On the evening of the fourth of July, we gathered around the dining room table for a delicious feast of steaks, corn on the cob and pasta with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella. Close friends of ours from Brooklyn we hadn’t seen since the beginning of the pandemic were visiting us in Connecticut where we rented a house for the summer. My eight and almost six-year-old daughters were looking forward to staying up past sunset to light fireworks and sparklers.
Seven months pregnant, I decided to dress for the occasion, swapping my sweats for a long white maxi dress. Stuffed from dinner, I stood up to clear plates and immediately felt a gush of fluid. I knew immediately that my water had broken. I tried to stay calm in front of our friends and especially my daughters. I gave my husband a panicked look and excused myself to go upstairs to call my doctor who told me to come to the hospital immediately. I quickly packed a bag, not sure if I’d return home that evening. As I tried to stop shaking, I calmly told my girls that daddy had to drive me to the hospital to check on the baby and that our friends would take good care of them while we were gone.
Trying as hard as she could to hold back tears, my little one said, “Are you going to be okay? Is something wrong with the baby?” I assured her that everything would be fine and then she asked, “Can we still stay up for fireworks?” I answered, “Of course, promise to light extra ones for me and have double the amount of fun because I can’t be there.” A line I would find myself telling my daughters repeatedly over the next several weeks.
The entire drive to Northern Westchester Hospital I kept waiting for contractions to ensue, resisting the urge to start googling viability of birth at 29 weeks. Shortly after being admitted to labor and delivery, a nurse asked if I had been swimming that day. “Maybe it’s just pool water, you know that can happen sometimes,” she said optimistically. I looked at her and thought, “Lady, I know you’re trying to be positive, but there is no way this is pool water.”
A doctor eventually came in and confirmed that my water had broken giving it a technical name PPROM (Preterm Premature Rupture of Membranes). While I was showing no immediate signs of labor, there was a high chance I could deliver within 24 hours. What I was completely unprepared for was the doctor saying, “Sorry, but you’re not leaving here until you deliver the baby. It could happen in the next few days or in a few weeks, but we need to keep you here because you and the baby are at high risk for infection.” This meant in the very “best” case, I’d be stuck in the hospital for five weeks, or until the baby reached at least 34 weeks gestation.
In a normal (non-COVID) world this is a frightening scenario, however, because of COVID, once my husband left the hospital that night I wouldn’t be able to see him until I delivered the baby. In an instant, at seven months pregnant, I became quarantined for potentially five weeks from my own family. On top of that, when I was told a neonatologist would come in to see us a new panic set in. I realized that even after I delivered, my baby would be premature and most likely have a long stay in the NICU. Not only was I facing possibly a month (or longer) without seeing my daughters, but once I recovered from giving birth I wouldn’t be able to stay with my baby in the hospital while he was in the NICU, thanks to coronavirus.
As this new reality sunk in, my heart broke when I thought of my youngest daughter whose sixth birthday was in a few days. It had become one of those events she talked about daily, the one thing she had to look forward to through all the stress and upheaval of the past few months. I had bought all the supplies to make her a rainbow explosion cake (our family tradition), and now I’d have to break the news to her that I was going to miss her birthday.
Within a few days, I settled into the new reality of my shoebox sized room with freedom to move to use the bathroom and shower but otherwise on strict bedrest. At seven months pregnant, I had been alternating between daily Peloton rides and five-mile walks, so my new confinement was a big adjustment. As a generally upbeat person, it still took everything in my power to focus on the upsides. We had good health insurance and I was under exceptional medical care through Caremount Medical at Northern Westchester. I physically felt fine, but most importantly, my baby appeared to be healthy. I had my own room with a window and a view of the parking lot and trees in the distance.
Having cooked thousands of meals for my family during quarantine, you’d think I’d welcome the opportunity to order off a room service menu for three meals a day. But cooking was my creative outlet; I longed for my kitchen and the freedom to cook what I wanted. To my delight, the hospital chef had spent his career working in Michelin-rated restaurants and the food was notches above anything I’d expect from a hospital. The limited choices were challenging but within a week I was making special requests for dishes off the menu like adding quinoa and avocado to the strawberry, spinach and goat cheese salad or adding grilled shrimp and spring vegetables to the pasta primavera.
Eventually the hospital visitation policy was relaxed, so with a negative COVID test my husband was able to come visit. But it would still be weeks before I saw my daughters. Each visit he’d bring artwork from my daughters, helping make my room less sterile. My youngest’s birthday was a success even without me there. My husband rose to the occasion, making his inaugural trip to Party City for balloons and organizing a full day of activities. I ordered a rainbow explosion cake from a local bakery to substitute for the one I couldn’t bake. I joined my family on FaceTime to sing happy birthday, and guided my husband through the precise way to cut the cake so the sprinkles and candy would dramatically explode.
A week into my hospital stay, I watched the new movie Palm Springs, an updated Groundhog Day story starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti. The two characters meet at a wedding and then get trapped in an endless time loop, waking up each day only to realize it’s the exact same day all over again. I easily identified with the dilemma the two characters faced at the start of each day, how to make the most of being stuck in a bubble, completely removed from the rest of the world without losing your mind.
