I thought I had more time to ease into the identity of motherhood, but my little one was born unexpectedly early at 36 weeks. This, on top of having a 2.5 hour precipitous birth where I felt like a freight train had hit me leaving my emotions and endorphins scrambling to catch up. On top of feeling isolated because Kevin and I were the 1st couple in both of our birthing classes and all of our local friend groups to give birth. On top of learning to nurse a premature baby whose jaw wasn't strong enough to suck, and pumping around the clock to supplement. On top of sitting on a 2nd degree vaginal tear and a bruised tailbone for 12 hours a day because the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) room we were transferred to only had a vinyl reclining chair to feed and hold my baby in. It.was.a.lot.
When I gave birth to my little one at our birthing center, Kevin and I never expected that she would end up in the NICU. We were there for 7 long days. While this is short compared to many NICU stays, it changed us forever. The NICU was lonely, exhausting, and scary. Our sanity hinged on updates about our newborn’s condition. Scrubbing up to enter the NICU and walking down the long hall passed all the other baby rooms and nurses’ stations became a dreaded but familiar ritual. With every day that passed, we just wanted to be home with our little one in our own bed, take a shower in our own bathroom, and see our tiny newborn without wires and IVs attached to her.
Nothing we did during pregnancy prepared us for this event: no books or classes or websites. In all of the worst case scenarios I conjured in my mind while pregnant, I only thought of the birth, nothing after. The realization that we were now parents responsible for this tiny human being's life became clearer as each day passed. I was a mom now, a role I thought one eased into over late night feedings and diaper changes.
The nurses and doctors in the NICU referred to me not by my first name, but by “Mom”. The first time this happened, I looked around for my own mother, only to realize, I’m the mom in this situation and I now have major life decisions to make. I felt inexperienced. I was inexperienced. I didn’t know what a mom was supposed to do, but it turns out instinct kicked in. I did the best I could.
I tried to maintain some semblance of control I thought I had over the situation by changing diapers and bottle feeding my baby myself instead of letting the nurses do it. I wanted to be with her every second I could. I cried out of guilt the day I went into my baby’s room and found her sucking on a pacifier. The nurses used it to soothe her because I had overslept my alarm. By the 5th day, I hit an emotional wall. I sobbed in Kevin’s arms, saying I give up. I can't continue in this emotionally exhausted, sleep deprived, uncertain state. I write when I'm overwhelmed to give me perspective, and that day in the NICU I wrote this, "If giving birth without medication has taught me anything, it is that focus on the end goal throughout the intense sensations, breathing through each point got me to the next point and that's how I made it through. This point is tough, and I have to keep the end goal in sight: having a healthy baby. [...] This is not about things turning out how I want them to turn out, but rather letting go and allowing my daughter, a being separate from me, her own healing in her own time."
Our little one was released that night only to be readmitted 2 days later because her condition hadn't stabilized at home under the careful watch of our pediatrician. We had no control over the situation; we could only be as present with it as much as possible. The NICU doctors and nurses at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas were so understanding and sympathetic during our first admission, and even more so during our second. Rarely was a baby readmitted for what Maddie had, and they did the best they could to get us back home fast. They knew we had come from a birthing center and took such good care of us. Dr. Simon Michael, one of our baby’s neonatologists, took the time to really listen to how this experience exposed a vulnerability unknown within us and reminded us of our fortitude in the face of such unexpected circumstances. The staff lactation consultants helped me fight off the beginnings of mastitis, and I become a pro at pumping. Our Austin Area Birthing Center midwife, Meg Rodenbusch and lactation consultant Kimberly, offered immense emotional support that I will always remember. Close friends and family delivered homemade food and much needed items to us at the hospital. We made it through this experience in part because of all of this support, and I’m forever grateful for that.
A few weeks before we went into labor, Kevin and I had attended a birthing class taught by a local yoga therapy instructor and doula, DeLora Fredrickson. In it she described something I will never forget. Labor is like a labyrinth she said, once you enter the labyrinth, you are alone. There are people supporting you during birth, but they are on the outside. When you emerge, and you will, you are changed. You are a mother.
A piece of embroidered art hung up on the wall of the long NICU hall we walked down every day to our baby’s room. It was a labyrinth. On our little one’s last discharge day, a young girl about 8 years old was skipping along in that hall. I had seen her with her NICU family before, but we had never interacted. She stopped me in the hall as I was walking out for one of the last times and said, “Are you a mommy?” I was surprised by the poignancy of her question and proudly answered, “Yes. I am.”
Sofia Salazar, Life Coach
Sofia Sarah Salazar is a self-care advocate, life coach, mother, partner, and former motorcyclist, world traveler, photographer, New Mexican transplant, women’s college graduate, and so many other things. She believes that pregnancy, birth, and motherhood is a unique opportunity to harness and share your creative power as a woman. She is the creator of MamaCare Summit, an online self-care resource for expectant and new moms.