Let’s recap….when I was pregnant, Danny and I made a birth plan stating that we wanted to exclusively breastfeed Elsie with no bottles and no pacifiers. We wrote that in the event Elsie needed supplemental intake, it should be from cup-feeding, not bottle-feeding. We also wrote on our birth plan we wanted to room in with Elsie, and we wanted an hour of uninterrupted skin to skin contact with her immediately following her birth.
After hours of screaming “Get me out of here!”, attempting to escape the delivery room, and one sweet epidural, Elsie was finally born. In a matter of a few minutes, Danny cut our perfect 4 pound, 10 ounce baby girl’s umbilical cord, they put her on my chest and I cried all over her perfect face, she was cleaned off with vital signs taken, and she was back in my arms for an hour of uninterrupted skin to skin. Danny and I took turns staring at Elsie and each other and thanking God for our precious miracle. I had read lots of literature that said mothers should breastfeed their babies directly following birth, so Elsie and I had our first special moment of breastfeeding. I was in a magical baby fairy land and I wasn’t nearly as concerned about how the mechanics of breastfeeding were going as much as I was with how happy I was that she was safe and cozy in my arms. It seemed like only a few seconds passed before Elsie was whisked away to the nursery for her first bath. Danny quickly followed with a camera to get pictures, and I left the distant memory of the horrors of the labor and delivery room for the comforts of the recovery room.
As I sat in the recovery room talking to my mom and dad, I reached down to touch my belly to let Miss Elsie know I was thinking of her when I suddenly realized that Elsie wasn’t in my belly anymore. This was the first time I had been without her in 9 months, and I missed her terribly. I told myself that she would be right back in my arms in a few minutes, and forced myself to take a deep breath and relax. Danny came back in the room after taking pictures of her first bath, and said the words I’ll never forget: “Babe, the nurse told me they bottle-fed her formula.” Instantly, white-hot mama bear rage filled my body. How dare they bottle-feed my baby? How dare they give her formula when I had explicitly written on the birth plan “NO BOTTLE-FEEDING, NO FORMULA, BREASTFEED ONLY.”?
Before you could say “Psychotic mom alert”, I was on the phone calling the nursery. A very sweet nurse answered the phone, and I was set to give her an earful. Before I could start unloading the fury about how they had ruined my baby with formula and how I would now have my nipples gnawed off because they gave her a bottle before she was a month old, she said “I thought you’d be calling.” She explained to me that Elsie’s blood sugar had crashed, and that it was necessary to give her formula to get her blood sugar levels back up. She said they would need to keep Elsie another hour to see if her blood sugar levels stabilized after receiving the formula. Sad that I had to spend another minute away from my baby and irked that my “plans” hadn’t been followed to a tee, I said, “I would have appreciated you calling me before you did anything and cup-fed her instead of bottle-fed her, as I specified on her birth plan.” The nurse graciously explained that cup-feeding is messy and difficult, and at the moment the most important thing was getting as much formula in Elsie as possible to keep her blood sugars stabilized. As I got off the phone, I was struck with a feeling of helplessness that my baby was locked in a nursery that I wasn’t allowed in, and that I wasn’t the one calling the shots. Talk about a control freak’s worst nightmare.
I received a series of phone calls following that: first, that Elsie’s blood sugars went up following a feeding, and I would get my hopes up that I would get to have her back, only to be followed by a phone call that Elsie’s blood sugar levels crashed again. After the first few rounds of this, my heart sank as I realized that this was a problem that was going to keep Elsie away from me for more than just a few hours. I held my breath as I heard the words “We need to admit her into the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit)”. Yet another component of our birth plan wasn’t going to happen. We weren’t going to get to room in with our sweet baby. The thought of her being a few feet from me, let alone across the hospital from me felt like a hard kick to the stomach.
My fight or flight instincts kicked in at that moment, and I was ready to fight. I told myself that if I kept calm and collected and acted like I knew what I was doing, they would give my baby back to me. In my mind if I cried in front of them or showed weakness, they would deem me unstable and unable to take care of my baby. I cried anyways. The nurse was so sweet to let Elsie come spend about 30 minutes with us before they had to take her back to the NICU. As I held my sweet baby in my arms, I scanned every inch of her face and tried to commit it to memory. There was no way I was going to forget what my baby looked like and let them switch my baby for another baby. Yes, my control freak mind was on crazy overload…seriously, why was the hospital trying to switch my baby for another baby first on my list of concerns?
