“Are you SURE the baby is OK?”, I asked, nearly breathless, about an hour into pushing. As we got closer and closer to meeting our baby, my excitement and my fear continued to build in parallel. “Everything looks perfect, the heart rate is great,” my team assured me. “Look around, Molly, it’s just us, no one specialized is here, there is no emergency — your baby is doing great. You’re doing great.”
As a first-time mom, I didn’t know what to expect in the delivery room — I didn’t know that the big table full of medical instruments being set up just meant that the baby was close. It was a small group but I was being cared for, cheered on and coached by an all-star team. The midwife who I had seen during my prenatal care was playing tug-of-war with me with a bed sheet to give me counter strength to push against. She was calm and in control, something that I valued in the moment, but appreciated even more as we debriefed the birth later that night in my recovery room.
The resident who had been on duty when I was in triage a few weeks earlier being monitored for lack of fetal movement, was reassuring and kind; he was soft spoken but his excitement for us was palpable. The nurse, whose feedback style could best be described as “drill sergeant” — giving commands, counting out the seconds as I pushed, quick to tell me when I was pushing in the wrong place—was intense, commanding, and exactly what I needed. My doula and her apprentice, Brigette, were reading my body and helping the nurse adapt to the demanding cadence of pushing to my abilities and strengths. Emmylou was photographing the whole thing. I didn’t realize how graphic the photos that she captured in the moment were, but later would pore over those images to piece together the milliseconds after the birth.
And of course my husband, locking eyes with me, calm and strong, feeding me water through a straw and doing yoga “horse lips” with me in between every push. It sounds like a crowd, but it was really peaceful and intimate. I had space and room to adapt, while being cheered on and supported in every way I needed. It was the perfect birth. In the words of January Harshe, the leader of the Birth Without Fear movement, I had options, I was supported in my choices, I was respected. Despite not having a rigid birth plan, this was better than I could have scripted or planned.
A few hours earlier, once the epidural had kicked in and I finally felt clear-headed and in the moment, the team walked me through what to expect after the baby came out. I remember they said to expect some commotion and a lot of moving pieces, but that the priority would be to get baby to mom. They’d make sure baby was OK, but that skin to skin would help with the after birth and focusing on my baby would help distract me from the third stage of labor. We’d gone from hours to minutes to seconds remaining and now my hospital gown was opened up to expose my stomach and chest to accept the baby. The warm blankets were nearby, ready to cover us both. I’d seen the baby’s head in a mirror and I felt a little tuft of dark hair during crowning. There really was a baby. It was almost here. After 37 and a half anxiety-ridden weeks, my pregnancy and delivery were coming to an end.
“Give me one more push,” Molly the midwife said. And suddenly, the baby was here.
I caught a glimpse of something wet that looked like a baby. A tiny ball of fluid and skin. It was a dingy shade of gray blue, but all babies look a little funny, right? I felt something wet and slippery touch my stomach, our baby. “Was it a boy or a girl?” I thought, as I reached down to grab the baby. But before my hands made it to that wet and slippery body, the baby was whisked away to the other side of the room.
The team was right — there was commotion — and everything started moving so fast. The door burst open and a small army barreled in. Five people? Ten people? I don’t remember, but all of a sudden my calm, energized team became a lot bigger, a lot more medical, a lot scarier. Who were all these people? Someone yelled, “Dad, go be with baby!” I remember trying to reach out, to grab Dan’s arm, yelling back, “What is it? What is the baby?” Finally, after what felt like minutes, I heard “it’s a girl” from the other side of the room. Later I would be told that it was Dan in fact who called out the sex of the baby, but in the moment, I couldn’t even pinpoint the voice who called out what we had been waiting nine months to know—that magical moment I had envisioned and played over and over in my head in the months leading up to that morning.
I was ready to look in his eyes, hear the news, and look down at the baby in my arms. I looked down, but there was no baby. My stomach was deflated, my arms were empty, and the midwife and resident were dutifully focused on the afterbirth. I don’t remember delivering the placenta, I don’t recall being stitched up or what it felt like. I’ve been told it probably hurt, but my brain was so scared, my heart was so heavy, and my arms so empty that no amount of afterbirth pain could possibly compete with what I was trying to process. The baby was here. It was a girl. And while I had no idea what was normal, this didn’t look or feel like what I had expected.
