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A Family Gone AWOL and a Baby Gone Awry - The New York Times

12/8/09 1:09 PM

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A Family Gone AWOL and a Baby Gone Awry
By LAURA NOVAK Published: Tuesday, April 29, 2003 SIGN IN TO RECOMMEND TWITTER E-MAIL REPRINTS SHARE

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Our only child was born seven years ago with a rare birth defect requiring multiple surgeries and three months in neonatal intensive care. When Max turned 4 and trotted off to preschool clutching a plastic dinosaur, I returned to the hospital as a nursery volunteer. During Max's life there, I was consumed by the numerical minutiae of his case. Unconsciously, I felt that if I obsessed about the science of his body, I would protect myself from falling in love with his soul. Just in case.

I was an intensely vigilant mother. I knew the caloric value of every cubic centimeter pumped into Max's body. I was cross-eyed from exhaustion, yet I could not imagine mothering a hospitalized baby any other way. Cuddling needy babies became the payoff for my private agony. It was the inverse of my mothering experience. With another woman's baby, I could ignore the medical details and allow myself to feel something safely. Some nursery babies live short lives or have simple diagnoses, leaving those caring for them little time to attach. Others with birth defects, diseases or incurable complications can inhabit our hearts for a year. Some infants are opiate dependent, with mothers serving time. Some mothers go AWOL, overwhelmed by the colliding social and medical forces of their lives. For several years, I managed the emotional vagaries of volunteering. I brought home photos of favorite babies. I bonded with mothers and hugged foster parents goodbye. But each time, I detached. Each time, by giving back, I let go. That is, until the morning I met a baby whose life threatened to undo mine. He was hidden under a quilt cover, connected to myriad machines. The nurse helped drag the tubes and wires to a rocking chair, where I cradled his disfigured body. She said his family did not visit. Would I double my hours for him?

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A Family Gone AWOL and a Baby Gone Awry - The New York Times

12/8/09 1:09 PM

family did not visit. Would I double my hours for him? The boy had been a micro-preemie, born under 24 weeks and resuscitated against medical advice. He was blind, deaf, brain damaged and spastic. As the months progressed, his normally upbeat nurses grew increasingly morose and sullen. Two of my son's doctors pulled me aside and said the baby was an emotional sinkhole. They advised me as a volunteer, and as a mother, to quit the case. I foolishly ignored their wisdom. One particularly bad day, I pinned down the baby's thrashing arms as the nurse retaped his endotracheal tube. I impulsively hissed aloud about the mother tolerating his suffering. "She never sees it," scoffed his nurse, ripping off her latex gloves. Staff members, typically discreet, grew openly distressed. A rare meeting with the family had fueled their irritation. Support services were offered to help bonding begin. Transportation was not an impediment to visitation. Time away from work was not the issue. As the family's absences punctuated the boy's chart, I searched for ways to connect with his soul. I stroked his limbs in familiar patterns and plied his sense of smell by spritzing the same perfume before each visit just as I had with Max. Just as the doctors predicted, my insomnia began. The baby's tortured body permeated my thoughts. "You don't need to do this," my husband said after one particularly sleepless night. "But he doesn't have a mother," I whined. "Actually," my husband corrected me, "he does." As I raged against this woman's choices, I had to wonder whether, perversely, I really envied her detachment and the seeming insouciance of her decision to let others sweat it out. She had escaped the daily trauma and I, among others, had assumed it for her. One morning, I accompanied the baby to surgery. The family was customarily absent. He was agitated and writhing. The numbers on the monitor dropped and I told a surgery tech that those were not this baby's normal levels. I could name his recent test results. I could spout the titration of his meds. Suddenly, I realized that I knew too much. The next week, after I scrubbed in, I was stunned to find the baby's crib empty. His nurse resignedly said that he had gone home (to a family finally ready to take him). For so long, I had mourned this baby's presence. Now I grieved his absence. The nurse hugged me and I pressed my face into her gown and cried. Then for the first time, I left the numbers and emotions behind and walked away.
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