Almost 14 years ago, I risked my son’s life.

My OB won’t say that. My family won’t say that. But I will.

I suppose the story really starts when I got pregnant. I was using birth control but concerned about the hormones. I realized I had been taking these hormones for at least 20 years. I was raising three energetic girls in the big city, with private schools and an impossibly type A life. I was scraping the bottom of my own physical barrel trying to keep up. I guess I missed a pill or two. Sometimes I wonder if that little boy just found the tightest window to squeeze through so he could rattle my world.

When I pee’d on that stick I nearly passed out. Instead of the elation and joy I felt when I was pregnant with my girls, I wanted to puke. Another child? I remember driving around the city in a daze, watching the already confining walls of my life caving in around me. I had just started to write again. I was finally sleeping through the night, peeing by myself and eating hard complex foods. I had finally matured into a functioning woman again. I wasn’t ready to return to swaddling wraps, rigid naps or 24 hour flu patrol. I was absolutely done raising babies.

I watched my personal dreams & goals shrivel and slip back into the closet of lost things. Eleven years earlier I chose to leave my career and become a full-time radically attached, hands on mama bear. Some joked I had my PhD in child development just from all the obsessive reading and research I did on everything from bed sharing, to education and nutrition. I had a very hard time finding or keeping childcare help because no one was ever good enough for me. While it depleted me tremendously, I was a willing martyr. Only in the last few years, with the arrival of my third little cherub had I begun to see that I was a better mother when I took care of myself first. I was enjoying time to exercise, read and talk hikes with friends when this pregnancy knocked me off my wobbly feet.

I did not want to tell anyone. I held this news as long as I could, possibly feeling that holding it in pushed it farther away. And once I did share it, it took every ounce of strength to pretend to be as happy as everyone thought I should be.

I cried most days, a deep, overwhelmed self-pitying sob that belied my chic maternity guise. I realize now I had pre-partum depression, rare and lesser known than post-partum depression, which affects many women. One day driving on the highway, lost in thoughts, I actually felt like driving off the cliff. I just wanted out. Fortunately, a saner part of my being noticed and smacked me hard. I tried to tell my husband about this scary turn of events and he just looked pained and confused. I am sure he was worried as hell. So was I.

When I went for a routine ultrasound appointment I found out that I had placenta previa, when the placenta covers all or part of the cervix. Both mother and baby are at risk for life threatening bleeding and it’s more common in older mothers (at 36, I was categorized as “advanced maternal age”).

The thought of losing the baby bounced around my emotional centers. Well, that would be sad. A dead baby. Inside me? How do you get it out? What if I bleed to death? Who will care for my girls with a dad who works 80 hours a week?

And then the technician asked, “Do you want to know the gender of the baby?”

Once you have grown a baby inside you, no matter how you feel about it, it is yours. It is as much a part of you as your own arms and legs. It shares your blood, your cells, your DNA, perhaps even your thoughts and emotions. All the chemical reactions whether sourced by you or triggered from the external environment, happen to the baby.

Did I want to get descriptive detail about this being who was already part of me? That’s like being asked if you want to know if you have the cancer or obesity gene. The more I know about my body, the better I can prepare. Like doubling the kale in my breakfast smoothie or decorating the new nursery. I wanted to know many things. I wanted to know where I would find the strength.

“You have a baby boy! Congratulations!”

A boy?

What sort of foreign object is that? I knew girls. But what will a boy be like? I searched my memory for all the little boys in my life, at the playground, in my mommy groups. Their energy was different. All those trucks and cars and banging on things. Like a dog hunting her bone, I thought if I could just figure out who he was, what he was, before he arrived, I could batten down the hatches and keep my life, my sanity, from derailing.

My pregnancies were always a bit uncomfortable. Edema. Vericose veins. Aches and pains. Impossible sleep. Aching nipples and swelling breasts. 40 weeks seemed like forever. I had regular massage, acupuncture. I was sliding into a reality I could not change so I wanted to get there as comfortably as possible. Although I delivered two of my babies totally naturally and believed in holistic maternal care, I booked my epidural months in advance.

I have 95th percentile babies. Eight pounds nine ounces. Eight pounds five ounces. Nine pounds 5 ounces. At 38 weeks he was looking to be at least eight pounds already. My doctor and I agreed to justify induction on the grounds that a fat baby would be dangerous for us both (he could get stuck).

“He’s plenty big.”

Finally a day arrived that worked for all our schedules. As we checked in, I remember looking around for the Anesthesiologist like a druggie looking for a fix.

“My guy is here, right? Is he ready for me?”

All I could think about was the epidural; how fast could they get it going. Not a trivial procedure, I knew the risks but I was willing to do it to numb myself from the overwhelm that was threatening to over take me. .

On one level I was anxious to meet and love this little boy. On another level I felt strapped to a rocket ship. I did not want to open my eyes until I had to.

We got ourselves comfortable in our room, chattering away about names and the girls’ routines while I would be away. Soon enough, the ticking clock lassoed our thoughts as the drip slowly penetrated my lower body. I delivered my two natural babies in roughly an hour but epidurals slow natural processes way down. When labor kicked in, it was sudden and violent. My son flew out like a speedball across the mound.

