It was supposed to be a routine ultrasound appointment, but I immediately knew something was wrong when the technician took longer than usual and then eventually brought in the doctor.
My cervix had shortened by more than half since the last month that we visited, and 1.3 centimeters at barely past the halfway mark was cause for concern. The doctor told me they had called ahead at Hoag and that it would be a 48-72 hours maximum stay. So we went home, packed my bag, picked up our daughter from school, and drove to the hospital. None of us were ready for what happened next.
Even Good News is Bad News
I was in Labor and Delivery for two days and things didn’t really sink in with me until the NICU head came to speak with me about what to expect should our baby arrive prematurely. He told me about how capable his department is and how much better the chances for survival are now than they ever were. He walked me through the entire process, but it was almost as if I were speed-reading a book–I gleaned the important stuff but most of it was a blur.
The worst part was having to recount everything to my husband once he came for a visit. To have to talk about central lines, open visitation, training the baby to feed through the mouth, mortality rates…it was almost too much to bear. I explained all this in between sobs, in between remembering to tell him everything they’ve done thus far; the two shots of steroids to boost the baby’s brain and lungs, the bolus of magnesium to help calm the contractions.
My relief was short-lived when they cleared us from the risk of preterm delivery, because what followed next was having them tell me I had to stay in the hospital for pretty much the rest of the pregnancy.
One Day at a Time: Cliché, but Effective
We were admitted at 27 weeks and 6 days. My cervix kept shortening each time they measured me, and by the time we reached 0.5 centimeters (that’s the length of your pinky fingernail), they stopped measuring altogether.
I cried every night for the first week. It was tough for so many reasons, beyond the obvious. Of course I was stressed about keeping the baby in. But I was also stressed because I was away from my husband and our daughter, because he was pulling double parent duty at home, because he was working from the hospital just so I wouldn’t go crazy during the day, and because I felt a lot of blame for what we were going through.
The nights were the loneliest, and although I got used to it as the weeks went by, it never became easy. After my nightly FaceTime session with my husband and daughter, when the room gets quiet and it’s just me, the TV, and the belly monitors, it hits me. I’m alone. With a baby who still oddly feels like a stranger and who has now shared this unfortunate experience of living in a sterile room with me for who knows how much longer.
Thank goodness for the nurses at Hoag’s antepartum unit, because they always knew what to say. To have someone tell me that there’s nothing I could have done or could have not done to prevent my cervix from shortening is such a weight off my shoulders that I couldn’t stop the tears from falling freely down my cheeks. And every nurse who visited, every nurse who eventually became my friend, would say the same thing over and over each day I was there: our goal is to keep baby in for one more day.
Soon, my husband joined in the chorus. I was reluctant to take this outlook at first; I’m a five-year-plan kinda gal, and this day-by-day mini-win mindset was very hard for me to grasp. But I later realized that there’s nothing mini about keeping our baby in for one more day. Because that meant it’s one more day she’s growing in my belly, one day more to give her a fighting chance.
Talk is Cheap, but the Results are Rich
Being Filipino, we never discussed depression or anxiety as real issues that people deal with. Our culture has long brushed these disorders under the rug as simply bouts of sadness that can be resolved either by ignoring it and waiting for time to pass, or bottling it all up so you don’t burden others.
So when I got my routine mental health questionnaires, I used to look at the forms skeptically. Don’t get me wrong, I still answered the questions truthfully, but I didn’t think there was anything concrete that they could do to help should I provide an answer that prompted them to intervene.
One night, my nurse Zohreh comes in and as she was giving me my next round of meds, she casually mentions a monthly group meeting she organized for all the moms in the antepartum unit. She said it would be a good forum for me to hear what everyone else is going through and to share what I was feeling. I reeled at the notion of going to group therapy, but come meeting day there Zohreh came with a wheelchair, basically (and thankfully) strong-arming me into going.
Never have I been more wrong in my life. As soon as I shared my experience, my fears, my gripes, and my worries to the group, I felt so much better. I don’t know why I didn’t realize how great a catalyst talking was for coming to terms with the crappy hand you’re dealt. I should have, though; I’ve always been a sounding board for my friends. But I think all those years of being on the receiving end trained me only for the listening part, and not the talking part of the equation.
Hearing the other moms talk about their unique situations also gave me a lot of perspective. Some of them were dealing with issues far more serious than mine, and some of them had concerns far greater than mine. But we were all grateful to have women who were going through similar experiences there to listen, to commiserate, and to empathize. The next month, I went to the meeting voluntarily.
It’s Okay to Ask for Help
Every so often, my nurses would go through a checklist to check on my psychological well-being. It was so easy to give cursory answers, because sometimes the questions were posed in a cursory manner themselves. But as the days wore on and I grew more lonely, I recognized that I should answer those questions more thoughtfully.
And when I did, it helped me and the nurses immensely. It’s overly presumptuous to assume that they’d be able to tell what’s going through our heads just because they’ve worked the unit for so long. These nurses work such long hours and manage so many patients that we patients have to recognize our duty to participate willingly and conscientiously when they ask us how we are.
Talking to them when I’ve had a particularly bad day equips them better with how they manage my care. Because caring for me not only extends to administering medication, it’s also about managing my stress levels, being aware of my disposition, and taking extra precautions to check in and make sure everything is okay.
Whether it’s your partner, your child, your friend, your parent, your sibling, or your neighbor: if they ask you how you’re doing, answer honestly. Letting them in frees you from an emotional load that you shouldn’t bear yourself, and that you’re not even designed to carry by yourself.
You’re already dealing with a lot, physically. You’re working to stay healthy, for you and the baby.
Grieve, Accept, and Adapt
The first time I got bad news, I took it really hard. I was by myself when they measured my cervix which had once again shortened despite everyone’s efforts. When they said I had to stay in the hospital indefinitely, I didn’t want to accept it. Because my husband was at home with our daughter, I’ve had to take a lot of bad news by myself, and then had to replay each painful conversation with the doctor back to my husband. The cycle took a toll on me.
One day, I had an epiphany. I had just received more bad news: my amniotic fluid was low and the baby’s size was smaller than they would like. I cried, of course, but then I did something different. I let myself cry for as long as I wanted. And then I stopped crying and started rationalizing. At least the baby is still in my belly. At least they said we could still fix it. At least we caught it early.
Then it became easier to plan my coping strategy. Because I had given myself the time to grieve and accept my new current situation, it gave me the chance to adapt and work on addressing the things I could and to let go of the things I couldn’t.
One Day at a Time
You need the little wins, trust me on this one. It gives you a sense of accomplishment, and it gives you an actionable goal each day.
It’s cause for celebration for you and your partner, if it’s a good day. If it isn’t a good day, then it’s just one day for you to be miserable together, and one day to look forward to doing better the next day.
This is how I got through your high-risk pregnancy. I celebrated the good days, and cried during the bad. But as each day ended, I marked off a notch closer to my end goal. And as each day began, I was able to prepare myself to accept whatever came my way, to change course if need be, and to allow myself just a few glimmers of hope for another day I can have under my belt.