Photos by Ana Gambuto

OUR BABY GIRL IS 1 YEAR OLD. I feel grateful and, yes, blessed to have her here with us and to think it’s been a year since she’s come into the world, I’ve been emotional all week having flashbacks of when and how she came into this world. Here is my birth story.

When Sea was born, she was ten days late. I was adamant not to be induced as I felt that with induction came a boatload of intervention issues like pitocin, emergency c-section and the like. I was hoping I could bring this baby in naturally as I did with Jude, nearly three years earlier, but baby girl was not moving. I walked every inch of this city to move her out, ate eggplant parm, did acupuncture daily, reflexology daily, had sex *not so daily* as I had gained over 50 pounds with Sea. I ate spicy food. If it was Google-able, I did it. Girl did not budge. Then, ten days after her due date, she was ready..or kind of.

Labor went pretty swiftly. I had been here before. The numbing, blinding pain. The visceral, primal groans. Last time I waivered on the epidural. This time, there was no question. I would labor as long as I could and then before the pushing part, wanted the epidural. It was 5:30am when we left for the hospital. My brother was still up (DJ life) and came over to watch Jude who was still sleeping and had school the next day. We loaded our long-ago-packed suitcases into our car and headed up. I listened to positive birth affirmations as I writhed in pain in the front seat. I breathed as we shot of the West Side Highway.

Once checked into the hospital, I had been laboring since 8:30pm and after hearing the epidural order could “take a while,” I was like, “Order that sh-t, now.” Once moved to the room I would give birth, a young anesthesiologist arrived. During my last birth, administering the epidural was awful. They couldn’t find a proper spot in my spine. Nothing could be worse than that, I thought. I was wrong. This time,  the ordeal took over an hour as they inserted the syringe into my spine, but weren’t happy with placement, and took it out. In and out, in and out. flustering behind me as I shook in pain. After what seemed like an eternity, it was in,  and I slept.

I woke up, drank raw coconut water and ate raw sunflower seeds, took homeopathic medicine, applied essential oils, relaxed until it was time to push. My doctor appeared and it was go time. I clenched rose quartz in one hand and quartz in the other and pushed and pushed until Sea was born at 4pm in May 31 2018.

She cried hard yet immediately latched to my breast as I fed her and she soothed. After what seemed like only a little bit, a nurse came to “clean her up” and we would be reunited in my room. Little did I know I wouldn’t be able to hold my baby for another two days. Once we arrived in my room, a knock on the door and I expected to hold my baby. Instead it was a young doctor in scrubs. She said, “I don’t want you to panic,” I went numb and I froze, bracing myself for a tidal wave that might knock me over and take me away for eternity. “Your daughter turned blue and she is on oxygen currently to help stabilize her, we are going to watch her and keep you posted.” She didn’t say the word NICU but I asked is that where she was and she said yes. She said try not to worry she would be back in serval hours. I was numb. I was hit by a MAC truck. Suddenly I found myself ordering my husband to go see her, find out what floor and just go. I couldn’t stand. I had given birth minutes ago. I couldn’t feel. I couldn’t think. My brothers had arrived to meet their niece, I sent them home.

What seemed like forever my husband returned with another, older, more assured doctor who said she would need to be on oxygen or a CPAP to help her breathe and if that didn’t stabilize within a day, she would need to be given antibiotics to rule out an infection. The antibiotics would have to be administered through IV and would last a week. That was worst case scenario. That is what happened. Instead of taking my healthy baby home the day after she was born, I lived in a hospital waiting rooms, slept in folding chairs, ate takeout and stayed with my little girl for seven days. I didn’t see our eldest for 6 days the longest I’ve ever gone without being with him for a long shot, since a NICU is no place for a 2 year old.

Hours after I gave birth I found myself walking through fluorescent lit hallways, up and down service elevators, getting stopped to see my bracelet, buzzing into room after room to get to see my baby. I’ll never forget that journey I did, hour after hour, to feed and be next to my baby. In the very beginning, I was advised not to nurse her as feeding her my distress her breathing so hours after giving birth, instead of nursing, I had to pump, first nothing, then droplets only, that I soaked up through a syringe to then transfer two or three drops of colostrum into her mouth. She cried when they changed IV and my body longed and ached to just take her and nurse her to comfort. 

After the first 24 hours, one nurse who at first didn’t seem to like me at all said why don’t you try nursing her? I said, a doctor told me not to. She huffed and puffed as she did towards me and basically told me to do it anyway. I hungrily obliged. She latched on immediately and didn’t leave my chest from then on. “See,” the nurse said in her gruff voice that suddenly had a tinge of kindness to it. “All she wanted to be was a normal baby.” She was right. From then on, the oxygen came off, the CPAP came off, she was just a “normal” baby living in the NICU for another 5 days to finish her course of antibiotics to “rule out an infection”.

