I Spent My First Mother's Day In The NICU. This Is What I Learned.

by Jamie Sumner
Jamie Sumner during Mother's Day with her newborn baby in the neonatal intensive care unit NICU whil...
Jamie Sumner

It is six years ago and I have the onesie with the elephant on it in my purse with “Mommy and Me” stitched on it. I have cut holes in the feet so the little probe that measures my son’s heart rate and oxygen levels stays visible and secure at all times. So, no footie pajamas.

I thought he’d be home by Mother’s Day. It has been eight weeks since he was born and entered the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. But even now we are still two weeks away from his actual due date. This is the kind of math I do now—backwards and forwards.

I sit in church and grip my purse with the onesie inside while a slide show plays of all the new babies born this year. They had contacted me for a photo, but I couldn’t find one that didn’t have Charlie snaked with tubes. I don’t need the entire congregation to let out that “oh poor child” sigh. I need stoicism. I need two more cups of coffee and not to be in this building with all these new mothers laughing and clapping when their child comes up on screen. Everyone wears floral dresses and big hats today. I am in jeans and a sweater because it is cold in the hospital and that’s where we are headed after the service.

When we pull into the parking garage of the children’s hospital, I grab my husband’s hand and make him sit for a minute in the dark while the engine clicks and cools. I can smell car exhaust and cigarette smoke and I need a moment to re-set my expectations once more for what this first Mother’s Day will look like for me.

Here’s how I’d pictured it: Charlie’s face up on the screen one year from now because I was still supposed to be pregnant right now. He would be ten months, almost walking! We would watch the slide show with my mother next to me and I would pass her a tissue because of course she would be crying after all the fertility treatments and loss we had gone through just to get here. But here we are! And we are laughing and clapping too and then off to brunch to drink mimosas. Perhaps after, we will play in the park if the weather is nice, which it is in my imaginary holiday.

Here’s what I remind myself in the car: Charlie is safe for now. He is stable. Having just gotten a tracheotomy to help him breathe, he will, the doctor’s assured us, be coming home soon. He is a happy kid, even now, even so tiny, and I have a new pacifier with a frog on it that he will love. Because now he can breathe and eat well enough to suck on a pacifier without dropping his oxygen levels.

When we get past reception, waving our armbands like we’re entering a club, I listen as we turn the corner to his room. All is silent and I give thanks. Silence means safety. Alarms mean doctors and nurses running to one room or another with machines in tow. Today on the ward, everyone is resting.

We’ve been here long enough that I can read the monitors that are posted above the doorways of each room for all the other children and I do as we get closer. In the far-left corner of the screen there is a tiny number. It is the number of days in the NICU. At 60 days, we are at the higher end, but not the highest. Some kids have been here six months or more. Their rooms looked well-lived in with blankets and even chairs from home. I say a silent prayer for all of us today.

When we get to his room, Charlie is alert and I almost don’t cry as the nurse helps me change him into the onesie. He looks adorable and the trach makes him dapper, like a little old man in a bowtie. I hold him up, Lion King-style, for a picture and then cuddle him close. He tucks himself into a ball and I flick the wires from his foot over my shoulder like strands of hair to keep him comfortable. We stay for hours. The nurse gives me a laminated footprint that someone turned into a flower. It says “Happy Mother’s Day, Mommy. I love you, Charlie.” It is his first kid art. I take it home to put on the fridge.

We stay as long as they let me until the ward closes to all visitors while the doctors make their rounds. We leave and pick up our favorite pizza, the very same one we had after all the guests had gone on our wedding day. We eat it at home on the couch with a bottle of cheap Merlot while watching a few episodes of “The Office.”

And through it all, I see myself as a new mother from a bird’s eye view. I see myself in church watching the slideshow without the sticker on my coat that says I have a child in nursery to pick up. I see myself in the car in the parking garage. I see myself on the couch right now with this pizza on a day that turned out gray and wet. The only time I felt present was holding Charlie—his head against my heart and his hand on my chest. This seems, suddenly, like a good omen. This boy brings me back to myself. He made me a mother, which is the point of this day after all—not the food or the pictures, but the relationship that connects us, one to the other.

We will head back to the hospital in a few hours and I will hold him again until they make me leave, until this Sunday rolls over into Monday, and I will hang on to these moments of presence and connection until he comes home for good.

We’ve now had plenty of Mother’s Days since this one, but its differentiation from all my expectations set the tone for the rest. We still do not brunch or the Sunday slideshow. We do not do any of the traditional celebrating. Instead, we do what we do best—exist together and enjoy it.