I was determined to not give up on breastfeeding, so during the agonizing hours of waiting for Elsie to get situated in the NICU before we could go see her, I started pumping. Nowhere in my daydreams of having a baby did I ever picture myself sitting in a hospital room wearing a huge gown with two huge slits in the front extending from my chest to my belly button (seriously though, WHO has boobs that big?!?!) and hooked up to a machine that was milking me like a cow. Not very glamorous. I would also like to mention that whoever came up with the expression “don’t cry over spilt milk” was obviously a male who had never experienced the true bliss of having your lady jugs pressed and squeezed for 15 minutes, only to produce 2 tiny drops of milk.
It was time for us to go see Elsie, and I still had to be wheeled around in a wheelchair. I impatiently kept telling Danny to go faster to the point where he was practically running while he wheeled me to the NICU at the other end of the hospital. When we got there, my heart sank as I saw my teensy little baby hooked up to lots of tubes and wires. I was fortunate to have experience working in a hospital setting, so the “scariness” of the tubes and wires wasn’t as bad for me as it was for Danny. He was scared to touch her at first because he thought she might break. I, of course, was angrier at that point because I saw that Elsie had a pacifier in her mouth. I wanted to stand on a chair and scream “READ THE BIRTH PLAN, PEOPLE! WHEN ELSIE BITES MY NIPPLES OFF BECAUSE OF NIPPLE CONFUSION, I’M COMING AFTER YOU!”. I was obviously grasping at any semblance of control I had left and failing miserably.
We met our first of many NICU nurses and I’m sure that although I had decided to be calm and in control, what she saw was a crazed wild animal who would do whatever it took to protect her young. As our nurse calmly explained to us what was going on (basically, Elsie had been admitted to the NICU because she couldn’t stabilize her blood sugar levels or her temperature), she told us that Elsie was on antibiotics. Instantly, I felt sick to my stomach. “Wait, you put my daughter on medications without asking me?” flew out of my mouth before I could use a filter. The nurse explained to us that Elsie could have a virus, and putting her on antibiotics would start treating the virus, if it were present. I knew that the nurses were following protocol and doctor’s orders, I just felt sick that my 4 pound baby was less than a day old and already on antibiotics…and that I obviously had no say in most aspects of her treatment plan.
I decided to pour my energy and efforts into something that I could have control over….breastfeeding. I emphasized how important it was to me that Elsie was breastfed and not requiring formula to supplement meals as soon as possible. I was told that I would be able to feed Elsie every 3 hours, but that I would only have a very short amount of time to feed her before she needed to be hooked up to the monitors and under the lights again. So basically the scenario was “Hey Allison, you have 10 minutes to learn how to feed your teeny tiny baby in a very public place with people all around you and you better do a really good job because your baby won’t get to go home unless she gains weight and her blood sugars stabilize. No big deal. Oh, and don’t stress because then your milk won’t come in.”
I had pictured breastfeeding as this beautifully organic experience where Elsie would float to my breast that God had created her to feed from, the stars would align, and we would sink into this breathtaking interlude of magical mother-daughter bonding. Nope. Try fumbling around wondering if you’re doing anything right while complete strangers stare at your chest and attempt to “help you”, while telling you to relax when relaxation is the furthest thing from what is happening. Oh, and somehow your teensy newborn has a million teeth made of knives…except she hides them when you look inside her mouth. Not beautiful, not magical. Just…ouch. It was long after we got home from the hospital and I finally relaxed that both Elsie and I mastered the art of breastfeeding.
So Danny and I settled into this crazy routine where he would run/wheel me down to the NICU, I would wait for them to take her vitals and prick her teensy feet to get her blood sugar, I would breastfeed her then supplement with a bottle feeding of formula, then rush her back to bed. We’d go back to our room, I’d pump, and if we were lucky we’d get a 45 minute nap in before we’d run/wheel back to the NICU and start the whole process over again. The nurses noticed how exhausted we were because we were always at the NICU and suggested we skip a feeding and allow them to bottle feed her formula while we got some sleep. I always smiled and said “Maybe”, but then showed up for the next feeding. No way was I going to miss an opportunity to be with my little girl. Mama Bear don’t play.
