Early Daze Free Sample
© 2014 Jennifer Gilby Roberts
I had a baby yesterday. I know, one born every minute. Except I had only been pregnant for six months. That’s not so common. And she only weighs 2lb 3oz. That’s less than 1kg.
Supposedly, every mother thinks her baby is beautiful. I don’t even think mine looks like a baby. Not a human one, anyway. She looks a lot like an alien. Her head is too big for her body. Her eyes are sealed shut, and her little face is all scrunched up, making her look like she’s got eyebrows like Spock. Her skin is red and shiny, like raw beef. And there’s a tube down her throat to help her breathe. Sorry to shock you, but that’s how it is. I bet you’ve never seen that in a formula advert.
The first time I saw her, I wanted to run away. The doctors were talking, but all I could do was cry. The nurse tried to get me to put my hand over Samantha, but I was too afraid. I was utterly convinced that she was too small to live.
I think I’m going to call her Samantha. We were waiting to see what name she looked like, but I can’t very well call her ET.
I suppose I could do something with initials.
Forgive me if I sound flippant. I’m not heartless; I’m in shock.
I’m sure that this is all a dream anyway. I still feel pregnant; I still look pregnant. There’s no baby in a cot beside my hospital bed. For that matter, there’s no cot.
This has to be a dream.
My fiancé, Ryan, arrives while I’m expressing, sat on the bed in my ‘side ward’ (aka private room), in my pyjamas. Samantha can’t breastfeed. One, because her mouth is full. Two, at this stage, she can’t coordinate eating and breathing. Which is a bit of a problem. So, if I want her to have my milk, I have to get it out manually. I squeeze out the drops, essentially by kneading my breasts like dough, and then pick them up using an oral syringe. It’s a long and fiddly process that yields a millilitre or two of milk. I can’t recommend it as a feeding method.
Ryan wanders around the room while I wearily manhandle myself. I’ve done this every two hours since I gave birth and I’m worn out. It must be bad enough breastfeeding, but at least then you have an actual baby to hold instead of a 1ml syringe.
‘Can you help me?’ I ask, struggling to pick up the drops, as well as massage.
He looks like I’ve asked him to dress up in my clothes. ‘Don’t you want me to get a nurse, Jess? Or… your mum and sister will be here soon.’
I suppress a shudder at the thought of doing this in front of my sister. I do not need to hear her criticising my milk production, the size/colour of my nipples, the design of my pyjamas, etc., etc., etc.
‘Ryan, you’ve seen my breasts before and they haven’t. Or, at least, not since I was a kid. And the nurses are busy.’
He shifts awkwardly. ‘I know, but…’
‘Ryan!’ I say, as firmly as I can find the energy for. ‘Sit down, take this syringe and pick up the drops as I squeeze them out. Or I’ll… name the baby after your mother.’
Ryan’s mother’s name is Petunia Prudence. And it suits her perfectly.
He flinches. ‘Right then.’
He sits down and tries to accomplish the difficult task of picking up drops without actually looking at what he’s doing. Then the nurse comes in, and he hides the syringe like he’s doing something wrong.
‘Morning,’ she says cheerfully, ‘are you experiencing any pain?’
Only one in the neck.
Neonatal Intensive Care – Samantha’s new home – is a windowless room, brightly lit and hot, with about ten incubators plus monitors round a central desk. An incubator is a large, clear plastic box on a stand, with portholes in the sides for access. Like the things they use for hatching chicken eggs, only without the infra-red light. There are nurses, doctors and other parents – plus visitors – about all the time, and there is a constant beeping from all sides.
Coming in, we have to wash our hands and wrists thoroughly. All parents, doctors and nurses have to wash their hands on entry, even if they’ve popped out for two seconds and haven’t touched anything. I suspect it’s something that will get old very quickly. I always thought I knew how to do this, but no. There are instructions by the sink, like we’re in kindergarten.
