My son, the second of my three children, was born in a lovely hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The decision to have him there was a relatively easy one. We lived nearby and had lived there for four years. We’d gone home to Indiana for the birth of our first child, but because of that experience, this birth would be a scheduled c-section. We would know the exact day weeks in advance and could plan for my mother to visit and help take care of things at home. I had a wonderful doctor, sort of a slightly older George Clooney type whose deep voice was incredibly reassuring, even if he did mention my weight gain a few too many times.
We were ready for a cross-cultural birth. We were excited for our son to be fully Argentine (not to mention how his citizenship would help us end our years-long paperwork process and achieve the coveted status of permanent resident).
Unsurprisingly, the experience was wildly different from our first one.
In many ways it was way better. I would never have chosen this route, but the truth is that scheduled c-sections are a dream. I got up and took a shower. I kissed my daughter and my mother good-bye. We drove calmly to the hospital and checked in. Instead of a long sleepless night of induction, followed by horrible hours of pitocin-induced contractions, followed by an emergency c-section featuring way too much anesthesia, followed by horrible tremors and nausea as a result of said anesthesia, we had a few bad moments while they put in the epidural followed by a quick and painless delivery with no anesthesia side-effects at all. Instead of my daughter’s smashed nose that had to be taped in place, my son had the perfectly smooth, round face of a much older baby. (He was also a whopping nine pounds. Thank you, c-section.)
Physically speaking, it couldn’t have been better.
Emotionally, though, I was off-kilter and unprepared. Here’s a little life tip: If you decide to have a major life experience in a foreign country, it’s probably a good idea to do some research before diving in.
The first clue that this was not going to be what we expected presented itself right after we arrived. Someone had warned me that the hospital wouldn’t provide diapers or blankets or anything for the baby, so we had come prepared for that, but when the nurse asked if I had brought supplies for my own recovery, I had a moment of panic. It had never occurred to me that I would need that. This was a hospital, right? In the US, you arrive with an extra pair of sweatpants in an overnight bag and they take it all from there. Here in Argentina, the nurse sighed as I told her that I did not in fact have all the necessary pads and girdles already purchased. She gave me the look you give to a flighty, thoughtless young thing when you are trying to be patient with her. She told Nate there was a pharmacy across the street and gave him a list of what was needed. I waited around feeling foolish while he went to have an extremely awkward conversation with a pharmacist.
Though the birth itself was great, afterwards, we found ourselves alone with our baby and a whole long afternoon before the brief visiting hours in the evening. When our daughter was born, the hospital was packed with friends and family anxiously waiting for her. She didn’t come until late at night, and I have photos of a crowd of people peeking in the nursery window to get a first glimpse of her. After they all went home for the night, I held my daughter and then the nurses gently suggested that they take her for a while to let me sleep. I gratefully agreed. From then on, any moment that I wasn’t feeding my daughter or sleeping, we had visitors or nurses buzzing around offering help.
Here, most of our people were far away, and those that were close were only allowed in during the evening visiting hours. Other than my parents and daughter and one friend, we didn’t see anyone that first day.
We didn’t see much of the nurses, either. The baby was healthy, alert, and quiet, and they pretty much left us to enjoy him. It felt a bit anticlimactic, but I was still okay until night fell.
It got dark about the same time the anesthesia wore off, and the painkillers they gave me weren’t strong enough. I was in pain. Nate was trying to get comfortable on a reclining chair. The baby started to cry.
After this went on for a while, I asked Nate to call the nurse. I had already asked for more pain medicine and knew I wasn’t going to get it, but I figured if the baby could go to the nursery for a while, I could try to get some rest at least.
He pressed the call button. After a few moments the nurse arrived.
“The baby is a little fussy, and I’m feeling exhausted,” I said, remembering all those nurses anxious to help me rest up from my last birth.
She looked at me sympathetically and waited for more.
“He just doesn’t seem to want to sleep, and I need some rest,” I explained.
“Would you like me to bring you a bottle to give him?” she asked.
I was confused. “No, I already nursed him. He’s just awake and I need to sleep for a bit.”
Now she looked confused. Nate was holding the baby.
“Could you maybe just take him for a little bit?” I asked more directly.
She stared at me. “I’m not allowed to do that unless there’s something medically wrong,” she said.
Nate and I looked at each other. The truth began to dawn. This hospital had no nursery. This baby was not going to leave our room.
After an awkward pause, the nurse said if we didn’t need anything that she had to go. We nodded tiredly. She left.
In retrospect, it makes perfect sense. No Argentine would ever voluntarily send their baby to be watched by strangers in his first few nights on earth. You keep your kids with you. It’s just how it works.
At the time, though, tired and in pain and already feeling lonely, I experienced a moment of despair. My sweet baby who had been quiet and sleepy all day was clearly now going to be loud and awake all night.
And we were on our own.
Maybe you’ve had this moment. The moment when you look around for someone to rescue you and realize that no one is coming. You’re the adult. You’re the one who has to do the rescuing.
That day, September 25, 2006, was my first time. It wouldn’t be the last.
I’d pretty much spend the next decade having moments like that. The only thing that’s different now is that I know better than to waste time looking around for a miracle.
This is being a grown up. I know I said earlier that research would have helped, and it probably would have, but the truth is that in adult life, and parenting especially, I have never found a way to avoid having my expectations turned on their head. You don’t have to travel to another country to find that you don’t know what you’re doing. Things often don’t go the way you think they will, and they almost never look the way you imagined. Feeling overwhelmed and scrambling to figure out what to do next is part of the deal.
There’s no guide book for this. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.
I honestly have no memory of how we survived that first night. When you look for rescue and it doesn’t come, you just do the best you can. When you’ve been cut open and sewn back together, and somehow it’s someone else who is crying, you grit your teeth through the pain and you take care of them.
I can tell you this. My husband was a rock star. He got very good at dozing with a baby balanced on his chest. I can tell you that we went home as absolutely early as the hospital would release us, and that my son, who would eventually be my best sleeper, had his days and nights confused for the first weeks of his life, and that my mother saved my sanity by holding him during the wee hours of the night so I could get a little sleep.
Because in the end, we were not actually alone. We were loved and supported by many people, as we have been in every crisis. There is no one to ride to the rescue any more, but there are often people to have our backs.
And for those dark nights with no help and no rest, there is the reminder that we’ve had other nights like these. That we lived through them. That we’ll live through this one, too.