I looked to my right, where Dan had been sitting for the last hour and 36 minutes of pushing. It was finally light out, the sun shining bright after a whole night of laboring in the dark. In his place was Brigette. “What’s going on? Is she OK?” I screamed. No one would give me an answer. “Talk to your baby,” she said, “she knows your voice. Talk to your baby, make sure she can hear you.” I remember screaming, but I don’t remember what I said. “Lily. My baby. You can do this. You are so brave. Mommy loves you so much. Come on Lily!” If I try really hard, I think that’s what I said, but everything was so chaotic, I can’t quite remember the words that came out of my mouth. Maybe that’s what I’d like to think I would say if I did it all over again.
After what felt like an eternity, the room was finally quiet. The giant room that for seven hours of labor and delivery was energized and spirited was now empty, sterile, and lonely. It was just me, the nurse, and my doulas. No husband, and no baby.
Lily came out blue and floppy, I was told. She wasn’t breathing, her Apgar score was nonexistent. She was successfully resuscitated on the little table outside of my arm’s reach. She was breathing on her own, the last I had heard, but she didn’t sound good. She was taken to the Intensive Care Nursery, her dad by her side the whole time. The umbilical cord, which we’d hoped to delay clamping for five minutes, was immediately clamped, cut, and tested — its blood gas came back high for lactic acid. Little did I know, at the same time, Lily’s blood gas was being tested. High levels of lactic acid, someone told my husband in the ICN. Not being a doctor, he could only take a rough gander at what that meant. Could that mean that the brain isn’t getting enough oxygen? It sounded crazy, maddening, impossible. That’s exactly what it could mean, the doctor said. It wasn’t a good sign. My placenta was shipped off to pathology to be tested for infection or some explanation that could explain why this perfect baby, who moved through labor and the birth canal with ease, came into this world lifeless.
Brigette handed me my phone, the first time I looked at it since I timed my last contraction at 2:10 that morning, right before we made the decision to go to the hospital. It turns out news — good and bad — traveled fast. My brother-in-law and his wife, vacationing in South Africa, had heard the news. My mom in Santa Rosa had heard the news. They knew no more than I did: there was a baby, and we don’t know if she’s OK. I furiously texted Dan. “What’s going on. Is she OK? Send me pictures. What are they doing to her?” I received a photo back: a tiny finger holding her dad’s big finger. “Send me more pictures — I want to see her. Is she OK? What happened?” I saw the “…” typing icon of the iPhone. There were no more pictures. “I don’t want you to see her like this,” he responded.
My wonderful labor and delivery nurse/drill sergeant was still in my room, explaining what would happen to me and when I would move to recovery. I didn’t care about what was happening to me. “When can I go see her?” I asked. She informed me that I had to stay in L&D for two hours. I don’t even remember why — something about fluids and monitoring or being stable/steady enough to leave. I’m sure under any other circumstance, two hours of cuddling with your newborn baby, initiating skin to skin, helping baby latch and learning her vital stats — height, weight, etc., feels welcomed and needed. Two hours in L&D, alone, without my baby or my husband felt like a lifetime.
“Eat something,” they said. “You need to eat.” They were right — aside from the few Annie’s cheddar bunnies I snuck after the epidural kicked in and the Swedish Fish I tried to eat during active labor in between breaths into the nitrous oxide mask, I hadn’t eaten since our spicy, oxytocin-inducing Thai take-out dinner the night before. I ordered half the menu — pancakes, eggs, sausage, hash browns, juice. I just wanted to drink up the smell of my new baby. I ate. I called my mom who had been out grocery shopping in Santa Rosa for the upcoming Christmas holiday when she got the call from Dan, reiterating what he’d already told her, what little I knew. We had the baby, it’s a girl, you have a granddaughter. No, she’s not OK. I don’t know what’s happening. Please come to San Francisco.
