I first met my son at three in the morning.
I was sweaty, and tired, and shaky. My hair was matted and, with my old glasses, my vision blurred at the edges. Oliver William had been in the world for 29 hours, and he’d spent all of them in an isolette in a neonatal intensive care unit a floor below the curtained-off room where I was coming off a magnesium sulfate drip.
He was the most beautiful, surreal thing I’d ever seen.
Our story begins weeks before the balmy spring Sunday he entered the world. I had a fairly normal pregnancy until I began to swell in March, my limbs getting puffy and painful around the time I reached the third trimester.
My blood pressure was on my doctors’ radar from my first OB appointment in October, but it wasn’t under constant surveillance . . . at first. When my readings began to trend high, I underwent frequent tests at my appointments to check for protein and other issues. I’d heard the term “preeclampsia” before, but had little concept of what it was — or how it would come to apply to us.
In the week before Oliver’s birth, my husband and I had made in-and-out hospital visits twice — including late on Easter Sunday. We have a blood pressure cuff at home and had taken to checking my readings . . . only to find the numbers were consistently scary. On Easter, my reading at 10 p.m. was 170/120.
On each of those early visits, I was monitored for a few hours with regular blood pressure checks and hooked up to a fetal monitor. The baby was active, strong and happy, so there was little sense of urgency in the beginning. My readings would always drop to a more manageable level — 142/90, say — at the hospital, so we would stay for a few hours and head home under orders to rest and check in with my OB again the next day.
On April 8, I used my lunch break for a blood pressure check at my regular OB. I left in a hurry — not even bothering to turn off my computer or grab my leftovers from the fridge. My coworkers and boss were aware I’d been having some difficulties, but I wasn’t yet aware of the seriousness myself. I said goodbye to my friends without realizing I wouldn’t be back for months.
That appointment didn’t go well, of course. I was sent back to the local hospital. Spencer met me there, thinking it was another routine monitoring, but this time felt different. I’d been taking medication to lower my blood pressure for a few days without any change, and I knew a third hospitalization in less than a week was serious.
I laid in a hospital bed down the hall from a woman in labor, listening to her wail and scream. I remember thinking how scary it sounded, but felt oddly jealous of the relief she must feel to have it over with. I’ve been nervous about childbirth since learning about childbirth, but there was no part of me that thought I’d be having a baby that weekend. I assumed I was heading for bed rest — possibly hospital bed rest — and had a long month ahead of me.
I was right . . . in some ways. Totally wrong in others.
The woman down the hall had her baby at 8:30 p.m. I watched the clock — about the only thing I had to do — while Spencer ran home to pack a bag with phone chargers, snacks, a change of clothes, toiletries. For months my sister had been asking me if I was “prepared” with those sorts of things, and I’d been indignant about the fact that we had months until we’d be hurrying to a hospital. What was the rush?
When Spence returned, we didn’t have any answers — but I was moved down the hall so the baby and I could be monitored overnight. More tests were conducted, and my mom and sister were with us on Thursday. I was swollen, tired and cranky, plus feeling guilty about my poor husband sleeping upright in the world’s most uncomfortable chair. I kept waking up to look at him, wishing desperately we were in our own house. That none of this was happening.
To compound the chaos, my mother-in-law was flying in while I was hospitalized. Our baby shower was Saturday, April 11 (at our house.), and all the final preparations were underway. I was agonizing over potentially missing this event — something my mom, sister and I had been discussing for months. We’d spent hours getting excited about and working on the details, and I knew how stressful this was getting . . . for everyone.
My dad picked up my mother-in-law at the airport that Thursday — the same night I thought I’d be returning home to rest. Though there was talk of my release in the evening, everything changed quickly around 8 p.m. With my blood pressure still high and the results of my tests in hand, my doctor arrived to talk about preeclampsia.
Getting to a hospital with a NICU.
Taking steroid shots to help the baby’s lungs before delivery.
The word echoed like a gunshot.
I got my first steroid shot, was hooked up to a magnesium drip, felt like my skin and arms and life were on fire and laid mute and desolate in a side room as another woman down the hall had an emergency C-section. Spencer never left my side for more than a few moments.
At 1 a.m., I took my first ambulance ride. The crew arrived to transfer us to a large Baltimore hospital with a NICU, something our local facilities lacked; we were admitted in the middle of the night. I arrived in the same room where, two days later, our baby would enter the world, but all I knew then was that I was scared and thirsty and wanted to be anywhere, anywhere but there.
Spencer and I held hands and talked and pressed our heads together. When I think back on that week, all I see is his face close to mine reminding me to breathe, that everything would be all right — even if we weren’t always sure that would be true. When you marry someone, their qualifications as a partner and parent haven’t necessarily been challenged.
Spence and I had our love and our commitment — and we’re the very best of friends. But we’d never been tested. Not like this.
