Welcome to Motherhood

My firstborn was a seven pound preemie. He was born at 35 ½ weeks, so he just barely qualified for the moniker. I only use it in air quotes, out of respect for the mothers of what I call real preemies.

He was induced due to my water having broken the previous day – in the car on the way to my baby shower, no less – with no signs of impending natural labor in sight. When he arrived, he didn’t look like a preemie with his dark head of hair and his long piano-player fingers. He was beautiful. I was terrified.

In some ways, I had been preparing for this role my entire life. I’ve always been a nurturer. The oldest of nine cousins on my dad’s side and four on my mom’s, I’ve been loving on babies since I can remember. At church, I would compete with my grade-school friends after the service to hold the babies of the church ladies, while they enjoyed coffee and social time. I was a second mother to my own brother – seven years younger – and babysitting neighborhood kids by the time I was eleven. I knew how to change diapers, calm a baby, and prepare a bottle. 

Babysitting is one thing. Having a newborn entirely dependent on you 24/7 is something else entirely. Sleep deprivation was not my friend. What to Expect When You’re Expectingneglected to mention that nursing is not something that all babies take to naturally. 

Because my son was born on a Saturday, there had been no lactation specialist at the hospital to meet with me. The succession of nurses tried to help me with breastfeeding, told me I had inverted nipples, gave me weird plastic thingies to wear on them when I wasn’t nursing. None of this helped with my confidence or with his latching-on. I got to stay at the hospital for two days, because when my OB/GYN wanted to release me after 24 hours, I started to cry. But then they sent me home – with a borderline preemie – and told me to make an appointment with his pediatrician in 10 days’ time.

My husband was in a new job and had to go straight back to work. I was home alone in our small rental house with a newborn and a yappy dog. When the baby fell asleep nursing, I fell asleep, too, or stared into space too exhausted to sleep. We fell into a pattern. I worried about jaundice, knew it was a possibility with preemies, tried to sit near the window, so that he might catch some January sunlight. The truth of the matter was that my husband is Mexican and my heritage is northern European. I didn’t know what color my son’s skin was supposedto be.

The day came for his first check-up. I managed to shower and get dressed, to bathe my son and dress him, to make sure that both of us were fed, to leave the house in time to make it to our appointment without being late. I felt that I’d accomplished a minor miracle. 

The waiting room was packed. The time for our appointment came and went. My baby started to cry, and I knew that he needed to nurse, but I wasn’t yet comfortable nursing in public – or even in private, to be honest – I was having trouble figuring out nursing altogether, and it made me feel like an utter failure, not something I was accustomed to in my life before motherhood, the life that already seemed far-removed from my new reality.

When we were finally led into a consultation room, I tried to feed my son. I no longer remember whether or not I managed to calm him. What I do remember is that when the doctor came into the room, he took one look at my baby’s pumpkin orange face and told me straightaway that he was acutely jaundiced and that I needed to bring him directly to the hospital for admittance. My head began to spin. What I’d really been expecting was a pat on the back and a congratulations for doing such a good job and bringing such a beautiful child into the world. Instead, I was being sent to the hospital because I’d failed in the most basic way to keep my child nourished and healthy. 

Through my tears, I managed to call my husband at work and to call my aunt, my nearest relative, to let them know what was happening. Then I carried my baby, who had gulped down two bottles of hydrating sugar water in the doctor’s office, in his carrier car seat, and we drove back to the hospital where just twelve days earlier he had come into the world. 

There my luck began to turn, although I didn’t know it yet. A flu epidemic was sweeping the city, so the pediatric wing of the hospital was full. The NICU, however, was almost empty. Since he was still a newborn, he could have a crib in the NICU. The nurses set him up with his shades and his bili lights, explained everything they were doing, and then gently suggested that I go to the waiting area while they drew blood. 

I was alone in the waiting area of the NICU, such a contrast to the chaotic waiting room at the pediatrician’s office where I had been just a couple of hours earlier, though it seemed like much longer. As the nurses pricked his heels, my baby’s shrieks stabbed at my heart, a clichéd phrase, but entirely accurate. What kept me tethered was the invisible presence of the parents who had been there before me. Covering the wall behind the sofa where I sat was a collage of photos, hundreds of photos, of grateful families whose babies had been in this NICU before mine. There were notes, too, where the mothers wrote of how early their babies had arrived, how tiny they had been, how they had needed oxygen and feeding tubes, and drops of breastmilk in eyedroppers. And they had survived. At least the babies on the wall had survived. My baby was going to be fine. Jaundice is nothing in a NICU. It’s like a skinned knee. Kiss it and make it better. My baby was going to be fine.

My aunt arrived at the hospital first. I went to her and crumpled into her hug. She let me cry, patted my back, and listened to my story, my worries. Then she held me at arms’ length, looked into my eyes with a gentle smile, and said, “Oh my dear girl, welcome to motherhood.” My baby was going to be fine. And so was I.

 -Jennifer Hernandez

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 Jennifer Hernandez lives in Minnesota with her husband, three sons, black lab, and fat tuxedo cat. She teaches immigrant youth and writes poetry, flash, and creative non-fiction. Recent work appears in Talking Stick, Tuck Magazine, and Write Like You’re Alive (Zoetic Press).  Jennifer is a proud member of the League of Minnesota Poets and loves sharing her work with others in readings and other artistic collaborations.