by Judith Newman
September 26, 2001, noon
For some reason my blood platelet levels were down, a condition I passed on to Henry and Augustus. So this morning I was told both babies received platelet transfusions in the middle of the night to prevent internal bleeding. Henry's count is now up to 300,000, which is fine; Gus's is in the mid-90,000s and climbing. The doctors will do a full body scan next week, but they say the possibility of internal bleeding is remote since platelets were given right away.
Maybe it was the morphine, but I was perfectly confident all would be well. At least I was until a social worker knocked on my door. "I want you to know this is a safe place to discuss all the anxieties you must have," she said, holding my hand and stroking it. Hello, I did not have terrible anxiety until you mentioned I should about thirty seconds ago. Let go of my hand, you jackal. I flash back to Woody Allen's nightmare in Annie Hall, where he is being chased by a monster with the body of a giant crab and the head of a social worker.
Here's the thing I can't wrap my mind around. How is it possible someone -- two people, in fact -- will call me "Mother"? It seems like such a huge mix-up, because
a) I am really fifteen years old; the forty-year-old haggard woman you see before you is just an unsightly mirage; and
b) I shouldn't be trusted with a favorite pair of shoes, let alone a human life.
September 26, 2001, 5:00
Despite their tiny size, both are breathing on their own. Henry, the tinier one, has that patented take-me-to-your-leader look of preemies but is sucking milk like a regular baby. Gus is still being fed through a tube. To counteract their jaundice both are on light therapy. They are wearing tiny hospital-issued caps that say, "I got my first hug at NYU." But the writing on the caps is flowing and flowery; I read it as "I got my first flug at NYU" and had to ask the nurse why they had needed a flug. I though it was some sort of medical procedure.
Not only do these small people not look related to me or John, they don't look related to each other. Henry is bald and pale as a grub, with skin that immediately flushes crimson with the slightest exertion. His head is the size of a cantaloupe, and he's ravenous. His nose is large and bulbous, thus dashing my hopes that my nose job could have somehow become embedded in my DNA. Augustus, who's so mellow he has to be jostled while eating to keep him from lapsing into a coma, has a thicket of black hair that stands up like a bottlebrush and an olive complexion like no one in either of our families. John will not shut up about how he looks suspiciously like Dr. Grifo.
"You'll be taking them home as soon as they reach four pounds," the NICU nurse tells me cheerfully. Four pounds? The roast chicken I had last week for dinner was bigger than that. And I'm supposed to do what? Bathe them? I am pretty sure if I place them on a moist towelette they'll drown.
Growing up in Scarsdale during the seventies -- what I now think of as the Ice Storm years -- my baby-sitting experience consisted of arriving after the kids went to sleep and rummaging through their parents' porn collection. Baby-sitting is how I first read The Story of O and learned that not only cops but accountants and periodontists may own handcuffs. I lied about my age when I baby-sat. The boy I sat for most often was, unbeknownst to his parents, six months older than I was. I told them I was sixteen; I was, in fact, twelve. Gary had just turned thirteen. He always kept me sitting on his bed, talking way past his bedtime. He sat close. I think he was on to me.
Children scared me, even as a child. What were they going to do next? There were lots of bodily fluids that might fly in your direction at any time. Babies made you into a befuddled contestant in the game show from hell: spin the wheel and you land . . . on . . . sweet smile? . . . no . . . mellifluous chortle? . . . no . . . vomit. Bleah. And then there was the way mothers would hand me their infants, who would invariably take one look at me and burst into tears. "They're like dogs in horror movies," I thought. "They can sense fear."
I hover over Henry and Augustus's incubators, watching them glow under the sinister ultraviolet lights. The nurses tell me I can hold them, but I'm afraid. I touch the palms of their hands, and they do The Grasp. Nature or God, take your pick, declared that all newborns grab your finger. It is only a reflex, neither a sign of affection nor even an acknowledgment of our existence. I believe it's a reflex whose express purpose is to endear them to us. What if they had a reflex to flick away our hands dismissively or, instead of staring at us intently, to roll their eyes like teenagers? There'd be far fewer babies.
Their skin is almost translucent. If I pick them up, it might peel off in my hands like a layer of boiled onion.
Changed diapers this afternoon. I was ready with several boxes of surgical gloves for this eventuality. Having barely held a baby before having my own, let alone changed one, I was sure I'd be too squeamish to do this bare-handed. I was wrong. They're much less gross than all other babies. Odd.
After the diaper change, it took me approximately twenty minutes to put a onesie on Henry. I told the nurse not to help me. At first, I somehow fit it on him like it was a straitjacket. I untangled him, but I managed to twist part of the outfit into his mouth, like a gag. The nurse leaned over and said to me gently, "What do you do for a living?" I said, "Well, here's a hint: it doesn't involve fine motor skills."
It's not a question of whether I will kill them; it's just a question of how. Drowning? Tumbling off the changing table? Will the dog think they're food?
Friends and family visit, and I'm caught between the curious pleasure of showing off what came out of me and embarrassment at having turned out tiny creatures so pink and raw and unformed. They remind me of nothing so much as baby gerbils. It seems such a poor effort on my part. If only I could put them back in and let them bake a while longer.
Elizabeth breezes in. She is a woman of many gifts, not the least of which is her inability to see the obvious, if the obvious is in any way bad. She is the most optimistic person I know, utterly genuine even when she's wrong. Being friends with Elizabeth is like hanging out with your own personal sun.
"Where are they?" she demands hungrily. Elizabeth is the eldest in a family of six. Under those conditions you either love babies or you hate them. She loves them. Hesitatingly, I show them to her; she coos over Augustus and then immediately hones in on Henry. With his enormous cranium and sparrowlike body, Henry had passed homely and gone directly to frightening. "That," says Elizabeth decisively, "is a beautiful baby. Look at that noble brow! He radiates intelligence." For years Elizabeth ran a parenting magazine; she has spent much of her life around small children. I run my fingers over Henry's bald scalp, shuddering only slightly as I touch the soft spot that yields like the bruise on a peach. Beautiful? Well, who am I to argue?
I'm afraid I rushed Elizabeth out of the hospital quickly. I didn't want her to see me cry.
Excerpted from the book, You Make Me Feel Like an Unnatural Woman
Judith Newman, author of You Make Me Feel Like an Unnatural Woman, writes a monthly column for Ladies Home Journal and is a contributing editor for Allure and Self. She also writes for Vanity Fair, Harper's, Discover, and the New York Times. She spent seven years and $70,000 trying to get pregnant and is now the mother of twins. She lives in New York City with her sons and her golden retriever.
Copyright © Judith Newman. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.