Nurse Kathy & Receptionist Mary

While Baby Imani was in the hospital, we got to know Nurse Kathy – a woman with a heart-shaped face and heart-shaped life. Close to retirement, she was still as joyous as someone just beginning a career of her dreams. Her smile shone from her eyes as she worked. When I met her for the first time, she hugged me, pulled back to smile directly at me, and then embraced me again. It made me feel warm all over, and safe – like everything would be OK because she was there. Along with her beautiful smile, she laughed from the inside, with her head back, and sang or hummed as though she didn’t have a care in the world. I needed her validation, after having been abandoned during my pregnancy, and before that, losing everything when I left home and church. It was a wonderful surprise at a time when I had almost nobody.

“Hi, Bridget! Look at your little angel, I put a bow in her hair,” Kathy said. Drawing closer to the isolette, I peered in at my tiny baby attached to tubes and sensors under three banks of lights. Her miniature face was covered with an eye guard attached to pieces of velcro stuck to the sides of her head. And on the top of her fragile head, still recovering from birth trauma, adorned by a sparse coat of jet black hair, was a bright, pink bow, set in Vasoline.

In that moment, we were honored as a family. Kathy gave us a gift, symbolized by a plastic bow with a dab of Vasoline. My daughter was treated like she was special, and worth loving by not only me, but people who would meet her. And I as her mother was regarded with respect, as I was presented with my decorated child. Kathy moved us beyond what we were thought of by judgmental society to a position of grace. Here in this NICU on the University of Minnesota campus, I was more than a teen mom, and Imani was more than my assumed mistake. We were important.

When I visited Imani every day, Kathy was often there. Sometimes she would be changing Imani’s diaper, or cleaning her up, singing as she did. Like every visit, I parked in the hospital lot, took the elevator up to the 4th floor, and was buzzed in to the NICU through the double doors. Mary was at the desk during the day, and we chatted while I signed in. She would one day mail me the records of my sign-ins as a keepsake. All day, she greeted parents, family members, and professionals, as though each one mattered to her especially. Her imprint on me is lasting because she made me feel welcome. There were not many places in the world where I felt welcome in my situation. But Mary. Mary made me feel welcome. With people like Kathy and Mary, we would make it.

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I Will Miss Those Days

I remember the days when I had Imani sleep on my chest so she wouldn’t forget to breathe, which happens with babies born very premature (14 weeks early). I remember the days when I felt my heart strings tugged when I watched her ride off on the school bus, and the joy I felt seeing her emerge from the bus when she arrived back home. And now are the days when she is galavanting around her college campus, becoming grown, finding herself, and making her way in the world. And later will be the days that I will miss those days.

Reflections on my daughter going to college

I’m both ready and not for my daughter to leave for college. I know she’s going to the best place, a truly wonderful place, where she will be able to spread her wings and fly. And I will be able to work on my empty-nester bucket list, that has been in the works since I became a mom at 18, and enjoy some of my own newfound freedom. I’m excited because I know that she will be able to chase her dreams, meet so many people from around the world, and expand her world. I hope that she will find her sense of home and community. All of my motherly worries are wrapped up with joyful anticipation into a giant knot of mixed emotions in my stomach. This moment is what I have prepared her for all these years: a successful launch into adulthood. It’s a time that has always been very abstract, that never felt like it would really happen. But now that it’s here, I attempt to process it. Although I know that this won’t really begin to happen until I watch her walk away from me – with more permanence than waving goodbye on the school bus to kindergarten, the first venture to camp, or those early play dates. She will be back, but it won’t be the same. In my heart, I know that she will carry my love with her, and it will be a light to help her find her way in her life and lead her back to me. She will always be my sweet, funny, curious, precocious little girl who taught me about love and life. That is why it is both so hard and beautiful to let go in such a big way.

Single Mothers Redefined

I met with Imani’s high school counselor today for some business related to her college applications. She said that she would not have known about a lot of her activities if I hadn’t told her because she is so humble. I told her that she doesn’t like to talk about herself. I do that for her, a little too well maybe. Then she said that I’ve been a remarkable role model for my daughter, accomplishing so many things as an independent woman. It kind of took me by surprise because I’m used to feeling like people think I’m inferior as a single mother. But she put a whole different spin on it. We should treat all single mothers this way. She didn’t try to tell me that she knows what it’s like, and make it about her. She just focused on our story, and honored us in a very dignified way.

