I wrote this poem shortly after giving birth to my first child. A daughter.
A few hours after having her, some very kind friends had the most amazing flowers delivered to my hospital room. There were enormous lilies, unbelievable violets and lots of refined lavender.
But in actuality, these flowers felt sinister. My daughter’s birth was not a happy time for me. Or that is to say, not exactly a cause for celebration.
My entry into motherhood was traumatic. A classic tale of hospitals and doctors not believing a woman’s own opinion about what was happening in her body. For almost my entire pregnancy, I complained of horrible pains and bleeding, but not one of the medical professionals I saw while I was pregnant believed anything was really wrong.
The day I went into labor, I came into the hospital shaking. I could barely write my name on the entrance form because of the pain.
After waiting, I saw a nurse, who said that I was obviously dehydrated and that some fluids would help me. I knew something bigger wasn’t right. I was hooked up to fluids and monitored, with the nurse coming in periodically to tell me that I needed to calm down because this was “going to be a great pregnancy.” I started screaming and was rushed to a delivery room. Within minutes, I was dilated to 10 cm. My daughter was born at 29 weeks.
NICU nurses and doctors are both geniuses and angels, but it is still very hard to have a baby too early. They cannot breathe or eat on their own and need to be hooked up to breathing machines and constantly monitored. My daughter had to stay in the NICU for two months.
Every day was an unspeakable set of chaotic emotions.
When you have a baby in the NICU, you feel as if you have little agency. All of these other people are able to touch your baby and help her live, but you barely are. I was always told that being a mother would make me feel powerful, but instead I felt powerless.
I felt isolation, both imposed and as a necessity. I tried to avoid getting close to anyone who might be sick or who smoked. I began to see hugging someone as a potentially lethal action, in case I picked up germs that I would then pass to my baby.
I tried to be a good mother, even as my new baby was miles away from me every night. I wrote poems for her, hoping one day she might read them.
This collection turned into my book called “Milk.” When my baby was born too early, I felt that I had failed her. My breast milk (which I pumped and they gave to her through a feeding tube), was all I could give to show I loved her. Breast milk became my only means of communication to her.
Somewhere in this process I began to see that for me, breast milk was like what my poetry had always been in my life, a way to have a source of agency and creativity, when other ways have failed me. My milk, like my poems, is an important elixir.
My daughter is three now and doesn’t breastfeed anymore. It was difficult transitioning her to the breast when she came home, after using milk that readily flowed from the bottle after being pumped, but our bond was like a poem, where the transfer of words is sweet and nourishing and frightening all at once.