Romper

My Newborn's Jaundice Made Me Wonder If I Was A Good Mom

Courtesy of Gemma Hartley

When my son was born, I remember constantly studying each tiny feature in those first few days. I was in awe that somehow my husband and I had created an entirely new person, and he seemed so absolutely perfect. However, everything was not as perfect as I thought it was. It turned out my newborn had jaundice, and I had no idea.

It wasn’t even that I didn’t notice the tone of his skin. I recall remarking in the delivery room that I thought he might have inherited my Indian mother’s olive complexion. It was, after all, a dominant trait I carried. He was born with a head of dark hair as well, so it made sense to me that he might have taken on the features of my mother instead of me. It wasn’t even something I questioned, even for a minute. I didn’t worry about how much he slept, because everything I was told and everything I had read said that newborns sleep most of the time. In those first few days, how was I supposed to tell he was lethargic? How was I even supposed to know? He might've been my baby, but I'd only known him for a few days. Before him, I'd never had a newborn. I had no idea what was and was not normal.

Even though I was concerned about breastfeeding, a lactation consultant came to my room, saw him latch once, and decided I was just fine. I was new at this, so it was hard to tell whether or not things were going OK. He didn’t seem like he was eating much or for very long, but I'd also read that at birth, babies' stomachs were the size of a marble. I kept wanting to assume that I was doing the right thing, that I was going to be OK. The thought of taking him home from the hospital was overwhelming enough without suspecting that I was doing everything wrong.

Courtesy of Gemma Hartley
He had lost too much weight. He was severely dehydrated from not getting enough milk. He looked very yellow. He didn’t have just a little bit of jaundice like some newborns do, he needed to be hospitalized for it, set under bilirubin lights in a small incubator for nearly a week.

So we took him home for a day before we would have to return to the hospital for his three-day checkup. My husband commented that he looked a little yellow, but I wasn’t sure. I still thought he might just have a different skin tone. I didn’t notice how yellowed his eyes were because he was always sleeping. I didn’t notice how little he was eating because I was having trouble keeping track of everything in the haze of my exhaustion. I thought that was normal, too. I thought everything was fine.

Then, when we took him in for his three-day appointment, the nurse had hardly weighed him before she was ushering us to another room to run some tests. He had lost too much weight. He was severely dehydrated from not getting enough milk. He looked very yellow. He didn’t have just a little bit of jaundice like some newborns do, he needed to be hospitalized for it, set under bilirubin lights in a small incubator for nearly a week.

Courtesy of Gemma Hartley

We went to the children’s hospital and I sat with him for over an hour while nurses tried to find a place to put in an IV for over an hour because he was so dehydrated. They were pricking every part of his body and all I wanted to do was cry. I felt so helpless, but most of all, so clueless. How could I not know that my baby was in such grave danger? How could I hold him all day long and not realize something was wrong?

The truth is, motherhood never gets easier — you get better at it.

Once he was set up in his incubator, a nurse came in to ask about his eating habits. She wanted to know how much milk he drank at a time, and I didn’t know how to answer her. I was trying to breastfeed him but he obviously wasn’t getting enough. She seemed annoyed that I couldn’t give her an answer in ounces, but I had no idea how much or how little I was producing. I had to send my husband to Target in the middle of the night to buy a pump so I could feed him, and actually know if he was getting anything.

Courtesy of Gemma Hartley

I stayed awake for hours each night we stayed in the hospital, wondering if I was really cut out for this — for motherhood. I had a fierce love for my new baby, but I now felt I didn’t have the first clue as to how I should take care of him. I felt like I had no motherly intuition, and it scared me to death. I was so afraid that without that intuitive sense, I'd never be a good mom. Over the course of his first year, I overreacted every time he got sick. I was constantly and irrationally afraid that he was going to die, often checking on him while he napped and inadvertently waking him. His stint with jaundice had placed so much doubt in my mind about whether or not I could be a good mother, that I felt like I could never relax.

It took years for me to realize that motherly intuition isn’t something I was born with, but something I'd learn over time. By the time my second child was born two-and-half years later, I'd been through the first of so many illnesses and unknowns that it was a completely different experience. I didn’t have an easier time because I was suddenly endowed with the mysterious intuition of motherhood; it was easier because I'd acquired the knowledge that can only come through experience. It was easier because I was more skilled at being a mom.

The truth is, motherhood never gets easier — you get better at it. You climb the steep learning curve no matter what is thrown at you, and that’s what makes you good at being mom. There is no a magical sixth sense that tunes you into your baby — at least, there wasn’t for me. There’s simply trial and error and a whole lot of learning.