Only when we’re clean are we allowed to see our baby, installed at the back of the room in Bay 4 with the octopus sign. At least it isn’t a monkey.
Ryan is shifting from one foot to the other, like he’s got pins and needles in his feet. He looks around the room – far too fast to see anything. Eventually, his gaze settles on Samantha. ‘What is that?!’ he says, sounding horror struck. ‘It looks like tar.’
The stuff on Samantha’s nappy does indeed look like tar, although where it’s smeared it looks green rather than brown. I’m suddenly very glad I read ahead in the baby book, because it looks like she’s pooped algae. I know she’s been floating around in fluid for the last six months, but even so.
‘Meconium,’ I say confidently. ‘Her first poo. It’s normal. They won’t always look like that.’
Ryan looks somewhat relieved. ‘Good, because there is no way I’m touching that stuff.’
‘It’s no worse than engine oil.’
‘Engine oil hasn’t come out of someone’s bottom.’
I must concede that point.
‘There’s going to be a lot of nasty things coming out of her that need cleaning up,’ I say.
He shifts. ‘Yeah, but you’ll do most of that, won’t you?’
For a minute, I’m not sure I heard that.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Well, I’ll be at work, won’t I?’
Oh. I guess that’s true.
‘But when you’re at home, you’ll be helping.’
‘Well, since you’re insisting on living at your mum’s until we get married, and we haven’t even set a date, I won’t get much of a chance.’
He sounds slightly bitter. This has become a bit of a problem. I have pointed out that if he hadn’t got me pregnant before we got married, then we wouldn’t be having this issue, but he won’t have it.
‘For the hundredth time, Ryan, I’m not moving in with you. You know how much grief we’ll get. Your parents, my mum, my sister…’
‘And, for the hundredth time, I don’t care,’ Ryan says, his voice rising. ‘Can’t you just forget about what people think for once?’
‘Shh,’ I hiss, looking around. ‘Do you want to get us thrown out?’
Ryan looks down at Samantha again. She’s wrapped her hand around her ventilator tube, so it looks like she’s singing into a microphone. ‘I just want to live in the same home as my daughter,’ he mutters. ‘I don’t see why that’s so unreasonable.’
When he puts it like that, nor do I.
I have visitors. By which I mean, Mum is crying quietly by my bedside and Amelia is staring daggers at me.
‘Look what you’ve done to Mum!’
I’m not sure I can take this right now. ‘I haven’t done anything to Mum. I know this isn’t exactly fun for her, but it’s not my fault.’
‘Come on, Jessica,’ Amelia says, like I’m an idiot. ‘You must have done something wrong. Babies don’t just fall out, three months early.’
I stare at her, stomach churning. ‘Yes, they do. The nurse said. There’s a whole range of things that can cause premature labour and most of them are totally outside the mother’s control. Did you know one third of premature births are unexplained? I didn’t do anything wrong. I was just unlucky. This isn’t my fault.’
What if it is? What if I did do something? What if she dies because of me? I know something in unpasteurised milk can cause preterm labour. Do they pasteurise the stuff they put in chocolate?
‘Jessica,’ Amelia says sadly, ‘you really need to face this. If you don’t know what you did wrong this time, how are you supposed to stop it happening again?’
‘Strangely enough, future children are not at the forefront of my mind right now.’
Six months of pregnancy still fresh in my mind, my baby on a ventilator and my nether regions feeling like they may collapse at any moment and let my internal organs fall out, and she expects me to be thinking about future kids? I’m not even thinking about future sex.
‘Well, maybe they should be. You really need to pull yourself together.’
One day. She gave me one day to recover from this.
‘Mum,’ I say, stroking her hair, ‘it’s going to be okay. The doctors are wonderful here. They said she’s a good weight and totally normal for her age. They do this all the time.’
Is it incredibly selfish to feel like they should be saying all this to me?
‘Yes, of course,’ Mum says, visibly pulling herself together and drying her eyes. ‘She’ll be absolutely fine. Why don’t we talk about something more cheerful? Like your wedding. We could still put it together for the summer, you know, if we get working on it.’
