That was what my very pregnant friend, Maija, asked me the other day.
It was when Madelyn went into the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, after she was born.
It came up because Maija is recently home from a nearly three week stay in the hospital, where she and the doctors successfully stopped her twin daughters from arriving two months early. Now home and just under four weeks away from her due date (and less than two from when the doctors would be happy for them to arrive), emotions float just under the surface.
"How did you get through it? I don't know how I could do it. How could I leave them at the hospital and just walk away? I don't think I could. I mean, how did you?"
As I listened to Maija, my immediate response was, "I was very strong. I did what I had to do. You will, too."
But as she spoke I remembered wanting answers to those questions. Over four years later, I remember them like yesterday. That line of questioning is, plain and simple, unnecessary self-abuse. It's as if the very act of leaving the hospital without your child is the first act of bad parenting you are carrying out. Abandonment at the very outset of this mommy and me relationship.
What kind of mother does that? I asked myself that question a lot before I walked out of the hospital without Madelyn.
Oh, I was terribly hard on myself. Pretty sure I'm not the only one who has felt that way. Of course we know that it is healthier for some babies to stay in the hospital, in those damned plastic boxes.
Beyond the questions about how to get over that incredibly high hurdle, there was the matter of getting through every minute between birth and going home.
When it came to actually answering Maija's question, I gave her the truth as I now see it.
I handled it like a crazy person. I did. I smiled and nodded every time the nurse came to let me know that, no, Madelyn still wasn't stabilized, but they'd let me know as soon as she was.
"No, spending some time on oxygen didn't quite work like we'd hoped. The neonatalogist will be in to speak with you and your husband soon. We might be able to let you see her and hold her in the nursery before she is transferred to NICU."
"Here's a photo I just took of your daughter (covered in wires and tape and little gold heart shaped stickers). She's beautiful. I don't say that to everyone. Sometimes I just say, "Whoa, hey, it's a baby!" Hopefully we'll get you over to see her soon. You won't be able to hold her, but you might be able to touch her foot. Hopefully."
The crazy person in me came out smiling and full of energy and trying to act like everything was fine. It was fine and I was fine and I could do it my own self, thank you very much.
What did I do after 36 hours of labor, including more than three at 8+ centimeters, and delivering an 8 pound 3 ounce broad-shouldered baby? I walked from Labor and Delivery to my new room in Maternity. Carrying some of the rather obnoxious quantities of personal belongings we'd schlepped to the hospital.
Other nurses protested as my nurse and I passed their station. If I could have worn a top hat and tap shoes, I would have jazz handed my way from one department to the next.
"She should be in a wheelchair! Why is she carrying her things?"
And there I was, smiling and waving, even laughing a little at them, "I feel great. It's okay. I can do this."
And clearly, I could. Some of why I could had to do with giving birth naturally and all the amazing things a body does for a woman whose just given birth. But a lot of it was just me literally putting one foot in front of the other. Getting through this minute while I tried to come up with a plan for the next one.
Away from the nurses and doctors, I let my true feelings out. Breaking down on the phone to my aunt in Wisconsin because no one else was available.
Tom was with Madelyn, where he belonged.
My mom and Corey had gone to her house to sleep off the all-nighter they'd just pulled with me. They left before we knew how serious the problem was.
Nancy, who left the same all night labor along with Mom and Corey, went and picked up her husband and took him on what turned out to be his last trip sailing until his ashes were buried at sea the following year.
Honestly, it has only just occurred to me that I could have used that energy to go be with my daughter and husband. Isn't it strange how the brain works? Why didn't I get that?
The other thing about having this experience with Madelyn is that it never goes fully away. No, I don't sit around silently weeping about it. I don't wake up in the middle of the night catching my breath. I don't even think about it often.
But if I read or hear a story about someone going through a similar situation (or worse... and we got off comparatively easy, so the stories are worse), the memories come and tears will probably flow. The feelings of that time are right there.
Back when my water had broken with Fynn and Tom pulled our car up to the hospital, my mood made a sudden shift from giddy to somber.
This was the place where we left our first daughter.
Apparently I am not alone in carrying these thoughts and emotions. Maija recently witnessed something that brought back the equally traumatic experience of the birth of her first daughter. She and her husband contained themselves because that's what people do, and because their young daughters were with them. And also because the father was standing next to them in the hall as his wife was raced down the hall for an emergency C-section, and who wants to be the jackass who falls apart in front of him?
Having read hundreds of birth stories with happy and sad endings, I am fully aware that four days in NICU is hardly anything at all. And coming home isn't guaranteed. I'm sure Maija knows that emergency C-sections happen all the time, and that they don't always end with a beautiful child to raise.
We get it.
All the same, it's pretty safe to say that the births of our first daughters were some of the most difficult times of our lives. I am amazed at how emotionally tied to that experience I am more than four years later. I probably will always be.