Every pregnancy has its anxiety nightmares. Every pregnancy has its moments of waking up at 3:00 am wild eyed, heart racing, rising to the surface of a horrific, baby in peril dream. Your hand goes instinctively to your stomach and there it is, hard as a drum, round as a basketball. Your precious baby safe inside. Now, imagine the nightmare is reversed. The horror, the unspeakable thing is there when you open your eyes. Closed, complete bliss. Open, you’re hit with terror.
I spent the last few weeks of my third and last pregnancy worried. I fretted that I would have a repeat of my second labor and delivery – so much blood that the room looked like a CSI episode, so much blood I nearly needed a transfusion. I panicked when my labor stalled, but thanks to a mega dose of Pitocin, I sped from 4 to 10 centimeters in twenty minutes and delivered my son, Aidan, after a mere 15 minutes of pushing. Even with no epidural at the end, I was over the moon. Aidan Jacob was a ten fingered, ten toed, gorgeous platinum blonde with crystal blue eyes. The only thing I noticed amiss was a small blood spot in the corner of his left eye, but I knew that was common from the stress of delivery. I was left wondering, “Why do I worry so much? Why not enjoy the moment?” I vowed not to let the fear of what might happen rule my life ever again.
That resolve coursed through me as I held my beautiful boy, my Aidan, on my shoulder to burp him. He had just finished nursing, and that delicious weight of a new life sound asleep – solid, yet light as a feather, filled me with peace. I patted his back and breathed in his intoxicating scent. “He’s here,” I thought. “He’s finally here.” That was the last moment I remember before hearing the screams, the newborn gut wrenching wails. It took me a second to understand that the sound was coming from Aidan. And, in that split second, I realized that he was no longer in my arms, but lying on the floor – the cold, hard, unforgiving hospital floor.
I opened my eyes to my worst nightmare, worse than any pregnancy anxiety visions. Worse than anything my hormone-addled brain could have conjured. I jumped out of bed screaming. As I scrambled to lift Aidan back into my arms, back to my heart, I pushed the leg of the bassinette into his stomach. I stumbled trying to get to him. In seconds a nurse was pushing me on the bed as I sobbed, while another nurse whisked Aidan away. I struggled against the monitor she hooked me up to. I struggled to follow my son.
I did not remember falling asleep. I did not remember a gentle slipping away. I was holding my baby and then I wasn’t. I tried to stand up and fell back down on the bed. “We need to check your vitals,” the nurse insisted. “You can’t stand on your own.”
My blood pressure (normally extremely low) and my heart rate (a bit high even when I’m calm) were through the roof. I didn’t care. I wanted to see my baby. “I must have fallen asleep,” I sobbed. “I don’t remember.” The fear and guilt that gripped me were a hurricane, a force, something that I’d never felt before.
“You didn’t fall asleep,” one of the nurses informed me. “You passed out. Your chart says you are extremely anemic and you refused treatment this afternoon.” Her disdainful glance fell on me.
I didn’t refuse treatment, I simply requested to see my blood levels before agreeing to take medication. My doctor hadn’t informed me that I was anemic and the massive doses of iron I was given after my last delivery left my son with bloody diarrhea. I was nursing again and wanted to make sure the diagnosis wasn’t a mistake. The nurses were overworked, and I knew there was always a chance the medication could have been meant for someone else. Sure, I had been dizzy, but I chalked it up to lack of sleep.
It wasn’t a mistake, though. I was severely anemic going into labor, and the small blood loss depleted me more. My mind spun back to an appointment I had with a cardiologist for shortness of breath and rapid heart rate at seven months. He suggested I might be anemic, but I never got the blood work he prescribed done. My obstetrician did a finger stick test and assured me my iron levels were perfect. I assumed my shortness of breath was thanks to my huge belly on my tiny frame and my son crushing my diaphragm. I was getting biweekly blood tests for a platelet condition, and I just couldn’t find the time to get yet another test while caring for two young children.
I berated myself for not taking the hour to get one extra blood test done. One dose of iron that afternoon probably wouldn’t have made a difference, but two months worth would have. Regardless of what I could have done to prevent it, the reality was that in my weakened state, I slipped out of consciousness and slipped into a fear so profound, I could not breathe.
I called my husband, Jeff, hands shaking, hot tears flowing. “I did something really bad,” I whispered. “The baby, he fell.” Rather than asking for a divorce immediately, my husband stayed calm and instructed me to call my mother to watch our older boys. My mother was not calm. My mother sobbed and vowed to come right to the hospital, leaving my father with the boys. Then she whispered, “How did this happen? What are we going to do with you?” Later, she would apologize. Later, she would agree with everyone that it wasn’t my fault. She didn’t mean harm. It was the same thing I would say to my six year old if he broke something precious, even if it was an accident. But, I took that statement in and held it.