I shift uncomfortably. ‘I need to lose the baby weight first, Mum. And we’ll be too busy looking after Samantha. Maybe next year.’
‘Jessica!’ Amelia hisses. ‘How long are you going to put it off? You need to get married. Don’t you know how embarrassing it’s going to be for Mum, having you at home with a baby and no ring on your finger?’
‘I’ve got a ring.’
‘An engagement ring. It’s not the same thing at all. And I don’t know why you’re planning a big white wedding, now you’ve got a baby. I can book the registry office, and you and Ryan can just pop down there and get the paperwork sorted.’
‘Amelia, we’re not talking about getting a TV licence. This is my wedding. I’m not popping from here to the registry office. Lots of people have babies before getting married these days. I bet most people won’t bat an eyelid.’
‘Most people aren’t heavily involved in their local church. Mum’s friends have standards.’
‘Now, Amy,’ Mum says. ‘I think you’ll find everyone’s very understanding…’
‘Or is Ryan the problem?’ Amelia interrupts, with faux sympathy. ‘Is he having second thoughts? I mean, you have rather let yourself go, haven’t you? Perhaps I should talk to him.’
‘No, thank you,’ I say, clenching my fists to stop myself smacking her. ‘Things are fine. I’ll discuss it with him. Won’t your car-parking be running out soon?’
Amelia checks her watch. ‘Oh, yes. We’d better get going, Mum.’
I have to forcibly restrain myself from kicking her out – literally.
When I next go and see Samantha, the ward round is going on and I can’t get in. The doctors and nurses go round each baby in turn, discussing their progress. Only the parents of the baby they’re discussing at the time are allowed in.
I retreat to the waiting room, which is occupied by a slightly chubby thirty-something woman with dark curly hair and the inevitable remains of a baby bump. She gives me a friendly and surprisingly genuine-looking smile as I enter.
‘Hello new girl,’ she says, in an unmistakably Welsh accent. ‘I’m Gwen. Gwen Jones.’
‘Just had your baby yesterday?’
‘The day before, actually, late on.’
‘How old? What’s her name?’
‘I’ve named her Samantha. 26+4.’
‘That’s rough. 28 weeks my first one was, and that was bad enough.’ She stretches out her legs. ‘Is your partner here?’
I shake my head. ‘Not today. I’m not sure if I’m sorry right now. Mostly, I want to beat him over the head with something.’
‘Oh, that’s completely normal. It’ll wear off, you’ll see.’
‘Maybe.’ I shift restlessly. ‘What about you?’
‘Gareth’s home in Cardiff, looking after our older two.’
‘Cardiff? How did you end up here?’
She rolls her eyes. ‘We were up here on holiday when my water broke. I told the man it was a stupid idea, but after Carys was born at full term he was convinced it would be fine this time too. Now I’m stuck here until they have space in Cardiff. So I completely understand about wanting to hit your other half upside the head. Will you be staying in the flats?’
The hospital apparently has flats for NICU parents who aren’t local. The nurses have already talked to me about them, since I don’t actually need to be in the ward. I came out of labour without even a graze. So I suppose Samantha’s early arrival had one perk.
‘I think so, when they discharge me. Until someone comes in who lives further away anyway. What are they like?’
‘They’re decent enough. Just round the corner, anyway. Helpful when you stumble down here to pump at 2am.’
‘Yeah.’ I watch her twirl a curl around her finger. ‘What’s your baby called?’
‘Yan-toe. Spelt I-A-N-T-O. It’s Welsh.’
A nurse comes to the door. ‘Gwen, they’re moving onto Ianto now.’
Gwen hauls herself to her feet. ‘See you later then,’ she says. ‘Give me a knock when you get into the flats and I’ll show you where everything is. I’m in number two.’
‘Thanks,’ I say, as she goes off with the nurse.
I sit for another minute. Then the door opens again, and someone else comes in.