Two hours later, I was told I could go down to the ICN to finally lay eyes on Lily. But first, I had to pee, they said. I’m not sure what passing urine had to do with being allowed out of L&D, but if this was the ticket out of the place that housed the most terrifying experience of my life, to see my daughter, then I was going to pee as fast as possible. I stood up, finally feeling the impact of what my body had been through over the last 24 hours. I remembered hearing something about a first-degree tear during the afterbirth, and now I felt it. The physical pain of the aftermath of delivery was no match for my desire to see Lily. To finally touch her, to hold her. To get some answers. I sat down on the toilet and cried. The drill sergeant changed my mesh undies, folded up a clean submarine-sized pad soaked in witch hazel, tied up my gown, helped me into a wheelchair and pushed me down the hallway to the security-badge guarded doors to the ICN.
She was in Yellow-12, a unit with no windows, no natural light. It was dark and quiet in the central nurse station by the entrance — just the humming and beeping of machines. It was a foreign sound but in time, the beeping of machines would be the soundtrack to my days and later, my nightmares.
Baby Girl Laufer was printed on white paper, outside of Room 12. There was a little black and white cartoon lion under her name. She was in an Isolette, wearing a diaper and what looked like miles of wires and tubes. A little mesh cap covered the EEG nodes affixed to her head. I remembered thinking that her cap matched my undies. I don’t remember much about what I learned medically during that visit to her room; something about her breathing having stabilized and she was breathing on her own, but maybe had an infection. She was on antibiotics, and would likely remain in the ICN for 48 hours until the antibiotics ran their course and they monitored her more closely. I couldn’t imagine spending my two days in recovery without my baby in my arms and in my room. “Is she eating?” I remembered asking. She must be hungry, my baby must be so hungry. She had been on this Earth for no more than three hours. Has she even eaten yet? No one gave me an answer. Someone was taking a video of the moment I met my baby — maybe Dan, maybe our doula. Later I would watch that video and hear myself sobbing to her, telling her how hungry I was after she was born, “Mommy had pancakes, and eggs, I was so hungry,” I told her. “I wish I could feed you, you must be so hungry. I can’t wait to hold you.” That was the only thing I could think and say over and over again.
We had to leave, they said, to check into our recovery room. It was OK, they said. “When you come back, you can hold her.” That was all I heard, and it was enough to get me out of the ICN and into recovery. The room was lovely — spacious with a large window which we kept shaded the entire stay. There was no differentiation between the light of day and night during our hospital stay, just one long blur of nightmares. They had already moved the baby bassinet out of the room. Word quickly spread that until further notice, there was no baby in this room. Dan ate, I changed into a clean hospital gown, the nurse came through to check my vitals and give me some ibuprofen. I was still confused and scared, but mostly I was so excited — I didn’t know what was happening to Lily, but I was going to hold her now!
I got back in my wheelchair and Dan pushed me through what felt like a mile of corridors to get back to the ICN. There were large double doors leading into the yellow unit. He pushed the button to open the doors and as they creaked open, they revealed a crowd of doctors standing outside of Lily’s room. I turned back to look at Dan — his face expressed similar confusion at the sight of dozens of new doctors, some in suits and some in scrubs, standing outside of her room. My first thought was, “Well they better get out of our way so I can get into her room!” As we wheeled up, the group turned around, seeming just as surprised to see us. Someone whispered Those are the parents. I slumped over and emitted a sound that was a mix of a cry and a scream.
Everything went dark and blank in my mind. Things both slowed down and suddenly felt like they were moving 100 miles an hour all at the same time. I remember asking, “What’s going on?” as a doctor said something about needing to move quickly, to start the procedure. “The cooling works best if completed within six hours of birth. After that, the risk of brain damage goes up. We’ve been monitoring for seizures, and so far it looks good, but we want to do everything we can to mitigate further brain damage.” “Brain damage!” we exclaimed, in unison. I was here to hold my daughter, didn’t they know? “I’m sorry,” one of the neonatal neurologists in a crisp blouse and dress pants said. “You can go in and talk to her, but you can’t hold her. We have to move quickly.” I remember thinking I hated that neurologist. Later, once I could comprehend what was happening and what they were doing and why, I felt grateful for her expertise, and her command of the situation. But in the moment, I hated that she was the one who seemed to be standing in the way of holding Lily.
