Like a character from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toren Ambrose was born on July 29, 2020 with his eyes open, giving the impression of one who is patient, thoughtful, and cautiously optimistic. His water had been broken ten hours prior and, as the finale to a long induction and longer pregnancy, he waited in the birth canal for two hours before my epidural faded enough for me to push him out.
Twenty minutes later, Eirik Axel came into the world red-faced and roaring. ￼It was his privilege to wait out the entire labor with his water still in-tact. I offered him a breast before he was cleaned off or the cord was cut, and he took it.
I wouldn’t hear Toren cry for a week. At 6 lbs 5 oz, he was a full pound-and-a-half smaller than his brother.￼ Big for a twin, it was two hours before a nurse noticed that he was small for a full-term baby and sent him to NICU.
Eirik and I were moved upstairs to the mother-baby recovery ward. At 7 lbs 9 oz, he was larger than our singleton and came with all of the upgrades: chubby cheeks, a full head of hair, eyelashes￼. I spent the next two sleepless days nursing him, charmed by him.
I made the trip down to see Toren for about 90 minutes at the beginning of each day and again at the end.￼ A major design flaw of this hospital is that NICU is too far from mother-baby for a woman who has just given birth to walk there. On the first day a nurse pushed me down in a wheelchair. The next day I went on my own, pushing the wheelchair like a walker.
Toren had an IV with a glucose drip￼ and later a feeding tube by which a nurse put 50 mL of milk through his nose and into his stomach every three hours. I held him and tried not to upset his tubes and wires. When offered the breast, he would smile at my nipple and fall asleep with it in his eye.￼
I did not spend enough time with Toren in those first days. The constant revolving door of nurses and doctors kept me busy upstairs. I was too hungry to be gone from my room (access to food delivery) for very long. And caring for my lion, being tangibly needed by him, felt more pressing than the needs of my lamb. My main expression of love for Toren in those first days was pumping. In training my body to provide milk for two babies instead of one, I pumped my breasts eight times a day. Whenever I fed Eirik, I pumped for Toren.￼
My husband, M, became the short-term NICU super-dad. He attended Toren’s feedings ￼and came up with goals for him. He got to know the nurses and talked with them about how to get Toren out of there.￼
Eirik and I were discharged on a Friday. After three sleepless nights in the hospital, our family decided to go home to our daughter and a real bed rather than room in with Toren on a fold-out couch. Covid-19 restrictions meant that Eirik would not be allowed to return to the hospital once we left. M would likely continue on as Toren’s primary parent until his discharge. We didn’t think it would take very long.
Our family visited the NICU on our way out to tell him goodbye.￼ We kept it short. It was evening, and I pretended we were going back up to our room to sleep instead of driving to a home 20 minutes away. Love you, Toren. See you in the morning.
Walking out￼ of the hospital with one twin was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. M stayed behind for a few minutes to talk to a nurse while I pushed the cart of our belongings out to the curb. Eirik, in his carseat, was perched on top.
As I walked through the lobby, stranger after stranger turned a masked face up to offer￼ me heart-felt congratulations. This was not your standard new baby well-wishing: At one point they almost broke into spontaneous applause. I felt sad, private, and confused by the happy attention. Finally I realized: I was leaving NICU with a baby. It’s kind of a big deal. How could I tell them? This is not what you think it is.
The next day Toren had a nurse named Steve who was our game changer. ￼”This kid doesn’t belong in NICU,” he told my husband. Steve pulled the feeding tube and got Toren’s required feedings reduced to 30 mL every three hours. As long as Toren could keep up with those quantities, maybe he could go. M sat with Toren swaddled against his arm and patiently bottle-fed him. Steve worked down the NICU discharge checklist; including having Toren sit for 90 minutes in a carseat. Thanks, Steve.
In the morning a doctor called and said we could come get our boy. He was five days old. By day 10 he was entirely breast fed. By day 14 he had gained more weight than Eirik. Today is day 50 and you would never know he had a rough start at all. How did the birth go? you ask. Everything went great.