Liam’s birth story begins with an ultrasound tech saying “Hmm.”
“Hmm” meant my amniotic fluid was very low. It meant an anxious phone call to Dave warning him not to leave for work. It meant they were getting a room ready for me in Labor & Delivery, because as the perinatologist put it, I’d be “having a baby this weekend, one way or another.”
Induction. What I’d most wanted to avoid. I wasn’t having contractions, my water hadn’t broken, and I felt absolutely fine (besides huge, sweaty, and sluggish). I’d read enough to know that pitocin’s no picnic, and that inductions before term had a decent chance of failing and sending Mom to the OR for a C-section. I wasn’t afraid of the C-section itself, but I dreaded the thought of being in pitocin-cranked labor for hours and hours and hours and then needing a section anyway.
I called Dave to confirm we were about to start the party early. I called work to tell them I wasn’t coming in for, oh, a few months or so. Then I drove home. I could have walked across the parking lot to the hospital, but I needed some time to come to terms with the induction plan. I was twitchy and distracted. I couldn’t make my eyes focus on anything. I pulled the hospital bag out of the car to check it and recheck it and make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. Dave stood by patiently, knowing I’d already checked it two days ago. He was so calm. On the outside, anyway.
Then we went to Panera, because I wanted a chocolate chip cookie. Gestational diabetes be damned, if I was to be done gestating in a few hours. I wanted a goddamn cookie, and I was going to have a goddamn cookie. And it was THE BEST COOKIE EVER.
After the L&D receptionist gave us our armbands, a nurse brought me to a room and asked me to get changed into a hospital gown. I stood at the door, frozen.
“Don’t I start at triage?”
“Oh, no, we’re getting you started right away.”
Giant speeding truck of reality, meet my head. Head, meet truck. Ok, we’re settled, then.
A nurse took my vital signs, then strapped monitors to my belly. Whoomp whoomp, baby was still doing fine even though his swimming pool was down to a puddle. It took three tries and both arms to get my IV installed, because although the nurse was really good with her needle, my veins are full of valves. Good for doing their blood transportation thing, but bad for snaking a tube through. We laughed about it. I joke around a lot when I’m nervous.
Dr. Rojas came in, smiling as always, and explained what was going to happen. We’d be using a couple of waves of different medications, and we’d see what my progress was like after each one before moving on. That sounded fair to me. Slow and steady. I was relieved that they weren’t just going to fill me with pitocin right away. I was given Cervidil around 2pm and told to stay in bed for twelve hours while it worked its magic, opening up my cervix. 12 hours is a long time when you know you’re not supposed to move except to use the bathroom. I think we watched some TV. Dave went to get food, but I was only allowed liquids and jello and long wistful looks at his takeout. Sometime around 8 or 9, the nurse offered me Ambien so I could get a little sleep before all the craziness planned for the morning. I took it gladly, and drifted in and out of sleep for a few hours. Hospitals are hard to sleep in. So much beeping.
I started feeling contractions somewhere around midnight. They intensified steadily, and the nurses offered me some IV painkiller to take the edge off. It helped, and I drifted back in and out until Dr. Rojas came back in at 2am to check on me. He was happy enough with my progress to switch me over to pitocin. He told me things were going to start getting more intense, and that the medical team would do everything they could to minimize my pain – when I was ready for the epidural, they’d get right on it. He told me not to be a hero, to ask for it when it started to hurt. He squeezed my hand before he left.
It didn’t take long. By 3am, I was feeling contractions strong enough to make me whimper, groan, and squeeze the sides of the bed. I was making enough noise to wake Dave up, and I felt bad. After half a dozen contractions, I knew two things. One, I would never be the type to choose a medication-free birth. Two, it was epidural time. Well, it was ask for an epidural time. Took them an hour to get to me. That was a rough hour.
A needle into the spine is not fun. And the fact that they leave a little tube in place, similar to an IV in my back, freaked me out. But, you know, contractions. Pain. For how many more hours? So I leaned forward and tried not to move while the anesthesiologist did his thing. I flinched when the first medication went in, because it felt like my back was on fire. Pro tip: do not flinch during an epidural. You will be yelled at. Which may make you cry. Just saying, theoretically. He secured the tubing by taping my back up like he was shipping an international package in a questionably-constructed box, and then I got to lie down again and rest while my contractions continued. Or so the monitor said. I couldn’t feel them at all. Ah, pharmacology. I love you so much.
