'My Baby Wasn't Supposed to Live'

I knew I was pregnant with Nailah before a test could confirm it.  My husband and I had been trying for the better part of six months and we were elated with the news.  My intuition told me that it was a girl, and so we went about the business of picking African names and buying books.  Nailah, which in Swahili means “she who is successful” would be her first name and Maude, named for my maternal grandmother, her middle.  The first book I bought her was “We Girls Hold Up This World” by Jada Pinkett-Smith.  I would read to her as she turned from bump to full belly, and call her name, and caress her, and tell her how happy I was that she chose me.

My pregnancy was hard. I assumed they all were. My grandmother, from whom Nailah received her name, had bore eleven children in a small rural town- most with midwives, at home.  I was careful not to complain about my aching feet, headaches, or the side effects from the gestational diabetes medication I was taking.  The diabetes was discovered along with a rare blood clotting disorder and a few other things by a specialist, who explained that, often, pregnancy pushes forward the health issues that lie dormant in our bodies.  Apparently, my pregnancy was high risk, which meant I had to visit my doctor weekly, while also working full-time and trying my best to be the perfect wife--like the ones you see in Home and Garden Magazine.

It would all be perfect- a perfect home, a perfect husband, and soon a perfect bundle of joy. I’d watched those birthing tales countless times on The Learning Channel, and never once believed that my story would be any different.  That year, we hosted our big family for Thanksgiving.  I was almost too swollen to stand and had constant throbbing headaches, but I considered those pains part of my labor of love and never gave them a second thought.  The Monday after, I visited my doctor for my weekly check-up and was immediately admitted into the hospital.  My blood pressure was through the roof and I was in the possible beginning stages of a stroke.

I tried bed rest to hold onto Nailah, but she wasn’t receiving the blood flow she needed to develop properly, and, well, my organs were beginning to shut down. They would have to deliver her, four moths early, or she might die, and I might too.  Nailah’s father fell apart as the doctor prescribed that Nailah might not live.  There was a sixty percent chance she would and if she survived, she would have difficulty thriving with her underdeveloped brain, heart, and lungs.  My sister had to stay outside of my hospital room because her mix of fear and hurt wouldn’t allow her to face me.  My mother, ever the devout Catholic and soldier, saw fit to pray over the doctor's hands, and sprinkle my head and tummy with Holy Water. 

I’d watched those birthing tales countless times on the Learning Channel, and never once believed that my story would be any different.

My uncle says that he heard this tiny squealing coming from the operating room and knew it was Nay, and that she would be fine. Nailah weighed seventeen ounces when she was born. She was hospitalized for four months before I brought her home. I missed being with her one day during those four months because I had a fever and couldn’t enter the NICU.  I love her with every single fiber of my being because beyond being one of the greatest things I’ve ever done with my life, she taught me how fragile life, and even we, are.  She, today, is a healthy, happy, sassy, six year old who loves to draw, read, and talk about princesses.  I know to count my blessings, even after the difficult pregnancy, long hospital stay, and the breathing treatments that are needed every now and again, because many mothers have it far worse.

As I contemplate possibly having another baby, I do so with a certain kind of solemnness.  I realize that becoming pregnant, and having a healthy pregnancy and birth, isn’t promised.  We take for granted all of the things that may go wrong and we commodify the sacredness of motherhood, daily. Remember to contemplate the grace and divinity of mothering and to hold your mother tight.

Josie Pickens is a writer, educator and activist who blogs at www.jonubian.com. Follow her musings on twitter: @jonubian.