The first photo of my premature baby

By Yvonne Spence
@Yvonne__Spence

We have a solitary photo of our second daughter on her first day of life. A nurse took that photo with an old Polaroid camera. She must have stooped slightly and clicked, snapping our baby through the glass wall of an incubator. She probably did it in a hurry, between checking a monitor, pricking a baby’s heel to draw blood, making notes on a chart.

The little door on the far side of the incubator is more in focus than our baby. She lies facing the camera, but her features aren’t visible. Straps of a pale yellow hat, straps that hold a ventilator tube in place, cover most of her face. A dark smudge indicates where her hair is. Light shimmers onto her forearm, folded across her chest, and onto her distended belly. A blue fuzzy shape indicates a sticky pad that holds wires onto her chest. In the foreground are more fuzzy shapes, blobs of blue and yellow.

That photo was the first blurred glimpse I had of my baby.

The bruises on her face are hidden from the camera, as are the splints on both her arms and legs, as well as the needles they hold in place—needles that pierce her hands and feet. They were not hidden from me, though, when I saw her for the first time. By then, she was wearing a different little hat and had a different machine to help her breathe. It was progress. It was good. The nurses told me so, the doctor told me so. This new machine was one I’d never heard of: a C-Pap.

I knew what ventilators did. At least I knew they kept people alive, helped them breathe. My memories of them from my own childhood were of stories of quintuplets and sextuplets and that it was big news when one of those babies came off of them. Television newsreaders smiled as they told us how well the babies were doing, and looked grave as they warned of the risks. Sometimes at the next report, the newsreader announced the baby was back on the ventilator, or worse.

There were no news cameras to report our baby coming off the ventilator. I didn’t even know it had happened till hours afterwards. I slept through it.

To the doctors and nurses, being off the ventilator only three hours after birth meant she was a “good baby.” To me it meant nothing. No celebration, no easing of the fear that ate into me that day and every day for months to come. What was the point of celebrating when doctors kept warning of setbacks that would surely come? When we couldn’t even hold our baby?

It didn’t occur to me to pose for a mother and baby photograph either, and it didn’t occur to my husband to take one. He had been home already, he had slept and collected our toddler from his parents’ house, but had not thought to look for a camera. It was a weekend. I’d gone to the hospital because the emergency doctor thought I had a bladder infection. I was 26 weeks pregnant and expected to be back home that night. I didn’t even take my pajamas, let alone a camera.

After the baby arrived, my mind felt simultaneously drawn in, shuttered down and scattered. The past was a land I’d left unwillingly behind, a place where I longed to return, a place of safety. The past intruded into each waking moment, taunting me with memories of each step that might have led to this no man’s land my life had become. The future was a cliff edge. For a baby born this early, it was dangerous to dream, to imagine, to hope. If I dared to trust, my trust would be shattered. Terrifying as it felt to go through the motions of that day, it was safer than thinking ahead.

Because photographs suggested a future, a future in which we would look back at this moment, but a future where our baby might be gone, and this blurred image would become all we had of her.

Yet, over the next few days, nurses persuaded me that it would be better to have pictures of my baby than not. They said that parents whose babies had died were glad of the mementos. It helped them grieve. They talked too about parents whose babies survived and how they also were glad of the pictures, of the chance to look back and see how far they’d come.

Those photographs smiled at me along the corridor to the Newborn Unit: tiny babies held skin-to-skin by their parents, toddlers on trikes, teenagers with sports trophies, their current ages and height listed to contrast with their gestational weeks and weight at birth. How far they had come.

And how far we still had to go.

Sometimes I wish we had a better photograph from that first day—a perfect preemie shot like the ones in magazines, a photo that shows her pinhead fingernails and the way the waves of her hair clung to her head, shimmering as if it was wet.

Often when I show people that first photograph, they gasp. “Oh,” they say, “she’s so tiny.”

And I wonder how they can tell, if they even can make out anything at all. I feel compelled to point out the tube, the hat. “This is her face,” I say. “That’s an arm, and that’s her stomach.”

They nod and murmur, “It must have been so hard. You went through so much.” As their eyes drift, I wonder what difficulty of their own they are remembering. Sometimes they tell me. A moment their baby was ill, or a complication during birth. Sometimes, they just touch the photograph and say, “She’s a miracle.”

“Yes,” I say. And she still is.

Yvonne Spence was halfway thorough an MA in Creative Writing when her second daughter arrived three months prematurely. Keeping a journal helped her through that time and she is now working on a book to support mothers of premature babies. You can read more of her writing at yvonnespence.com.

Get Motherwell straight to your inbox.