Fun fact: the epidural medication pump had an intermittent squeak that sounded so much like a tiny kitten that I was sure either Dave or I had changed the notification tone on a phone or tablet and we were getting lots of messages. I’d say it was just the drugs making me crazy, but a nurse confirmed the pumps squeak. Most people think it’s a bird. But it sounded enough like Horton that it helped me to smile through the pushing stage later on, so I’m grateful for it.
Dr Leak took over later that morning, and came in to check my progress. Three seconds into the exam, her eyes popped open wide.
“You don’t feel that?”
“…no…?” (Hello, that’s why I got the epidural!)
“His head’s right here! It’s pushing time!”
There was a whirlwind of gowns and tarps, some parts of my bed disappeared, and someone set the baby warmer to preheat in the corner. Before I had time to even think about it, they were hoisting my legs up and asking me to tell them when I felt pressure so I could push with the contractions. I did pretty well, or so they kept telling me. We laughed a lot through the delivery, which made me so happy. My son was coming into the world in a room full of laughter and silliness and joy. It helped tremendously that both Dr Leak and the nurse were incredibly relaxed and kept everything low-key and informal. It was like having three Daves in the room with me. I’d feel pressure, tell them “Maybe now?” And they’d say, “sure, let’s push.” Dave stood at my side and helped support my neck when I curled up for each push, and he encouraged me the whole way, telling me what a great job I was doing. After about an hour of that, Liam was born.
They put him on my chest and rubbed him down, suctioned the goo from his throat, and let me have a look at him. He was gross and squishy and beautiful. They didn’t leave him there long, because they didn’t like his breathing. They called in someone from the NICU to have a look, but they reassured me that it was almost always nothing, just a transition from goo to air that made them sound funny and struggle a little. I didn’t worry much. But then the specialist saw Liam’s hands shaking. They ran a bedside glucose test. His result was low. Very low. So low that they weren’t going to let me breastfeed him yet because he needed to get his sugar up ASAP. Before I knew what was going on she’d whipped out a bottle of formula and plugged it in his mouth. So much for avoiding bottles.
For the rest of the day, they checked his glucose every few hours, after nursing sessions. He was doing better by late afternoon, but not good enough for the NICU specialists, who decided he needed an IV with a steady sugar supply so he wouldn’t dip into hypoglycemia. They took him away around dinnertime. I was devastated. I’d just met him, and a few hours into our relationship, he was leaving me for the hectic bright world of the NICU.
We kept thinking they’d let him go as soon as his sugar looked good, but they were very cautious and wanted to wean him off his glucose drip very slowly, to be sure his body could manage sugars on its own after he left. So we spent three days visiting him there every three hours. Dave wheeled me down the hall 8 times a day so I could feed Liam, even if the little guy only got a few drops out of me and needed to be topped off with formula. We stayed for an hour each time, holding his hands and stroking his hair and trying not to notice the tubes and wires attached to our little man. The nurses were wonderful and he got the absolute best care from all of them, but Monday night became the hardest night in my life when I had to leave the hospital without my son. As we were packing up to leave, I saw the beautiful flower and balloon arrangement from my mother-in-law, and I fell apart. On TV, the woman being wheeled through the lobby with the happy “It’s a BOY” balloon is holding that boy in her lap. But I wouldn’t have my boy. And in my blind emotional state, I refused to entertain the thought of leaving this gift behind in the room. So Dave, wonderful, wonderful Dave, picked it up and walked three steps behind my wheelchair.
Liam won’t have any memory of the NICU, but we’ll never forget it. The sinks at the entrance, where 3 minutes of scrubbing with antiseptic soap stood between these babies and possible infections. Liam’s poor little feet covered in bandaids to hide the dozens of cuts from the lancets used for his blood draws. The tiny plank strapped to his arm to keep his IV in place. The care with which his nurses swaddled him up for the night. The shrieking of the heart monitor if we bent the wires the wrong way when picking him up from the plastic bassinet. The regular hum of the IV pump blending with Liam’s snorting and sucking as he was held to my breast. The sounds of other parents, getting news you can’t ever be ready to hear. We were so lucky that it was just a little blood sugar issue. He was only in the NICU because they were being extra careful. I can’t imagine the stress that other mothers must feel when their babies are stuck in the NICU with serious issues for days or weeks or months.
But Liam’s body just needed a couple of days to figure out how sugar works. We brought him home on Tuesday, healthy and happy and asleep. We got him into the house and let the cats sniff him. We put all of our bags in the front closet to be dealt with later. We took our son out of his carseat, looked at his scrunchy sleeping baby face, and wondered… what the hell were we supposed to do with him now?