As I hung up the phone, three doctors appeared at my bedside. The night neonatologist, flanked by two interns explained that one of three things could happen – nothing, no damage; a skull fracture; a skull fracture with bleeding. Aidan would be observed in the NICU (neonatal intensive care) overnight and they would decide on a CAT scan in the morning. It was only 9:45 pm. I honestly did not know how I could survive through the night without knowing my baby’s fate. The only thing I knew was that if he had suffered permanent damage, I would never know joy again.
Finally, I was wheeled to the nursery where he was being examined before being transferred to the NICU. For the rest of my stay, I would not be allowed to walk to the NICU, to walk anywhere farther than my bathroom. I looked through the window. Aidan was pink faced and howling as he was poked and prodded. “He must be ok to be acting like that, right?” I whispered to the nurse. She just shrugged. “They’ll let you know,” she said softly, then wheeled me into a room behind the nursery.
Mere moments – and yet an eternity later – a nurse brought a still crying Aidan to me. “Can I please nurse him?” I begged her. She placed him in my arms and he latched on greedily, sucking with the same fervor he had displayed just an hour before. I softly stroked his downy blonde hair, stared at his china doll face. I saw no marks, no bruises, no swelling. The only thing I noticed was the blood spot in his left eye.
When I glanced up, the neonatologist stood in front of me, bouncing on the balls of his feet, his arms behind him. “He’s nursing so great, he has to be ok, right? He wouldn’t be able to nurse like this if he was badly injured, right?” I asked desperately. “I mean, he couldn’t die now, could he? If anything terrible was going to happen, it would have happened, right?” If I wasn’t holding Aidan, I swear I would have slid out of the wheelchair and dropped to my knees, begging him tell me what I wanted to hear.
The doctor continued bouncing. He answered in measured tones, “We need to observe him all night to get a definitive answer. Sometimes these things take a while to come out.” In my mind I envisioned my child in a wheelchair, a child unable to feed himself or walk or play. A child imprisoned in his body because of me. Or, no child at all – I imagined coming home from the hospital with empty, aching arms. I shook my head to get the visions out.
As they wheeled me back to my room, I passed an orthodox Jewish family heading to the nursery. Their hats and suits black as night, their faces calm. “Pray for me,” I wanted to whisper. “Pray my baby will be ok.”
With sleep elusive, I cried all night, burying my face in the pillow, so my husband and roommate could sleep. At 5:00 am the nurse came in to check my vital signs and a few moments later my doctor came in. “Did you hear what happened?” I whispered. I could not imagine that he hadn’t.
He shook his head. He didn’t know and I desperately wanted to keep it that way. I wanted one person not to know, one person not to think, “How could you?” I had to tell him, though. I spoke slowly, hoping to stem the tears, which flowed as soon as I opened my mouth.
When I finished, his face was grave. “I didn’t even see the anemia on your blood test,” he admitted. “I was so busy looking for your platelets results. You were in labor and I needed to know if you could have an epidural. But, one iron pill wouldn’t have made a difference. One iron pill couldn’t have prevented it.” One pill may not have made a difference, but it would have spared me the nurse’s withering glance.
As soon as my doctor was done examining me, I asked to go to the NICU. The doctors insisted that I allow them to give Aidan a bottle during the night, so I could recoup my strength and I grudgingly agreed, but I was anxious to see him and nurse him again. I wanted my milk to come in at least, even if all else was failing.
When I got there Aidan was asleep, hooked up to monitors. His pulse rate and oxygen saturation flashed on the screen. The lines of his heartbeat dipped and climbed with regularity. He was so tiny in his isolette. I was certain the nurses were whispering about me, certain they were giving me dirty looks. I was the mother who put her child in the NICU. The only one who wasn’t dealt an uncontrollable hand of fate – a premature birth, a genetic disorder, a complication during delivery. I was the only one who could have actually kept my son out of there – that’s what I believed.
When my kids’ pediatrician arrived, I glanced up at him. There was pity on his face as he took in my swollen eyes, messy ponytail and red nose. I pulled my robe tighter and glanced away. I felt the tears rising, hot in my eyes, and I couldn’t bear to look at him. “Hey, he’s blonde! You’ll get in more trouble for that than dropping him,” he joked, knowing that we are a family of brunettes. I tried to smile, but the tears spilled over, rolled down my cheeks. I was a breath away from full on sobbing.