Of course I spiraled thinking about my newborn getting antibiotics. I was scared. I’ve never been here before. I wanted my baby home and healthy. I called my pediatrician who assured me we would put her on a protocol to counteract any negative gut flora impact the antibiotics might have. (We gave her liquid bentonite for 1 month, vitamin D, and alternated probiotics immediately when we got home. My doctor also recommended vaginal swabbing as they do with C-section babies to promote good bacterial growth in the gut.)  I released and let go. My focus was feeding my baby around the clock to get her better. As I nursed, the hungrier she got, the slowly my milk came in. Though I was worried it might not be enough I was determined that I was only going to nurse her and she needed mother’s milk and me more than anything. A well-meaning doctor doing his rounds suggested I switch to formula. Thank you for your advice but no thank you. My husband and mom would take shifts visiting but they had to care for our son and the world still continued on the outside. Save for trips to the waiting room to heat up Mother’s Milk Tea, I never left the hospital. She needed me. When it became clear she wasn’t coming home after the second day, my husband found me a small hotel a block away after the hospital said I couldn’t stay anymore and would run through city streets at 4am whenever the nurse called to feed my baby. “She’s crying,” the nurse on duty would say testily on the other end. For many, if not all the other babies, she had been instructed to give formula. My nursing meant she had to wait for me. “I’m coming,” I’d yell and sprint down dark streets into the brightly lit silent but beeping room.” By the 5th day all Sea’s tests came back, no infection, cardio grams came back clear. What was the issue? Some babies simply take longer to “get used to this world” one doctor put it. But just to be safe, they kept her another two days.

I hadn’t slept in a week. For more than 2 hours since giving birth, I hadn’t taken a proper shower, I was still bleeding, bloated and not quite human. The juices, seaweed soup, nourishing foods that I ate immediately after Jude’s birth had to wait. I lived on soggy takeout tempeh sandwiches and Starbucks. I didn’t have contact to the outside world except for my family and a few close friends who I confided in and who sent me a care package of gluten-free bagels and vegan cream cheese, a gesture that made me cry. One friend had been in the very place, the very NICU only weeks before gave me the most comforting advice that this was fleeting, I would be on the other end soon.

I did not post about it. I would get DMs of well-meaning strangers asking if everything was ok since up until her birth, I had documented almost every waking day of this long pregnancy.

One week later, after giving birth, we took our baby home. And that chapter of our life, where fate was suspended, where I did not know what was up or down, where I truly did not know if I could survive, was closed. It had ended, and I was myself. I think. It was time for life to begin again.

To date, apart from losing my father suddenly at age 20, this moment in time has been the hardest challenge of my life. I’ve gone to therapy for it yet I still can’t fully access that fear. I still have so much pain and fear from that day that I don’t know what to do with or I don’t know where it went. Did I push it away? Did it disappear? We just had to keep moving. I guess that’s what parents do. We do whatever it takes to survive and be there for our children. The woman whose baby was taken away from her at birth disappeared or couldn’t exist. There was no time for her. There was only the mother who had to be there for her baby girl and her son.

What I do know and what I can take with me is the awe and admiration for the doctors and nurses who do everything to save babies lives each and every day. I was a drop in a sea of lives they save every day. From the kind nurse who made a beautiful name card for Sea’s bassinet in the hospital to the doctor who went out of his way to find us a quiet corner in the NICU that was somewhat private and somewhat less scary. What is left is my awe for the mothers and fathers who come to visit their babies from miles and miles away, who stay in the hospital much longer than we did, who are boisterous, happy and hopeful bringing so much love and life to these little new beings who need their joy, not fear, the most. To all the mothers who have had their children in the NICU but don’t say anything and keep it with them as private knowledge and strength. When I was there, I was shocked to hear so many friends and people I know who went through the same thing  yet I didn’t know (or didn’t listen) until I was there myself. What is left is my amazement at the strength and perseverance of all these young souls even minutes on this earth determined to live and thrive.

Maybe one day I’ll fully absorb what happened but until then I am so grateful we are here celebrating this milestone for our baby girl. I hope this story brings comfort to any mothers or fathers who have gone through the same ordeal or are going through it. You will get to the other side and as my wise friend put it as I quietly sobbed to her from a waiting room over cold takeout, “You’ll forget you were even there.”