Knowing by Stephanie Haass
My son is twelve days old and I am holding him for the first time. I can feel his tiny heart beating against my naked chest, and the landslide of emotion that engulfs me is indescribable. We’re cuddled together in a rocker in the NICU, tethered to monitors and machines by a tangled mess of wires and tubes. Only a flimsy white screen shields us from the rest of the room, which teems with doctors and nurses and parents of the babies stationed in their isolettes around the perimeter, everyone speaking in hushed voices so as not to disturb each other.
As I share these precious moments with my son, I hear a new baby being brought into the room, and he eventually occupies the formerly empty station next to us. His exhausted mother is wheeled in a bit later to see her new baby and talk with the doctors. I try not to listen to their conversation, to focus on my son in my arms and my daughter sleeping nearby, but snippets of dialogue manage to penetrate my reverie.
Looking really good, I hear the doctor say. Just need to get him breathing and eating well and he will be home with you before you know it. I hear the mother thank the doctor with a shaky voice, thank you so much for taking care of my baby. She’s trying to keep it together, to reassure her husband and herself that she’s fine, the baby will be fine, it’s all going to be okay.
I know because I’ve been there. I’m still there.
So I wait. I wait for the doctor to leave, for the mother to be alone with her husband and the nurse. I can hear it in her voice as she asks questions, her defenses are falling away, the pain and fear and unfairness of the situation are becoming too much for her to keep inside, and she begins to cry.
I know he’s going to be okay, she sobs. I just, I just wish my body could have done what it was supposed to do. I feel like I failed him. Just look at him. This is all so wrong.
Her husband and the nurses are quick to console her, but I know. I cling to my son and my own tears flow silently down my cheeks, joining in the pain of this woman I have never laid eyes on but know better than anyone else in the room in that moment.
After a little while, the nurse crosses the room to check on another baby, and the husband steps out to make a phone call. I can see the mother now, sitting in her wheelchair beside her baby’s bed, looking so small and lost and afraid as she stares at her new baby that she cannot touch. Should I say something? I wonder. I don’t know this woman. How do I tell her that I know exactly how she is feeling? That I understand the guilt, however irrational, the crushing knowledge that you failed at your fundamental job as a mother, to keep your baby safe inside your womb.
I decide to reach out. She is so alone. I push back the screen just a bit, enough so she can see me in my little world with my two tiny babies, born too soon but so full of life. It gets better, I say. It’s hard, but it gets better.
She looks over at me, startled at first, but then we lock eyes and somehow I am able to tell her without words that I know. That I understand. And that she will survive. And after a few moments, she says thank you, I needed to hear that.
Then her husband returns to take her back to her room to rest, and I retreat into my own private world once again.