By Shannon Magsam
I look down at my exposed chest and think, wow, porn star.
At the end of each overinflated balloon, the nipples are covered in red, angry lacerations. The idea of anything touching them, even my thin cotton night shirt, is inconceivable.
I pick up my newborn baby girl and cradle her in my lap. Her head turns and she clamps down, hard. I squeeze my eyes shut, hard. When I catch my breath, I coo and encourage.
In between, I mumble prayers that this time she’ll latch on — so she won’t be hungry and I won’t be frantic.
Happy thoughts. Happy thoughts.
She turns her face away, shrieking.
We try again. And again. I pretzel my body, switching from one position to the next, trying to find a shape she might like. But when the scabbed-over cuts start to bleed, I stop. I make peace with it — again. Another bottle. It’s been three days since we left the hospital, three days since she officially went on a nursing strike. My mind is a blur. Is this what sleep deprivation feels like?
After the baby’s been burped and is asleep in her crib, I suddenly remember Allison, the lactation consultant I met at the hospital.
On the phone, she’s as compassionate as I remember, but brisk. I can tell she takes lots of frantic calls from emotional new mothers. She can’t explain why my champion nurser seems to have forgotten everything she knew at birth, but she’s going to try and find out. We both know breast is best.
We both know it’s me who sucks.
She says she can see us at 9 the next morning – me, my new boobs and my new baby.
My husband goes with me to the appointment, too. I have trouble remembering conversations at doctor’s offices, especially when I’m exhausted and stressed. For backup, I have my notebook out, my ink pen poised.
Allison takes my little pink bundle and undresses her down to a diaper.
She starts a physical exam, looks in the baby’s mouth, presses around on her kissable tummy, then brings out the stethoscope.
“You do know she has a heart murmur, right?” she asks us, cocking her head quizzically.
My husband and I look at each other in dazed surprise. How did we get this far, with so many doctor visits already, and not know this?
The nurse calls the pediatrician in and he listens for one, two, three seconds. He nods his head affirmatively – he also hears the swoosh like a trickle of water being pushed through a thin garden hose. Time for an electrocardiogram, he says.
They strap my newborn to a board used for baby boys who are being circumcised. When her arms are immobilized, the nurses place cold electrodes all over her body. She screams and twists, going from porcelain white to enraged red.
I think to myself, or maybe I say it out loud: I might need a heart doctor, too.
We also need x-rays. We’re told neither of the parents can be in the room.
When the x-ray tech walks away holding my baby and disappears from sight, I sit down on the cold tile floor and begin to sob. At that early stage of motherhood, I hadn’t yet found my “mama bear” voice, the one that would have forced me to follow that technician into the x-ray room to tell him, Make me leave. Instead, I wait.
Slumped on the floor, I suddenly realize the Tylenol has worn off and my c-sectioned middle is throbbing. I feel every inch of the deep incision, the slice so low my doctor had proudly proclaimed I’d still be able to wear a bikini…
My husband flags down an intern and asks for pain medication. He shares some with me.
After x-rays, after I have my baby in my arms again, we wait some more. A new pediatrician comes in to tell us what’s next. I momentarily stop breathing when she says our next stop is Arkansas Children’s Hospital. She says the baby definitely has a hole in her heart and it could be serious.
We have an appointment for 11 a.m. the next day.
We head home, pack quickly, and begin the 2 ½ hour drive to my parents’ house outside Conway. We spend the night there, then get up in the morning to get ready for the big appointment . We don’t say it to each other, but we know. This could change everything.
My aunt stops by unexpectedly just before we leave for the hospital, and sees me adding powdered formula to my baby’s bottle. “I thought you were breastfeeding,” she says. I start to cry.
We make it to the hospital early and Dr. Dungan is prompt. And kind. He slowly walks us through multiple tests and the baby doesn’t fuss during any of them.
After two hours of anxious waiting, the news comes – she’s going to be fine. He predicts that the hole will close on its own within six months.
My husband and I look at each other and smile for the first time in more than 24 hours. We suddenly realize we’re starving. We drive to Bennigans and both order cheeseburgers, fries and large Cokes.
Our healthy baby girl is sleeping beside us in her car seat. I relax back into my chair and feel the rest of that weight just slip off my shoulders. With my mind finally quiet, I see how my perspective has shifted.
The new understanding makes me dig around in the diaper bag to find a little package of formula. And for once, I mix it without a heaping dose of maternal guilt.
“So what?” I think. “Didn’t I just find out there are worse things than feeding a baby formula?
When she wakes, I’ll place her in my lap and she’ll clamp down — hard — on the nipple of a Dr. Brown’s bottle. And I will feel nothing. But relief. And I will revel … in happy thoughts.
Note from Shannon: I read this story aloud at the April 29th Listen to Your Mother event at Walton Arts Center. What a surreal experience it was to read one of my own stories in front of an audience (and oh, what a generous audience it was! They laughed — and cried — in all the right places). Also, I didn’t share it there, but I will here: My little Ladybug actually started nursing again after we got her home from the hospital and all that heart-baby-mama drama. If she hadn’t ever nursed again, that would have been OK, too. No judgy-mcjudge here after all we went through. She’s now 10 years old, but it still seems like yesterday.