I'd waited years and years and years for this moment.
In the moment when I first heard my baby cry, it felt so surreal I couldn't even process what was happening. The unplanned c-section surgery had me so out of it. It was such a great sound and yet I thought I was dreaming.
They laid him on me and I felt like I was in an out-of-body experience. I was amazed, delighted, scared, nervous, shaking, and... really out of it.
Those first few hours with him are a bit of a blur. I couldn't believe he was here. He was ours.
I'd mentioned to the nurses that his breathing didn't seem right to me. Up in the mother/baby unit, they finally started checking into that. Tim went with them and watched/took pics from outside the nursery.
A whirlwind of difficult/interesting hours and tests later, and within his first four hours of life, we were told he needed to be taken down to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. It wasn't critical, but they needed to monitor and stabilize his breathing.
We had just assumed they'd come back and tell us it was normal, or they'd give him a quick little fix. We didn't know how to process this difficult information. We were stunned. The timing and way it all went down really stunk.
It was heartbreaking.
I was shocked. Dismayed. Terrified. Devastated. A total wreck.
I cried. And cried. And cried.
It was a rough night. I couldn't see or hold my baby. I couldn't smell him. I couldn't nurse him. I couldn't soothe his cries or change his diaper. I couldn't hear his noises to keep me awake all night.
The way it's supposed to be.
And I was all alone with my thoughts. My head was spinning in all directions.
Would my baby be okay? Is he going to die? Who's looking after him? I have no idea what's going on. I can't see him. I can't hold him. I can't tell him it's going to be okay.
All the books, classes, and advice you receive during pregnancy don't even remotely prepare you for that.
Thankfully we had our heads on just straight enough that Tim immediately visited him in the NICU and knew he was in good hands and being taken care of. Whenever there were questions or I needed to feel better about what was going on, Tim was there. After that we finally learned how easy it was to call down, tell them our bracelet tag number (that matched Elijah's, for security purposes), and talk to his nurse... that regularly gave me more peace of mind.
Finally the next afternoon, I was allowed to go down in the wheelchair to see him. It was scary. I was dizzy and weak. I couldn't fully process or understand the reality of what was going on.
I just longed for him to be in our room. By our bedside. Where he should have been. Where everyone I've ever known has had their newborn in that hospital.
As we zipped through the halls... my husband pushing my wheelchair, and my mom & dad alongside for the visit, we passed by rooms with babies crying. Or the sounds of happy laughter and people holding babies.
And my heart lurched.
I was jealous. Jealous of those who had it the way it was meant to be. Wanting desperately for our childbirth story to be a normal, healthy, natural one. The one we'd planned, hoped for, dreamed of, and longed for after so many years.
We had stayed flexible and knew it wouldn't be totally what we wanted.
But the NICU? His health in jeopardy? No one plans or expects that. No one wants that. And you have no idea how incredibly hard and traumatizing it is until you or someone you love has gone through it.
It was the hardest, darkest, toughest thing we have ever gone through.
But we rejoice in God's protective hand. We rejoice that the outcome wasn't worse. That our baby was indeed alive and with us. That we were able to visit him and even though it wasn't what we wanted, it was better than some other outcomes we saw in the NICU. That in the midst of the hard, God's grace and mercy is still ever-present.
Our son was in the NICU for 11 days. He was born Thursday night the 20th. By that Friday night and Saturday morning, he'd turned a bit worse and had to have chest tubes put in. It was super scary. I immediately freaked out and didn't think he was going to make it. There was so much uncertainty.
I couldn't make my brain shut off. I couldn't calm down. I knew my baby's life was in God's hands and I didn't like it.
I was mad at God. I realized I didn't trust him as much as I said or claimed I did. And that scared me.
There were times I'd lean over Elijah's little warming tray/crib in the NICU and just pray Please please pleaseeeee God don't let him die. Let my baby be okay. Pleaseeeeeee. I cannot handle it if something is seriously wrong.
When I had no other words. When I knew God would hear my cries even when I couldn't totally voice what I was feeling or thinking. Even when I was doubting him... I also wasn't. My faith has a strong foundation many miles long, so even through the fight and struggles and doubt, my faith down deep hadn't changed.
God hasn't given up on you even if you feel inclined to give up on him.
Ultimately, I knew he'd take care of us, one way or another, but I couldn't imagine waiting so long only for my baby to die.
In the stillness when I was alone with my thoughts either in bed, pumping, or waiting for people to return from lunch... I would confess my anger to God. I was so mad. I didn't understand and at the same time, he would calm my ever-raging heart.
The tears would flow. Hot, angry, and sad. So mad that my baby was in such a difficult situation and so mad that we had to go through this when I was surrounded by people either at the hospital or by friends and family with perfect birthing stories.
My mom & stepdad drove the 5.5 hours back home on the Friday afternoon after I'd given birth, and then my mom surprised me by coming back on Saturday afternoon after hearing that he'd taken a turn for the worse (mom's the one pictured above consoling me). And--bless her heart--she stayed with us for TWO weeks!!! Sunday night as we were in the NICU, a nurse popped in and told us we had a visitor. So hubby went to see who it was and approve it. (They have strict rules so visitors must be with one of the parents.) I heard him say "Here's our visitor", turned and was more surprised than I've ever been in my life to see my brother standing there. He'd driven up (the same 5.5 hrs) to be there for us and I had absolutely no idea he was coming. I'm very close to my brother, and as you can imagine, my emotions were on high alert at the time. I gave out a very large gasp of surprise and then completely lost it. It was a great surprise and absolutely terrific to have him there for a day and a half.
