My Story: HELLP + C-Section at 32 Weeks + NICU Stay

{Read the birth story that accompanies this postpartum story, here}

You want to see your baby the moment he’s born, hold him to your chest, and be the first one to say hello to him. It’s a simple thing, a primal thing, to need to be there for him from the first second he comes into the world, and I was stripped of that. By no one’s fault, I knew, but still, I was angry.

Trevor told me later that they did actually put him on my chest while they cleaned him off.

Trevor was there, and I’m incredibly thankful for that. He saw them pull Max out, and heard him cry. He was there for him when they weighed him, and took pictures of him on the table while the doctors and nurses checked him out and hooked him up to all the necessary equipment.

I don’t know what room I was in when I woke up. I remember seeing Trevor’s face, and asking (more than once, apparently) if Max was breathing. Yes, he is, he’s doing great, and we can go see him. They wheeled me into a different area; I remember seeing a little red thing covered in, or maybe just surrounded by, hospital equipment. I remember actively trying to register this as my son, but I don’t think I actually got there. I don’t remember seeing his face, or hearing him make any sound at all. I don’t remember leaving that place and going to my recovery room. I don’t know how long I slept afterward, if I did.

The first real, bright memory I have is of my mother coming into my room. I know I had talked to Trevor before that, had eaten breakfast, and said goodbye to him when he left to pick her up at the airport, but those memories are fuzzy and dark. My mother’s face coming straight toward me, and then her hug, is the first time I remember thinking I’d finally be ok. Trevor had been incredible and the doctors and nurses all did their best to make me comfortable, but there’s really nothing like having your mom right there with you. I hope I can be as strong a reassurance to Max, when he needs it.

Mom and Trevor went to see Max while I tried to calm myself down a little more. I knew I wanted to see him again, I felt the pull, but I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect; I didn’t know what exactly would be hooked up to him, or what he would look like, or how I would feel when I saw him for the first time with a clear head. When they came back, mom said “he’s perfect”.

They took me in a wheelchair to the NICU, just down the hall. My heart was exploding with terror. I wanted to see him so badly, but at the same time, I didn’t. I still just wanted to wake up, just be pregnant for a while longer and do this all over again the normal way so that he could be ok and I could bond with him from the start, like I was supposed to. My baby was born just after midnight on the 27th of April, here it was sometime that afternoon and I still hadn’t even touched him.

He was lying in an incubator. A too-tiny red body turned onto his tummy, his diaper too big for him, tubes in his mouth, monitors on his chest, and hospital bracelets on his ankles with my name on them. He was mine. But all I could think was “he’s too small, he’s too small, please put him back so he can grow more and be healthy, why can’t we just put him back?” I didn’t want to, but they said I could touch him. I wasn’t to rub his skin or move him, just touch his back. I didn’t want to, I was positive any touching would harm him, that his skin must be so sensitive, it’s not natural for it to be exposed like this so early, no one should be touching him, NO ONE TOUCH HIM, but I reached my hand in the portholes on the side of the plastic box and placed it on his back. He made no movement; he must have been sleeping. I couldn’t really tell what he looked like; the tubes to assist his breathing covered most of his face and he had a white cap covering his head and hair. I hadn’t wanted to touch him, but the second I made that contact with him, I wanted to never leave him again. I apologised to him, in my head, for letting him down; for not being perfect for him so he could grow properly before he was born, for the tubes in his mouth and his too-sensitive skin, for not really being there when they ripped us apart. I know I was crying then, I had been crying on and off since 11pm the night before. 

There were plenty of reassurances in the weeks after, from doctors, nurses, and family, that of course it was nothing I did or didn’t do to cause the HELLP. That Max was exactly where he needed to be, the NICU had great people looking after him, and I did the right thing by following my instincts and going into the hospital when I did. And really, logically, I know all this to be true. I’ve done some reading on HELLP, and there’s really no explanation or reason why it happens. It’s just one of those things, one of those Very Unlikely Things that can happen.