Let’s be honest, I did not handle this experience with poise or grace. God had blessed me with a beautiful baby girl, and I still somehow managed to feel like her being in the NICU was the worst thing that could have possibly happened. I remember being in a haze of running to feedings, trying to hold it together so they wouldn’t say I was too weak to take my baby home, and on my way back to my room for my brief nap I would see a flood of happy visitors coming to celebrate the birth of a loved one’s baby. Danny and I had asked for no visitors because they couldn’t go into the NICU to meet Elsie and we were so busy with her feeding/pumping schedule, but I found myself being angry that I didn’t get to have visitors bring me flowers and teddy bears and come admire my baby in my hospital room. Why did all these other parents get to enjoy having their baby in their arms, but I had to wheel across the entire hospital and wait for my baby to be unhooked from a pile of wires to hold her? It didn’t help that on our trips down to the NICU I’d stare at my reflection in the window and wonder who the lady with bags under her eyes and a 6-month pregnant belly was.
The day that I was released from the hospital was a really hard day. Instead of being grateful that we were fortunate enough to be able to stay in a hospitality room because we technically lived “out of town”, I cried because the hospitality room was sketchy. The twin beds looked like they’d seen better days, the toilet gave me the creeps, we had to use a community shower, and the only window in the room was covered by a huge suspiciously moldy-looking black spot. I was feeling helpless on the Elsie front too. They kept running more and more tests, kept poking her feet to draw blood, and I didn’t see an end in sight. Instead of being satisfied that my milk was coming in, we got her off of formula within the first two days, and she quickly didn’t need the IV to stabilize her blood sugars anymore, I dreaded going to the NICU only to hear about another test, another reason I couldn’t have my baby with me, another day of worry and heartache. I felt like I was on a roller coaster—the nurse practitioner told me “I think your baby will get to go home by Mother’s day” and I would cry with joy, only to be told a few minutes later “Nevermind, we have to wait until Monday to run some more tests.” At one point a doctor came up to me and told me they needed to do a head ultrasound on my baby. When I asked why, she coolly said “To check to see if there’s hemorrhaging in the brain. Sorry to tell you that.” and walked away while I bawled.
One day I was taking a quick nap in between feedings in my yucky hospitality room on the yucky twin bed and staring out the yucky window when I felt God gently press on my heart “Are you going to stare at that black spot on the window all day, or look past it and see the sunshine?”. We had so, so much to be grateful for while we were in the hospital. Each NICU nurse was like a guardian angel sent from God…they were each exactly what we needed right when we needed them. Our first nurse was very informative when we had a ton of questions. When I felt really sad about leaving Elsie in the NICU without me, God sent a nurse with a sweet “mama” personality to love on Elsie and give me confidence. When I was at my lowest point on Mother’s Day, God sent us a precious NICU nurse to make me a Mother’s Day card from Elsie with her hand and foot prints and a picture of her I could take with me when I couldn’t be with her. Both of our pastors came to pray with us and gave us words of encouragement when we needed them most. My mom was such a blessing, running errands for us and holding down the fort and taking care of Miley for us while we were in the hospital for a week. God blessed me with the world’s greatest support person and most caring dad, Danny who held it together when I couldn’t, sought the Lord throughout the whole process, shared a twin bed with me so I wouldn’t feel alone, and sang to our daughter in the NICU, no matter who was listening.
Most importantly, no matter how much I stressed or fretted or worried, He held our tiny Elsie Ruth right in the palm of His hand. Each test came back negative—she didn’t have any viruses, she didn’t have hemorrhaging on the brain, her platelet levels and blood sugar levels and temperature stabilized and we were able to take her home 6 days after she was born. She was our tiny, precious gift we didn’t deserve. I was so humbled that, despite my best laid plans, God’s plan was the perfect one and the only one that mattered.
Me getting an epidural did not result in paralysis or death. Elsie using formula and a bottle and a pacifier for a few days did not equal my nipples being ripped off. Although it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done to be away from her for those first few days, it didn’t kill me to not room in with her that first night. And what’s the result of all of this? I come away with a precious, precious baby and a beautiful perspective that I can’t control everything in life…or even most things. The best thing I can do is trust God knows what He’s doing, take a deep breath, and enjoy the ride.