My postpartum room was eerily quiet as I held up one of the tiny preemie onesies and name placard up against the streaming sunlight of my window, snapping a photo. A photo without my baby. My body had labored through the night and desperately craved sleep. But all I could think about was that my precious Sloane had been whisked away to NICU by capable but foreign hands before I could count all her tiny toes or stretch her out in my lap to stare in wonder into her deep eyes. Deep, wonderful, blue eyes. Eyes that I believe had already seen the glory of heaven, and yet chose to fight to come earth-side. And, oh, how I ached for her.
Rewind almost 24 hours to the last Saturday afternoon of A+M’s Spring Break. All day long I had been sensing that something was shifting. I felt unsettled. Uncomfortable. Hyper-aware of Sloane’s every kick and movement. Hyper-aware that she wasn’t moving as much as normal. By 9:30 pm, I called my midwife and told her that I needed to be admitted to L&D even though our consulting perinatologist had left instructions to induce our high-risk baby at the slightest hint of something amiss. I couldn’t pinpoint it, but I knew that time had come. I called L&D, knowing that I was committing to having a baby that night. And in that moment, I didn’t hesitate.
In the first few hours as Saturday bled into Sunday the 21st – the Spring equinox – I vacillated between my mama brain and my doula brain. I greeted the nurses on-call, as I would have done as a doula arriving with one of my client families. I stated my gestation of 35 weeks and 5 days as though I was giving medical report. Ran through my own medical chart, history, concerns, etc, as though I was on-staff versus the patient in question. Looking back, I see now how I was coping by slightly separating myself from the situation in this manner. My mama’s heart was terrified. My doula’s body was calm and in control.
David and I wore masks, though I quickly shed mine and dared anyone to say anything. I was not laboring in that thing. Sloane looked and sounded perfect on the fetal heat rate monitor and ultrasound, and my midwife gave me one more chance to back out. I plowed onward. Around midnight a dose of prostaglandin gel was administered to help my body slowly ease into an induction. By 2 am, though, my body had taken over and the planned induction switched of its own accord into active labor. Starting around 3 am until Sloane was born about 10 hours later, I contracted about every 3 minutes. It was intense, exhausting, overwhelming, all-encompassing.
David was an absolute rock as the hours wore on. He massaged my back and hips. He kept me hydrated. He prayed. He held the space as I listened to my meditation soundtracks and tried to soften into the intense waves of contractions that just Would. Not. Stop. We both knew what was at stake. I had received two doses in the preceding days of steroids to help Sloane’s lungs mature, but we didn’t know if there had been enough time for those steroids to be effective. We had both listened to the perinatologist reports for the last 15 weeks or so, giving us few assurances of what the coming days might hold for our tiny girl. For unexplained reasons, Sloane had been measuring around the 2nd percentile most of my pregnancy and had begun showing signs that her body was protecting her brain and heart by shuttling nutrients to those organs versus her limbs, etc. There was not a thing we could do, but pray that she would hold on. Looking into each others eyes as the contractions continued to come, we knew that our sweet girl’s life hung in the balance.
Staring around at the very sterile hospital room walls as dawn crept through the window, I couldn’t help but long for the birth center space that I formerly managed. The huge, pristinely white birth tubs. The yoga ladders hanging on the wall to support natural labor positions. The big queen beds with fluffy white comforters and woven blankets. The midwives and doulas that were some of my best friends. But where we were in the hospital was the safest place for Sloane, and that trumped all. I knew this birth would be my last: that my body might not be able to survive another hard IVF cycle, pregnancy and birth given my track record. And I had dreamed of a quiet affair with some of my favorite people gathered around a quiet tub to the light of candles. But in the reality of the morning of the 21st, I prayed only for a baby that breathed when she was born.
As the morning wore on, I labored in nearly every position. Sitting on the birth ball was one of my favorites. I tried the shower, but the hospital happened to be out of water pressure AND the drains weren’t working so the bathroom began to flood. Back to the birth ball and then the bed, as exhaustion set in. I hadn’t slept in days as a side affect of the steroid shots, so I was pulling from reserves that made me wonder if I would be able to see this thing through. Toward the last hour or so, I asked for the nitrous oxide because my doula brain reminded me that even in my exhausted state, I was breathing for Sloane and I could barely draw a full breathe myself.
Around noon, I measured 7 cm. That is a daunting number when you have been laboring without pain meds for about 10 hours with contractions peaking every three minutes most of the time. My team began rallying around me and coaching me through each draining wave, as I clung desperately to my reminders to soften my jaw…my shoulders…my body. I was deep inside myself at this point in a place where I think only laboring mothers go. You teeter between the brink of new life and the shadows of darkness. As a doula, I know what a mama’s eyes look like when she enters this space. She is lost to all but the deeply intense precipice she is approaching. She is perhaps at her most powerful point, and yet her most vulnerable. She is as valiant as a lion, but as lost as a newborn kitten. It is in this space that I have been honored to hold the hands of many women as they make this solo journey. As they transition. I have wrapped them in warm blankets and helped anchor them to the here and now, while they fought through the shadows for new life. And it was in this shadowy space that I now found myself.
I remember beginning to fight to remain in my body. After Micah’s traumatic birth where both he and I nearly died, I had to claw my way through the memories that wanted to bog me down. I think this was maybe the only moment that I briefly asked for an epidural – anything to numb everything that I was experiencing. But with the encouragement from my midwife that Sloane was nearly here, I held fast to those words and continued to ride the waves – only faintly aware of what was going on in the room around me.
