parenthood and vulnerability


A close friend and his wife had a baby two weeks ago, after trying for quite some time. But what should have been a joyous occasion turned into a terrifying week of medical tests, uncertain diagnoses, tests, and surgery.

The good news is, the surgery was successful, the baby is recovering faster than anyone could have hoped, and it appears as though the problems were completely resolved.

Spending time with the parents (and grandparents) that week in the NICU, however, brought back for me a tsunami of memories from when my older son, Lane, was born. His situation was far less grave--the doctors suspected a problem that he turned out not to have, but it it took ten days for them to rule it out. During that ten days he had blood tests and spinal taps and a bed in the NICU--where he was tethered by wires and tubes to a distressing array of monitors and machines that beeped and whirred and watched our every move.

It's hard enough to be a new parent in the best of situations. But most new parents get to do their hesitant learning in the privacy of their home. All that stuff that's supposed to come so naturally...nursing the baby, changing their diapers, comforting them when they cry...that actually takes some time, and a lot of trial-and-error. Having all that happen in the semi-public space of the NICU makes it a whole lot harder. Every time the baby cries, heart rate monitors inform everyone in range about what a lousy job you're doing in the comfort department. Every time you can't quite get the latching thing down, there are people watching you struggle. There's no luxurious stretching out in bed, with the baby between you, drifting off to sleep together.

And there's one thing that people sometimes do tell you before you have a child that you simply can't comprehend until you're there. It's the extent to which your child leaves you vulnerable. Heart on your sleeve? Way beyond that. Heart exposed, permanently, to all that the world has to throw at it. For a long time, I stopped being able to watch the news. And I still won't watch crime dramas involving kids in the story line. You can say this to a potential parent, and they'll nod their head and tell you that they understand. But they don't. They can't, until they've held their child and realized just how vulnerable they've suddenly become.

I don't worry any more about them rolling off the bed. But they still give me plenty to be frightened of, from Lane's appendicitis to Alex's pneumonia, and even the skinned knees and hurt feelings that accompany most childhoods. Not to mention the near-daily reports of abductions and abuse across the country, and the occasional "welcome to the neigborhood" sex-offender notices we get in the mail. I know how very lucky I am that our woes are so small in comparison to those of so many...but that doesn't lessen my constant maternal concern.

Spending time in the waiting room with my friends' parents--the grandparents of the new baby--made me realize that even when my kids are grown, that concern won't go away. And the addition of grandchildren will only compound it. One of the parents said to me "It's hard enough watching the baby have to go through this--but in some ways it's even worse to watch our kids have to handle it, and not be able to do anything to help." I suspect that my parents had the same reaction when Lane was born, though I was too focused on my baby at the time to realize it.

So why am I writing this? I'm not really sure, other than because all those memories got stirred up in me that week, and I wanted--I needed--to write them back into submission.


Francis Bacon said that children were "hostages to fortune." And yeah, nobody can tell you beforehand. Sometimes since having Alex I have wondered why no-one tipped me off, but I don't suppose I would have heard. Becoming a parent is like being inducted into a vast but very secret club.

It's odd, I rarely remember what people write but I remember well when your son went to the hospital. We don't even want to imagine such things with our own children.

And it doesn't end when they grow up. My baby lost her baby this last year and holding her hand I watched as the doctor looked at me with that "don't lose it now" look. She will always be my baby and I'll never forget how brave she was that day and how helpless we feel as a mother when we can't make it better.

I'm glad that your friends baby is doing well.

Thanks for this - you brought back many many bittersweet memories.

My second child was the one in the NICU for a few weeks, after a tumultuous last few weeks of pregnancy and an early arrival. And although we'd already dealt with one newborn/baby/toddler/preschooler before, I still remember feeling scared and oh-so-intimidated about how to mother her at first.

When people look at her now and remark that they'd never ever guess she was a preemie and aren't I glad those days are behind me - well, they never really are, are they? While I may not look hypervigilantly at every little nuance - is it because she didn't finish cooking yet? - I don't think I'll ever get back that false security I had after running the gauntlet of the early years with child number one. Maybe that's the lesson I needed to learn from this experience.

Very true and very well put, reminds me of my own journey ito parenthood and makes me wince at what I *still* put my parents through :o)

Thanks for Sharing Liz

Oh yes--I'm completely incapable of dealing with TV shows with imperiled babies and children. I had to stop watching reruns of ER because there was ALWAYS a baby in distress.

Having seen my really close friend go through something very similar recently, I can sympathise. It will probably take some time and a good deal of reassurance for them to put some of this behind them.

Having had one of my children in the
NICU, and another in the PICU, I can
totally sympathize. It's nothing you
can ever explain to someone that
hasn't gone through it. Take care. -joe

Hi Liz,
Teddy's mom here...I have enjoyed reading your blog. Lane was very proud to show it to us when he was here one day. What a great boy you have. He is very sensitive and so funny. What a giggle! I didn't know that you had gone through the NICU experience also. Jeff and I went through it almost 6 years ago, when Teddy was 4. We had a beautiful baby girl, full term, named Chloe. There were some complications at birth, namely a pinched cord, and she only lived for 25 hours, there in the NICU. Nothing will ever compare to that day we had with her. All of your naivete goes out the window, doesn't it? Children are so precious...I know what you mean about helpless feelings. I agree that you will never, ever forget those days. I am still in awe at the love and concern that the nurses showed us. How wonderful to see that Lane has grown into a special young boy. He is a blessing! I loved reading about others' deep love for their kids. Thanks for sharing!

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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on February 16, 2004 11:32 AM.

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