I slowly stood up from the wheelchair, the pain of delivery weighing heavy on my body but I needed to stand up to get as close to her as I could in the Isolette. I held her tiny finger and gave her the only thing I could in that moment — my voice. I don’t remember a thing I said, but according to my husband, I told Lily about her namesake, about who she was named for. Her great grandfather’s first wife, Lilian, who was killed in Auschwitz. Her late Safta Liora, her Hebrew name, meaning “my light.” Her great grandma Pringle, her grandma Lydia. Strong women — women who were fighters for themselves, their families, their communities, their heritage. Lily is a fighter, too, and she would get through this. I’ll never know if she heard me or knew my voice but I like to think it helped to bring her some comfort. Dan looked around the room, and one thing was clear — from the tears in the eyes of every doctor and nurse in there, they had certainly heard me. This baby was special, and she was going to fight like hell. They were ready to answer that call.
After that, we headed back to my room, unsure of what else we could do. The medical team was preparing Lily for Neonatal Therapeutic Hypothermia — a treatment where they would cool her body by 3 degrees celsius for 72 hours. She would rest atop a tiny refrigerated “water bed.” Babies prefer warmth, so they’d use a constant morphine drip to try to keep her comfortable. Most of her major organs and bodily functions would simply “hibernate” for the next few days. She would be given enough nutrients to stay healthy, via a glucose line in her belly. But perhaps the worst part for me was that she couldn’t be held and couldn’t nurse — two things that her chilled body couldn’t support but that my postpartum body and mind craved.
“No news was good news” was the name of the game, the team said. They were monitoring brain activity for seizures, but ideally, there wouldn’t be any new developments or reports in the next 72 hours. Nothing was being tested or tried — they were simply monitoring all major organs, and doing whatever they could to keep her comfortable. She even looked like a little hibernating bear — snoozing and occasionally waking up to blink and look around before going back to sleep. “Chilly Lily” she was quickly dubbed. The name stuck. Baby Girl Laufer, Chilly Lily, in Room Y-12.
That was around 2 or 3 p.m. As we exited the room, we ran into a doctor who had been previously cheerful during the past few hours. His mood turned more serious, professional, reserved. He said he’d get us a conference room, to meet with the head neonatologist and the social worker to talk about what happens next. I remember wheeling back to recovery and seeing a text message from someone at work, asking me to add them to the calendar invitation for a client call that afternoon. The word of my water breaking the day prior didn’t make it to Los Angeles. I ignored the text. I don’t remember much from the rest of that afternoon. It was like time was frozen and I was merely an observer of the events.
My doula stayed with me to get a hospital-grade breast pump set up. She taught me how to hand express colostrum and how to pump every 2–3 hours. This bulky machine on wheels would be my companion for the next eight days. I didn’t yet know how to change a diaper, or what my baby’s skin felt like, but I already knew the difference between speed and suction, how to wash breast shields and assemble a pump. It was a task I wasn’t ready to know how to do. For the next eight days, I would pump every 2–3 hours, sometimes drops, sometimes nothing, eventually ounces. I would proudly transfer a tiny mL of liquid gold into a syringe, and take it with me to my next trip to see Lily. She couldn’t digest colostrum or breastmilk yet, but I dabbed it into her mouth with a Q-Tip-like device to get her familiar to the taste and pass on any little antibodies I could. Those syringes were my trophies, the only tangible souvenirs I had from childbirth before I could hold my Lily, which didn’t happen until her fifth day of life.
We are lucky. Our story has a happy ending — 72 long, uncertain, painful hours later, Lily was slowly re-warmed. She passed her MRI with flying colors. The NP popped her head into our room on Christmas Eve night: “all clear” she said. All clear, no brain damage. The verdict we had been waiting five days to hear. The tension in the air deflated, like someone had popped a balloon. I think I let my breath out for the first time since she was born. We sobbed. Our good friends showed up with champagne. My sorority sisters had sent a decadent cake from my favorite bakery, the words “This Calls for Cake” inscribed in pink icing. Because you can’t fit “Congratulations on your baby, she is adorable and no matter what the outcome of the MRI is, you guys are going to be OK and we love you” onto a cake.
