I Became a Mom on Christmas Eve. Here’s What I Learned About Gratitude

Looking back, I wish I could tell my forlorn self a few things to assuage her fears.

Parent holding in the feet of newborn babyPhoto: Shutterstock

The Gift of Gratitude

Nine years ago, on Christmas Eve, I was sitting in a hard-backed chair in the neonatal intensive care unit of the Queensway Carleton in Ottawa, waiting for an ambulance to take my baby away to another hospital.

I kept reminding myself to be grateful.

After two years of infertility, a failed round of IVF, a successful frozen embryo transfer, a bleed at 30 weeks, and an urgent scheduled C-section, I’d finally given birth to a tiny, perfect baby girl the night before.

But after having held her only briefly after birth, she was whisked away to an incubator. The surgeon told us how lucky we were. It turns out that a faulty connection between the umbilical cord and placenta meant our baby wasn’t getting the nutrients she needed. And, she added, 50 per cent of undiagnosed cases with this condition do not have happy endings.

As the ambulance team prepped the incubator for the trip, I gazed at my newborn, who looked like a doll inside her glass bubble, the smallest diaper dwarfing her four-pound frame. Logically, I knew that this was our baby, but I didn’t feel remotely like her mother.

Mothers hold their babies, and I was terrified to touch mine. Mothers feed their babies, and I’d seen no sign of my milk. Mothers love their babies from their first mewling cry, but I didn’t feel much of anything, other than bone tired.

“Your Christmas miracle,” the nurses said. I nodded enthusiastically, feeling guilty for feigning a gratitude I didn’t have the strength to muster. For years, I wanted nothing more than to have a baby, to be a mother. My wish was granted, at the holidays no less, but all I wanted to do was be alone and cry.

Looking back, I wish I could tell my forlorn self a few things to assuage her fears. I would say, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Your hormones are raging. You’re scared. You’re in pain. You’ve been through the wringer and spewed out the other side. Give yourself a break and the gratitude will come.”

I’d let her know that even scrappy four-pound babies are more resilient than they look. I’d promise her that her love for her new baby will unfurl over days and weeks, and grow fierce and indomitable.

Lastly, I would tell her, “Whatever you do, do not eat the hospital’s chicken pot pie! You’ve just had abdominal surgery. Have soup.”

It was too soon after surgery for me to go in the ambulance with her, so I watched mutely as two paramedics, a neonatal nurse and a respiratory specialist struggled to warm up the travel incubator. I only let myself cry when the kind paramedic turned to me and said, “Don’t worry, Mom. We’ll take perfect care of your baby.” Then they were gone.

After my ill-fated supper, destined to stop me up for days, a kind night nurse sensed my distress and gave me a Christmas gift I’ll never forget: “Take an Ativan, and get some rest.”

Hallelujah.

Christmas morning roared in with a snowstorm. I was discharged and then spent that week at the children’s hospital. There, I marvelled at the kindnesses extended to us. Our daughter had her photo taken with Santa, alongside her very first stuffed bear, a gift from the hospital. She was the recipient of a beautiful quilt, handmade by a good Samaritan. The accompanying card read, “Cherish this time. Your baby will grow up so fast. Love, Barbara.”

Barbara, wherever she is, was right.

This Christmas Eve, our daughter turns nine. She’s healthy and funny and irascible. She is the light and joy in our lives. Every December, as I wrap presents and gaze at the tree, I think back to the year she was born.

And I don’t have to remind myself to be grateful.

Next, read about how a gift exchange has held one friend group together.

© 2019, Suzanne Westover. From “Unwrapping the gift of Gratitude,” The Globe and Mail (December 20, 2019), theglobeandmail.com

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada