It all started with a fire. A flood followed, perhaps foreshadowing a rush of water of a very different kind.
Over and over again, I found myself telling the story of the birth of my daughter. The story flows out, in drips and dribbles at first: a pause, a sigh, and a hint at a difficult experience. And then, with a gentle prompt or a curious question, the rest of it pours out in relentless, crashing waves. It takes over the conversation. It drowns out the other voices. After giving into the compulsion to say my piece, I feel temporary respite, but that relief quickly gives way to more jumbled emotions--sadness that it happened, solace that it is over, embarrassment that my trauma, or whatever it is, once again dominated a discussion that should not be about me.
I explained my predicament to a friend over lunch. My friend, who is insightful by nature and happens to be a trained psychiatrist, made a startling observation: "I think the emotion you are feeling is anger." This surprised me because I thought I was well-acquainted with my expression of anger--it is quick to rise but quicker to dissipate, kind of like . . . a geyser, if we stick with the water metaphors here. Those who know me well, particularly my husband, can dispense with my anger in a few minutes, usually by making me laugh. No, this new emotional state--akin to simmering, slow-moving lava creeping down a hillside--was unfamiliar to me, but I could see the trail of destruction in its wake.
Other than finding a therapist and throwing things, the next best way I know to deal with anger is to write about it. So I ask for your indulgence as I tell this story one more time. I want to release it into the world, along with all of the emotions associated with it, in the hopes that it helps me and, perhaps, someone like me out there who is going through something similar.
On a cold morning during the 31st week of my pregnancy, I woke up to the fire alarm blaring in my Washington D.C. condominium. As firefighters rushed into the building, we learned that the penthouse unit several floors above us was on fire. The penthouse owner, a gentleman who seemed either unable or unwilling to take care of himself, had already caused two major floods in the last two years. This time, his carelessly discarded cigarettes had engulfed a couch in flames. Fortunately for him, the building's sprinklers quickly extinguished the fire. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the sprinklers unloaded thousands of gallons of water, turning the penthouse level into a waterfall and the rest of the building into collateral damage.
With two flood remediation projects already under my belt, I knew that in the coming days and weeks, construction workers would once again traipse through our apartment; rip out drywalls, ceilings, and baseboards; and blow hot air at every spot touched by moisture. To aid this laborious endeavor, my husband and I began moving furniture, clothes, and other personal effects from wet areas of the apartment to slightly less wet parts. Everyone who saw me waddling around with my big belly that day told me to take it easy. Despite the circumstances, I remember feeling relieved that all of this happened before Billable Baby was born. Can you imagine bringing a newborn home to a construction zone?
As the miserable day dragged into the night, we realized that it was impossible to get any rest surrounded by the world's worst sound machine--12 industrial drying fans blowing hot air 24/7. I was desperate for sleep, especially since sleep was hard to come by in the third trimester. At the same time, we were scared of getting COVID if we moved to a hotel during what turned out to be the height of the pandemic.
To get out of this pickle, we reached out to a friend who worked in the local hospitality industry. She graciously helped us find a room in a COVID-cautious hotel with extremely low occupancy, and we moved there while we waited for our apartment to dry.
The Flood (of a Different Sort)
After a few nights in the hotel, we came back to a slightly less damp apartment, relieved to be in a familiar setting once again. Unfortunately, that relief was short-lived.
The next morning, at 32 weeks, I woke up to the feeling of my water breaking.
As I wrote in a previous post about PPROM (premature preterm rupture of membrane, the clinical term for my condition), in most cases, the cause of PPROM is not known. I (and many others) assured myself that nothing I did caused my condition. In the absence of any risk factors, however, I could not help but wonder whether the stress and movements of the previous few days somehow contributed to the rupture of the amniotic sac that surrounded my baby. I guess I will never know.
That morning, I called my doctor and explained the situation. He told me to come to the hospital right away, adding, "Sounds like we are going to have a baby today!"
After we hung up, in a moment of despair, I whispered to my husband, "It's okay, we can have another one."
I prepared for the worst.
As we dashed to the hospital, I did not know that I would not see my house again for nearly a month. A month of mandatory bedrest, IVs, medications, and monitoring. A month of speaking to more than a dozen OB/GYNs, maternal fetal medicine physicians, and neonatologists. A month of surprisingly decent hospital food, delivered to my room three times a day. A month immersed in scientific literature and clinical trial data about PPROM. A month spent praying, begging, and wishing that Billable Baby would be healthy.
My husband--bless his heart--stayed with me for the duration of my hospitalization. Due to the hospital's COVID restrictions, he could not go back and forth between our home and the hospital. In our 10x10 hospital room, we celebrated Christmas with a takeout meal, marked the New Year with a countdown, and watched in dismay as an insurrection unfolded on the other side of town.
At 34 weeks, while the outside world was in disarray, we were overjoyed in our little cocoon: Billable Baby was still inside me, floating in what fluid that remained in my amniotic sac, with no sign of infection for either of us. After consulting our doctors and doctor-friends and weighing many pros and cons for the delivery timeline (too early and you risk immature organs and potential long-term health implications; too late and you risk infection for mother and baby), we picked an induction date.
By this point, we should have known that Billable Baby liked to operate on her own timeline. Not long after we scheduled the delivery, Billable Baby decided to show up on her own, ahead of schedule once again. She announced her arrival with piercing cries, reassuring us that her little 35-weeker lungs managed to mature during our long hospitalization. She was whisked away to the NICU, which would be her home for the next few weeks. At least that is what we were told.
