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When Declan was born, I was ecstatic.
I was equal parts terrified, hormonal, protective, and proud. The other half of me was so saturated in love that, if you hugged me, it squeezed out as if I were a sponge and you became soaked in it too.
I was euphoric. I was obsessed. I was happy.
I was in a state of shoshin, or beginner’s mind, and thrilled by all the firsts. You know, the milestones we measure and record in those ridiculous pink or blue books that resemble bound pages of lame Hallmark cards with clichés written on them in flowy, gold script.
The leftover pregnancy hormones and the curiosity I had for this helpless human carried me through the exhaustion of being on call at all hours of the day. As the hormone rush began to wear off, and the intermittent sleeping and eating habits of both of us started to wear me down, Declan laughed his first laugh. If you have not witnessed the laughter of a baby just starting to laugh, imagine a baby’s chubby, smooth cheeks stretched around a grin as wide as his head, with shocked eyes wide open and his entire body shaking as he chuckles and giggles and hiccups and hoots until he collapses. It is impossible not to laugh along with a laughing baby.
Now, imagine having the power to make your baby laugh at will. I would lie him on my lap and pretend to drop an alien on his face by suddenly spreading my fingers out across his face and making a “Shloop!” sound. Laughter and joy got us through all the breastfeeding woes, teething, and gas pains.
When my daughter was born 15 months after my son, things could not have felt more different.
Two days after we moved to the island where my partner had been commuting by ferry for months, I started having contractions. I wasn’t sure what was happening. I had not experienced early natural labor, having been medically induced the first time. I called a friend and she talked me into leaving the island on the last ferry of the day, just in case. Had she not, well, this would be an entirely different story.
The day Chloe was born, in that freezing cold examination room with 13 people present, including the paramedics who were there to transfer me, still pregnant, to the Women’s Hospital, I believed that I would hold her, briefly, and then she would die in my arms.
I was 10 weeks shy of my due date when the nurse told me that it was unlikely that I was actually in labor and, even if I was, there was no way my baby could be born in this hospital. She informed me, coldly, and in an irritated tone, “We do not have the equipment necessary to care for a baby born at this point of gestation.” After what felt like hours of being ignored and dismissed, it was confirmed that I was truly in labor and I was given medication to stop the contractions and, once they subsided, medication to help me rest. When the contractions started again, waking me from my drugged sleep, I called for my partner to come, now.
He packed up our 15-month-old son, left him with friends, and raced to the ferry. When Kevin arrived at the hospital, he was excited and thrilled that he had arrived in time. When the transport team arrived, too late, and I gave in to the will of my body and pushed my baby from where she belonged to where she did not, I remember looking into his eyes and feeling absolute devastation.
I had not shared with him the words the nurse had shared with me. He did not know that our baby could not be born here and survive.
After a blur of activity, someone in scrubs placed my baby on my chest and I covered her impossibly tiny body with just one of my hands. At the same time, someone covered us both with a blanket. I remember that she was warm and she was moving and making sounds and doing all the things a newborn baby should do. I was confused and scared and I did not want to let her go but her father wanted to hold her. As he held her close to his heart, his fourth child and only daughter, he smiled and shot love beams at her through his eyes as tears poured from mine.
More than a year passed before I was convinced that she would live.
Even though she remained in that first hospital, the one without the necessary equipment, for over 24 hours before being transferred to another hospital, I could not comprehend that she was going to survive. She did not require any intervention during her eight weeks in the hospital, other than receiving extra oxygen and being tube fed the breast milk that I pumped every three hours around the clock, but those indications of her strength did not register with me. I saw her as an angel in training that could be called for duty at any moment.
The first weeks that she was home and not being monitored with devices by trained professionals, her care entrusted completely to me, my heart broke a thousand times as I stared and waited for her to breathe her next breath while holding my own. I was fixated on her tiny eyelids as they flitted and twitched, and as soon as they rested for more than a few seconds, I was sure that she would never dream again.
During that first year or so, I lived in fear of death every single day.
I felt incredible love for my daughter, yet, I wasn’t able to flood her with it in the same way her brother received it in his first year of life. I could not separate my fear of losing her from my love for her. It shatters me to think of what lasting impact my struggle to embrace her completely may have had.
Our family jokes that from the day she was born, Chloe operates on her own schedule and will do it, whatever it may be, when she damn well pleases. When it came to all the measurable firsts, she stunned the pediatrician who cautioned us about the expected delays in her development. I’ll never forget watching her walk around the old pine chest that we used as a toy box at only nine months old, on her tiny little bowed legs, her body still looking like she was months younger. She started communicating verbally around six months, and before long she was matching cows to moos and horses to neighs and asking for her favorite snack, she-she (fishy) crackers. She continued to exceed all the physical and cognitive expectations that had been set for her.
Over the years, with every challenge she worked through emotionally, I feared that my hesitancy in her first year of life may have left her with some kind of deficit. I worried that she may not have known how much she was loved and how precious she was and that would affect her emotional and mental health.
Through the teenage years, as she dealt with the usual social struggles and competition and comparison, she chose to attend a school where she knew only two other people, and she chose to join a trip to Italy, along with students from all the nearby high schools, without a single friend along for support and as the youngest student to participate.
Today, at almost 20, she walks powerfully through life with intention and authority. She is made up of the most unique mix of love and kindness and softness I’ve ever witnessed, combined with exactly the right amount of don’t-mess-with-me.
Still, whenever she cries I wonder if, deep within her soul, she knows how much she is loved.