Like Samberg and Milioti, I focused on small pleasures like showers, my pillow from home, the comfy pajamas, good smelling lotions and a box of fresh Georgia peaches all sent by loved ones. The outpouring of support from friends and family who checked in daily by phone or text helped keep my spirits high each day that passed.
I’ve gotten to know each nurse rotating through my room, how many kids they have, how long they’ve worked here and what’s the longest they’ve seen someone like me stay in the maternity ward. The team of doctors and nurses have become my cheerleading squad celebrating each day I get closer to 34 weeks. I started joining my family for dinner over Facetime, reliving their daily adventures through the computer screen. I was also fortunate enough to have started a new job producing a podcast about national security just before being hospitalized. I was nervous to tell my new coworkers about my situation, but they’ve been nothing but supportive. Having the work to keep me busy and feeling productive has helped make the time pass more quickly. The one silver lining of coronavirus is that work can pretty much be done from anywhere, even a hospital bed.
Two weeks into my stay at the hospital, we convinced the nurses to let me see my daughters. My husband drove them over and I was rolled down in a wheelchair for a brief visit outside in the parking lot. I was overcome with emotion, hoping that my mask would somehow hide my tears at the sight of them. With homemade signs in tow, they were so happy I don’t even think they realized I was crying. I wasn’t quite prepared for how good the fresh air, even at 90 degrees, would feel. The sight of their faces and hearing their little voices gave me a surge of strength and confidence that this too shall pass.
Through all life’s uncertainty since the pandemic started, I was comforted knowing that the one thing I could plan for was giving birth to a baby boy mid September. I still try to avoid googling possible complications that could accompany a premature birth and focus on hoping this baby will hold off until 34 weeks or early August which is now just two weeks away. If I’ve learned anything from 2020, it’s that as much as we want to plan for the future, life is completely unpredictable.
What has gotten me through these long days and weeks is continuing to dream of everyday pleasures I may not have appreciated throughout the pandemic like getting to tuck my girls into bed each night with stories and tickle time, sitting outside with my husband watching the sunset, and being back in the kitchen getting to cook yet another meal with a summer’s bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables.
I never imagined writing an article like this from a hospital bed, 32 weeks pregnant separated from my family on bedrest during a pandemic. What the circumstance has taught me is that the love I have for my children and their love in return is stronger than our fears. Seeing my kids thriving and enjoying their summer even without me home keeps me anchored, accepting this is where I have to be right now. What keeps me from getting down is imagining bringing home this little baby we’ve already nicknamed “the troublemaker” and eventually telling him the stories of what he put us through. I will never let him forget that despite all the uncertainty in our world, what we are capable of as parents and the love we feel for our children is unwavering.
Just as I was settling into my new home at the hospital and feeling hopeful that I could make it to 34 weeks before being induced, life threw me another curveball. Unexpectedly on Sunday afternoon, having just passed the 32-week mark, I started bleeding and needed an emergency c-section to deliver the baby.
As soon as I heard a tiny wail from the other side of the curtain I turned to my husband and with a huge cry of relief, “He’s here!” Before we could even see him, my baby was whisked away by the neonatologist to be evaluated in the NICU. It would be almost an hour before the doctor came out to see us in recovery to give a full report. The baby was okay, but would need a surgery right away to repair a collapsed lung on one side, also known as pneumothorax. The doctor reassured us that this was a common issue in babies his age and that most likely it would resolve the problem within a few days. Still awaiting the results of his COVID test, my husband wasn’t allowed to even go into the NICU to see the baby, so we were left to wait another couple hours before we could finally be introduced.
None of this was a scenario I had ever envisioned when giving birth to a baby but one that I had to accept and trust was for the best. The surgery was a success; we eventually got to visit him in the NICU where he was recovering, resting in an incubator hooked up to wires and monitors but stable. It would be another couple of days when the tube to repair his lung was removed that a NICU nurse called my room to say it was time to come and hold him. I rushed over with my husband, only one of us could enter the NICU at a time because of COVID, so he waited outside.
As the nurse placed the baby in my arms all of my fears and anxiety of the past several months melted away. I breathed in his baby smell, felt his warm skin on my chest, let his tiny little fingers curl around mine and said a prayer of thanks that we had arrived at this moment. As hard as it is to accept and as unnatural as it feels to leave the hospital without him, I know it’s time to return home to be with my girls who I haven’t seen in a month. I expect there may be bumps in the road over the next month as he continues to grow in the NICU but that soon enough he’ll be home to complete our family of five.
This entire experience has taught me that as much as we can plan for our future and our children, much of life’s course is out of our control. What is in our power is how we confront and overcome situations, especially those that test us to our limits. We named the baby Bear, in honor of my husband’s grandfather, Mendel Ber, who survived the Holocaust. Just like our baby Bear, he was proof that it’s life’s most difficult moments that show us as parents we are capable of much more than we can sometimes imagine.