June 6, 2013 by Katia
Today’s story is by Yvonne, a published writer and a wonderfully kind soul I’ve met through our blogger group on Facebook, Bloppy Bloggers. Although the starting point of this post is miscarriage the story revolves around Yvonne’s daughter Louise’s premature birth and it offers a touching and poignant glance into our mind on guilt, a mother’s mind on guilt, to be more accurate. Guilt has been a driving force in my life, therefore I was able to identify with so much of the feelings Yvonne describes. Do you think that guilt is more typical of moms than dads?
Read Yvonne’s beautiful post and comment.
I was late coming to motherhood, and my journey there was far from straightforward. There was a time when I envied women who could just get pregnant and know that in nine months they would have a baby. For a long time, it seemed that we might never have children, and when I did finally get pregnant, I bled every day for 2 months and then had a missed miscarriage. It felt like a terrible blow and for months I walked around feeling as if there was a blank wall in front of me. Then, on the day that our baby would have been due, we discovered I was pregnant again. But there was little opportunity to celebrate because that pregnancy began in the same way as the first, with weeks of bleeding and repeated trips to the doctor for hormone checks. Then at around eight weeks, the bleeding stopped and the rest of the pregnancy was fairly normal until our gorgeous first daughter arrived two weeks late after an emergency caesarean.
Because I was 39 by this time, we didn’t want to wait too long before trying for a second child. It had taken seven months after the miscarriage to conceive again, so we expected something similar. Instead, this time, seven months after we started trying for a baby, our second daughter was born.
Today, if you met Louise, you would probably see an ordinary, lively thirteen year-old. Outwardly, there’s nothing obvious that marks her out as different, nothing that shows what she went through in the first months of her life. But if you looked closely enough at her hands, you’d see they are covered in tiny white scars. If her feet were bare, as they often are, you might glance down and notice that they too are covered in scars.
Every one of those scars Louise got before she was four months old. Mainly they are from a time when most babies are still in the womb. Louise was born over three months premature: due in November she arrived in August. (According to one of the nurses Leos like a sense of drama.) Louise is proud of her scars and says she loves them. She doesn’t remember now, consciously at least, how she got them.
I remember. I remember the first time I saw a doctor prick her tiny heel and squeeze. Or do I? Now that I think about it, I’m not sure. Maybe I remember remembering it, my story of what happened: how she cried, how I nearly fainted. I tell people this, I’ve written it in articles about her birth, but all these years on it has a hazy feel to it.
More clearly, I remember my thoughts. I remember that I was afraid she would be psychologically scarred for life having to suffer so much pain at such an early stage. I remember the anger that passed through me: hopeless anger at the nurses and doctors for doing this to her and not finding some other way, and anger at myself that I hadn’t carried her to term, that because of some failing in me she was suffering. I wanted to take her back inside me, I wanted to protect her and I felt useless because I couldn’t.
After that, if I was by Louise’s incubator when someone came for blood, I would open the little doors and put my hands on her back in what is known as ‘containment holding’. Not surprisingly, premature babies like to feel enclosed so this helped her to stay calm. It helped me stay calm. And I didn’t look at the needles.
Louise was 39 hours old when I held her for the first time. She had so many wires and tubes attached it took two nurses to carry her from the incubator. Even though I longed to hold her, even though I knew it would help both of us, I was terrified I might do something wrong, might hurt her fragile body. But one of the nurses, Theresa, specialised in the babies’ emotional care and she insisted, for which I am eternally grateful. She even stayed on after her shift had ended to show me how to hold Louise upright on my chest in a ‘kangaroo cuddle’. This is what I remember of that time: the feel of her bird-like body against my chest, her tiny feathery movements, I remember crying with relief, the relief of becoming still again after days of reeling, of feeling half-insane with fear and guilt. I remember Theresa, before she went off home, looked at the monitor above my head and said Louise’s oxygen saturations had gone up, a sign she had relaxed.
A few days after Louise was born I decided to keep a journal, for her if she survived, for her sister if she didn’t, and really of course for me. In my journal I wrote of that first cuddle that it was as if a part of me had been brought back – the mother part. Yet I kept rejecting this part. If anyone congratulated me on the birth of my baby, I thought, “How can they say that when I’ve caused this terrible thing, when I’ve messed up so badly?”
