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24 august 2007

Living Without Water
By Minke Sundseth

My son Noah has been battling an ear infection, and last Sunday we made the familiar trip to Urgent Care to have his ears checked for the second time in a week. They were both bright red and bulging, and we left the building with a bottle of the pink stuff, some numbing drops, and a very unhappy toddler.

Watching him in pain tugs at me like a painful itch. I cannot settle, I cannot go about my business, and I am ineffectual and listless. My baby is in pain, and I feel guilty, even if I do not know for what, exactly. For bringing him into the world so he can now lie on the floor in our living room in pain? It sounds less rational than it feels. He won't let me hold him, and it hurts to watch him writhing on our blue rug with his hands on his ears, crying and refusing help.

My twin toddlers are NICU survivors, born after a rocky, scary pregnancy, with me in and out of the hospital and on months of bed rest, eventually making it to a blessed 35 weeks, just 2 weeks shy of full term for twins. Though there was an air of grateful relief around us in the NICU, I had to begin my new motherhood watching a bunch of wires, tubes, beeping machines and professionals do what I wanted desperately  to be able to do myself.

Nursing them was my go at this. With my body, I was able to nurture them with my own manna, pass my own nourishment beyond myself to flow into them. I was able to soothe not only their hunger, but also their tears, their pains, and their overflowing tiredness and emotions. Nursing was a kind of mama magic, and it made up for a lot.

But they are weaned. Noah weaned himself at 14 months, going from nursing to walking in a week’s time, and Oliver weaned at 17 months when I had to leave town suddenly to be with my mom, who was unexpectedly hospitalized. I don't think I've had time to grieve this change in our relationship, and it catches me at perhaps predictable moments.

As I sat on the floor watching Noah flail and cry out in pain, I at first came up with little I could do to help. Not being able to scoop him up, nurse him, or even rock him, I sat there shaking, thinking that perhaps I’ll never again have a tool quite as perfect as nursing was. Breathing in and out, choking back my own tears, a few practical options finally came to mind. A warm compress to the ear, maybe; some yogurt to help protect his tummy from the antibiotics. I grieved having only such impersonal tools to help him; that I was playing fetch with yogurt and compresses instead of being able to fold him into my arms, feeding him, and having that be better than anything else. Because once the wires and tubes were disconnected, and the professionals had moved on to other, sicker babies, that was the greatest gift, rocking and nursing in our big old recliner, finally home, crowding everything else out except our growing attachment to one another.

Noah still crying, I stepped carefully over toy trucks and blocks and made my way into the kitchen. As I opened the refrigerator, I let the cold air wash over me, breathing it in.  I fixed some yogurt for Noah, and its sweet scent brought me right back into the Parent Resource Room of the NICU, where every morning I took a stolen 20 minutes to eat a giant bowl of cereal, maple yogurt and bananas. I sat at the round vinyl table under fluorescent lights, still able to hear the distant beeping and bustle, and filled myself up greedily with good food, finally hungry again after 8 months, hungry to feed my boys and fill a new role. I sometimes don't even know what propelled me to work so hard to have my boys, through months of negative pregnancy tests, through the surgeries, and the miscarriage. I could not have known, after all, just how much I would love this, how much I would love them. Even months into mothering them, I didn't yet know, as I do now, how the thought of not being able to do this would be like trying to imagine living without water.

Nursing was a brief episode of symbiosis, a time where the place they were and the place I wanted to be matched up perfectly for a little while. And now, after three years of waiting to become a mother, waiting for the facts of their existence to catch up with the strongest want for anything I have ever known,  my boys are now running ahead of me full speed, not always looking back and waiting for me to catch up. After all these months of having my arms so very full of children, it is painful to feel them as empty again, even if it's just a matter of degrees.

Noah ate a few bites of yogurt, then perked up quite a bit after the baby Motrin and the numbing drops kicked in. He became almost giddy with relief, dive-bombing my lap, playing peek-a-boo behind his brother, putting his suddenly long arms around my neck and squeezing hard, his cheek pressed against mine. I find, in these moments, such a heartfelt appreciation for who he is always in the process of becoming that I am at peace. Separation is yet another aspect of the pursuit and journey of motherhood that I cannot control, that is always going to be a combination of grief, wonder, and messy love. Nursing or not: for now, I’ve still got the best seat in the theatre.

Minke Sundseth is a freelance writer living in South Minneapolis. She writes about parenthood, gardening, urban living, and local issues. Her twin boys are now over two, and prefer to use big-boy cups and spoon their own yogurt. 




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