The Rabbi, who hadn’t yet checked her email to see the good news that we had sent out, was already en route to bless our sweet baby and offer her prayers for protection and health. She met the delivery guy in the lobby, and forgave our lack of kosher dinner selection as a large pepperoni pizza made its way to the ICN. The occasion really did call for cake. We left the hospital four days later, as a family of three, once Lily learned to eat and could demonstrate weight gain from feedings. Those four days were filled with their own set of unique challenges, small milestones/victories and disappointing setbacks. Ultimately, we feel so incredibly grateful for what we know is a very positive outcome and for what was a relatively short stint in the ICN.
My therapist, who I had seen since finding out I was pregnant with Lily after my second pregnancy loss, listened to my birth story that I shared in pain-staking detail, from my water breaking at 37 weeks, 2 days to our discharge from the ICN. As I told it, there were two sides to Lily’s birth: the 24 hours before 10:58 a.m. on December 20, and the harrowing eight days that followed. Ironically, Lily, whose Hebrew name Liora means “my light,” joined us the morning after the last night of Hanukkah. After eight nights of light, the following eight days were the darkest I’ve ever experienced. I was particularly hung up on all of the details of the story that I couldn’t remember and I felt frustrated that there were parts of those eight days that I could not account for at all.
There were so many holes in the hours that followed her delivery: in the conversations that were had between doctors and nurses, during my first two interactions with Lily by her bedside, in her first few nights in the ICN. When I was about four to five months postpartum, I would lie awake at night after feeding Lily, my perfect, healthy baby. I would replay the hours after her birth over and over in my mind. Angry that I couldn’t remember all the details. Mourning the loss of being able to hold my baby after I delivered her even as I held her in my arms in the present, feeling regret that the hours and days after her birth didn’t look like how I thought it would. Scared by how much worse her outcome could have been. I’d stay awake after a feeding Googling “birth asphyxia” and “hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy,” feeling mentally paralyzed by the statistics and typical prognoses I read. Terrified knowing we were so close to a very different outcome, yet relieved for her clear MRI and her clean bill of health. Grateful that she learned to breastfeed and we were discharged so quickly after the MRI. But I was so consumed by the anger that there were details that I lived and experienced but for the life of me, couldn’t remember what had happened.
The events that did stick with me were terrifying and painful — events that I wish I could forget but are seared into my mind forever: waking up the next morning in my hospital bed drenched in sweat from fluids and hormones, screaming and sobbing for Lily; feeling so empty without her there that I wished that I was in her place in intensive care. Wheeling to the ICN multiple times a day, holding my breath every time we rounded the corner and opened the doors to the yellow unit, fearing another occasion where the entire team was crowded outside of her room. The visit from the NP during that first night in the hospital. I was awake to pump when she came in, explaining that Lily needed a blood transfusion and would I sign the paperwork to agree. To this day, I have no idea why she needed the blood transfusion. It’s not for lack of being told, but I was in a mindset where I couldn’t possibly understand the explanation. Scrolling social media my first night in the hospital, during a middle-of-the-night pumping session, seeing birth announcement photos that someone had just posted on Facebook: happy, smiling families cuddled up on a hospital bed. Mom tired but glowing, a snuggly baby in a stylish muslin swaddle blanket in her arms, the proud Dad. Going through the motions of discharge, without Lily. The areas on the discharge form that related to the baby were X’d out. The car ride home, the carseat empty in the backseat. Not knowing when we’d bring her home, or under what circumstances. It was with my therapist’s help that I began to understand how my brain and body processed these events in the moment and what remained in my mind after the fact. At her encouragement, I wrote the story of these hours and days to address the parts of the birth that I had blacked out due to severe traumatic stress and to recount the parts that have stayed with me.
There were many, many joyful, funny, and empowering moments during labor and delivery before Lily joined us Earth-side that I don’t want to ever forget. Maybe one day I’ll put those on paper before time causes those memories to fade. And there have been even more joyful and sweet moments in the nine months since she has been a part of our family. This story was my attempt to acknowledge all of the details that I can’t remember due to the trauma of the events that unfolded. The ability to tell this part of my story, to hold space for the uncertain details after her birth, has been cathartic and relieving. By addressing the unknowns, I am prepared to continue to process the rest of her birth, to celebrate and relish the joyful parts, and one day, be able to tell her this story firsthand.