In every way it’s possible to pass, my Spencer did. I can’t imagine how I would have survived without him. He wore so many hats: taking care of me, contacting our worried families, becoming the chief communicator manning both of our cell phones . . . needless to say, I quickly learned that Oliver was going to have a hell of a dad. And even in the haze, that made me so happy and proud.
Saturday, April 11 — the day of the shower — was hard. We were moved to a corner room on the seventh floor with a beautiful view of Baltimore, but the sunshine and blossoming trees and well-intentioned text messages from family and friends seemed to cause physical pain. Though there was a brief ray of hope that we’d be discharged, that things weren’t that serious, I knew in my heart that we were in it for the long haul.
Our doctor came in around 7 a.m. to tell me, quite sympathetically, that I wasn’t leaving. They were still monitoring my blood pressure (high) and urine protein (also high). Though they believed it could be gestational hypertension, preeclampsia was still the beast lurking around every corner. Each time a nurse came in to check my pressure, my heart began to pound. Everything seemed to be resting on a number — those two numbers — and the stress was making me crazy.
From talking to our doctor on Saturday, I knew I wasn’t going home until after I had our baby. Whether that was after a month of hospital bed rest or much (much) sooner, my body was struggling. Little Oliver was still safe in there, but an ultrasound revealed a few potential issues with my placenta and how the high blood pressure was affecting my uterus.
Nothing sounded good. Everything sounded terrifying, in fact.
We used FaceTime to participate in the baby shower from afar, which helped dull the pain a little, but I was abjectly miserable. A cousin and aunt surprised us at the hospital, bringing balloons and cupcakes and gifts, and it was wonderful to see them . . . but I was so scared and sad, it took all my energy not to cry the entire time.
Somehow, the day passed. Spencer and I laid in our room facing a historic tower, watching the sun sink lower and cast the skyline in golden light. We didn’t talk much, just held hands and got lost in our own thoughts. It felt like the room was holding its breath with us, waiting. After the shower ended, we rarely saw or spoke to anyone.
Around 4 a.m., I woke up with terrible heartburn — especially strange given I’d barely eaten anything the day before. Food and drink are off-limits with a magnesium drip, so I felt sick and low. Ever alert, Spence woke up and got a nurse for me. A dose of heartburn medication did nothing, and I developed a pounding headache.
Our doctor appeared again in the pale light of early morning. I was awake, staring out the window, watching colors appear and lights blink off; Spencer was, too, just stroking my needle-studded hand. Waiting.
I don’t remember what the doctor said. I remember his calm face telling us that I was going into severe preeclampsia — just as they’d feared — and that, with my high blood pressure, I was in danger of having seizures or a stroke. Bed rest and medication would not cure this; I was too far gone. Nothing would cure it but having our baby. The safest thing to do — for both of us — was to deliver.
I was 32 weeks, 2 days pregnant. He was due June 5, a date I’d recited countless times in seven months. A date I’d circled, starred, color-coded on my Google calendar.
But April 12 would be his birthday.
I was induced around 10 a.m., then spent 12 hours in and out of sleep. I took any medication I was offered, floating freely through childhood memories after a powerful dose of Stadol. I apparently told Spencer I was back at my grandparents’ home, the place where my sister and I spent hours after school and every summer; we were playing with dolls and Barbies, lost in our games.
I was high as a kite, honestly — “tasting purple,” as a nurse joked. I barely remember the afternoon, but it’s probably better that way.
Our families arrived in Baltimore. My parents, Spencer’s parents, my sister and brother-in-law all camped out to wait for news. Spencer waited until I was sleeping to disappear and update them.
The day wore on. I was oblivious to most of it. I woke occasionally in pain as the contractions revved up, clutching my husband’s hand and waiting to hear how dilated I’d become. By mid- to late afternoon, I was at 4 centimeters and given an epidural. Spencer had to leave the room while it was administered and, for the first time, I became my own coach.
If you’ve had a baby, you know the rest. If you haven’t, you probably don’t want to.
At 9:57 p.m., we welcomed our Oliver into the world. His cry was mighty and immediate; a nurse lifted him high enough for me to see and called out, “Happy birthday!” I began to cry as Spencer cut the cord.
I saw him bundled for just a moment, kissed his cheek shakily, and he was off.
The days after are a blur. Safely ensconced in the NICU, Oliver was breathing on his own and doing better than we could have hoped from the beginning. It was a day and a half before I was well enough to be wheeled down to see him, and I’ll never forget peeking into the isolette to see my tiny son bundled in the semi-darkness.
Everything felt like a dream. Even after he was placed on my chest — this sweet, sleepy, whimpering little guy — and nuzzled beneath my chin, I kept thinking, This is my son. This is my son? and trying to sort out the ten thousand conflicting thoughts in my head.
