I was stretched out on the couch after work when I felt an eerie pop and a gush of warm fluid flood down my legs. The meaning behind the liquid was unmistakable. My first pregnancy would end. Nine weeks too soon.
My fingers slipped over the phone buttons, misdialing twice before connecting with my obstetrician. I wasn’t ready for this. No crib, no diapers, no clothes. Nothing. We weren’t planners, Bill and I. Until this point, that worked well for us.
Two hours later, we walked into the emergency room, in numbing shock. I couldn’t help thinking about entrances and the ways a pregnant woman imagines the birth of her baby beginning. This wasn’t it. Premature birth was in the chapter the authors of all the books said not to read unless you need it. It was too late for that.
We were sent to maternity triage where I lay, folded into a C-shape on the cot they called a bed. Each contraction brought nausea and vomit. Nurses, residents, and medical students asked the same questions repeatedly as though none of them were conversing.
“You eat something funny, today, sweetie?” The nurse stood, hands on hips. I didn’t understand why she kept asking me that. One resident examined the fetal monitor read-out for the fifth time, and crinkled her forehead. “No contractions,” she noted.
Wrong. I threw up again.
“The pH level is negative for amniotic fluid,” she continued. “You’re not dilated. You probably wet your pants.” She flipped the chart onto the end of the bed, shaking her head as she left.
“You sure you didn’t eat something funny?” Bill held my hand and smiled. He was confused by the doctors’ assessments and my pain. I tried not to glare at him. It may have been my first pregnancy, but I knew the difference between my water breaking and wetting my pants. And I sure knew a contraction when I felt one.
Hours passed. Rolled in a ball, I focused on the baby, willing my cervix shut. By midnight, I was fully dilated.
“First baby to enter the world without one contraction,” my doctor said. Enter the world. I couldn’t believe she was saying that about my baby. I rounded my back as an anesthesiologist attempted to administer a weak spinal block.
A neonatologist stood in front of me, his voice quiet. “Probably will be a two-pounder.” He continued, “Respiratory system … immature … issues with eyesight … brain-bleeds … Do you understand what I’m telling you?” I nodded, but I couldn’t process his words. But what I did make sense of chilled me. After six hours of “non-existent labor,” a crowd of doctors and nurses waited at the end of the bed. My doctor told me to let him know when I was contracting so I could push. I finally had some control.
Fifteen minutes of pushing passed. My doctor said he needed the head out with the next push or he’d have to use interventions. I bore down. Our baby flew out and landed on the pull-out section at the foot of the bed with a thud. It’s a boy! Jacob William Shoop.
He screamed. Angry, as he should’ve been at the rude arrival. That sound–his sharp wails–more animal than baby, meant his lungs were working. For someone so small, at three pounds, 14 ounces, and so early … there wasn’t a more comforting sound in the world. Bill watched as the NICU team checked him over and pronounced him “pretty good.” One of the nurses put Jacob in my arms. I held him for the best fifteen seconds of my life. He stared at me–flinty opposition in eyes that seemed to occupy three-quarters of his face. This boy had things to do. He wouldn’t be a push-over. The nurse took him back, put him in the incubator, and headed out the door.
Just hours later, Bill and I peered into an incubator, and there was Jacob, spread-eagle, chest rising to impossible heights with every breath. Each one, monumental. The bird-like creature with pointy head, bony legs, veins showing through his skin, so fragile, but alive. Bill squeezed me. We traced the tubes and needles protruding from his belly and arms with our eyes. We couldn’t touch him. He had no idea we were there. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
The next few days I spent almost every waking moment at Jacob’s side, watching, waiting to hold him. When not in the NICU, I was attached to an industrial size breast-pump. It sucked at me, yielding nothing for days.
Even with all that, it wasn’t until I was released from the hospital that I was met with crushing sadness. I would have done anything to stay with Jacob. As Bill and I walked down the winding hall that led to the parking lot, tears plummeted down my face. I wouldn’t be leaving Jacob forever, but it felt like it. I clutched my bag of clothes and flowers. Another new mother in a wheelchair, nuzzling her baby, passed us on their way out. I forced a smile at her.
Like all new parents, our expectations surrounding pregnancy and birth were powerful. Even without a rigid plan in place, there was one thing we had counted on: leaving the hospital with our new baby.
Wracked with emotions new and wild, we came and went from the hospital every day for three weeks. Every minute of that time took on heavy meaning. We had to learn how to touch Jacob–preemies don’t like light, feathery caresses. Breastfeeding–Jacob had yet to coordinate sucking, swallowing, and breathing. Being a mom–learning I wouldn’t break his spindly legs or yank out a tube while changing his diaper. None of it mirrored anything I’d ever seen.
Nothing beats life going as planned, but knowing it rarely does has made adapting to motherhood easier in the end. My labor demonstrated my instincts weren’t all bad, and as long as I paid some attention to my gut, Jacob would be alright. And he is. A healthy four-year-old who still loves a dramatic entrance.