A Short Youthful Summer

A chain of paper suns decorated the perimeter of my apartment near the ceiling. They smiled down on me. I had picked them up in a party supply store. They didn’t exactly fit, but they made me happy. I guess I didn’t really care if anything matched. I had my own little space – a studio apartment in Uptown Minneapolis. There I was, in the middle of an artistic, urban Mecca. I could do anything I wanted! So I decorated my apartment with paper suns. I had never had this kind of freedom before – nobody to tell me what to do, how to dress, what language was appropriate or not, and if I was allowed to pierce my nose on not one, but both sides. My giant water bed, with a regular mattress, took up most of the main room in my studio. A picture of myself as a child was propped up on the top of the built-in dresser in the short hallway from the main room to the bathroom. I didn’t have anywhere to hang my clothes, but I didn’t have many. And they fit in the drawers, with room to spare. Over the summer, I would dump my mail into one of the lower cupboards and neglect it in favor of beer, rollerblading, and exploring without restrictions or parental complaints. On the top, I placed things that I liked to look at: my Little Bo Peep porcelain doll, doilies that I collected, perfume bottles (some empty), a porcelain Cinderella figurine that I got from Disneyland, a wooden frame that my great-grandfather had made (without a picture), a few textbooks that I couldn’t bear to sell back to my college at the end of the semester, and a rough poem I wrote from the heart. This gap between being in the church, caring for my younger siblings, and living at home under strict rules, and becoming a single mother would last approximately three months. I was 18, shifting from one world to another. Moving between walls of definition, I twirled, and I transformed – so quickly it was like riding a wobbly unicorn on a carousel in the middle of the night, as it flew off its base into an improvised scene from Alice in Wonderland.

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.

Raising a Strong Woman

It takes a strong woman to raise one. And it takes a village of strong women to support each other to raise strong women. The best way to show our strength as women is to empower each other — plain and simple. Our daughters will learn from our examples — our sons, too. We speak loudest through our actions, especially how we treat each other. The more we support each other, the more supportive we all become. And this collective good will is returned to us, in kind. So, women, BE GOOD TO EACH OTHER!! No excuses for anything but love and kindness. Namaste!! 🙂

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My daughter after her first major reconstructive orthopedic surgery on both legs to correct issues related to cerebral palsy.

My daughter was a teeny-tiny baby, to say the least. She was born 14 weeks early, weighing two pounds, six ounces. Her early prognosis was very concerning — understatement of the year! With many medical challenges related to prematurity, I had no idea what to expect for her future. I guess one could argue that nobody knows their futures. For each of us, uncertainty is a part of life. But it smacks you in the face when you know the odds are stacked against you. Anyway, I chose to have faith, and then acted on it. I set out to do everything I could to give my daughter a fighting chance, and a great life. Some of her outcomes are connected to things I did, and quality medical care, but a lot of it has also been pure chance. We have only so much power to control our circumstances. We have some! But there is a lot we can’t change. I have found that it’s healthy to do everything you can, and then surrender the rest. Easier said than done, but worth the effort. For example, I couldn’t ensure that my daughter would eventually walk. But I COULD take her to specialists who could advise us on strategies to help increase her chances of walking. I couldn’t predict how well my daughter could read, or if she would even be able to. But I COULD put her in an appropriate preschool and provide a rich environment — reading to her, taking her to museums, introducing her to growth experiences. You see what I mean? I wouldn’t call it realistic, or optimistic. I would just call it managing expectations. I’m a dreamer who analyzes odds according to my own judgment. That means that I imagine the possibilities, aim high, maximize my internal and external resources, and then accept that the resulting outcomes will be on a range, or spectrum. I don’t worry too much about what other people say. Sure, I take it into account, like I do any input. But I process it with a lot of other information to form my own hypotheses. The benefits of a scientific mind are applicable to life, not just a lab. 😉

 

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Recovering well and enjoying an outing to a friend’s farm.

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Always at home with her animal friends.