My first holiday season as a mother-to-be got off to a solid start. Although my pregnancy was considered high-risk due to chronic hypertension, everything looked normal for my mid-January due date. Sure, I was bummed that I wouldn't get to fly home to be with my family, but I relished in testing the limits of my maternity jeans on Thanksgiving, taking pictures of my giant belly next to the tree, and slathering myself in cocoa butter until I glistened like a Christmas ham. My maternity leave was set to begin just after the new year, and I planned to cash in every bit of prebaby solitude for a long Winter's nap.
One afternoon in early December, I set off for a routine checkup, leaving the living room strewn with presents I planned to wrap when I returned home. I had no idea I was heading toward a sharp turn that would reshape my view of the holidays forever.
My son's heart rate didn't accelerate as expected during a nonstress test. "This little guy sure is comfy!" the nurse said as she asked me to flip to my other side. "Let's see if we can get him stirring." Her smile faded slightly as she looked back at the monitor, which didn't show much change. She produced a little device she called "the buzzer" and pressed it to my belly. The jolt it created was enough to startle me, but my son barely flinched. The nurse walked to the phone, then grabbed a wheelchair as she headed back my way. It seemed I wouldn't be wrapping those presents anytime soon. I was admitted to the hospital, where an ultrasound showed that poor blood flow to the placenta was depriving the baby of vital nutrients and oxygen. After several days of bedrest and steroid injections, my husband and I met our son by emergency C-section. He was barely five pounds, but otherwise perfect. We were out of the woods, we thought.
Our first night as a trio was magical; my husband took a hundred photos, and I ordered an elf outfit for the baby to wear while we opened Christmas presents. A nurse popped in to take him to the nursery and said they'd be back after they checked his vitals. But she didn't bring him back. Our son's little body wasn't strong enough to regulate his blood sugar and he was admitted to the NICU for hypoglycemia, a condition that could cause seizures and brain trauma if untreated. When I next saw my sweet boy, he was covered in leads and tubes. I collapsed into the green vinyl chair next to his crib, and the next several weeks of my life unfolded in slow motion.
I did my best to stay positive and shower my son with holiday cheer, but sleep deprivation and a postpartum hormone crash put me all over the emotional map. First up was guilt. It rested heavy on my shoulders as I silently atoned for all the missteps I was sure I'd made to get us to this place. I soothed my baby as nurses drew blood from his tiny feet every three hours to test his glucose, which just couldn't seem to stabilize. I tried in vain to get him all the milk he needed within our allotted 30-minute windows, and I was gutted when his feeding tube went in. I held him as he whimpered through fasting challenges and listened patiently as doctors tossed around big words. And all the while, all I could think was that I should have been able to prevent this. I should have taken it easier, done more to keep my stress levels in check. What a terrible mother I must be, to not be able to keep my baby safe inside my own body.
Every single day, the NICU granted more wishes than anyone at the North Pole ever could.
Next came anger, which boiled to the surface when a particularly blunt endocrinologist told us our son's issue "could be caused by any number of underlying diseases." I snapped my head up from the baby's crib to meet her gaze, warm tears streaming down my face. Thankfully, the rational part of my brain quickly kicked in, reminding me the doctor was just doing her job and that we both wanted what was best for my son. Once my inner grizzly was sent back into hibernation, jealousy and resentment took over. My social media feeds were bursting with images of families in matching festive pajamas, and here we were with our matching IV lines. Instead of songs about magic snowmen and heroic reindeer, we were treated to the NICU soundtrack of machines beeping and sneakers squeaking. I was supposed to be at home opening presents with my little elf, not sitting in this green vinyl chair, watching him sleep in a plastic box. Everything felt so cruel and unfair. I just wanted to take my baby home. Was that so much to ask?
Then, it hit me. We would get to take him home. Maybe not as quickly as we wanted, but there was no doubt in anyone's mind that we would ultimately leave that hospital with our child. That precious gift was one that not every family would receive, and I was foolish to take it for granted. In that moment of clarity, when I shed away the layers of pain and fear, what remained was gratitude. I took in the miracles happening all around us, the small victories won each day by babies in far more precarious situations than my son's. Like Baby "M," our neighbor across the aisle, who came into the world at 20-something weeks. She'd arrived in the NICU long before we had, and while she looked impossibly delicate to me, her parents remarked at how much she'd already grown. I looked around at the nurses as they rocked strangers' babies as though they were their own. I thought about how they sacrificed so much of themselves to care for these fragile lives, and how they'd used their precious downtime to make ornaments for all the cribs. Every single day, the NICU granted more wishes than anyone at the North Pole ever could. What a blessing it was to bear witness to the marvels of modern medicine and the power of infinite love.
Slowly but surely, my son showed signs of improvement. He ditched the feeding tube, then he powered his way through an eight-hour fasting challenge without a glucose crash. He cleared each hurdle like an Olympian as my husband and I cheered him on. We were cleared for discharge in the new year, and we spent our first night at home opening presents with our little elf. Although it definitely wasn't the holiday I'd envisioned, it also felt better than I could have imagined.
One year later, our premie is clawing his way up the growth curve and taking clumsy steps around the house. His two-toothed smile is more valuable than gold and his laugh is the best sound in the world. The holidays are back in full swing, and while I very much look forward to spending them outside the NICU, I remain grateful for every lesson I learned during our time there. Yes, I will still get caught up in the shopping lists and the social commitments and the general chaos of the season, but I will also close my eyes and see that green vinyl chair. I will imagine a group of earthbound angels wearing scrubs, making ornaments when they could be napping. I will think warmly about Baby "M" and her adoring parents. I suspect I will view the holidays through this lens for the rest of my life, and for that I am eternally thankful.