Written by Mary Beth Cashman
It was Halloween night. I was 33 weeks and 5 days. It sounds silly to count days in a forty week journey, but every single minute matters in this story. I woke up at 3am and told my husband, Conor, that I thought my water broke. As I hyperventilated in the bathroom, he frantically searched through his “Commando Dad” book for an answer. “Does it smell?” he yelled to me from the bedroom. I started to cry and yell, too, I think. I didn’t know if it smelled. I didn’t know what it was. It was just weird. When I finally got a hold of the on-call doctor, he asked, “Well, is it running down your leg?” No. It wasn’t running down my leg, but it was weird. I went back to bed.
33 weeks and 6 days. When I woke up, I went for a run and went to work. I stopped by my parents’ house and went for a walk with my mom. I operated like everything was normal, but something didn’t feel right. That night I felt another weird gush and I texted my dear friend Molly who is a doctor (a pediatric neurologist but who seemingly knows everything about everything!), and I asked her if amniotic fluid could leak slowly. The answer was, “Yes. You should probably get to the hospital.” After three hours in triage, an ultrasound, and a “ferning” test, the doctor sent me home. Everything was fine. In fact, I could (and should) keep running.
34 weeks. I started my day with a run and went to work. I teach an Education Seminar at Holy Cross, and I had class that morning. I stood in front of my students to give an assignment and my water really broke. It was something straight out of the movies – even though everyone told me it never happened like that! Now, it was running down my leg. And tears were streaming down my face. I was terrified.
At the hospital the doctor told me I’d have the baby that day or the day after. At 34 weeks the risk of infection was too great to keep her inside. And because she was only 34 weeks, she would absolutely spend time in the NICU. More fear. What did this mean? Not just for that day, but for the rest of her life? I felt like such a failure. I had one job – keep my baby safe. I questioned everything I had done. No matter how many people told me it wasn’t my fault, that’s all I could think.
A NICU nurse came to my hospital room with a 3 inch binder. She spent 45 minutes with my family explaining all of the things that could happen. There were pictures of incubators, heat lamps, breathing tubes, and wires. So many wires. I cried the entire time. My mom was crying, too. Would it be like this forever? At least six weeks they told me. I should plan to be there until her due date. I called my cousin Jacqueline who had had a 34 weeker the year before. “I’m going to need you,” I said. She responded, “I’m here.”
24 hours later – after 14 hours of active labor – the docs called for an emergency C-section. I didn’t have time to worry or care what this meant for me. I just wanted my baby girl to be okay. They told me if she cried when they took her out, then I’d be able to see her before they took her to the NICU, but if she didn’t, they’d take her right away. That’s when I realized they were worried she wouldn’t be able to breathe on her own.
At 11:54am Felicity Anne was born. She let out a tiny, quiet cry, but to me it was the loudest most joyous sound in the world. My baby could breathe! I saw her for a hot second, gave her a kiss on the forehead, and then she was gone. I texted my mom; “She’s perfect.”
I spent the rest of that day in bed recovering. I was exhausted and somewhat relieved, but still so anxious about what was in store. And I was jealous, too. Conor got to hold her. My mom got to hold her. Even my father-in-law got to hold her. When would it be my turn? So far, everything was the opposite of what I expected childbirth to be. Finally, almost nine hours later, they wheeled me up to the fifth floor NICU so I could hold my sweet baby girl. She was, in fact, perfect.
Over the next six days I learned that the NICU is the least scary place in the entire world. The nurses are like angels dressed in scrubs. I’m convinced that one nurse in particular, Koleen, is Felicity’s guardian angel. They taught me so much about being a parent and a mom. How to change a diaper and swaddle really tightly. How to check their temperature. How to kangaroo and do skin to skin. How to nurse and pump. They taught me to cheer for Felicity when she took 10mL of formula. (An aside – my pediatrician later told me she always knew when parents had spent time in the NICU because they always talked about milliliters not ounces!). They encouraged me to keep trying even when Felicity wouldn’t latch or stay awake to feed. They gave her clothes to wear because I didn’t have any small enough to fit her. A former NICU mom left a patch of fabric for me to wear and then leave in the crib so Felicity could get used to my smell. She left a note with it that read, “Remember, you are exactly where you need to be.” How true. They gave me hugs when I had to leave her at night. So many hugs.
What started off as what might be a six week stay was quickly shortened to three weeks, then one week, and then just six days. Felicity was breathing and eating on her own. She was a little fighter. When the doctors told me she’d be going home, I cried again. Of course, I was happy. All new moms dream of bringing their baby home. But I was also sad and a little terrified all, too. After all, even though it hadn’t even been a week, the NICU felt like home.
A family friend who survived the Holocaust once told me that “there’s no hierarchy to suffering.” So, it doesn’t matter if you spend 1 day in the NICU or 1,001 days there. You and your child will be forever changed. And I would argue for the better – because you are, in fact, exactly where you need to be.
I will never forget my time in the NICU. Even today, when Felicity does or says something new, I am reminded of how far she has come and how scared I was that she would never do those things. Simple things like counting to five or jumping up and down. And I am SO proud of her and SO grateful to the NICU for making me the kind of mom who experiences and cherishes these moments – because to me they are tiny miracles.
I will end with the quote that is painted on the NICU wall. It was the last thing I saw before bringing Felicity home: “If you do not believe in Miracles perhaps you have forgotten you are one.” A miracle indeed.