Essay: The Longest Bone

Essay: The Longest Bone
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You lost the first pregnancy. The word “loss” is the same whether you’re talking about your missing car keys or your baby. Perhaps you are prone to losing things.

And then you are pregnant again. You hear the heart beat. Your doctor says it seems strong this time. She tells you to call her with questions, worries. She knows you’re nervous. Since you’ve been doing a fellowship at the women’s hospital, you have a friendly, almost collegial relationship, even though you’re a Ph.D. and not an M.D.

She sends you to a hematologist to post-diagnose the bleeding during the aforementioned failed pregnancy. The tests are negative and you are dismissed with a passing grade. But then there are more exams. Through ultrasound, they measure the baby’s neck and suggest that your child could have Spina Bifida. The geneticists say they’ll need to do more tests. The next set of results indicate a likelihood far greater than normal of Downs Syndrome or perhaps trisomy­ some number that you can’t hold onto in your head. Finally, the amniocentesis rules out any chromosomal anomalies but before you can flirt with relief, the next sonogram reveals lakes in the brain and a faulty placenta. Your doctor says this might be ok if the baby didn’t have such an unusually long femur. You are not understanding. What’s wrong with a long femur?

She explains that such a long femur would require the baby to be big, but this baby is very, very small. Clearly, he or she (you’ve chosen not to find out its gender though everyone else seems to know) is not thriving. Clearly, you are not doing a good enough job mothering him or her. You avoid alcohol, raw fish, roller coasters, ibuprofen. You read books, take classes, go to bed early, eat organic food. Still not good enough.

You are sent to the Maternal-Fetal Medicine Comprehensive Care Center. To these high-risk docs, you are a real bore. But still, each week, they threaten to pull the baby inside of you out of you. They suggest they could do a better job nourishing him or her than you can. And then you make it to forty weeks. And then forty-one. You are induced and introduced to the baby girl with the long femur. She is purple, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. She fails her first Apgar test. They resuscitate her and you watch as the colour rushes from her tiny belly to her head and arms and legs; she morphs from blue to pink. She passes the repeat exam with a formidable score of 9 out of 10. She is a healthy, albeit skinny, full-term baby. You did it.

 

And you make the nearly instantaneous transition from high-risk patient to new mom. And so you go home. You exhale deeply, just once, maybe twice, and then, the crying begins. She cries all night, this new baby girl, every night, and much of the day too. She shrieks, she wails, she gags, she chokes. You nurse her and it only makes it worse; she feeds and then contorts in pain, her tummy concave, her fists clenched.  You stroke her full head of dark brown hair. You kiss her heart shaped mouth. You stare into her teary grey eyes. What could be so wrong? You drive around in the car, that’s supposed to help; she cries harder. You try Mylanta and swings and gripe water (British pixie dust your sister-in-law swears by) and expensive formula and prescription Zantac. You ban broccoli and garlic and hot sauce and gluten from your diet. You stand for hours under the oven fan, set high and loud like an airplane engine; this is far more soothing than any lullaby you might sing her in your prettiest mezzosoprano. You hold her in front of you, not like a baby, but rather like an oversized hot potato wishing there was someone you could hand her off to. You push up under her belly with your hand, rocking from side to side underneath the fan. The exhaustion overwhelms. You begin to slowly lower yourself onto the nearest soft surface while continuing to rock and push and sway, and just as you are about to touch down, she senses the shift and the crying begins again.

They say, “Crying is normal.” But you wonder if she is really ok. Or maybe it is you that is not ok. They say, “They’re too young to put themselves to sleep.” “They’re too young to soothe themselves.” They say, “Never shake a baby.” There’s a long list of not-to-dos but you seem to be running out of to-dos. This is too hard. You cannot do this.

           

 As a fellow in women’s health, you counselled women with high risk pregnancies, you led groups for mothers with post partum depression. Mothers who were afraid to hold their babies for fear they might strangle them, or drown them, or toss them down laundry chutes. You taught the book, “This Isn’t What I was Expecting.” You knew what to expect. And everyone expects more from you. Your husband doesn’t know what to do with this new helpless version of you.

Your mother orders you a subscription to the New York Times as a baby gift. She thinks this might help you recoup some of the intelligence and political mindedness you seem to have lost while in graduate school during which time your worldly knowledge was reduced to what you learned on Entertainment Tonight and the occasional human interest story on NPR. The blue-bagged papers arrive daily.  Unopened, they pile high and wide in your entryway becoming a dirty mountain of old news that serves as a constant reminder of your inadequacy, that and your unbrushed teeth and your crying baby.

 

And then, finally, your baby girl grows out of the colic. It takes seven months. And then it is as if you simply unplugged the crying machine and that was that. No more crying.

 

Until now. She is thirteen and a half. She cries a lot. Again. Her friends are mean. Her hair is ugly. Her teacher is unfair. But this crying is different. You can eat spicy food and not worry that it is hurting her. You can sit side by side on the couch as she cries, no need for rocking or the droning kitchen fan. You empathize, strategize, listen quietly, hug her hard. But sometimes, when there is no consoling her, and you are really, really tired you can go to bed. And you lie in bed angsting about the hysterical girl in the room next door, the girl you spent so many nights worrying over as she grew in your belly and cried in your arms.  And again you are wishing for help, for answers, for a crystal ball to tell you everything will be all right.

And you are reminded of her long femurs. She’s still got them – and they’re still much too long for her thin little self, although they serve her well these days. She is a ballet dancer and when she rises up in releve in her pointe shoes, and circles her sinewy arms above her head, she can practically touch the ceiling. And as you lie there, not sleeping, thinking about her femurs and her height and all the anxiety and exams and efforts and predictions, you realize that you knew far too much and yet far too little before she was even born. And that pretty much sums up what you know today.

Except, of course, for what you learn from entertainment television and the occasional human interest story on NPR.

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