Blood began to pour across the cutting board. I yelled a choice swear word and looked down to where the tip of my thumb used to reside. My husband immediately ran over and wrapped a towel around my thumb. He scampered around telling me to raise my hand and scolded our daughter to return to the playroom. I wavered between hyperventilating and trying to talk normally to my daughters (our son, thankfully, continued to sleep blissfully unaware behind us). I couldn’t believe we were having another medical issue.

It had been a long 14 days since our son was born but I was convinced I was doing OK. We had survived a traumatic birth and a 10-day NICU stay. We had made it through intubations and C-Pap machines and feeding tubes. We had managed everyone asking, “Where’s the baby!?” and then the awkwardness when we said he was in the NICU. We had finally arrived home with our beautiful baby boy. 

On our fifth day home, I felt practically giddy from all being home together. I was finally able to care for my baby boy beyond supplying breastmilk for his feeding tube. I stood at the kitchen table cutting onions with our baby asleep behind me, our twin daughters chatting in the playroom, and my husband bustling around the kitchen. I was feeling downright superior. 

Then, as I watched the blood continue to ooze out through gauze and tape and smears of ointment, I began to cry. Really, really cry. Outrageously, ridiculously cry. The kind of cries you see on Oscar reels and Grey’s Anatomy episodes where snot is pouring down and you can barely stand from the might of it. My husband went on caring for me and telling me it wouldn’t hurt long when I suddenly looked up at him and wailed, “WHY was he in the NICU? WHY did this happen to us? I just wanted my son home with us! This wasn’t supposed to happen!” And on, and on, and on. 

The next day I would chuckle and be slightly embarrassed by this excessive demonstration but there was no room for embarrassment yet. There was simply an utter feeling of time and experiences lost that “should have” been ours. 

Our twins spent over three weeks in the NICU four years before. We look back mostly fondly on this time of learning how to parent premature babies. But they were twins. They were six weeks early and NICU time was expected. This baby, healthy and strong at 37 weeks with steroid shots, was “supposed to” come directly home with us. He wasn’t “supposed to” need extra help. I had anxiously awaited experiencing the immediate skin-to-skin contact other moms talked about. Instead, when I shared our story, other moms felt simultaneously grateful and guilty that their babies weren’t taken away within minutes of being born. I felt responsible for reassuring them it wouldn’t happen to them. This time was supposed to be easier, not harder.

I couldn’t stop thinking about what could have been and what should have been. I had told almost no one the seriousness of our son’s situation. I couldn’t share how I feared he would die either in the operating room or later in the NICU. That I feared our lives were heading toward a distinct “Before and After” scenario. When people asked how the labor was, I buried the lede, saying he was doing great. Then I added, almost nonchalantly, that he had been a NICU baby.

I let people believe the stay was due to low weight, a simple, easy fix. I couldn’t bring myself to share that he first refused to breathe and then refused to breathe at less than 140-160 breaths per minute. How we watched his naked, probe-covered chest rise and fall with the speed of a dragonfly’s wings. I couldn’t share that the doctors were perplexed by his presentation and the utter helplessness you can feel.

But suddenly, with blood and tears spilling onto my husband’s shirt, it all came out. How utterly sad and heartbroken I felt. I had not realized that I had been expecting this baby to be a corrective experience, one that mended old wounds. That even experiences we looked back on positively could leave deep cuts over our hearts. I decided then to stop smiling over the story and to stop focusing on reassuring others so they felt comfortable. I decided then to leave the cuts open and share them truthfully. I decided then to feel utterly grateful for cuts that leave us stronger and heal overtime and for new stories of what was, rather than what should have been

Kristen Tenini

Kristen is a mom of twin girls and a new baby boy who lives near Charlotte, NC. She is a licensed social worker, an occasional writer, and an exercise enthusiast.