When my son was born, his lungs were fully developed but, like new balloons, they were stiff and difficult for him to inflate. He was tiny, and watching him gasp was wrenching and worrisome.
We were assured that he would grow past this and be fine. But he didn’t seem fine. He didn’t cry. He didn’t eat. We couldn’t hold him because his head was encased in an oxygen hood. Even with that support, I could see his delicate chest fighting for each breath that he took.
I did the only thing I was instructed could help. I pumped. He’s my second child, so I knew how to nurse. I knew how to pump. But expressing colostrum was difficult. It didn’t help that I was a mess of anxiety, guilt and hormones. But I kept trying.
Our son had to be transported to a neighboring hospital with a NICU that could better support him. Amidst the chaos, the parts of his birth experience that we had been dreamy about, like naming our baby, were dislodged as priorities.
My husband and I had imagined ourselves lying in bed with our son and auditioning names from our list while we got to know him. The urgency of the situation demanded a different approach. We designated him “Nicholas.” It was a dark horse from our name list, but a classic choice that sounded strong. We agreed he needed a steadfast moniker before his first crosstown outing.
Two young men, buff and bouncer-esque, came to take Nicholas to the NICU. It seemed surprising that such robust escorts were assigned to our tiny baby, but I was glad that he had such burly protectors.
The first time I held Nicholas was in a room full of medical professionals, their gloved hands eager to usher me along to next steps.
Nicholas. Finally, in my arms. He seemed like a sea creature plucked from the ocean and dripping with seaweed ― the plastic wires and tubes that invaded his tiny limbs cascaded down from all sides of his body. I wanted to inhale him and never let go, but I needed to get him back into his hood where he could breathe more fully. I put him into the strapping man’s latex hands, mindful of the seaweed.
“We just named him Nicholas.”
“That’s my name, too. Don’t worry. We’ve got him.” Big Nicholas was kind and sincere. He was so gentle with tiny Nicholas.
I was released that afternoon, and my husband and I sped off to the NICU. I came in feeling like a tragedy on wheels, and was soon humbled by my acute awareness that we were the lucky ones. Other families had been there for weeks, months. Some of the babies were the smallest human beings I’d ever seen. Despite the level of infirmity in the NICU, it was a welcoming and supportive environment.
One of many things I found endearing about the NICU was that it was in a teaching hospital, and the circulating residents brought joy to the place. They were young, bright, curious, and endlessly patient with families in various stages of crisis.
After Nicholas had been there for a couple of days, and his ventilation needs stepped down, we were finally able to hold him. I had yet to hear him cry and the colostrum I had painstakingly pumped remained untouched. Still, he was making progress.
On his third day in the NICU, I could feel that my milk had come in. Nicholas sensed it too. I picked him up and he started rooting, looking for his food, just as a troop of residents came by on their rounds. It was the first normal baby thing he’d done.
He started getting frustrated because he could sense my milk, but he couldn’t find it. He let out an angry cry. My body responded immediately, and the whole front of my dress started to get wet, which only agitated Nicholas more. He cried harder, which thrilled me. He was loud.
I could sense the residents’ attention. I was glad to be wearing a nursing dress. I struggled free from the wet fabric and nestled Nicholas in.
I think because my milk was flowing, he didn’t have the trouble that newborns often do. He immediately latched on. He ate with gusto, like a person who had just had woken up from a long sleep. Relief coursed through my body. I knew it now. I could feel it. Nicholas was OK.
The residents applauded. I dripped milk and tears while Nicholas nursed.
It was an experience that I didn’t often feel as a nursing mom. I’ve hidden in closets, bathrooms, hot cars, cold cars, dressing rooms, cloak rooms. I’ve obscured a nursing baby with blankets, towels, coats, even a table cloth.
But on this occasion, I was delighted by the power of nursing motherhood, and everyone in my environment championed that value.