and confetti falling from the ceiling of the hospital nursery!). I had undergone the holiest and the most harrowing of ordeals. The pain of separation between a mother and her child. The anguish of praying for one of my children to survive. For weeks, I had watched helplessly as fellow mothers kissed their babies goodbye, wondering why I had been allowed to keep my own and offering a silent prayer of hope for each of them as they struggled to let go.
I had, somewhere along the course of my life, convinced myself that I was void of the strength that it would take to endure the birth of a sick child and I emerged with a new capacity of which I had never known I was capable. Through my daughter’s own depth and power, I survived. And I emerged with a new awareness of my own abilities as a woman, as a mother, and with a renewed grasp on the "gift of parenthood." And the fragility of life. Our family had emerged with a new definition of what is significant in life and what is irrelevant. We had come through our experience with a powerful new alliance and a true doctrine of the fact that miracles do, in fact, befall. And sometimes in the form of something so tiny and so fragile that we could easily miss it if we aren’t paying close enough attention.
Through this experience, I discovered the answer to perhaps the most profound question I had once asked. God didn’t do this to us. He did this for us. And I am thankful every day of my life for that little girl who, despite the struggle she faced, hung on with both tiny hands and managed to touch the lives of everyone around her through her undying determination to persevere. She is perfect and strong and beautiful. And I’m honored to have been chosen as her mother. As I wave goodbye to a significant part of who I once was, I am slowly getting to know the stronger and more capable one whom I am now proud to call myself. Along with my daughter, I made it. And I now know, through my newfound strength and faith, that I can sustain the most challenging of scenarios life may offer me.
This is what motherhood is all about.