It just happened so fast. None of it was in “the plan.” For starters, I couldn’t rationalize that I was no longer pregnant. I could not comprehend that this was my baby. I couldn’t process that I’d actually given birth, something I’d been simultaneously anticipating and dreading, and survived. It was over. He is here.
He is here.
Our darling, darling son.
So everything has been . . . surreal.
Oliver is now two and a half weeks old, is eating completely by bottle (no feeding tube!), has had his IV removed and generally gets cuter and stronger every day. He rarely fusses and mostly naps; we go up to visit as much as we can, which is much easier now that he is closer to us at a new hospital outside of Baltimore.
Oh, my emotions. They tumble and fly and toss me about — a ragged sea of feeling all the feelings, usually in rapid succession. I’m filled with such overwhelming love for this little boy, it’s an ache. I’m so excited to see him each day, but paralyzed with anxiety when we have to leave.
Spencer and I have gone from total NICU novices to pros, meeting so many kind families in a similar boat and feeling supported by friends, family and strangers alike. I can’t believe the messages, emails and gifts we’ve received; we are so grateful for all of them.
We met a woman Monday who just delivered her third preterm baby and, standing in the parking lot after leaving the NICU, she told us that — before we know it — Oliver will be home, healthy and happy . . . and this will all be nothing but a memory. She was calm and collected as I stood before her, fragile and half-broken and teary.
Sometimes I think, I hope I don’t remember any of this. Other times, well — I hope I remember all of it. As Oliver continues to grow (and give us his happy little milk smiles!), we’ve been taking the advice of a new friend and trying to document everything we’re seeing, doing and feeling. I’ve taken hundreds of photos and sometimes pull them up side by side, already marveling at the difference between April 12 and today.
Each day is a new day.
Entering the NICU is like stepping into a parallel world. I mostly curl up in a chair by his isolette to slip a finger into his little hand or, when we arrive at feeding times, hug him close with a bottle. Spence and I take turns; he is amazing with him. My own confidence increases with each hand-off, hug and diaper change, and I’m already far from the fragile, nervous woman I was just a month ago. Heck, a few weeks ago.
Because I’m a parent.
My goodness, I’m his mom.
It happened much faster than we would have ever wanted and the circumstances were less than ideal, but I get stronger every day — and so does Ollie. In my better moments, I feel capable and accepting. In the darker ones, well . . . less so.
But I cling tightly to the advice from other NICU parents: that once we get our little guy home, this chapter will close and life — beautiful, unpredictable, amazing life — will blossom. And we will be okay.
Better than okay, even.
Because we’re a family.
More than anything, I’m grateful. Grateful Spencer forced me to take care of myself and Ollie when I was frightened and in denial. Grateful for the doctors who noticed the right signs at the right moment, and for the medical staff who cared for me during the scariest time of my life. So, so grateful for the NICU nurses who continue to care for our sweet baby and also soothe our own concerns each day.
I’m thankful for our amazing families, who rallied around to care for us physically and emotionally, and will love their nephew, grandchild and great-grandchild just as much as we do. The cards, emails, Instagram and Facebook comments from friends have buoyed our spirits, and we are so appreciative of the presents and offers to help.
At the firm encouragement of a social worker, I’m learning to say “yes.” It’s so hard for me to do. I hate to inconvenience anyone, to feel as if I’m burden; I thrive on self-sufficiency. But we say “yes, yes, thank you” to most everything now: rides, meals, help, prayers. Yes to everything. Yes to anything that can help us help our Ollie.
I’ll never forget the support we’ve received.
Also, I’m a hugger now.
Though we don’t yet know when Oliver will come home, he gets bigger and stronger every day. We’re definitely heading in a homeward direction — and that is a huge comfort — but he has a few tasks to accomplish before he’s ready.
I’m okay with that. I’ve made my peace with it. I trust that he is in the best place possible, where he is being looked after by caring professionals who know far more than his nervous parents do. While I can’t wait until he’s home with us, I’m also scared. The NICU isn’t anyone’s idea of paradise, but it’s become familiar. A known entity. With time, I suppose, anything will.
But we will learn. We can’t wait to learn! Spence and I have already absorbed so much about preemies, newborns and, most importantly, Ollie himself. So many of the things I was nervous about — child birth, breastfeeding — are either something I’ve now done or something I do every day. I figured it out. Trial by fire.
We’ve developed a new normal with Ollie in the NICU, but the real adventure begins when he gets home.
I’ve channeled much of my energy into washing his new clothes, organizing his toys, getting his nursery ready . . . and Spence has been putting together furniture, hanging curtains, painting. Our energy gets pooled nightly to tackle projects both big and small, and working on his room has given me a productive way to feel close to him when he’s far away.
Despite all that, we still have yet to finish.
But somehow, I think he understands.