Pleasantly numb, I expected to receive my son on my breast. I looked at my husband who was bent over and waivering against the bed. The doctor rushed over to help him sit down. Her face ashen, she told me everything was okay but they needed to run some tests.

“What’s happening? Where is my son?”

They wanted to X ray his chest. He wasn’t breathing well. I held him briefly after they bathed and weighed him in at 8.5 pounds. His face was swollen and patchy around wicked red lips. He looked like he wanted to scream but couldn’t. I immediately wondered if he was too early. Screw the textbooks. My heart sank. What had I done?

In my recovery, I hardly noticed the ache of my engorged breasts. I sat in the neonatal infant care unit (NICU) staring at his peaceful smiling face, unable to nurse or even hold him. The wires were all so sensitive to the slightest change that alarms kept going off. I filled more buckets of tears in the hospital than I had in the entire pregnancy. I prayed and prayed.

“Please forgive me, little man. Please get well.”

I remember one of the doctors reassuring me that someday he would play baseball and go to Harvard. The nurses all chided me my tears and pointed out all the premies in all the incubators who had been there for weeks and had weeks yet to go. My mother in law brought my youngest daughter to visit us as I spent most of every day by his side. I must have looked like a blubbering mess. She hugged me in her vigorous way and said, “Someday, this will just be a story. Don’t worry. Don’t worry.”

Yes, someday. I needed someday.

After five agonizing days in the infant prenatal unit, the official diagnosis was fluid in the lungs, probably from his rapid delivery. They kept him to rule out pneumonia or something more serious. He was 100% healthy. I was never happier to take a new baby home to all the diapers and sleepless nights. Tearfully hugging all the nurses and moms still waiting on their babies, I was just grateful. Grateful this boy, this soul, was coming home with me.

As stealthy as my son’s arrival on this plane seems to be, he continues to fly faster than the speed of light. We can hardly keep up. He skis and runs fast. He laughs hard. His smile can melt the coldest heart. He sings pop songs at the top of his lungs for anyone who will listen. He’s definitely too smart for the average caregiver. He appears to be a kinesthetic learner who loves to grab ahold of his pen and life with the same zealous flair.

He recently quipped to a ski instructor who didn’t want him to ski too close to rocks or ledges, “I don’t like being told what to do.”

As introverted and eager to please as my girls tend to be, he is a larger-than-life extrovert with a mind of his own. He doesn’t much care what anyone thinks about him. He will follow only when he respects the leader. This makes most group activities quite a challenge for him.

Everyone tells me these traits will serve him well someday. There is that someday again. Right now, he’s struggling to fit into a system that does not tolerate the wild things and their triumphant roars. He can lose friends as quickly as he makes them. Few adults appreciate his tenacity and selective hearing.

I sometimes wonder if his rebel fierceness is my fault. I held him in my body for nearly nine months wishing he wasn’t there. And then I forced him out. Against his will. What if his maverick energy was charged in that moment? What if an imprint was made, that he would have to fight for his place in this world against more powerful wills?

What I do know is that before my son came into my life, I was coasting on controlled autopilot. I held my breath more than I exhaled. I gripped the reigns tightly, missing the subtle flow of possibility. My son taught me to expect the unexpected, to embrace adventure and trust that everything is always okay. My son is teaching me to love even what brings me pain. As I watch him charging fearlessly into life, I have no choice but to trust and let go. I can lecture him, reign him in, and he will bust out of my limitations to explore the world that is and has always been his.

My son is teaching me how to trust life, the unknowable, insane, contradictory, glorious fumble we strain to dance through gracefully. As he struggles to fit in to the rigid structures of our world, I am learning to set aside my own expectations. I’m learning to own my own fears and hang-ups in order to be more fully present for him. For myself. How easy it seems to get caught up in wrangling life. Trying to force the corners of this tapestry into my neatly constructed well-intentioned frame.

I grabbed my camera to help occupy my mind and heart while watching him heal in the NICU. I remember the bluish light treatment incubator, used to treat jaundice, and the little fog on the glass from his sweet exhaling. And there it was. The evidence of everything. The fog on the glass. The fantastic mystery of our individual, majestic potential in this world. We are perpetually kept in motion by something so ephemeral, so real and so ordinary that we forget how magical it really is.

My son, this joyful tornado of a child, came into this world holding his breath so that I would exhale my own. My son is teaching me how to surrender, flow and keep breathing.

I’ve wrestled with that decision, that moment that changed me so deeply that I am still making my way through the fog of uncertainty. If I had put my trust in my body with her proven track record instead of handing over his birth to scheduling and technology, would he have been safer? Was my emotional roller coaster during pregnancy a toxic incubator that somehow altered him chemically? I don’t have the answers. But I wonder.

This essay was originally written 7 years ago for another blog. Reprinting here now as I hold space for my trailblazer. This still moves me, as I hope it does other imperfect parents who love deeply.

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