By Rachel Kaufman
The birth of a baby is supposed to be a joyous occasion, but in my situation (and for my husband and close family), it was not. Instead, it was a mixed bag of fear, grief, stress, hope, gratitude, and many other emotions. I missed out on the “joy of birth” (you know, the kind you read about and see in movies) and will forever grieve the loss of that, even though the outcome was positive. Today my son likes to ask me fun questions like, “Was I cute when I was born?” (Answer: not really.) “Did you enjoy giving birth?” (Answer: yes and no.) And “When did you first hold me and why?” (Answer: 6 days after you were born as you were too small before that and I was recovering from a C-section). Plus many other birth-related questions. I suppose he’s curious as it is quite a story (and it’s his story too after all). It’s the kind of story that, while he was in the NICU, I could only wait and hope that one day I would be talking about it looking in the rear-view mirror, happy with how it all turned out. Because while I was in it, it was pretty terrifying.
I’m extremely grateful that my son is now 11 years old and perfectly imperfect! I suppose that’s why I’m now ready to share it with a wider audience, in the hopes that my story of joy and pain and the unexpected resilience and strength (and yes, badassery!) I found within myself will help and inspire other parents that may have (or will) go through something similar.
So, after a bit of fanfare, here is my birth story. My son was born on a lovely morning in March at 29 weeks and 2 days of gestation—or as we say now, “about 11 weeks early.” When we arrived at the hospital, the doctor quickly realized that the baby was in distress (heartbeat was going up and down quickly) and had to be delivered ASAP. We were in shock and I remember trying to stop it from happening, but obviously, the train had left the station.
I remember it only in a blur—all of the sudden I had an IV inserted, an oxygen mask placed over my mouth, and I saw my shell-shocked husband sitting in a corner of the room, freaking out and neglected by the nurses as they prepped me for an emergency C-section. To add to the chaos, as they finally wheeled me down the hallway to the OR (it seemed like it took forever for an operating room to become available), for some reason, a very loud alarm, complete with red flashing lights, went off. I remember thinking to myself something like, “Seriously?! Okay, stay calm, this is obviously so ridiculous.” As they prepped me (yuck, epidural) and my body went numb from the diaphragm down (it was hard to breathe!), my husband recalled a hypnobirthing method to calm me down and began stroking my left arm. I remember wondering who the hell was stroking my arm for a second because I didn’t notice him come in and he was wearing a mask and hair net! A tiny surreal moment folded into a much larger surreal moment.
Eli arrived and was a tiny thing, weighing 2 pounds, 1 ounce, and measuring 14 inches long. When they presented him to me and my husband after the emergency C-section, he was badly bruised from living in low levels of amniotic fluid for several days and being “shrink-wrapped” (as I call it). But his eyes were black and inquisitive. He looked around as if thinking, “Hmm, what is this strange land?” He had a little layer of fur all over his body (called lanugo) and looked a little bit like a baby chimp. His hair was plastered to his head like an old man who had applied too much hair gel.
He was cute and not cute at the same time; we were in love and freaked out at the same time. Amazingly to us, when he was born, his eyes, fingernails, and other body parts were not yet fully formed. We were able to watch him finish forming outside the womb (in his isolette in the NICU), which was a combination of frightening and fascinating at the same time.
He was immediately transferred to a different hospital that could handle preemies younger than 32 weeks, and I remained in the hospital for another two days to recover from the C-section. After his birth, some of the nurses helping me were literally crying tears of joy (or was it relief?!), telling me that if I had not come into the hospital when I did, he would not have survived. They told me that recently a mother had waited too long and her baby had not made it. It made me appreciate the trust and knowledge I had in my body and my intuition even more. I had saved my child’s life. Saying that sentence, even 11 years later, feels scary, surreal, and amazing all at the same time.
When you go through a traumatic event like this, your world shrinks. During my son’s time in the NICU, my main support system was small and included my husband, my parents (but mostly my mom!), a handful of friends, and, of course, the NICU nurses and doctors. I’m always surprised when I hear other preemie parents saying they enjoyed their NICU stay as I would never wish it on my worst enemy! For me, NICU life was lonely, stressful, and isolating for the most part. Many people in my life tried to understand what we were going through, but they really couldn’t. For example, maybe a month after I gave birth, some of my friends organized a baby shower for me. While I totally appreciated the effort and enjoyed seeing everyone and feeling supported, it felt a bit like the twilight zone—I wasn’t pregnant, nor did I have a cute baby in my arms to ooh and aww over, only some photos to show. Later, after we brought Eli home, he was still very small (less than 5 pounds) and at risk for infection, so per the doctor’s orders, we could not show him off to the world. This meant that most friends and family didn’t get to meet him for many months when he finally grew bigger and stronger, and it added to my feelings of isolation.
