In the NICU

I don’t know if any of you saw the GE commercial about intensive care babies in incubators. The link was pinging around many blogs I read because it shows a teensy bit of breastfeeding (yay). But watching it during the Olympics coverage made me sad all over again, and I realized that I’ve never shared the essay below. M aspirated meconium at birth, and she spent a week in the NICU. We were so, so fortunate that she recovered completely.

M at 4 days old.

M is two days old and we have only touched her with our fingertips.  We don gowns and scrub hands with vile-smelling soap on the hospital’s strict three-hour schedule, only to press ourselves against a plastic case.  Each touch, they say, distracts her from her main tasks of breathing and circulating blood.  If monitors show an abrupt change, access could be revoked.

For months I’d had my feisty little fish girl swimming within me, boisterous and yet such a shiny, benevolent presence that I’ll never understand how women get tired of the kicking. Now our distance is an obstacle course of heavy self-closing fire doors and reception personnel, past a nursery of healthy babies whose mothers have had their fill of them and then the sallow, listless forms in the NICU with M.  Once arrived, we are spectators. The overnight nurse greets us kindly. We love her as she coos flattery, congratulating M on her high oxygen levels despite her mucky lungs.  We endure the afternoon nurse, wincing as she croons a gruff “hey-hey-hey” and prods a monstrous binky between lips and oxygen tube until M sucks half-heartedly.

Visiting time again, and I’m annoyed that W is late. He’s trying to do too much.  I scrub myself in with my mother-in-law.  She’d hopped a plane from Des Moines at the first contraction—ignoring our entreaties to wait—and arrived breathlessly, luggage in hand, before I’d even managed to give birth.  Ever since, she’s been torn between clinging to her anguished kids and leaving us to the extreme privacy of adulthood, hands fluttering, agitated with the desire to fix everything.  Now I bear the brunt of her caged concern while I steel myself to face the “hey-hey” nurse.

We enter, and the nurse issues a curt directive: “The doctor said that you can hold your baby.”  Sodden legs buckling, I collapse onto a waiting chair.  The impact makes rippling concussions,  and I wonder fleetingly if I’ll bleed again, pass another jellyfish clot.

“But. . . my husband. . . .” I begin feebly. “W. . .”  A flicker of approval crosses W’s mom’s face, and my head clears. “Can’t we call?”  No cell phones allowed here. But even as I fret, the efficient nurse has extracted M, removed some sensors, and encased her in institutional flannel.

“You’re wasting your time with your baby,”  the nurse chides.

W’s mom mobilizes: “I’ll find him.”  I watch her go, stomach churning.  The nurse pushes M into my lap and bustles away.

M is warm and surprisingly light, a loaf of bread from the oven.  I grip her and try to remain still through internal convulsions.  Where is he?!?  I should have waited, why isn’t he here?  I am watching the NICU window for him, afraid that he’ll freeze, shocked at my betrayal, at the sight of us alone together.  Minutes pass, each of my vertebra lifted to hurry him, like when you stand to urge an athlete toward a goal.  I look at M for us both.  Ruddy in spite of her Apgar, she has freed a fist from the swaddled blanket.  Her mouth opens and closes, eyelids flicker.  Her nose swoops with an unimaginably graceful lilt. . . .

“Okay.”  The nurse again.  She waits a beat, then retrieves her baby from my incompetent arms.  Empty. And still no husband either.  My throat aches, nose tingles.  I can’t stay and watch this woman whisper to my girl, rub her scalp so coarsely. The nurse ignores me, checks baby holding off on her chart.  I shuffle alone through NICU reception and down a long hallway.

The elevator pings behind me. W.  Hustling like a doctor to an emergency, still believing that he has a chance.  “W!” I try to yell, but it’s a defeated, tear-choked croak.  I follow, call again, but he is so single-minded.  He’s disappeared into the NICU.  Pushing aside first-time mother fears that wide strides might cause my insides to spill away, I launch myself into a ginger and bow-legged run.

He is scrubbing with that foul soap. Hasn’t even paused to look through the window.  “W–” I strangle around it, horrified by his speed and diligence, the expectancy in his movements.  He turns and sees me, his face crumples, and we are together, wailing.  Another nurse pokes her head out to see the commotion and discreetly backs away. There’s always drama here. We cling to each other, grieving for what we’d been waiting for: when mommy and daddy first greet baby, cuddling, examining toes.  The moment, missed at delivery, that now eludes us forever.



  1. Sara

    Katie, that is beautiful (and painful!). Thank you so much for sharing (and for the warning… I could not have read that while pregnant without bawling my eyes out. Of course, I couldn’t read the back of a cereal box while pregnant without bawling my eyes out, but I digress).

  2. Thank you for your touching story. The NICU is a world unto itself with its own rules. The doctors and nurses put extraordinary fear into us when our children are in the NICU, but it is a place to stand our ground as mothers too.

  3. Meghan

    Thank you for sharing. As someone headed into the field of nursing. It is wonderful for me to be reminded just how scary of a place it is when so much is going on. I was able to spend some time with these little ones during clinical last semester and am still amazed at all they overcome!

  4. @Sara, motherhood has absolutely made me weepier in general.
    @Jill, I still wish that I’d had enough self-possession to tell that nurse how bad that was for us.
    @Meghan, So many of our nurses were really wonderful. Really, they all were except for that one. And hanging out with so many babies who were so much worse off gave us some serious perspective on how fortunate we were to spend only a week.

  5. June

    Katie, thanks for the beautiful essay. All four of my babies had to endure the NICU briefly, mostly as a precaution. I sat and wept the first time I visited Meagan in the nursery as the nurse handed me a bottle and told me I could give it to her. “But I didn’t want her to have any formula! Only breastmilk!”, I told her to no avail. With the next baby, I didn’t wait for them to give me permission to nurse him, I just did it. It was many years ago, but I still remember all the flood of emotions from having them all whisked away from me.

  6. A wonderfully written piece, thank you Katie. You’ll give comfort to readers who have had similar experiences. And more important, you’ll give strength and comfort to readers who’ll have them in the future. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *