Although mentally painful to be discharged because we weren’t bringing the boy home at the same time, it was probably better for my mental health to not be housed in the post-partum area. The entire area was a constant reminder that things “hadn’t gone according to plan.”
I felt like the only woman not staying in her room all day, learning her baby’s cries, leaning over from my bed to pick him up to nurse in the middle of the night. Instead, I stayed in the ICN until the Hubbs forcibly pulled me away to eat/sleep or until it closed — two times a day for an hour and a half — for a staffing change. Although the hospital fed me, I was never in my room when it was delivered. I ate ice-cold food, drank cold soup and tea — without really tasting it. I started to just order sandwiches or cereal, since it didn’t matter that those items were cold.
Sleeping was the hardest. I’d have slept in a chair, on the floor, of the ICN if they had let me. Back in my room, I’d hear a symphony of babies crying at all times of the night. And I’d hear their mothers coo, or the low voices of their fathers soothe. My chest would ache and I’d swallow my sobs (or not) while my newly-lactating breasts literally gushed at the sounds, soaking through my nursing pads, bra, and hospital gown.
One of the older post-partum nurses would hug me whenever she came by. It only made me cry more.
After I was discharged, it was a relief to bypass all the happy, healthy families and babies. It was emotionally easier to walk right by, and get buzzed into the locked area where everyone’s child was attached to beeping monitors. Where everyone’s eyes were red-rimmed and weary; their hearts aching. It was a shared pain. A camaraderie. Most of us never talked. But we’d nod at one another in the halls. In the parking lots.
We were a secret club. Only none of us wanted to be in it.
But faces started becoming familiar. The little girl with her own crib and linens? At 3 months old she still was smaller than the Monkey. I overheard her mother talking one night, explaining to a nearby parent that she was the smallest of triplets. Born two months early. All three of her babies had been in the ICN. Her two boys were already at home, waiting for their sister to join them. The girl had awful reflux. The nurses would put on gowns, face masks, and extra gloves to feed her, trying to help her keep the food down, only to be doused with more than half of it when she inevitably threw up. They all loved her though. They called her the cuddle bug. The snuggler.
One boy, N, has two mothers. He was in one of the lidded tanks for jaundice and because he had a lung problem. He was there, on a respirator, when we were admitted. He was finally well enough to try nursing the same day my milk came in and was nursing the monkey. I remember because after I was done, the Hubbs helped a nurse push the comfy, overstuffed nursing chair over to their area, since N and his mom couldn’t get comfortable in one of the rocking chairs.
In fact, N’s birth mother is the only person we really talked to. She always made an attempt to smile at the parents when she walked by, and would make conversation at the faucets where we all got scrubbed up before visiting the babies. She’d always ask how the monkey was doing. She’d even come over and stroke his cheek and coo at him. She’d marvel at his fuzzy head.
Everyone in the ICN did, actually. In an area where all the kids have health issues, and many are born premature, a full head of hair was a marvel. His nurses would always stroke his little head, his cheek, and tell me that they always knew when the monkey was crying: He’d always wake up about five minutes after we had left, realize we were gone, and scream. (Which broke my heart. I wanted to believe that he slept peacefully after we left, never realizing we were gone. No such luck.)
He also had the lowest-toned cry of all the babies there. The other babies had the high-pitched cries. They were sopranos, hitting high notes that made you cringe. The monkey was a contralto among them; he only hit high notes when he was REALLY ticked off, which usually involved a doctor examination.
A baby girl in the bassinet closest to the Monkey, was brought in with diabetic open sores on her head. She was taken to the ICN as soon as she was born. Her mother was wheeled in later. The first time she saw her baby was in the ICN, making me grateful for the few hours I had before we were brought in. The girl was endlessly being poked, her blood sugar tested. And ultimately, she went home before the Monkey.
It seemed like a horrible injustice. This baby had open, weeping sores on the top of her head and they were sending her home four days before we ended up going home. I cried after walking in one afternoon after lunch and seeing that empty bassinet. And not because I wished her ill. Not in the least. I was really happy for her parents.
It was just that I wanted to be that family so badly that it hurt. I wanted to be the ones walking out of there, starting our lives as a family. I wasn’t the only one. Several mothers, when walking in and doing the cursory scan of the room before heading to their children teared up after seeing that empty bassinet.
It seemed to mock us. It definitely haunted us. For me, it made the doctor’s announcement that the Monkey wouldn’t go home until at least the weekend even harder to take.