Even knowing all that, however, I still felt I let him down. I couldn’t help it. I was supposed to be taking care of him in my womb, making sure he got what he needed and didn’t get anything that could hurt or disturb him. I was supposed to keep him safe in there until he decided it was time to come out. But he didn’t decide this, I didn’t decide this. I was the caretaker who was supposed to ensure his safety, and I couldn’t. For some reason, my body couldn’t do it. I let him down. I hadn’t even met him yet, and I already let him down. The very first thing I did for him, was to fail him. 

Women close to me did their best to help me when I admitted this; they said it was out of my hands, that I did the best thing for him, which is actually true. They also thought it would help me to tell of the horrors of actual labour and childbirth, that there was a silver lining in getting to miss that part. Maybe there is, but I certainly didn’t think of it that way. Maybe if I was given the choice, I would have chosen a more pleasant way of having a baby than the traditional labour and delivery that they went through, but the fact is, I didn’t.

I didn’t have a choice but to be put to sleep, helpless, and have my baby taken from me.

When you become pregnant, if you’re how I assume most women operate, the first thing you think of is the part where you actually have the baby. It’s “oh my god I’m pregnant” then “omg the labour, the childbirth!” and the terror that immediately follows that thought. Even if you end up with a cesarean section, you still have the pain of labour before hand. You imagine it from day one, expecting that whole birthing experience, and being told through relatives and childbirth classes to think of it as a sort of rite-of-passage into motherhood. Well, I didn’t have that, so I felt I cheated my way into this baby. I didn’t deserve him because I didn’t do the work. Of all the silly thoughts! Silly, but not invalid. I was traumatized. 

I was admitted to the hospital on Sunday, and sent home on Wednesday, without my baby. Max ended up staying in the hospital for 35 days. He grew wonderfully, without incident. They removed the breathing assistance stuff after 3 days, which is when I saw his entire face, and got to hold him for the first time. Still no rubbing or rocking, but I held him on my skin for the most incredible hour of my life. He needed phototherapy every few days, which were the hardest days because he couldn’t be without the lights on him for more than a half hour every 3 hours, which meant I couldn’t hold him for as long as I wanted. They also needed to protect his eyes with a small white mask, which still nearly engulfed his entire, tiny, face. 

Eventually, he was taken out of the incubator and given a little cot to sleep in. Eventually, they were able to remove the IV tubes from his belly button. Eventually, we were able to start teaching him to breastfeed. Eventually, I gave him his first bath. Eventually, I saw his whole face, without any feeding tubes, stickers on his cheeks, or any other hospital crap, and it was the third most emotional day I had since we’d been admitted. 

Then, finally, we got to take him home. We had been through a few ups and downs the few weeks before, looking like he was almost ready then having to slow down, or one doctor saying something to get my hopes up and another saying we weren’t quite there yet. I told them plainly that from that point on, no one is to tell me any guesses or estimates, I only want to know on the day, to avoid a total mental breakdown. They accommodated my request. On June 1st, he was discharged. Trevor left work early, we gave Max a last bath at the hospital with one of the many incredible nurses who took care of him, put him in his carseat that we could have easily fit three of him into, and brought our baby home.

He’s now four months old, and incredible. He’s talking to us in his baby language, he’s reacting to toys and smiling all the time, and his face lights up when he sees me in the mornings. He is, as my mom said the day he was born, perfect. Absolutely worth all of the terror and emotional pain, exhaustion, and sadness. The joy he brings completely overrides all the negative, and I know I’ll be ok. It’s only now, though, that I’ve been able to bring myself to write down some account of how he arrived. It’s still painful to think about, and all of my “silly” thoughts about failing my kid right out of the gate are still registering to me as true. It was a traumatic experience that I do not wish on any mother, though I know there are others out there who have been massively more unfortunate than I.

I count myself lucky, and have endless gratitude to the doctors and nurses who took care of Max and I while we needed it. I also have endless gratitude and love for Trevor, who has been amazing and perfect from the start, even so recently after losing his own father. I couldn’t have made it through without him, and Max is very lucky to have him.

Anonymous | Canada

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