I wanted to hold my babies—but I couldn't. So I made milk

"After an hour of pushing, a couple dozen contractions, and it was all over. I was the mother of two tiny pink girls, each weighing the equivalent of a couple cans of soup."

Photo: Stocksy

I stored jars of breastmilk in the fridge, next to the coffee cream. A little mammalian humour. The room between our dining and living rooms became my lactation room. The Lac Shack. It’s where, every three hours, my gaze shifted between the clock and the withering houseplants during impeccably timed dates with my Medela Lactina Select.

I expected my twins to arrive early. Considering I was 37 years old and barely top five feet, my pregnancy was considered high-risk. But labour at 28 weeks was like a sucker punch. I had just entered my third trimester, the really fat stage when people give you seats on the bus and you sleep upright on account of the heartburn. I remember only surreal bits in the operating room—how, after twin A was delivered, the doctors wheeled over the ultrasound to take a gander at twin B. I saw a large, distorted hand come in and out of focus on the grainy screen. Well, I thought, that explains the early labour—my baby has a giant hand. No, I realized once the pain became excruciating, that was the doctor’s hand.

An hour of pushing, a couple dozen contractions, and it was all over. I was the mother of two tiny pink girls, each weighing the equivalent of a couple cans of soup. I remember standing woozily by their incubators, high on codeine, wondering why, when they opened their mouths, no sound came out. Breathing tubes had rendered them tiny mimes.

Of the 328,802 babies born alive in Canada in 2002, fewer than one percent were born as early as mine. The doctors and nurses assured us our babies were robust and healthy for their age—a hopeless ploy, I thought, to staunch the cascade of irritating questions from me, a former police reporter and ambulance chaser. But the girls improved steadily. Other hospital moms described complications and operations, and I struggled not to look alarmed, secretly relieved my girls were OK. The relief didn’t last. Finding comfort in someone else’s misfortune made me feel lousy.

Feet the size of thumbs, ears like dimes, tethered to wires like prone marionettes in Plexiglas boxes—I wanted only to hold them, but couldn’t. So I did the one thing none of the nurses, neonatologists and respiratory therapists could manage: I made milk. Dignity fades when you’re suctioned to a pair of plastic cones watching Sex and the City reruns at midnight. It was the sound of the pump, not a baby’s cry, that made my milk flow. Pavlov’s teats. I eventually had to avoid small engine noise altogether. It was hard to explain to friends why their vacuum cleaners and dishwashers made me lactate. When I got bored with the milking process, I’d think of Julia Roberts. Did she pump her bosom? Roberts was due with twins around the same time as me and, according to the tabloids, also had preemies. (“Julia Weeps! Babies on Ventilator!”) I harboured a shameless kinship with my Hollywood doppelgänger. I got a perm to eliminate pesky hairstyling and I think I looked a little like Pretty Woman. Minus the legs. And Richard Gere.

Every day I’d get on the bus to the hospital with a beer cooler full of breastmilk. When not pumping or sitting bedside, I’d wander the halls singing “pumping time,” to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time,” absent-mindedly nudging my hardening mammillae to gauge how the dairy was faring. A few sideways glances from strangers prompted a mental note: Squeeze boobs in private.

It was five days before we actually held Maggie and a full week for Daisy. When the embargo was lifted and we prepared for a skin-on-skin embrace, I was anxious. Will she feel like my baby? A nurse placed Maggie on my bare chest in a tangle of tubes and wires, then told me to “enjoy the moment.” She felt like a butterfly, all tiny breaths and twitching limbs. I was terrified to move lest I dislodge some life-sustaining gadget, so I sat motionless, staring at a computer monitor which scrolled out endless vital signs. It was 10 minutes of bliss.

I practically lived at the hospital for two months while the wee ones crept toward their due date. Like other moms of preemies, I felt guilty about the early labour. Did I work too hard? Swim too much? Eat too little? I vowed to make the best breastmilk possible. A dietitian friend recommended fish oil pills for brain-building omega-3 fatty acids. I quickly learned to take them with food, and not my morning coffee. (Anchovy burps at 10 in the morning are gruesome.) Doughnuts took the edge off. Wednesday was Doughnut Day at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital neonatal intensive care unit. My itty-bitty boobies were now producing two litres of milk daily which (boo hoo) required about 4,000 calories. On Wednesdays, I filled the quota with deep-fried lard and sugar. I could inhale two doughnuts in the time it took to put my coat in a locker and walk nine steps to the NICU security doors.

