Born Into the System

I wrote this about my daughter and becoming a mother in an institutional setting.

“Born Into the System”

In the middle of the night, on January 31, 1998, my 2 lbs. 6 oz. baby girl was born to a mother who was a poor single teenager living in Minneapolis. She arrived with no prior knowledge of her circumstances. How would she know what to expect? She was innocent. Fragile. Vulnerable. Clinging to life. And not expected to live. If she did make it, her introduction to life would be filled with difficulties.

Right out of the womb, she was resuscitated. Then immediately connected to a web of tubes and wires for life-support, and encased in a plastic box, a.k.a. an incubator or isolette. Not for the first day, or first week. But for the first three months.

Every day and every night, almost like a science experiment, lying in the box, while medical professionals poked and prodded, drew blood, inserted IVs, and fed tubing up through her nose and into her stomach for nutrition.

Bright lights shining everywhere in a sterile environment.

And love?

Love could be provided when medically safe to do so. Her mother, who worked several shifts seven days a week, came to visit on her breaks. And she stayed all night. Sometimes she would simply sit there, looking at her. Sometimes she would talk to her. But she had to be careful not to overstimulate this fragile tiny life. She sang lullabies, softly through an opening in the plastic box.

There she was, in an institution. Not at home being snuggled and kissed. Not being admired by friends or family who had been anticipating her arrival. No photos. No videos. No celebration. Just a cold, hollow, empty hospital ward.

And time slowly crept forward. Slow minutes. Endless days. It seemed like life would always be like this. Would it ever change? It seemed like it would not. And from the corner with the box, with a new human being trapped inside, the young mother waited alone, watching happy couples exit the hospital with their babies, arms full of flowers and gifts, smiling with joy she could only imagine.

And day by day, time slowly crawled.

And the baby grew. She got bigger. Stronger. And she opened her eyes to look at her mother. She waved her arms around like she had so much to say. And when the tube was removed from her throat, she could breathe on her own, and cry with sound. She became conscious of her surroundings, such as they were.

She began to drink from a bottle. She stopped forgetting to breathe as often. And when her heart rate dropped, she recovered. She was moved to a crib.

Time moved an inch. At a time.

The hospital staff decided that it would soon be time for the young mother to take the baby home. She would have to be trained and interviewed, and the baby would need to be stable for 24 hours, without forgetting to breathe and without spells when her heart rate dropped to a near stop.

Permission was given to the mother to be a mother. But she would continue to be monitored.

The day came to go home. A nurse took a picture of the baby with the hospital’s Polaroid camera. She gave it to the mother, who couldn’t wait to see the picture emerge on the square. It was anticlimactic, but they were ready to go. The mother didn’t feel like the baby was hers. It felt weird to leave the hospital with this baby who was hers.

As she walked to the parking lot, now with her baby, and not empty-handed, it was a different exit than those she had witnessed every day for three months. It was quiet.

She opened her car door, placing the car seat, and buckling the seatbelt.

This was the moment. The wait had been so long. The baby was born in the winter. And now it was almost summer.

Once in the young mother’s apartment in Minneapolis, she took the baby out of the car seat. She held her close to her heart. She put her cheek next to the baby’s cheek. And softly she said, “We are home now.” She imagined showing the baby how beautiful life was.

And from that moment, she did.

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