The scar he lightly touches with his tiny, tender fingers is the most recent one, while hers lies beneath it. They are two lines drawn in the sand of my skin. The tides of time and healing have transformed what was once oozing, thick and infected. Just as the scars are fading, so are their births slipping away. Neither of them are babies anymore, nor have I forgotten what it was like to be a refugee fresh from the land of birth trauma.
Memories from the hospital are pungent. Like the odor of antiseptics and sterile dressings that entered my nostrils, thoughts infiltrated my vulnerable mind: It's happening again; I didn't try hard enough; I messed up my second birth too; I already messed you up my son. They flooded in. It wasn't supposed to go like this. I thought it would be different this time. I thought I could do better. I have failed. Again.
I remember waking to feel his baby kicks nudging me gently from within. It was only hours ago that he, my second child, had been in my body. But now he was three floors below me. These phantom baby sensations alerted me to the incredible nightmare that I hadn't yet held him. A primal urge to go to him was so intense it felt like I would either vomit or scream. I would have thrown the sheets off my swollen, sliced-open body in an effort to run to him if I could have. But one incremental movement started the searing pain, flowing up and down my legs, swirling through my hips and filling my lower back until the burning found a home in my belly. I had for so long envisioned the ecstasy of pulling my babies from my body and laying them on my chest for their critical skin-on-skin bonding time. Using only their sense of smell, they would creep toward my nipple for their initial suckle. Instead, my son was in the NICU, just like my firstborn had been, intubated with a breathing tube and being fed formula.
It was as if I was a child that had accidentally let go of her balloon. As it floated into the sky, I wondered, What ever happened to my orgasmic water birth at home? Wasn’t it possible for all women to give birth naturally if they just tried hard enough? I had imagined a blissful lotus birth, where I’d keep my baby attached to the placenta until his umbilical cord fell off freely. I had saved my firstborn’s placenta in the freezer with the intention of burying both of them together in the soil and planting a lilac tree on top. I had even considered dicing it up and swallowing it one chunk at a time to ward off the demons of postpartum depression. Either way, my heart sank when the nurse said with disgust and reproach in her voice that this placenta was too badly infected to be saved and must be incinerated.
I used to wonder, if I'd given birth a different way or if we'd had that initial soft bonding time, would mothering them be easier? No, that's a bunch of bull. Lying with my children in my arms now, I am hit with the absurdity of thinking even for a nanosecond that because our skin-on-skin contact was so limited, I had somehow already botched my job.
All I can do is let go of the self-criticism and relax into the truth: I am trying my best, and my babes are thriving before me. Effortlessly, they curl into me when we fall asleep, and the shapes of their closed eyes are the same as when they were infants. I remember their baby smell. During round-the-clock feeding vigils when my husband and I worked to simply keep them alive, I would inhale the sweet floral scent emitting from their fontanels, a magnetic perfume that smelled like a prayer. That aroma lasted for months and was so attractive, like a fragrant flower, leading me to spend years lying on my side nursing them. The early days of their lives are over, but each time one of them jumps onto my lap or tackles me, it is with total acceptance and supreme gratitude that I praise, they are here. I am here. My injured heart is now full, and my wounded body is stronger than ever. I want to say a supreme thank you to those who helped me along the way.
To the compassionate resident who found an empty room for me after I had been discharged and planned to spend the night in the chair next to my baby, those few hours of rest were delightfully deep and restorative.
To the kind male nurse who leaned over me with helpful suggestions on how to breastfeed my daughter. Her latch was poor. She was too sleepy. So was I. I felt like giving up. It seems surreal that a patient grandfather figure would offer me gentle tips on this thoroughly and unexpectedly frustrating activity. Within my stormy feelings of sadness and guilt, his patience and strong faith were islands of calm.
To the soft-spoken nurse who firmly said to my baby's doctor, "Excuse me, but we don't use the F-word around here. Her son does NOT need more formula when she has a fridge full of golden yellow breast milk." I am so grateful you honored my every-two-hours pumping and feeding routine.
To the determined, bold young nurse who knew better than I, her dazed post-operative patient, the seriousness of the situation. She wheeled my cumbersome hospital bed between doorways, around machines and into spaces so tight that people needed to walk single file to pass. As I looked up at her, I saw only a sense of gracious urgency.
"There he is," she said with forced cheerfulness. I turned my head to see my son for the first time, just minutes old with tubes and wires taped to his little torso. He looked like a tiny baby squirrel. I was afraid to touch my baby, to disturb the apparatus keeping him alive. I called out to him and tried to reach into the round, plastic opening covering him like the shell of a fragile sea creature. My nurse wheeled me closer so his weak little hand could wrap around my pinkie. I didn't realize until later that this could have possibly been all the sight and touch I ever got.
To my husband, when I desperately asked him, "How is he?" He responded, "He's OK. The breathing tube is out. I’m glad you didn’t see it, it was awful, I had to turn away. They asked me to not to watch.” No longer hiding his fear, I knew he was talking about the intubation procedure that our newborn son needed right after birth, but it would be months until I remembered that I did actually watch the entire thing, all pumped up with hormones and narcotics.
"Did you get to hold him?" I asked. My heart raced with anxiety.
"No not yet, but soon." He came closer to me in his endlessly supportive manner.
"Can I go see him?" I tried to stuff down my feelings of regret, self-pity, grief, anger and loss of control as I awaited my husband's answer.
"Yes, if you can into that wheelchair," he said as he rolled one next to my bed and I started to cry.
As my tears dripped, I looked down at the bottomless crevasse stretching between my bed and the wheelchair. I would have rather fallen off my bed into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit three floors down than attempt to move my legs.
The black pleather seat seems to be extremely far away, but it would transport me to him. I hoped it would be the one last thing in the nine months of effort in order to finally hold my baby.
First, my husband pushed the button to raise the back of my bed for me. Then, he pushed my hips, moving me into the desired position while I grimaced, groaned and grunted. I was thankful to be sitting up for the first time that day. He asked if I was ready, then slowly lowered my legs to the side of the bed. Here we go again, doing our familiar dance of him supporting me through surges of intense discomfort, I thought. In agony, I hobbled my way into his arms and he lowered me onto the seat. Thank you for continuing to bring your endlessly supportive manner into their childhoods.
It's all elbows and knees these days, trying to find room with Mama in the tub. Thwap, thud, our body parts hit the sides creating little lapping waves. I never know when I'll get poked too hard in the stomach or ribs, just like when they were inside of me. My girl is all long, leggy limbs, yet I can still cradle her against my chest with the stronger, larger bicep of my right arm and smell the top of her head. He's not far behind; sliding through the water, pulling himself up over the landscape of my figure to find a spot nestled in my left arm. He's squishing himself into a small bundle of toddler torso, chubby feet, soft arms, and folded legs, just so he can fit into the curve of my bones and flesh.
As my two children rest in the arms in which they were held as swaddled newborn bundles, they look up with the same sleepy, smooshed-up faces. She's on the right and he's on the left. Their little growing bodies press against mine, and I have no doubt they are attached to me. Each time one of them makes this journey through the warm water along my body and I reach down to hold either of them, I imagine that this is what it might have been like to birth at home. This is what it feels like to put someone you love, more than you could ever imagine, onto your heart and allow that love to soak into them forever regardless of how they entered the world.
"Mama," she asks with such naive sweetness, "where did I come out?" Her deep brown eyes are on a quest for who she is and how she came to be. She's searching my eyes for how she got here, and I tell her.
"I birthed you right here. You came out of me, your powerful Mama."