The morning after Lorenzo was born, I was lying in my hospital bed, cradling the baby in my arms and gazing at his sleeping face when he suddenly started to choke. On thin air. He hadn’t been nursing or anything, he just went from slumbering in that unreachable, newborn way to gagging.
I lay immobilized for a second or two and then I raced into the hospital hallway, holding Lorenzo and yelling: “Help me! Someone! My baby is choking!”
I was fully aware of how ridiculous this sounded and what a spectacle I was making but my panic overrode any sense of decorum. This was life and death.
A middle-aged nurse strode over. She was solid in her scrubs, and she walked like she meant business. Within a few seconds, she’d grabbed the baby out of my arms like a sack of beans and whacked him on the back, twice, with what seemed like excessive force. I winced as I imagined his spinal column shattering. But he remained in one piece, as erect as a newborn can be, and his gagging was replaced with bawling.
“That’s normal,” the nurse explained, handing the baby back to me and paying precious little attention, I noted, to supporting his head. “He’s just gagging on his amniotic fluid. They do that sometimes.”
She said it casually, like it was supposed to make me feel better. In fact, it had the opposite effect. I’d been prepared to protect my son from all sorts of choking hazards—loose change, hot dogs, paper clips—but later, in a few months, when I’d had a chance to hone my mothering skills. I’d never thought I‘d need to start now, right out of the gate, and that I’d have to also worry about him choking on stuff that was already inside of him. The very stuff that had shielded him from harm for the past nine months.
All of a sudden, the enormity of the enterprise before me slammed down on my shoulders. Holy Mother of God. There’d be things I would fail to protect him from. And not just the stuff I’d already, very diligently, worried about like clipping off his fingertips instead of his fingernails because I couldn’t see details that small. There was a whole world, a whole galaxy, of other stuff that I couldn’t protect him from, stuff that hadn’t even occurred to me, stuff I didn’t even know about. What the hell was I going to do now?
What I was going to do was hang my head and cry, the which I did right there in the hospital hallway, in my no-slip socks and pink polka-dot pajamas.
“You mean he’s going to do it again?” I sobbed, “and there’s nothing I can do to stop it?”
Without missing a beat, the nurse put her hand on my shoulder and ushered me back to my bed. She seemed so unfazed by my sudden crying fit, it gave me the strong suspicion that that hallway had seen far worse mental breakdowns. Working in maternity was probably pretty similar to working in the psych ward, except with bigger maxi pads.
“It’s going to be all right,” she promised, “A little gagging won’t hurt him.”
“But what if—” I sputtered. “What if he chokes so much he can’t breathe?”
“He won’t,” she replied. “I’ve never heard of that.”
That wasn’t sufficient reassurance for me. There was all sorts of shit you never heard about until it happened to you and then it was too late. I’d never heard about retinitis pigmentosa and yet, here I was, unable to see the tissue she was holding out to me until she finally shoved it right in my hand.
I blew my nose and took a deep breath. Too late to back out now.
“Tell me what to do, exactly, if it happens again,” I pleaded, “Step by step.”
“There’s only one step,” she replied, “Just give him a good old whack on his back.”
“But how will I know for sure that his airway is clear?” I pressed.
The nurse looked over in the direction of my roommate who was buzzing her call button insistently from behind the room’s dividing curtain. I’d been privy to my roommate’s every sound for the last twelve hours and despite the fact that I hadn’t caught a glimpse of her, I’d put together a pretty detailed profile: Polish, first baby, C-section, not much luck nursing, prone to sudden meltdowns herself. From the sound of the call button, there was another breakdown in the works, which meant mine had to be wrapped up.
“Look,” said the nurse, “if the baby’s crying, you know he’s not choking. So I guess if you really wanted to be sure his airway was clear, make him cry. Give his big toe a good squeeze—that’ll aggravate him.”
“OK,” I affirmed, “Got it.” If I have any suspicions that the baby is choking, any at all, I should make him cry.
Which is why I spent the first month of my infant’s life annoying him relentlessly.
I’d look over at the bouncy seat, where Lorenzo lay still, silent, and peaceful. Though this is most mothers’ dream, it was my call–to-arms. Why was the baby so preternaturally still? Clearly, he was not breathing. Likely, it was that damn amniotic fluid causing trouble again. Who knew how long he’d been like this? As I sat pondering, his brain might be losing oxygen! No time to undertake the subtle investigative measures I’d learned in infant CPR class like watching his chest rise and fall; I couldn’t trust myself to see the ever-so-slight movement of his chest anyway, my vision was so poor. No, no, this emergency called for the squeeze-the-toe test, approved by medical professionals as the quickest, most effective way to confirm baby’s respiratory health.
I’d squeeze the toe. He’d scrunch his placid face into a scowl and commence caterwauling. Mission accomplished. The baby was breathing. And, now royally pissed off.
Over and over again in the first weeks of my baby’s life, people were assuring me that if I trusted my mother’s instinct, I’d be fine and over and over again, I was finding that was a load of horse-crap. Maybe other mothers, ones with all their primary senses intact, had functional maternal instincts, but worry and a severe lack of confidence had caused mine to short-circuit. None of this mothering business was coming naturally. I needed a detailed instruction manual to do everything and sometimes, even that didn’t work. It was a classic case of the blind leading the blind.
From Now I See You by Nicole C. Kear. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
Nicole C. Kear’s memoir, Now I See You (St. Martin’s Press) comes out in paperback on July 14th. You can order the book and find more info at nicolekear.com.