Published on March 10th, 2022 | by Alyssa Sinclair0
The Golden Hour
I kept asking to go to the NICU.
“This is your recovery time,” the nurse said. This is the time I should be spending with my baby, I thought.
I was running through facts in my head. Putting the baby to the breast within 30 minutes of delivery best supports breastfeeding success. “The golden hour” it is called—the uninterrupted time of skin-to-skin contact, when a mother and baby bond after delivery. I had chosen this hospital because they put the baby on your chest right away, even following a C-section. I had confirmed it with my doctor beforehand, just in case. Skin-to-skin contact helps regulate the baby’s blood sugar, temperature, heart rate, and breathing. I knew these things, and yet there was nothing I could do. I never thought about this what if.
My husband went to check on her. They parked me in my room and I was supposed to get “settled”. I couldn’t stand. My bag stood unopened in the corner. My body ached for her.
At some point, hours later, they cheerily asked me if I would like to go see her. They popped up the black bars on either side of my bed, and wheeled me down the hall, into the elevator, back down another hall, and to the NICU. The IV tugged at my arm anytime we went over a bump or around a corner. It had been placed right on the bony part of my wrist a full 48 hours before.
From the hall, I could look in the window, and see that there were two rows of incubators on either wall, punctuated by chairs, an aisle running down the middle of the room.
I won’t fit, I thought, not in this cumbersome bed. But the nurse kept pushing, pulling my IV along with us. Apparently the room had been spaced especially for this scenario. My bed fit right down the aisle and in the space next to her incubator.
There was a sense of the whole room being suspended in time. Or rather, time applied in different ways. The monitors ticked and flashed, there was a low hum, time was being recorded, but with tiny lives it was counted in seconds, in minutes, in breaths and heartbeats and blood oxygen levels. It was slightly dark, a blue dark, with a spotlight above each incubator, and strangely quiet for a place of emergency nature. It must have been their semblance of nighttime, with the lights turned down.
She wore only a diaper. There was an oxygen tube in her nose. There was an IV in one arm, bulky gauze taped in various spots on her hands. There were red and black wires hooked to nodes on her ribs. There was an oxygen level clip on one of her fingers, taped in place with clear medical tape. It was lit up red. I was bewildered. This is my baby? I couldn’t hold her, not with all those wires; I was afraid to even place a hand on her in case I disturbed the machines and whatever they were measuring or maintaining. My husband took two swaddle blankets from a box nearby; he rolled them oblong and tucked them on either side of her, the way we did with our first daughter, to make her feel held. It was something familiar, an anchor. I extended one finger and stroked her forehead.
“Do you want me to take a picture?” The nurse asked. It was the first time I met my baby. Of course we should take a picture. From the corner of my eye, I saw a doctor approaching in those genderless blue scrubs. It was maybe the same doctor that had been in the operating room, the one that had resuscitated her and rushed her out, now without the amorphous billow of surgical gown, booties, and cap. I remembered that I had bought a special swaddle blanket for this picture. It was still folded in my bag. All of the things that once seemed important had fallen away. All that was left was a baby, my baby, hooked up to these machines. I was in my body, the same one I’d been in since I was a baby myself, and even still it felt as foreign and unwanted as the machines.
In the picture, my eyelids look puffy and my skin is waxy, but my hair is brushed. We look too far apart, Charlotte and me, with the bars of my bed and the walls of her incubator between us. My eyes are asking, am I supposed to smile?
In the terror of that place I felt myself first believing in a God out of need—I needed something to be waiting there in the free fall, something big and sure to bounce me back, to prop me up, to keep me going.