In the hospital Lac Shack, far from the chatter and bustle, we moms gathered to lift our shirts, turn on the breast pumps and ask the same question: How early were you? We were Christian and Hindu, waitress and lawyer, but we all felt diminished by how seamlessly a bunch of specialists and their machines had replaced our now retreating wombs. When no one was around, I’d flip through celebrity magazines and feel hopelessly frumpy. “I’ve met so many great people here,” said a fellow MOT (mother of twins), raising her voice slightly over the pump’s wheezy drone. “But they’ve all gone.” I was only half listening, distracted by a penetrating exposé on Mary-Kate and Ashley. But after a month in the NICU—saying hello, telling my story, waving goodbye—her words finally resonated. Healthy 34-week-old babies arrived, and I welcomed the distressed parents, knowing they would be gone in a week or less. Tourists. Take your giant babies home, I thought. You don’t belong here.

Neonatal teams made rounds twice a day monitoring million-dollar medical gizmos, and reminding me how fortunate I was to live in Canada, not Boston or Sudan where I’d be broke or mourning. Regardless, the long walk to the end of the unit, where my girls resided, always began with fatigue. Despite skilled, accommodating staff, I got sick of conversations with Today’s Nurse and a painful life lived on display.

On the flip side, I got a decent medical education for free. I learned that stool and breast can be verbs. (“Did Daisy stool today?” “Is she breasting well?”) I learned the precise timbre of each medical device alarm and which ones caused the nurses to leap over chairs in response. I learned there are many official words to describe the texture of a baby’s excrement (“curdy” was my favourite). I learned that caffeine during pregnancy is bad, but caffeine for premature babies is good. Doctors say it stimulates their brains to keep breathing. It did the same for me. I imagined Maggie and Daisy getting tiny Tim Hortons every morning and fussing with the cups to roll up the rim.     Parents and doctors in a NICU    
   How to help your baby thrive in the NICU

After a quick peek at the girls upon arrival, I’d survey the charts to see how much food, drugs and oxygen each was receiving. The two-to-one ratio of infants to nurses ensured meticulous observation. I could glean from the charts exactly which baby did what, when and how much. I’d pore over the numbers for cherished scraps of good news: a milligram increase in food, six hours of regular heartbeats.… But progress is a private trophy. Veterans like me learned to adapt to seemingly inexhaustible setbacks and, after a few awkward exchanges, I made another mental note: Ask how someone else’s baby is faring before bragging about your own.

After six weeks, when the girls were breathing on their own but still too lean to go home, they were transferred to a different hospital for a brief stay. Each travelled individually in an incubator strapped to a stretcher in an ambulance, with two EMTs and a transfer nurse. I rode with Daisy, four pounds of mostly water wrapped tightly in white cotton, asleep and oblivious to the royal escort. Bing Crosby sang “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on the radio, and I wondered if I would be too.

I was. The girls were released Christmas Eve and it would have been Hallmark-perfect, except that I got violently ill with vomiting and diarrhea about an hour after we got home. Dehydrated and delirious, I crawled to the nursery several times that night where my husband paced ceaselessly with two whimpering babies until all three fell into a fitful sleep on a chair sometime after 4 a.m. Yes, we concluded, things can get worse.

And much better. Today, Daisy and Maggie are 15 months old. They crawl, sit, stand, babble, drool, stool, steal each other’s toys and sleep with beloved regularity. If you adjust their age to account for the early start, they are only 12 months old and behaving just as they should. They’ve been poked, measured, weighed and observed so much they’re getting spoiled by the attention. For now, they are vibrant and we are grateful.

We have technology to thank for these healthy twins, but also the nurses whose tender, skilful hands coaxed our pink rag dolls to life for 60 days. We went back to the hospital one last time after the girls were discharged to deliver meagre thanks with cards and chocolates. Most of our favourite nurses were absent and the place was too busy for hugs and goodbyes. I gathered the remainder of my breastmilk from the freezer and waited for a Dixieland band to herald my departure. There were only dozy new moms dragging IV poles and bewildered grandparents learning about handwashing. I had stumbled through this antiseptic prison for two months, yearning for release, and when it finally came, I was inexplicably maudlin. More sick babies. More pale dads. Does anyone even notice we’ve gone?

Thank God it was Wednesday. I consoled myself with a maple dip from the family lounge and bid farewell to Doughnut Day. Who am I kidding? I grabbed two.

Read more:
Preemie care now in the hands of parents
Inside the NICU: A case study in hope

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