“Look,” he began softly, “You are not the first person to do this. You’re just the first person today.”
“Will he be ok?” I whispered. He couldn’t answer me. No one could, yet. The neonatologist decided that Aidan did need a CAT scan and I spent the rest of the morning in an agonizing state of waiting for them to do the test. All I longed for was to hold Aidan, to nurse him, to sustain him. Yet, the nurses kept making me leave. Since I wasn’t allowed to walk yet, getting back to the NICU was a battle.
I had to wait for both a wheelchair and someone to push me. I not only wanted to walk to the NICU, I wanted to run. When I finally got there, a nurse was giving Aidan a bottle. I was furious, but the nurse simply replied, “He was hungry.”
“Please give him to me,” I begged. “I want my milk to come in. I want something to go right.” Again, I imagined that the nurses and even the other mothers were giving me dirty looks. They knew I was defective. They knew I couldn’t even keep my newborn from slipping out of my grasp. I asked when he would have his CAT scan and was simply told, “Soon.”
Back in my room, I stared at the ceiling, trying to quiet my mind. I didn’t expect the results for a few hours, but Jeff returned quickly and sat down on the bed with me. In his silence, I heard everything. “He’s not ok, is he?” I whispered.
He answered me slowly, speaking as if to a child. “The resident on duty spoke with me. He was very nice. He said Aidan has a small hairline fracture, but no bleeding. It should heal on its own.” The words “skull fracture” – like a hammer, a fist, a lead ball – slammed into my chest. How could I ever forgive myself? I broke my baby’s head. I sobbed silently, shoulders heaving. Jeff leaned his forehead against mine. “You know, Stef, they are more worried about you. That’s what all of the doctors have said. Aidan will be ok. You really are not well right now. You’re the one who passed out. You’re extremely weak and your heart rate is still way too high. The nurses are coming in a few minutes to check your vitals.”
After I was checked, I let Jeff guide me into the wheelchair and push me down the hall, but mentally I was gone. No matter how much anyone reassured me or insisted I was worse off than Aidan physically, I couldn’t hear it. I hated myself and knew I did not deserve any kindness.
The resident’s eyes were tired and his voice soft. I imagined all he must see. I knew that my baby wasn’t as bad as most coming through the NICU, but that didn’t matter. All those other babies were random events, out of the mother’s control. None of those babies were betrayed by the one person that is supposed to protect them.
The thoughts crashing through my mind must have shadowed my face, because the only thing that resident said was, “Look, this happens.” He then shared a story about a six week old in the hospital for a lifesaving heart procedure. His mother sat in the hospital issue rocking chair the night before his surgery, nursing him. The exhaustion of caring for and worrying about an ill newborn caught up with her, and as she rocked she fell asleep. She woke up when her son hit the floor.
That baby suffered a skull fracture, as well. But, he was able to have his surgery. He lived with a skull fracture and a heart problem. I wanted to call that mother and tell her it was ok. I wanted to find her and hug her. But, I couldn’t extend that kindness to myself.
I was discharged late that evening, eight hours after I should have headed home. It was my health, not Aidan’s that kept us in the hospital. My hemoglobin was dangerously low, and my doctor had to wait for the result of my last blood test to determine if it was safe for me to go home. With a hemoglobin of 8.1 (the normal range is from 12.1 to 15.1), I just made it. A bit lower and I may have needed a transfusion.
I begged the nurses to let me bring Aidan back to my room to dress him in his going home outfit, to take pictures, to pretend everything was normal. Generally, all babies are discharged directly from the NICU, but a supervisor took mercy on me and bent the rules. I was able to pose with Aidan and smile for the camera, pretending to be happy, pretending my thoughts weren’t filled with gathering storm clouds.
At home I continued to pretend. I had two small boys reading my cues. If I was weepy and anxious, they would be too. So, I kept it in. Though, sometimes it escaped. When I called the pediatrician’s office to schedule Aidan’s first well visit, the receptionist asked me how he was. I was too raw. I opened my mouth to answer and only a strangled cry escaped. The receptionist was understanding, but I felt branded – not only did I drop my son, but I couldn’t keep it together without crying.
Shortly after that my parents’ friend from Florida called. I managed not to cry, but I could speak only in the shortest, sharpest sentences. “We’re all fine. I need to go.” I knew I was rude, but it was either that or tears.
At my son’s preschool, everyone marveled at how thin I was. I wanted to yell, “I only lost the weight because I dropped my son and now I can’t eat!” I couldn’t tell them that I ate just enough to keep me upright and nursing, that the pleasure of eating was lost. The pleasure of anything was lost.
