Published on September 20th, 2021 | by Joanne Gallant0
Coming Up For Air
Teddy stops breathing.
In our weeks spent in NICU, our son’s brain forgets to send his body the message to breathe. It is a side effect of being born too early. This happens often, sometimes several times an hour, and it is terrifying.
I watch with dilated pupils as my son’s chest goes still and his skin turns from pink to white to blue. The numbers on his bedside monitor plummet to values that do not seem compatible with life.
Joey and I stare helplessly at first, watching as the numbers rapidly approach zero, alarms blaring, with our nurse running to his bedside. They reach for him, taking him from my arms, or put their hands into his incubator to shake him gently. They scold him for being “a little troublemaker.” Finally, he takes a big breath and his colour slowly returns, the numbers on his screen climbing back to normal. We watch this dozens of times and, with our nurse’s encouragement, we learn how to intervene, to stir him to breathe on our own.
We are taught how to stimulate our baby. When he is in his incubator, I rap my knuckles against the Plexiglas as though he is a fish in a bowl. If I am holding him, I pull him out of the crook of my arm and lift him, shaking his shoulders gently or tapping the bottoms of his feet.
“Breathe, breathe, come on,” I whisper into his velvety ears, glancing between him and his monitor for signs of life. There is always a moment of terror, a surge of adrenaline, until finally he opens his mouth and gasps like a guppy. His lifeless chest fills with air and his colour returns to normal.
I will look for the metronomic beat of his chest in the months and years that follow. I still look for it in our toddler. I imagine I always will. So afraid that I will one day find his chest still again.
Eventually, the nurses encourage us to let him recover on his own. “He can do it,” they tell us. We watch, our hands ready, waiting for him to take a breath. I feel so much pride when his chest heaves and the numbers on his monitor return to normal. I will think of these early moments when our two-year-old son is learning to dress himself. A much lower-stakes exercise in allowing him to develop and become independent, but an act requiring patience and restraint on our part.
When Joey and I are alone with our baby behind the curtain, I am unable to stop myself from intervening. When our son turns blue, when I feel his body soften under the lack of oxygen, I involuntarily shake him gently or tap his feet. Joey, sitting beside me, looks at me as if to say, You’re not supposed to do that anymore, but I can’t resist my instinct to keep him alive. I won’t.
I realize I have postpartum anxiety when Teddy is eleven months old. I am settling into the rhythm of life with a child when the fog of new motherhood lifts, and I reflect on my early days with Teddy. My anxiety was likely born long before he was. I remember the complications of his pregnancy, my compulsive listening for his heartbeat, my fear when my water broke too soon. I think back to my first two pregnancies, both miscarriages, and how they planted a seed of doubt for any pregnancies that would come after.
Even with my son strapped to my chest as we venture out on sunny winter days for short walks, an act I perform in an attempt at normalcy, I pause every couple of steps to feel for his chest rising against mine. I check to make sure his face is still a vibrant pink and not a dusky blue. If I cannot have my son in my arms, I can only rest if he is in Joey’s care. Knowing he is under the watchful eye of the only other person who has witnessed our son cheat death lets me stumble off to bed for a few hours of unbroken sleep. This is often the only sleep I get each night, and the only thing that keeps me from succumbing to full-blown mania. Even with a baby in my arms, his cries and coos tangible proof that he is alive, I am not convinced my son is here to stay. I have been wrong too many times before. Positive pregnancy tests turned negative, heartbeats that slowed to a stop, water breaking too soon. My fear of death, his death, creeps in from all corners of whatever room we are in. I know how death can strike anyone, at any time
I read story after story about children dying from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) during these hazy few months. I convince myself that Teddy will be next if I don’t stay on alert. These are stories of mothers waking in the morning realizing their infant has not woken as usual, only to find them cold and blue when they go into their room. I picture the wails, the frantic call to 911, the CPR performed all the way to the hospital. I hear the sound of ribs cracking and I hold my breath while a paramedic attempts to secure an airway. I hear the mothers’ unnatural screams when they are told by a solemn doctor that nothing more can be done. I picture impossibly small white coffins buried under willow trees and a stone monument that becomes part of family legacy. It is dark and disturbing to spend so much time thinking about my son’s death, but it is comforting to prepare for the worst. From the very first days of my pregnancy, I was so sure my child would never be born, and any day with him alive feels like borrowed time.
The one silver lining in all of this, even as it fills me with dread, is that my anxiety gives me an overwhelming appreciation for each moment. I am grateful to be woken at two and three and then again at four in the morning by a screaming infant because it means I have a screaming infant. I carry him in my arms everywhere I go because I have a baby to carry. I marvel at his growth in those early days. When he graduated from wearing the impossibly small preemie clothes to the newborn I bought months before, I whisper, Grow, baby, grow!, so proud that he is gaining weight. I feel as though my whole job, the reason for my being, is to keep my son alive. And I don’t realize that I am barely surviving it until I land in my therapist’s office when Teddy is two.
Heather teaches me how my brain is telling me things that aren’t true, how trauma can do that to even the most rational among us. She encourages me to write during the moments I feel overwhelmed by worry, to make lists of what I am feeling, of what I can control and what I cannot. She says that naming my fears might allow me to regain a sense of balance in my life.
I make lists in my journal when I am overcome with the fear that Teddy will stop breathing again, that he isn’t growing or developing, that he could be gravely sick or in trouble. I rattle off the truths of a moment, repeating them in my head until I feel my heart rate slow and my world beginning to steady.
He is safe right now.
He is growing.
I have no control over the inner workings of his body.
If anything happens, I will handle it.
I have handled hard things before.
I am a good mom.
Teddy has recently started to ask me, “Are you okay?” It sounds innocent and sweet coming from his mouth, but only I know it is the echo of my anxiety. A parroting of the question I ask him regularly. When he’s too quiet in his car seat. When he’s wandered into the other room and I hear his feet stumble beneath him. When he crawls into my lap unprompted, laying his head on my shoulder.
Are you okay? Are you okay? Are you okay?
My need to hear him say “I’m okay, Mama” is my anxiety untethered. There will come a day when I won’t always know the answer. My son will grow up and he will go places, he will make friends, sneak a sip of beer, travel, hopefully fall in love. I won’t always be there to know if he’s all right, and I need to be okay with that. I am learning to reign in my fear, to realize that my love for him does not need to be entwined with my fear of losing him.
Excerpted from A Womb in the Shape of a Heart: My Story of Miscarriage and Motherhood (Nimbus Publishing, September 2021).