This is a man. Tall, slim, dark ponytail and goatee, maybe mid 20s – like me. He’s wearing blue jeans, a black T-shirt and Doc Martins and carrying a McDonalds bag. He’s nothing like my type, and yet I surprise myself by finding him attractive. It must be the post-pregnancy hormones.
‘Hello,’ he says, flopping into a chair. ‘I’m Ben. My baby’s Edward. Born 8 days ago, 23 weeker. Yours?’
‘Samantha. Yesterday. 26+4. I’m Jess,’ I say, as he starts tearing into a hamburger. ‘Is Edward’s mother here?’
‘She’s in Mauritius. On holiday. Sort of a babymoon, only the baby came first.’
What sort of mother goes on holiday while her child is in the NICU?
I get out my hand cream, mostly for something to occupy myself.
Silence stretches out while he continues to destroy the hamburger.
‘So, Edward,’ I say. ‘That’s a nice name.’
He shrugs. ‘It’s all right. I like it better than her choice for a girl.’
I smirk. ‘As in Twilight?’
He rolls his eyes. ‘I stress the point: not my idea. She’s a big fan.’
‘How old is she, 17?’ I try to joke.
‘Oh.’ I shift uncomfortably.
The door opens. It’s the nurse again. She smiles at me. ‘We’re moving onto Samantha now.’
‘Okay,’ I say. ‘Nice to meet you, Ben.’
And I exit hurriedly.
‘How’s she doing?’ I ask the nurse as I approach Samantha’s incubator, rubbing cream into my newly-scrubbed hands.
‘Fine. We just put her milk up again.’
I sit by Samantha’s incubator, perched on a stool, and stare at the red, shiny thing that’s supposedly my baby.
I’m sure I should want to be by her side, but I don’t even believe she’s mine. She’s a far cry from the babies on the TV. Mind you, from what I hear, most babies are.
‘You should try talking to her,’ the nurse says. ‘She knows your voice from being in the womb. It’s soothing for her.’
‘Ok,’ I say, but say nothing. I feel too awkward. There are people all around. And what do I say?
‘I’ll just pop out and give you some privacy.’
She leaves, and I stare at Samantha. Privacy is a relative term. I’m hardly alone with her.
I’m going to have to say something.
‘So,’ I say, ‘the nurse says you like to hear me talk, so here goes.’
I clear my throat. ‘This was supposed to be easy, you know. I thought I’d be cooing away over you. But we’re not supposed to be able to see each other yet. Well, you can’t see me now because your eyes are still shut. It’s probably just as well. I’m still all bloated, and my skin is terrible. You’re not looking so good yourself, but that’s not your fault.’
I pause to swallow the lump in my throat.
‘I’m sorry,’ I tell her. ‘I don’t know why this happened. I don’t know if this is my fault. I do know I didn’t do it deliberately. I know I complained a lot about being pregnant. I bet you’d be the same if you felt sick and exhausted all day, every day, for six months. Being pregnant sucks. But I hope you didn’t think that meant I didn’t want you. Because I did. I’ve always wanted you. It was just that growing you was a whole lot harder than I expected. When I said I wanted it to be over, I just meant I wanted to sleep through the rest, or something. I didn’t want to push you out before you were ready. This isn’t how I wanted your life to start.’
She’s crying. So much for being comforted by my voice. Her little face has gone redder and more screwed up than usual, and she’s flinging out her limbs. But she can’t make a sound. Because there’s a tube down her throat. If you’re not right beside her, you wouldn’t know. And most of the time, there isn’t anyone. So she cries alone.
And even if you are there, what can you do? Her immature skin is too sensitive to handle much contact. The most I can do is touch her hand or use the containment hold – basically putting my hands round her without quite touching. It doesn’t feel like much. It’s probably a blessing that she’s asleep or drugged up most of the time. But no one who’s less than a week old should be on morphine.
No one’s life should start like this.
‘Bye, baby,’ I choke out and run away from my new reality.