[I'm SO grateful to have had my family by my side! I could not have done this without them. And my husband... was unbelievable!!!]
I've seen those random people on TLC's A Baby Story with perfect birth stories. I'd only ever seen one where they talked about time in the NICU and how hard it was.
so. very. very. hard.
It was tough to interact with our baby. It was hard to hold him. Between my IVs and bracelets, his monitors and wires, and all kinds of people watching us... it was so far outside of anything I'd ever imagined that it seemed like we must be in some horrible nightmare.
I've never heard quite enough about this type of experience. It's so insane and you think you're in a dream because it's just harder than any road you've ever walked, anything you could ever imagine.
And yet, there's also much worse. We saw worse daily in the NICU. I know handfuls of people walking through very difficult--way tougher--roads right now or in the recent past. My heart goes out to them. My prayers go out to them. I've shed tears for them. I now know a compassion and empathy I never could have slightly touched before.
God knew we had to go through this trial to show us his true grace, teach us true compassion, and to remind us of his goodness as he took great care of us through the trial.
I tried to be strong and brave. I talked like I was okay at times when I wasn't. But at random times, I broke. I was bitter and hurt. Surrounded by loved ones, I'd cry at the drop of a hat. Sob over my baby. Pray over my baby. Weep as we read him books and sang him songs. In the NICU. Where he shouldn't have to be.
My little baby went through SO much in his first 11 days of life.
I never imagined watching my son spend 11 days being comforted, held, fed, bathed, cared for, and rocked by complete strangers.
We should have been the ones doing those things.
Thankfully though, the NICU staff is terrific. Practically everyone there does their best to make you as comfortable and at ease as possible. Because they all recognize you're having a really hard time. They know it's tough.
For example: we spent my 35th birthday there. And when we first came downstairs that morning, the nurse had a big "Happy Birthday Mommy, Love Elijah" sign on his crib. She then handed me a sweet mini-cake (kind of just a gigantic cupcake). And then I got to hold the greatest birthday gift I'd ever received: my son. (Thankfully because the chest tubes were finally out, I got to hold him again!!)
They made crafts with him, they gave us adorable pictures, they messed with his hair and made mohawks, and they got to know us personally.
He spent 7 days in what they call "acute" care. He needed a lot of monitoring and care. Then he was moved to the back of the unit, where less care was required. Oh man, did we rejoice when he moved!!! Less care means they're closer to going home. Even though it was less care, it also meant it should be a less stressful situation.
Then we discovered the stress had gotten to me anyway. 8 days after his birth, I wound up back in the ER with incision bleeding and super high blood pressure. I was readmitted for 2 days. Oy.
And 5 weeks later, my incision is still healing. It was infected, separated, and very painful. It's been a really, really slow and aggravating process.
But I'm nearly better. Slowly, but surely my wound has finally started closing up and isn't infected anymore. Hopefully at my final OB visit end of this coming week, I'll get great news!
I'm also doing much better emotionally and spiritually. Granted the anti-depressants, counseling at church, getting out of that hospital, and being back out among the living has certainly helped!
It was easy to feel isolated for a while. I felt so set apart. We couldn't go to church, we weren't among my coworkers which is a big source of my comfort & strength as they're the family of believers I'm often the closest to/share the most with, and outside of family and a few close friends... we were shut off from virtually everyone for a time. Other times like at the hospital I started turning people away because I couldn't handle the stress and overwhelming nature of sharing the story with even one more person. It was taking a lot out of me so we limited visitors -- definitely not something I'd wanted to do, I'd wanted to be surrounded by family & friends after the birth. Other times at home I'd be surrounded by family and still feel empty. It was hard for us to even know what we wanted or needed, much less be able to communicate it to others! We also didn't realize until too late that we hadn't even reached out for help or realized we should have while at the hospital, specifically from our church leaders. We were stuck in pure survival mode for 2-3 straight weeks.
Even now I do still struggle with not tormenting myself over the details of the childbirth. For not wishing for what could have been. For not living with so many regrets. For not being upset on all we missed out on (holding, snuggling, feeding, getting those first pictures, being together 24/7, learning from the nurses about what to do, seeing those firsts, etc). For not being jealous of those who get to have it the right way and at the same time rejoicing with them for what they do get to have and being grateful they don't have to go through something as hard as we did.
In a lot of ways, it all seems like it's unfair. But God always has a plan and ultimately, we trust in Him. And we're grateful for the story we get to share of our incredible boy who beat the odds, and healed up and left the hospital sooner than the doctors expected.
Thankfully, Elijah is healthy and healed now. His hard start to life traumatized me, but he's okay.
And unless we remind him -- he should never remember the purple feet from the pokes and prods, the reason for the scars on his chest that are hopefully not life-long, his swollen and sore nose from the CPAP machine, his dry lips from the feeding tube, bruises on his hands from the IVs, all the tags, all the monitors, all the loud beeps, the jaundice lamp he needed for a day and a half, and all those crazy tests, being held and messed around with by a variety of people.
I will never forget our childbirth reality though. The very unexpected turns we had along the way. The continuing issues that still surface occasionally today. We have our very own unique story to tell.
That God was there, in control, hearing our concerns, and protecting us the entire time.
We are so grateful. And it may not have been what was supposed to happen in my mind, but it was what God had planned. And it wasn't what we could have remotely imagined, but God knew and it didn't surprise him.
He had us in the palm of his hands the entire time. And we give him all the glory.
For more from another perspective, see my dearest friend Monica's post here.