the provocative patroness

My mama is a birth warrior says the tiny t-shirt, one of two. Sent from a distant friend say be proud. But a while back, several days before we lost Liam, it felt fraudulent to be on the receiving end of such a sentiment.

Birth warrior. I was unconscious, for chrissake. Strapped down and knocked out amid frantic yells. One boy transfused and weak, the other lifeless despite nine minutes of chest compressions. I was dissected, an hour of my life sucked into a void of anesthetized nothingness.

There’s no way this applies to me. I couldn’t decide to cry or laugh. I tucked them back into the box and placed them on the shelf above Liam, shaken. But for the rest of the day they called to me, those tiny tees. A gentle challenge.

The message camped out in a corner of my brain as I cuddled, enclosed in the boys. Birth warrior. I shuffled down the hall, sat in the pumping room, stood hands through their portholes. It persisted, hands on its hips. Deal with me, it said. I’ll wait, but you have to deal with me. I’m not letting you rest until you do.

The words have a new shape now, rounded up to this.

Birth: to see them safe.
Warrior: to match them in bravery.

It fits all of us, mothers and fathers pressed through trauma into the out-of-womb gestation of the NICU. Whether our babies stay with us or not we work up the nerve to handle them, be witness for them, stand tall among the doctors. Safe doesn't always mean the outcome we'd prefer, but we accompany them to it with fierce love, nonetheless. We cobble together the broken pieces to be whole for our other children, present and future. We have the odd breakdown-free day, and heal, and type one-handed while pumping. <ahem>

All this deserves immense pride, despite our births being not the domain of goddesses but of blue scrubs and crash carts. Ben is with us, and Liam is gone. My mama is a birth warrior.

I’ll get there.


Ben squeaks and gulps at the mama-trough as we sit with one of his primary nurses. How emotional all this must be for you, for you steady souls, our nurse-mothers, I reflect to her. They are mentors to both babies and parents, keeping us all afloat in this disorienting tangle.

After a lengthy pause she looks at me and says softly, "I was there, you know, when they were born."

She’s been at our bedsides from the beginning, cheerful and brisk. I’m suddenly curious. She’d never mentioned this until now. I hadn’t been looking at faces, only blurred figures, before it all went black. Perhaps it’s just too much to look someone in the eye and tell them you’ve seen their guts, their heart and hopes spilled open, their catastrophe, while they lay unknowing.

"What was it like?" I ask her, unable to resist.

She looks at me earnestly and replies without hesitating: "It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen."

My heart emits the soft, squelchy pop of validation, of shared experience. Shared even though I was only conscious for the preamble and the aftershocks. The scariest thing ever. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels that way.