As far as common fears go, I’ve got pretty much the same list as most people. Flying insects, heights, and small spaces. The one I usually keep to myself is the fear of having children.
It’s not just the actual childbirth that terrifies me (although on second thought, yes it completely does too), but the idea of being responsible for a life. Once you have a child, you’re in it for the long haul. Every good or bad thing that child does is a direct reflection of your parenting abilities. You have to love them no matter what they do.
Even when they’re running around, breaking things and acting like gremlins, you have to love them. And I just don’t think I’m capable of it.
Naturally, when my maternal and child health clinical placement came around this semester, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. For 12 hours a day, I’d have to deal with cranky children, crankier parents and still have to be positive and perky. It was quite honestly the definition of my own personal hell.
As I mentally prepared myself for paranoid, hovering parents before my first pediatric shift, I prayed for the safety of my patience. I ended up surprisingly enjoying myself.
I really learned how to become versatile, by changing my methods of assessment for the vastly different patients I was assigned. In one room I was calmly coaxing a stubborn (and very unhappy) four-year-old to let me take his temperature, while in the next I was discussing the characters in Frozen with a cheerful eight-year-old while taking a health history. I found myself dancing in circles to make toddlers giggle while I took their blood pressure and putting my active listening skills to use with a fifteen-year-old mental health patient.
After my two weeks in pediatrics, I was sad to have to switch to the neonatal intensive care unit where I would be faced with fragile (and quite honestly, boring) newborns and undoubtedly shrill cries. I had no idea that I would have a patient that would completely change my previously strong opinions on children.
Baby K was born 32 weeks premature and had been in the NICU for four weeks. Most premature babies are what nurses call “feed and grows”, where the main focus was to provide regular feedings and daily weights so that the babies could gain more strength and be ready to handle the barrage of germs from the outside world. Baby K was slightly different.
After feedings, her heart rate would plummet to half of what it’s supposed to be and her oxygenation levels would drop from 100% to about 60%. She went through extensive testing but none of the physicians or technicians were able to find anything wrong with her heart or lungs. Until it was determined what was causing the severe drop in heart rate and oxygenation, Baby K would be staying put in the intensive care unit.
The only intervention that seemed to work was to hold her in an upright position for at least half an hour after every feeding. Though her heart rate would still drastically decrease, she was stimulated to breathe immediately which prevented persistent decreases.
Her mother was very sweet, but very busy with two other children at home. She was only able to stop by for one feeding a day which meant the nurses were responsible for the other seven times Baby K needed milk.
After a night of very little sleep, I didn’t mind taking over this seemingly simple task. I’d get to sit in a rocking chair and get off my feet for an hour – nothing short of paradise in a such a busy day. I settled in with a warmed bottle and tightly swaddled baby, and began to feed her.
My apprehension towards children started chipping away the second I looked down at the tiny pink baby in my arms. Damn it, she was cute. She had that baby smell, which I never really believed existed, and I couldn’t look away.
After she was done feeding, I put the bottle down and repositioned her so she was more vertical in my arms. Her eyes had briefly opened to size me up, but she promptly went back to sleep, uninterested in the new face looking back at her. I slowly rocked in the chair, watching the monitor for signs of impending respiratory distress, but none came. I looked back down at the peacefully sleeping infant and my mind began to wander.
This tiny little baby was going to grow up one day and go to school. She’d make friends, she would learn new things. One day she would fall in love and maybe break a few hearts. She’d pick a career and change her mind, and change her mind a few more times before she settled on what she really wanted to do. She would feel things – happiness, sadness, anger, fear, love. She wouldn’t remember the time she was frail and helpless and fighting for her life.
My thoughts were interrupted by the alarms of the monitor, as her oxygenation dipped to 74% and her heart rate 60 beats below normal. My own heart started beating faster as I repositioned her and rubbed her back to stimulate her breathing. Her signs improved and I exhaled a sigh of relief. Baby K was hardly bothered by all of this. She was still asleep, now on my chest, while I was silently freaking out.
I was surprised at how fiercely protective I felt of this baby and how I desperately wished for her to get out of the hospital and live a rich and fulfilling life. Are women biologically preprogrammed with such powerful maternal instincts? If I felt this strongly for a child who I had no connection to, what would I be like with a child of my own?
And there it was. Something I had never been able to picture before; something that had always escaped my conscious understanding of myself and my wants. One day (not anytime soon), I wanted a baby.
I want to nurture a fresh mind and teach a child all that I had learned in my life. I wanted to raise a child to be strong, caring, and aware of the world they live in. I would teach a child to give back and change lives, and remember to teach them to let people change their own lives as well. I realized that something that I thought was personally impossible, really wasn’t.
That’s because a child represents possibility. They represent the growth of the world and the evolution of ideas. They’re a reminder of change and everything that’s good. I finally understood the concept of unconditional love and maybe even my capability for it.
Even though parenthood still seems terrifying and children are total gremlins sometimes, I think that one day, I might be able to rise to the challenge. Maybe. At the very least, I’d become more open to the idea.
Luckily I’ve still got years of selfish living ahead of me before that day comes.