The lift doors lurched open and I stumbled out. The posters on the board opposite were different to those I’d seen last time. That meant I was on the wrong floor.
I pressed the lift button again, and waited.
It wasn’t fear I felt. Something more than fear made my legs feel shaky, my throat sore, my stomach in knots. It was a sense of not being here any more, of life going on somewhere else, while this body of mine went on without me. It followed instructions of some sort, even when my mind wasn’t able to connect.
The bell pinged and the lift doors opened. My body stepped inside. My mind lingered, a ghost floating through the corridors, not quite sure where it was.
The lift went down. The doors opened. My body stepped out. The posters were the right ones this time: a number to ring if you had post-natal depression, another number for advice on breast-feeding. Parent support groups. The phone numbers were all for the same city as the hospital. I didn’t live there. Below the posters was a row of orange chairs. Nobody was sitting in them.
My body turned to the right and walked into a fluorescent-lit corridor. Beyond the windows was darkness. Between the panes of glass in the double-glazed windows was the reflection of my body and of my face, a reflection that appeared twice, the two images not quite lining up. A ghost.
Standing straight felt hard, shuffling along the corridor felt harder. I kept my eyes away from the notice boards, away from pictures of babies that didn’t make it, but whose parents wanted to express their gratitude to the nurses and doctors for all wonderful care they gave. There were other photos too, of babies that did make it, and who had grown into boys and girls – some strong, some not so strong. It was dangerous to look at them, dangerous to feel the hope they offered.
My body kept walking.
Beside the door to the Newborn Unit was a bottle of Hibiclens. I pushed down its pump and rubbed the gel onto my hands. Above the door, a sign read, “Do not enter if you have a sore throat or feel unwell.” My throat hurt, but I pushed open the door anyway. The sign didn’t apply to me, or so the nurses had said.
I stumbled into the Newborn Unit. To the right was the reception desk, but I walked straight ahead and stood in the doorway of Intensive Care Level 1. The room was filled with nurses. One came to the door and explained it was shift change and they needed to do the handover. She showed me to a little room and told me I could wait there. I gave her the little plastic pouch I was carrying – expressed milk to go in the freezer, because my baby couldn’t stomach it yet.
I sat on a soft chair and stared at picture books and a toy with wooden beads strung along coils of wire. A bead maze, only I didn’t know its name then. I sat, feeling ashamed. The day before someone had told me that shift change was at 8 o’ clock. I should have remembered. Tears began to form at the back of my eyelids, so I closed my eyes.
When I opened them again, a woman was standing in the doorway. She wasn’t in uniform. “I’m Teresa,” she said. “You’re Louise’s mum aren’t you?”
It turned out that in spite of her lack of uniform, Teresa was a nurse, but instead of tending to the babies, she looked after their emotional needs. She explained that because premature babies had so many medical interventions, they came to associate touch with pain. She said that in the past, when babies went home after a lengthy stay in hospital, they were often bad-tempered. But now, there were ways to help babies learn that touch didn’t always mean pain, that it could be comforting. She told me about massage, which my baby was still too small for. She talked about containment holding, where parents laid one hand near or on the baby’s head and another on her back or bottom. She talked about kangaroo care, which was skin to skin contact, with the parent holding the baby at chest level.
She asked if I would like to hold my baby. I thought she meant containment holding, and I said yes.
But Teresa meant kangaroo care. She showed me to a chair next my baby’s incubator, and then she placed screens across. She and another nurse took Louise from her incubator, and carried her the short distance to where I sat, feeling terrified. As much as I wanted to hold my baby, it seemed far too likely that holding her could harm her fragile body. While fear rippled through me, the nurses made jokes about all the wires and tubes that dangled from my baby, saying she had been knitting. Then they placed her upright on my chest, and Teresa showed me where to hold her. I could feel my baby’s heart fluttering against my chest, and she seemed as fragile as a bird.
The most amazing thing my body has done is hold another body to my chest, and, by some miracle, help that tiny body to relax. As I felt my baby’s feathery movements, Teresa told me her oxygen saturations had gone up. She was calming, and so was I. In the thirty-nine hours after her birth, I had felt lost, confused, as if some part of me was missing. Holding my baby, I returned to myself.