Twenty seven years ago, my husband and I checked into Vanderbilt University Hospital to have our first baby. I was two weeks overdue and so my obstetrician finally, thankfully, offered to induce. I guess Anna was just too comfortable to emerge into the dark, loud, scary world.
At that point, in the early 90s, hospitals competed with cushy birthing suites. Vanderbilt—a Level 1 Trauma Center—did not have all the luxurious birthing rooms at the time, so I would not necessarily have chosen it. However, my husband was a post-doctoral student at Vanderbilt so that’s the hospital our insurance would cover, and my obstetrician agreed to deliver there.
I distinctly remember checking in at 8 AM and wondering if Anna would arrive by noon—if by dinner I would be showered, refreshed, and entertaining guests. As the day dragged on, though, it became clear just how naïve my new mom visions were.
One of the first things we noticed in the birthing suite was that it was positioned just outside the Life Flight helicopter pad. All day we watched stretchers come and go. Sometimes we would be so entertained by the commotion that we forgot that those stretchers and the fleeting moments of travel could represent the difference in life and death.
Meanwhile, Anna remained complacent and the nurses who would come in every now and then to check me would report, “No progress. Not very productive.” Now to a woman who is blown up like a balloon, who has endured 100 degree temperatures and 90% humidity for weeks, those are fighting words. The nurses would bustle in and bustle out, while I lay there, confined by the epidural.
You have to understand that I was the first woman in the history of the world to give birth and my husband was the first father. There was nothing outside our periphery, and soon we both felt a bit neglected. We took to calling the nurses to check my (lack of) progress, and it almost seemed we were a nuisance. I wondered about those other birthing suites and imagined those laboring moms sipping designer ice chips and lounging against 1,200 thread count pillowcases.
At one point a nurse responded to our call, her fatigue obvious. She took the time to explain to us that I was the only non-high-risk pregnancy on the ward: Vanderbilt was the hospital for high risk births, and the noises we heard from the other rooms and the hustle of machinery and footsteps down the hall outside our door were indicators of the dire situations of the moms-to-be around me. Hearing that, our perspective shifted, our patience increased, and when we would see a nurse we would inquire about the other patients. As dusk fell on the helipad, we learned that one baby had not survived and one mother was in serious condition.
The kindest of our weary nurses told me that a very premature baby had survived, weighing less than 2 pounds. “She’ll likely have a fight on her hands,” said the nurse, “but she’s here and loved.” She checked me and discovered that I was progressing more rapidly. “You’re going to have a good sized little girl,” she said. What she didn’t say—but what I understood—is that we were immensely blessed.
Anna arrived just before 10 pm, and I made the indescribable transition from woman to mom. Nothing could have prepared me for the ways in which my life would change, the ways in which I myself would change. The author Anne Lamott said it best: “There are places in the heart you don’t even know exist until you love a child.”
I could never have predicted how intensely I would love Anna and my other babies. My oldest daughter has a fierce intensity and passion to her, and she is never still. We joke that she was born age 40, because she has such an old soul. Perhaps she spent those extra weeks in the womb making lists of all she would accomplish, of the ways she would enhance the lives around her. If she’s on your side, there’s nothing you can’t conquer.
I remember the wee hours of the morning after Anna was born; cradled in my armpit, she stared at me with big dark eyes. I counted and recounted her fingers and toes, pressed my fingertips against her tiny heartbeat, and realized how little I knew about both infants and the world in general. I thought about the tiny baby struggling for life down the hall. Was there some magic land in which baby souls meet before they are born? Some holding room? Did baby Anna know something I did not—a knowledge of the world’s hazards and blessings she sought to communicate in those solemn chocolate orbs? As would be the case for many years to come, I wondered how I got so lucky—why I was taking home a healthy baby who would bring me nothing but joy while at least one mother that day was mourning her loss and another was planning for the financial, emotional and physical needs of her tiny infant. Although I never articulated it, as Anna climbed on monkey bars, played soccer, and tap danced, somewhere in my subconscious lingered a curiosity about that other baby; how was her life?
Ironically, when Anna was in high school I came across a local article about Vanderbilt and high risk pregnancies. Far down in the article I read about a couple who had given birth in late July 1993 to a baby girl weighing less than 2 pounds. The story described the girl’s physical challenges and how she had overcome them, how her parents had helped her succeed. I don’t know for sure, but my heart wants to believe it was that other baby on the ward with me… that as surely as God had blessed my life with an easy-to-raise child, He had given those other parents the strength to nurture their daughter in all the ways she needed them.
Why not me? I think of this every time a friend faces a dire cancer diagnosis, every time I hear of a child’s injury or troubles, every time I hear of a COVID diagnosis or a lost job. Looking back, Vanderbilt’s high risk wing was just the right place to start my parenting journey. Without it, I’m not sure I would have had the perspective to recognize our good fortune.
Perhaps we all need to heed Helen Keller’s words:
“Instead of comparing our lot with that of those who are more fortunate than
we are, we should compare it with the lot of the great majority of our fellow men.
It then appears that we are among the privileged.”