Fear Can Terrify a Mother read the marquee outside the meeting room on the NICU ward. The topic changed nightly for the New Moms’ Support Group, as did the attendees. Some women were here for only a handful of draining, harrowing days; others were here longer. Weeks and months longer. Long enough to need a nightly meeting, where life after the hospital was the topic of professionally directed conversation. I was going on eight days, but my circumstances were different.
I hadn’t given birth to my daughter. My husband and I were the adoptive parents in what is called a “gift baby” situation—a delivery with no prearranged adoption plan. Without any prenatal history, my daughter was in the NICU under observation simply as a precautionary measure and, so far, presented no medical problems. She was eating and gaining and eliminating WNL, or Within Normal Limits, as her chart stated.
Eight days anywhere will pull you into a routine, and finding a semblance of continuity from day to day is a survival skill. NICU parents are allowed twenty-four hour access to the ward, which meant the mothers stayed and the fathers ferried back and forth between home, work, and the hospital, bringing changes of clothes and take-out food and siblings. The moms learned each other’s stories immediately and unintentionally, assimilating entire histories from the stage voices of the neonatologists making rounds, trying not to eavesdrop, but overhearing everything since the walls were merely fabric partitions.
At 9:00 pm every weeknight, after the dads and siblings left, any mom with a baby in the NICU was invited to the New Moms’ Support Group. Picture the group therapy scene in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—lulling music, strict seating arrangements—this was nothing like that. Picture Nurse Ratched—starched and unreasonable—again, nothing like our scrub-wearing group leader. The meetings were educational yet informal, with topics ranging from infant CPR to tips on making dirty hair appear clean. Sometimes, we just talked.
On this particular night, Not-at-All-Like-Nurse Ratched asked us to write down our biggest mother-fear on a piece of paper, which she would read one at a time for us to discuss. The other moms immediately began writing down what seemed to be very scary things. Legitimately scary things. I turned mine in last; Not-Nurse Ratched put it under the others and began by reading the one on top.
“I’m afraid my baby will stop breathing during the night.” We looked at each other, nodding sagely. That was a good one, really scary stuff. Not-Nurse Ratched reminded us of the Safe Slumber creed: back to sleep, bare is best, etc. She reassured us that no baby would be sent home from the NICU before his respiration was given the WNL stamp of approval.
Not-Nurse Ratched read a second paper, “My biggest fear is that my baby will start crying and I will not be able to stop it.” Everybody shifted in her seat with big nods and mmm-hms all around. Not-Nurse Ratched prompted us, “Now Moms, why do babies cry?” We catalogued logical causes and cures; Not-Nurse Ratched leaned back in approval.
Another fear, “That I’ll hurt my baby,” and another, “I’ll run out of milk,” and another, “He’ll get sick at home and we’ll have to come back here.”
As they progressed—this somber parade of SIDS candidates and life-threatening scenarios—I had misgivings about what I had written, which was so foolishly not scary. Who was I, with my intact abdomen and non-engorged breasts, to assume anything about fear? I felt guilty that my daughter wasn’t sicker—I was allowed to hold her, touch her, cleave her to me kangaroo style—and I hadn’t gone through any corporeal pain to earn this. I felt only relief that she was about to be discharged, and, with what I had written, I was about to cavalierly flaunt her health and my good fortune in their faces. The New Moms’ Support Group was soon to find out I was a fear-fraud. Not-Nurse Ratched held the last paper. Mine.
“Oooh an existential one: I’m afraid I won’t ever love my daughter as much as I love my dog.”
A thick pause ended when, mercifully, one of the other moms said, “For me, it’s my son. Will I be able to love this baby as much as I love him?” No one laughed. Actually, many other moms spoke up too, adding to the list of those who needed and deserved a portion of our affection.
Not-Nurse Ratched, who had systematically addressed each fear in the stack of papers with research-backed assurances, thumped the pile and said, “I hate to tell you this, but right now, in this hospital ward, your babies are the safest they will ever be. Once you leave, it gets real. The risks are real—but being afraid isn’t going to prevent any of that. It’ll just make you doubt yourself. Fear is a decision. Decide to leave your fear here with me. Decide you don’t have room for it.”
Three days later, my daughter was discharged from the NICU. I dressed her and packed the possessions now deemed “hers,” thinking how strange it was they were letting me take her home. How could they be sure I could handle this? I imagined the other new moms having the same thought—a collective incredulity much like our shared fears—but then, I heard my inner Not-Nurse Ratched and decided there was no qualitative measurement to being a mom.
I decided to leave my doubts here with the fear.
The NICU nurses insisted my daughter and I get the customary send-off ride in a post-delivery wheelchair, even though I had nothing to recover from. Not-Nurse Ratched, herself, wheeled us to the main entrance, where I stood up holding my daughter and said goodbye—decidedly fearless.
Michelle Riddell lives with her family in rustic mid-Michigan, where she happily braves her husband’s penchant for DIY projects and her daughter’s passion for wildlife-as-indoor-pets. Her essays have appeared in MomSense, Hello, Dearest, Mamalode, Club Mid, and others. She is a reviewing editor at Mothers Always Write and a substitute teacher at her daughter’s elementary school. Follow her on Twitter.
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