At some point, I snapped back into my doula brain with the realization that my voice and noises had made that subtle shift that you learn to recognize in the birth world as a signal that a mama is ready to push. Nurses began to move quickly. I was vaguely aware of my midwife running back into my room with her turkey sandwich clutched in one hand. The pain was intense at this point. My body made the shift from 7 cm dilated to fully dilated and pushing in about 45 minutes. I ended up in a position that I didn’t like, but that was apparently incredibly efficient because before I knew it I could hear my midwife’s voice urging me to “stay with her” and “push.” There is a high chance that I swore with words that don’t normally ever escape my lips in polite company.
Barely five minutes later at 12:55 pm with the Spring equinox sunshine pouring through the window, I heard Sloane’s first cry. Reaching for her, all I could think was that she was breathing. We were breathing together. We had made the transition. And we both wept.
For 15 beautiful blissful minutes, I clutched her close. The NICU team buzzed around us, but I shut them all out and soaked in my daughter. It would be the last time that I would get to hold her for many, many long hours. It would be the last time that I would touch her without permission for many, many long days. If your child has been in NICU for mere days or many months, you know this ache. This grief. This visceral longing that makes you want to tear out the tubes and rip off the cords and sweep up your baby and run. There is no logic to it. No rational thought goes into this fantasy. But that is all you know: this deep urge to claim your baby and hide away from the rest of the world. Your body and heart know what medical charts don’t include – a mama bereft of her child is a force to be reckoned with.
Around 3 pm I found myself in a postpartum room without David or Sloane. The fierce, full-body shaking had finally subsided, and the eerie calm had descended. Due to the pandemic, hospital policy allowed for no additional visitors to NICU and only one parent at a time was admitted. I had sent David with Sloane when the NICU team wheeled her away. And so now I found myself – suddenly – nearly completely alone. My sister Danielle had arrived after Sloane was born, and she was with me during these hours, as I reeled myself back in and found my bearings. Sitting in a hospital bed. Adrenaline crashing. Body crashing. Clutching a preemie onesie and a name placard.
Sloane Julianna Jayce. 3 pounds, 13 ounces. Born of sunshine and prayer and deep, deep love. And through it all, I kept remembering that she chose us.
We never were given a reason for her severe intrauterine growth restriction, as her placenta and cord were healthy at birth. BUT, in a moment that made me pause, we realized that Sloane was born without any amniotic fluid. My bag of waters had never broken in a gush or in a leak during labor. If I had not followed my knowing that Sloane needed to be born Saturday night, she might not have survived. And we would never have known why. Sometimes I just sit with that and am grateful for my own body and for my Divine Heavenly Father.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, I was able to walk myself to NICU through the locked doors with the help of intercoms, security bracelets, more hand washing than I knew what to do with, and the beacon of hope reminding me that I was about to get to meet my daughter…again. I first saw her in the covered incubator with David’s hand reaching through the hole to grasp her tiny fingers. She had oxygen tubes taped to her and heart rate probes and a pulse ox attached. But she was mine. And I didn’t even care how many “firsts” I would never experience because the NICU team did those things or saw those things while I wasn’t there. She was mine, and we would fight together. I began whispering to her everyday that we could “do hard things” and “you are brave, magical, and strong.” I asked Jesus to hold her when I couldn’t. I carted around a breast pump everywhere I went, wore masks, re-sanitized my hands over and over again, so I could sit by her side and talk to her. Hold her for the brief 10-30 minutes every 10-12 hours that I was granted. It was torture. But we could do hard things. We were brave, magical and strong.
NICU is its own world. Time ceases to exist. Monitors beep constantly in the wards. Alarms constantly go off – sometimes because a baby’s oxygen is low or his or her heart rate is high or simply because they shifted slightly and a probe popped off. It is maddening. It is steadying. It becomes everything.
Visiting hours fluctuated around the nurse’s long day and night shifts, and after I was discharged from the hospital soon after birth, we began the challenging process of figuring out a rhythm. At first I stayed in a nearby hotel (one of the seediest, nastiest situations that I have ever stayed in, BUT the only room available nearby), so that I could drive and visit Sloane through the night. Within several days, I was nearly non-functional, however, and made the decision to move back home to give myself a fighting chance to recover from birth and survive the marathon of having a preemie infant. After that decision, we fell into a routine of getting our big kids off to school, David off to work, family members taking shifts at our house, while I pumped and brought bottles of milk up to NICU 45 minutes away for most of the daylight hours. David would drive me for one night shift, and then we had to choose to sleep for a portion of the night before doing it all over again. Leaving her at the hospital without me literally left my heart in tatters. On one of my first trips home several days after birth, I climbed into my bathroom tub, while David brought me food and a glass of wine. I began to violently sob and shake. I asked him to bring me the entire bottle of wine to the bathroom. I don’t remember how much time past before the sobs subsided, and I once again re-emerged.
But most of the time we held it together. We had to do so. Sloane needed us. Abby and Micah needed us. We needed each other. And so we did. Fifteen days later, they finally wheeled Sloane to me, as I waited in a postpartum room set aside for this purpose. She had barely crossed the four pound threshold and was holding her own on room air without the additional support of oxygen. I sat there in the rickety hospital bed and held her without all the cords and the hovering nurses for the first time since she was first born. I laid her out on my lap and counted her ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes. I pumped and coaxed as much milk into her as I could. And I wept. We were doing the hard, brave, magical, and strong things. We were living a miracle. Even now as I type these words, I have to push aside the guilt that I feel for being part of the NICU community but having only spent just over two weeks there. So many families spend months. And they are brave, incredible heroes.
Sloane met her siblings the afternoon of April 5th for the very first time. And while the next months of her life would be spent in many doctors’ offices, it was finally on April 5th that her birth story found its conclusion. She was home. In our arms. She is our warrior girl and our precious healer, as her names mean. She chose to stay with us, and I can’t imagine our lives without her sunshine.