On the morning of my discharge from the hospital, I went to the NICU to bid goodbye to Billable Baby. I mentally prepared myself for a journey familiar to many NICU parents: the slog of daily commutes to the hospital to see our preemie babies. As I turned to leave, a neonatologist flagged me down.
"Your baby can go home tomorrow," she told me, beaming.
I think she was surprised by the look of sheer panic on my face. My husband and I had banked on a long NICU stay in order to have enough time to prepare our home for the baby. When I left for the hospital at 32 weeks, not only did I not have a hospital bag, I also did not have anything set up for Billable Baby. Almost everything was in boxes or on delivery trucks. Last we heard, our home was still under water remediation and reconstruction. We scrambled to tell the contractors that a preemie baby was coming home and that they needed to finish what they could that day and get out of there.
I had hoped to come back to a home that was in slight yet manageable disarray. As soon as I opened the door, I knew those hopes were dashed.
Our apartment looked like an active construction site. Plastic tarps covered the floor and all of our furniture. Construction workers were everywhere. A giant hole in the ceiling had been patched, but nothing else had been fixed from the earlier water remediation. Painters were about to start painting, against our explicit instructions to postpone anything that emits fumes. The entirety of our closet had been disassembled and emptied onto our bed, even though it was unnecessary for the repair work.
I limped into the only room that did not look like chaos, plugged in my breast pump, and cried.
How was I supposed to bring my preemie baby home the next day? How was I supposed to keep her safe from COVID when everything in our apartment had been touched by strangers? A home where nothing had been set up for her? How were we going to make it with no family members around and no hired help due to the pandemic? How was my body going to recover if these were the daunting tasks ahead of me?
Throughout the whole ordeal, this was my lowest moment.
My husband insisted that we eat something. Since everything was expired in our fridge and our kitchen was covered in drywall dust, we went to a restaurant across the street, where the bread plate they served us turned salty from my tears.
As the sun set on discharge day, we went into triage mode. We told the construction crew to finish what they could that day, and not come back. We took everything that was piled on our bed and dumped it in the living room. We vacuumed, mopped, and scrubbed. I paused to pump every three hours. I kept moving even though my body ached--I was only 72 hours postpartum, after all. The pregnancy books all tell you to take it easy after delivery, but I guess they did not account for a scenario in which you came back from the hospital after a month and found out you need to put your whole house together in a few hours. We did countless loads of laundry. We opened dozens of delivery boxes. We picked up food from friends who came by. At some point, the laundry machine stopped working. We fixed it and kept going.
By midnight, we had set up a bassinet and a changing station in one corner of our bedroom. It was the only corner of our house that was fully sanitized. Billable Baby's clothes and sheets were washed. Her tiny preemie diapers were laid out in a neat row. According to my step counter, I had walked 8,000 steps that day.
We were ready for her.
The next day, exactly a month after the fire, we brought Billable Baby home.
It took another week to finish washing every article of clothing we owned. It took several more weeks for the rest of our home to return to normal. It took months for me to process what happened.
In my otherwise orderly and meticulously planned life, this pandemic childbirth experience represented a complete loss of control. I couldn't control a negligent neighbor. I couldn't control the well-meaning but misdirected construction contractors. I couldn't control Billable Baby's timing (no surprises there). What was supposed to be a moment of joy was instead marred by chaos, uncertainty, and fear. For anyone else who has felt this away after a difficult fertility journey, pregnancy, birth, or child-rearing experience, my heart goes out to you. I now know maybe a sliver of how you felt.
In the end, Billable Baby was fine. She did not know that she came back to an apartment that was under construction. She did not mind that she had no nursery. She did not care that our home was not perfect for her. She slept, woke, ate, and stared at us in wonder and confusion. She quickly gained weight and caught up to her full-term peers.
Compared to other people who have experienced major upheavals--illness, divorce, death, senseless violence--I often felt that my ordeal was unworthy of mention. After all, this has been a particularly hard year for many people, and I was very lucky and privileged in comparison. I was fortunate enough to have a relatively stable job that allowed me to go on sick and disability leave with no questions asked. I have decent health insurance (though my massive hospital bill is still under dispute). We have the economic means to solve any problem with Amazon Prime. We could turn to two sets of grandparents who, despite the distance, are eager to provide advice and love on FaceTime. We are surrounded by supportive friends and neighbors who sent us baby supplies, brought us food, or gave us much-needed moral support. My husband and I have each other. And most importantly, we have a healthy baby girl.
But I now understand that other people's hardships do not diminish my own. Other people's pain does not invalidate my own feelings. I need to tell myself that I'm allowed to feel anger, sadness, and melancholy. I should not feel bad about the fact that I need to throw myself a pity party from time to time (but maybe once a month at most and the party needs to shut down by 9:00 pm, my new bedtime!).
For me, what this experience has underscored is the importance of a support network. My husband and I found the "village" to raise our daughter through our friends, coworkers, neighbors, and faraway family members. The fellow new moms in my life were, and are, my bedrock. When I felt like I was drowning, I leaned hard into my support network, and they, in turn, lifted me above the water. If there is one positive lesson I can take away from this experience, it is the importance of showing up for your loved ones, in any way you can.
And to those of you out there who feel like you are getting pulled by the rip tide of life, I want you to keep swimming.
I want you to know that you are strong.
I want you to call for help when you need it.
I want you to look at your worst day, and say, "I got through it."
I want you to know that vulnerability (perhaps in the form of a public blog post) is scary, but maybe cathartic.
I want you to know that you can do this.
You got this.
Because that is what I tell myself every day.