Shopping for party ware for Aidan’s bris (the coming out party for Jewish baby boys), I confided in my mother that I felt no joy deciding between sherbet hued handprints and pale yellow ducky plates. I felt no joy picking out a centerpiece. I felt no joy, period.
“You’re missing everything,” my mother said. “This whole beginning – you’re missing it. You can’t get it back, either. This is it. You have to forgive yourself. You have to get back to living.”
After I got home, I sat in the nursery and cried, just cried – great gasping sobs that racked my whole body. I rocked back and forth and back and forth. I tried to get my mind around what had happened and what I could do to forgive myself and enjoy Aidan’s bris. I couldn’t. I could not figure out a way to feel joy over the birth of my beautiful son.
The next day I called a friend who had fallen down the stairs two years earlier while carrying her six month old. Her daughter suffered a skull fracture. “How do you get over it?” I implored.
“Eventually you just do,” she answered. “It’s always there, but you just go on.” I tried to see myself happy in the future. I tried to see beyond the torturous guilt. I knew only one thing would release me – Aidan’s follow up CAT scan at three months. Finally, that CAT scan showed that the fracture had healed completely, that the danger was over. Aidan would be fine. I started to believe in happiness again. Slowly, I started to enjoy the small moments of motherhood – the toothless grin, the raspberries blown. I started to feel thankful for our tremendous luck in escaping tragedy.
Even as the guilt has started to retreat, the experience still colors my decisions, my feelings six months later. When Aidan violently protests being lowered into his crib, awake or asleep, I wonder if something inside him, some tiny nugget of remembrance startles him each time he leaves my arms. When I was sixteen years old, I fell off a boy’s shoulders and shattered my ankle. For years after that, I could not do anything that recalled that feeling of falling – ferris wheels, even a playground swing left my stomach churning. Could Aidan somehow relive the feeling of leaving my arms and hitting the cold hard floor each time he hits those cold sheets?
Logic tells me he can’t remember what happened at one day old. Logic tells me his skull has completely healed. Logic tells me that lots of babies just want to be held. Logic tells me if I want to sleep soon, I should listen to my pediatrician’s exhortations to “let him cry.”
But, my heart says, “What if?” So, when he shrieks and wails ten seconds after I’ve placed him in the crib, I lift him to my heart. Even though I am exhausted and still owe thank you notes and have knee-deep piles of laundry in my basement, even though there are a gazillion other things I could and should be doing, I slide into the glider with Aidan in my arms. Even though he is six months old and not six weeks, even though his feet now almost reach my knees when his head is on my shoulder, I lay my cheek against his spun silk hair and let him tangle his tiny fingers in the curls that spill over my shoulders. Together, we rock into the night.
Epilogue: I am awakened this morning the same way I am every morning – two plump arms around my neck, a silken cheek against mine and “I give you a hug,” whispered in my ear. I glance at the clock – 7:06 am. I am sure this is not the first time Aidan has woken me up, I vaguely remember him crawling onto my bed in the predawn hours, but this is the first moment I am truly conscious. And, the first conscious thought I have is, “Three years since the worst day of my life.”
As Aidan snuggles in closer, his chin resting on my shoulder, I reflect on what he has become since that day. He is, by anyone’s standards, brilliant. At three years old, he can do simple math. (I learned this when I was helping my first grader with his homework and Aidan chimed in with the answers to one plus all the numbers through nine.) He can read simple words. At just over two years old, he began mixing all of his twenty four piece puzzles together and then doing each one from the mixed up pile of five different puzzles. From the mishmash of pieces, he was able to extricate exactly the one he needed and complete all the puzzles in just a few minutes.
During a recent cognitive evaluation (part of a speech therapy evaluation) the psychologist said she had never seen a three year old perform the visual spatial tasks Aidan was performing. “I can’t wait to score this,” she gushed. “He is going to be through the roof.” His score was indeed “through the roof” – above the 99.99%. When I shared this with my ob/gyn at my annual appointment, he said, “Maybe I should tell all my patients to drop their babies on their heads.” Later when I told Jeff, he chastised me, “I bet you didn’t even laugh.”
“I cracked a smile,” I protested. And this, I realize is what I am left with – the raw pain is gone. I am even able to crack a smile when someone jokes about what happened, but I will never laugh about it. I will never forget the profound fear. And, I will always appreciate the second chance I was given.
Note: I wrote this essay five years ago. It originally appeared on my blog Boys, Dogs and Chaos in 2010 – it was the first essay I ever posted. I’m sharing it again, because I know there are other moms out there who have gone through this and I hope it helps even one.