Guilt was my constant companion in those early months. I can see now it stopped me feeling grateful. A neighbour said, “At least one good thing was you didn’t have to have another C-section.”
In reply I snapped, “I would rather have that than this.” To see any good had come of it, especially for me, seemed like a betrayal of my baby. A nurse told me about a father who felt honoured to watch his baby grow and develop. He felt privileged to see the changes most parents never see. Honoured? I thought. Privileged? It’s easy to see he’s not the mother.
And it’s true he wasn’t, yet how much more peaceful an attitude than mine.
Should I have been grateful? No, that’s not what I’m saying. I wasn’t, not because of wickedness on my part, but because I was afraid to be, afraid it would make me a monster. When Louise was about 4 weeks old and her condition was stable Theresa suggested baby massage. As Louise lay on my lap her tiny arms went into a salute. I had already read that this salute, where one hand shields the face, is classic premature baby language for, ‘I am not happy.’ I believed then that my baby couldn’t look at me without fear.
Now I can see another side. She was adjusting, taking in as much of her surroundings as she could cope with. She was incredibly good at this, at somehow conveying her needs. After a week of laying Louise on my lap for a few moments before her kangaroo care she was ready to have her legs and feet massaged. A few days later she transferred to our local hospital. I carried on doing what little massage I had learned. Then she got ill again. There were more blood tests, a transfusion, drips in her feet again. After that if I touched her feet during massage she gave the salute. I rang Theresa who suggested gently holding them during kangaroo care. We began breastfeeding. Sometimes the effort of this exhausted Louise so much the stimulation of massage was more than she could cope with.
I felt like I was failing her. A good mother would know how to get beyond this, would know how to massage and comfort her baby, so I believed. Premature babies needed the contact of massage, and I wasn’t providing it, when I should have been. All I could do was what Louise asked for, which was to be held quiet and still. It seems crazy now that I couldn’t see that what I was doing was okay, but that’s how it was. Like so many mothers I held myself up against some imaginary ‘perfect’ mother I thought people expected me to be, and inevitably I didn’t match up.
Louise came home two weeks before her due date, and three days after it she was back in hospital, her lungs collapsed with bronchiolitis. This time there was a middle of the night drive to a different hospital, further away than the first, followed by nine days on a ventilator. She had another blood transfusion, more tubes, more wires, and then a slow recovery at the local hospital. By then during kangaroo cuddles Louise sometimes wriggled down to lie in my arms where she could see my face. I moved my finger and she followed with her eyes. The first smiles came then, with her eyes well before they came with her mouth.
Yet when she came home she was tense, stiffening when I picked her up. Or maybe that was me. Did I stiffen as I picked her up, and did she react to that? Whichever it was, I took Louise for baby massage lessons and after a few weeks she relaxed. I guess I relaxed too because although Louise never wanted a full massage, I came eventually to see that was okay, not my failure again, just Louise letting me know how much was enough, maybe legs and tummy one day, arms and face another.
I believed then that babies shouldn’t have to feel pain, shouldn’t suffer. Believing that didn’t stop her pain, but it certainly added to mine. I believed it so strongly that one time when she was seriously ill I thought she might be better off dead. I thought she might be damaged, that the emotional and psychological scars would be as obvious in years to come as the ones on her hands and feet. Yet, people have often commented how happy Louise is, and how full of life. (Of course she has her angry, whiny, miserable moments too.) She sees herself as overall a happy person, and thinks that she is brave – because of her experiences as a baby. And I often wonder if her zest for life comes as a result of that early dice with death, in the same way that many survivors of near-death experiences report a renewed love of life after they recover.
As well as being a mother, Yvonne Spence is a novelist, writer and artist. She is also passionate about helping herself and others to learn to trust their own intuition and learn self-compassion. Her novel Drawings in Sand is about self-discovery and forgiveness and her blog Inquiring Parent encourages parents to break from old ways of thinking to find their own path.
To donate a post, please contact me at iamthemilkblog (at) Gmail (dot) com.