I had planned every aspect of my daughter's birth -- including the song we'd play as I delivered her. I didn't plan for her to have Down syndrome.
M y husband, Brett, and I had wanted a second child so badly. We had lost a pregnancy, and then got pregnant again. We'd been waiting and preparing for the arrival of our daughter Nella, and finally, it was all just. . . perfect. When my labor pains started, everything was packed and ready: the birth music; the receiving blankets I'd made; the nightgown I bought specifically for the first night I'd rock my new baby to sleep; the Big Sister crown for our 2-year-old, Lainey; and the coming-home outfit. I'd hand-designed 50 favor boxes too, which were filled and all set to be passed out to visitors. My heart could hardly hold the anticipation.
We left Lainey with Grandma and headed over to the hospital, where I was quickly instructed to drop trou and gown up. I put my white ruffled skirt and black shirt into a plastic bag. Days later, the mere sight of these clothes -- the ones I wore during those last happy moments before my life was changed forever -- would bring me pain.
By 2 p.m., my contractions were coming full force, and the delivery room was full of excitement and laughter. Several of my girlfriends were supposed to go to a birthday party, but they came dressed to the nines beforehand to check on me. (My hospital, unlike many others, doesn't have an official guest policy.) I liked the commotion. I loved the feeling of having people waiting anxiously for our baby.
Two hours went by, and I was off the wall in pain, begging for an epidural. But the anesthesiologists were busy. I looked around the room and tried to take it in. . . the candles, the music, the lavender oil I'd brought that wafted through the air. I remember telling myself, "You are about to meet your new daughter." Then I heard the sounds of the song we'd chosen to play as I delivered our baby, "When You Love Someone" by Bryan Adams. And I began to cry.
My husband, my friends, my dad, the nurses, all of them smiling, cameras flashing. I pushed, and pushed, and pushed, then finally watched as the tiniest little body came out of me, arms flailing, lungs wailing. . . and then, they handed her to me. And I knew.
I knew the moment I saw Nella that she had Down syndrome and that nobody else had realized it yet. I held her and cried. I panned the room to meet the eyes of anyone who would tell me she didn't have it. And all I can remember of those moments is her face. I will never forget my daughter in my arms, opening her eyes over and over as she locked eyes with mine and stared, boring a hole into my soul.
Love me. Love me, she seemed to be telling me. I'm not what you expected but, please, love me.
That was the most defining moment of my life.
Baby Care Basics: What is Down Syndrome?
Nella was scooped off my chest and taken to the warming bed where the nurses nervously smiled as they checked her over. I kept asking if she was okay, and they told me she was fine. I wanted to say the words, but couldn't. So I asked why her nose was smooshed, why she looked funny. But I knew. I cried while everyone smiled and took pictures of her. I kept asking, "Is there something you aren't telling me?" They just kept smiling. The nurses had apparently called my pediatrician in for "D.S. suspicions." But they handed my daughter back to me as if everything were okay.
I cry when I think about this time, wondering what I did. I know I prayed to every power in the world that this wasn't happening. Did Nella feel love? Did I kiss her? My friends promised me I did. They said I couldn't stop kissing her.
Someone popped a bottle of champagne and poured it into our monogrammed glasses, and a toast was raised -- "To Nella!" -- as I sat there, confused, trying to take it all in.
I remember feeling nothing. As if I literally left my body for a little bit. Our pediatrician, Dr. Foley, walked in, and my heart sank. "Why is she here?" I asked. They told me she was just checking the baby out, which she did. The room grew quiet, and everyone was asked to leave. I started shaking. I knew it was coming. Brett stood behind me, stroking my hair.
Dr. Foley snuggled Nella up in a blanket and handed her to me. She knelt down next to my bed so that she could look up at me, not down. She smiled so warmly and held my hand so tight. And she never took her eyes off mine.
"I need to tell you something."
I cried hard. "I know what you're going to say."
She smiled again and squeezed my hand a little tighter.
"The first thing I'm going to tell you is that your daughter is beautiful and perfect, but there are some features that lead me to believe she may have Down syndrome." Finally, someone said it.
Dr. Foley hugged me and told me she'd already had a chance to hold Nella for her examination, but now she wanted to hold her just for some snuggles. And she did. Then I nursed Nella -- a dreamy moment I had always anticipated, and yet it felt so different this time. She latched right on with no hesitation, and I realized that she had completely accepted me as her mama and I felt so guilty that I didn't feel the same way. I felt love for her, yes. But I couldn't stop envisioning this other baby, the one who I felt had died the moment I realized Nella wasn't what I expected. Still, the nursing was such an incredibly bonding experience.
Meanwhile, Brett never left our girl's side. He was quiet through it all, and I'm not sure I'll ever know exactly what he felt. But I know the daddy of our two babies, and he wouldn't know how to do anything but love them with all his heart. And he did from the very start.
Then I was told that Lainey was on her way, and I cried new tears. I hadn't even thought yet about how this would impact Lainey. Every beautiful vision I'd had of two girls growing up together -- advice-giving, cooking, phone calls, shopping, everything -- would be different now. Numbness started leaving my heart, and sheer pain started settling in.
Don't cry. Don't cry. Don't cry when Lainey gets here.
I'll never forget Lainey's face when she walked into that room, the cute outfit someone had put her in, her wide eyes, and the way she couldn't stop smiling.
I'll always remember when Nella was placed in her arms. I watched in anguish and admiration as Lainey showed me what unconditional love looks like. What the absence of stereotypes feels like. She was proud.
A Long First Night
Brett eventually took Lainey home. Then people started trickling out, and I felt paranoid -- so completely afraid because I knew that the grief would come when darkness set in outside. I was left in the hospital with my two amazing, wonderful friends who will never, ever know how special they are because of what they did for me that night. They heard and saw things that no one else will, and I could never have made it through the night without them. I suppose it's horrible to say you spent the first night of your daughter's life in agony, but I know it was necessary for me to get through it and move on.
I cried out that I wanted to leave Nella and run away. I said that I wanted to take Lainey and our perfect world of art projects and cupcake-baking, and I wanted to run like hell. I wanted it to be the morning, before Nella was born, when I was happy and excited and when I wore the white ruffled skirt and black shirt and put them in the plastic bag, knowing joy was on its way. I wanted to go back.
I think I cried for seven hours straight. I held Nella and kissed her, but I literally writhed in emotional pain on that bed in the dark with our candles and my friends by my side. I begged for morning, even once mistaking a streetlight for sunlight only to find out it was 3 a.m. and I still had hours left to make it through.
Morning finally came, and with it, hope.
My sister Carin arrived. She told me that I could never go back, and, with tears in her eyes, she told me how lucky I was. She told me that I had been chosen and that we were going to be just fine.
There have been lots of tears since that day. There will be many more to come. But Nella's birth has charted a new, challenging journey for our family. Although it still seems surreal and so off course from what I had planned for my life, I know that only one thing is required of me: to love my beautiful daughters.
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Parents magazine.