Overall, his 58 days in the NICU and the ensuing 3-4 months were a roller coaster of emotions. The joys and celebrations of having a baby (my first!) were mostly off-limits for me, and each moment was filled with positive and negative feelings all rolled into one—I suppose the word “bittersweet” fits here.
Every day was focused on my baby’s survival and not much else. To be honest, I have no idea how I spent my time when I wasn’t with Eli during the 58 days he was in the NICU. I spent most of my time either holding his tiny body (which was attached to a million wires) on my chest kangaroo style (skin-to‑skin), which was pure heaven for me, pumping milk in a separate room away from prying eyes (other parents were in the NICU, including dads), or talking to nurses and doctors.
Eventually, I began to pump so much milk that it was enough for a full-term baby, but as mine was only drinking the amount contained in a medicine dropper, I had to start freezing the excess milk for future feedings. Again, the ups and downs of emotions—on the one hand, I was happy and proud that I could provide my baby with the breast milk he needed to thrive, but on the other hand, I felt sad that I was producing so much milk and he couldn’t drink it all. Plus, I had to deal with the aggravation of where to store the excess milk. By the end of my stay at the NICU, I was storing my frozen breast milk in three or four refrigerators (thank you kind citizens for lending me freezer space)! Once Eli was home, growing faster, and he had eaten his way through the milk in my freezer and my mom’s freezer, I had to call up a kind friend and say something like, “Hey, I’m ready for that frozen milk in your freezer; can I stop by tomorrow?” So weird and surreal.
While Eli was in the NICU, I was busy yet waiting, confident yet scared all at the same time. When I wasn’t doing the above-mentioned activities, I was cleaning plastic breast pump pieces, asking nurses to find me granny underwear that would hit me above my scar, and, of course, eating and trying to take care of myself a little bit. My mom was with me a lot, which was wonderful.
We developed a routine of going to one of Georgetown University’s (where the NICU is located) on-campus restaurants, where I would treat myself to a ginger drink I liked as well as the occasional sushi. Going to the restaurant was also an opportunity to get away from the NICU stress, breathe in some fresh air, and admire the flowers that kept growing and soaking in the sun no matter what was going on upstairs with the preemies. It was also a good reminder that someday my baby would also be outside, able to run around, breath in fresh air, and smell the flowers. Luckily that promise was kept, although my son is not the kind to stop and smell the flowers too much these days!
When I was at home, I was worried about how my son was doing without his parents. My main comfort was that there were many awesome nurses and doctors taking care of him around the clock, but not being in control of my baby’s health and not being able to hold him, feed him, and change his diapers was very hard (although I have to say that part was nice—no poopy diaper changes for 2 months!). I had to live with the hope that he would pull through and thrive, but as someone who is often impatient and doesn’t like to lose control, this was hard for me.
As a certified Reflexologist, Reiki Master, Life Coach, and former international public health professional, Rachel has supported hundreds of people over the past 15+ years to find more balance, grounding, and calm in their daily lives. As a Life Coach, Rachel often works with parents who struggle to find the right equilibrium in their lives around relationships and health. Many of her clients feel overwhelmed and anxious, operating in fight or flight mode, which can take its toll. As a mother of a preemie herself, she knows how important, yet how hard it can be to stay true to oneself and also be a supportive partner and mother.
Rachel founded Integrated Healing Vibes to fulfil her goal of working full-time as a healer, life coach, teacher and mentor. Her unique blend of skills and experience allows her to access many tools from her “toolbox”. Her unique program offers energy healing and life coaching techniques to help parents feel more grounded, calm, empowered, uplifted and at ease in their daily lives.
This is Part 2 in a 3 Part Series and was featured in the book, Her Badass Story 2: Stories of Courageous Women Who Unapologetically Became the Badasses in Their Own Lives. To purchase this engrossing and powerful book, click here!