“It’ll be the most profound moment in your life,” said the white-gowned doctor, his face hidden behind a mask.
I was stunned to silence at the stupidity of his remark. The doors swung open and we were in the operating theatre. Figures in blue or white gowns, hair nets and masks bustled around; machines beeped, their screens emitting colourful lights or wavering images. Liza, my partner, lay pale and nervous on a crisp white bed, her lower body encased in a mini-tent.
Three days ago during lunch Liza had gone for her regular ultrasound. She never returned to work. I got a teary phone call, “I’ve been admitted to hospital, bring my pyjamas and some food.” The duty doctor, ignoring Liza, explained to me the baby wasn’t getting any nourishment through the placenta. She was underweight and would die if she wasn’t removed. Removed was the word he used, as if our baby was a tumour. He asked me if he could operate the next morning. Liza, who’s a health professional, refused because he wasn’t her doctor and wouldn’t address her.
So here I stood three days later in the hospital with a guy saying the emergency caesarean Liza was about to have would be the most profound moment of my life.
As I held Liza’s hand all I could think of was how we thought we had two months to go, two months to buy nappies, clothes, bottles – all the baby paraphernalia. Ready we were not.
Liza and I shared a fearful silence. The doctor whipped scalpels through the air returning them blood stained to the shining tray along with bloodied material then said, “You have a girl.” A handful of red flesh flashed before our eyes then disappeared into a humidicrib and was wheeled out the door. No crying baby taking its first lungful of air, no sticky baby crawling up its mother’s body for its first breast feed, no profound moment.
Just shocked silence and an unspoken fear. Was that red, immobile bundle of flesh alive?
Ksenya birth weight was 987grams and she wasn’t much longer than a pencil. I saw her later in the humidicrib, a smear of flesh amongst a sea of white. Wires and drips cobwebbed over her body, monitors beeping and bouncing continuously. She was immobile, her face obscured by tubes in her mouth and nose and a pair of minute felt sunglasses. She seemed more machine than human.
Seeing her for the first time a profound sense of sadness washed over me. Liza was unable to see her until twenty four hours later; at least Ksenya was squirming by then.
The days blurred as we sat staring at her, unreachable behind clear plastic walls. We took turns doing her ‘cares’ – changing her nappy and cleaning her eyes. This was the only time we could touch her, otherwise we watched her sleep. Her hand was so small it couldn’t cover my little finger. She’d grip it while having her nappy changed or when the doctors took blood, the needles rarely finding her little veins the first time. Her arms were bruised and she’d meow like a kitten as the needles jabbed her.
In all her pain and loneliness we were unable to comfort her. I imagined her waking at night crying into the vacuum of the humidicrib. She slowly put on weight so was able to spend more time out of the humidicrib. We wanted to hold her, for our flesh to finally meet hers. Some nurses acted as if she was the hospital’s property and we had no rights, others were great and allowed us ample time. It was a battle we didn’t need.
Almost two months later she finally came home, still small, ‘like a doll’ people often commented. In fact, we bought dolls clothes for her at first. The hardest thing was taking her out. People would stare and comment; not nastily but they’d want to grab her or ask about her size.
The last two months had been gruelling and even now every day was fraught with fear and anxiety. Sometimes the words of well meaning strangers were the final slap to our battered souls.
Fifteen months later Ksenya is still petite but walks flat out, swims like a fish and laughs with abandon. We lived for six months in Malaysia where she was known as the smiling baby and was adored by all. There is no sign of the developmental delays that often plague premature babies (and I should know, I was six weeks early in 1965 and have co-ordination problems) and the paediatrician is amazed by her.
Now I work part-time, as does Liza and we do a few days each caring for Ksenya at home. After so long unable to be there for her, we want to spend all the time we can with her. Never again will Ksenya cry into a vacuum.
I like to lie in bed during her day sleeps and watch her in the cot, to see her wake up, look around and see me. Her smile is a profound moment – her joy is unrestrained and honest. I love the way she lays against me when I read stories or the way she walks around the house bringing me treasures, or the way she laughs when she sees animals.
These are the profound moments cobbled together that make a profound life.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem