The Absolute Unpredictability of Birth

Becoming a mother was always going to be challenging for me, as it was inevitably going to highlight my relationship with my own mother. This time of my life, probably moreso than any other moment, was when she was supposed to be there for me. To teach me the ropes and to assure me that everything would be okay. But ever since her last suicide attempt (there were many throughout my life) left her with a damaged brain, I irrevocably lost all hope of having a mother who could mother me. She survived, but, only partially.

There are many other reasons why I didn’t easily take to becoming a parent. The usual stuff — the shock of life changing, sleep deprivation, etc. But I recently realized that perhaps the most visceral, defining moment for me was being told that our newborn baby might have a brain infection.

It’s kind of weird how those major moments in your life really only identify themselves as such in retrospect. Like, how clearly you remember something speaks to how big of a moment it was.

R was not even 24 hours old when I was told that something could be very wrong with him. I had survived the unexpected, unwanted surgery. I was grateful he had 10 fingers and 10 toes. I was tired and had a catheter inserted inside me but it was going to be ok. I felt so confident about that fact that I had even sent G home to get some decent sleep after having slept on the floor of the delivery room for 2 days.

At about 3am, R had been persistently crying at such an intense level that a midwife came and took him away. In that moment I was just relieved to have some peace and quiet. I fell asleep and was woken up by 2 doctors at my bedside. They told me that the baby was showing “a very high level of infection,” and required further testing. I said sure, whatever they needed to do. Then they told me that the test they needed to do was a Lumbar Puncture, and that there were some risks. They said it was possible he could be paralyzed, since it was a blind jab into his spine.

I now know that in that moment, my heart closed. It was as if a stone wall of defense went up around it.

I asked the doctor who said he would be doing the test if he had had anything bad happen before. He said no. I asked if the hospital had had any problems before. He said yes. I told him I needed to call my husband and see if he agreed that we would risk paralyzing our less than one day old baby to make sure his brain hadn’t been infected.

What? How was that actually a conversation I was about to have?

I remember it was about 6am when I called G. He answered, sleepily, and I told him what was happening. He sounded the same as I must have sounded to the doctors. “Sure, I mean, if it’s something we need to do.” I couldn’t tell how he really felt because it was over the phone. Was he scared? Was he confident it would be fine? In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t told him to go home that first night. I wish we had stayed together.

When the doctor came back, I told him to yes, please go ahead with the test. He told me parents were not allowed to come with the baby, because it was quite upsetting. I didn’t get emotional about it. I don’t think I really knew how to act about it all.

They took R away, and brought him back soon thereafter, screaming more than he had been before. A giant bandage covered most of his tiny back. Then they told me that regrettably, they were not able to pull any fluid (since it is a blind jab), so they would have to do the test again the next day.

Oh. Well yeah, sure, no problem! Expose my brand new baby to possible paralysis and definite pain — again.

For a new mother, all of this was surely too much to process. Especially after the traumatic, disappointing birth I had just been through. But, I remained calm and strong — or so I thought.

In actuality, I think I was in shock.

After they did the test for a second time and he thankfully didn’t suffer any huge side effects from it, we had to wait. We waited for him to respond to the antibiotics. We waited for his symptoms to subside — namely his very rapid breathing. We waited for the blood test results — which turned out to be clean. We waited for the results from the bacterial culture test — which didn’t come for over a week.

So for us, in addition to seemingly endless cycles of feeding, changing, and soothing to sleep, we had regular intervals to the NICU. And we stood there, above our completely helpless and confused baby, watching as his face scrunched up in pain and shock every time he was administered medicine or had his heels pricked for blood samples.

Finally heading home after 10 scary days in the hospital. As I followed my boys, I had no idea it would be 3 years before I started feeling like myself again.

When we finally got home after 10 days in the hospital, I found myself deeply anxious and scared. But I did nothing about it. I wondered if this was just what it was supposed to feel like, what I would always feel like from now on.

As a new parent, you don’t have time or headspace to pause and check in with yourself. You are trying to survive. You are trying to make sure your baby survives.

I constantly had that feeling in the pit of my stomach, that things were not okay and that they probably never would be okay. I wanted to escape out of my own skin.

I felt so robbed of that happy moment everyone else seemed to experience, when their new baby is born. I just completely did not have that moment. Not even for a blip, not even in the very beginning where supposedly the mother is high on oxytocin. We didn’t take one picture — the 3 of us — at the hospital. In fact I don’t think we did for a month. I felt robbed of what I felt was my right and duty as a woman, to have given birth naturally. I didn’t want to talk to anyone; I certainly didn’t want any visitors. G had to be the one to text my family in Korea.

I couldn’t see it at the time, but the light of my soul had been blown right out in that first night.

I am a mama, writer, yoga teacher, and mental health advocate.
More posts by Leah Kim.

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