By Maria Brislin-
Shortly after our wedding I became a little obsessed with an unusual movie. There was no dialogue and very little plot- just a bunch of Emperor penguins in the middle of Antarctica painstakingly circling through gale force winds, each one slowly starving as it battled to protect one small, fragile egg. I loved every minute of this epic struggle to parenthood and barely noticed at the time that it is the male penguins- the dads- who precariously balance the egg atop their feet, surrounding it with warmth throughout the endless Arctic night, while the moms disappear in search of food. When the moms return, months later, it's the dads who- if fate has been kind- introduce them to their precious chicks.
Five years later, my fertility specialist optimistically said, "Here's a picture of the baby" as he handed me a photo of the one egg I had produced during our IVF cycle. (For the uninitiated, during an IVF cycle you're supposed to make about a dozen- so only making one egg was a complete failure; until that one egg became an actual baby.)
But then 20 weeks into the pregnancy we learned that our unborn baby had a congenital diaphragmatic hernia, or CDH, and with that came a mere 50% survival rate. Somehow we withstood 20 more weeks of pregnancy purgatory. I focused all my time and energy on trying to calmly grow a new human, while enduring endless medical tests and struggling through carb withdrawal (yeah- I got gestational diabetes, too). Meanwhile, everything else was left to my husband. He paid the bills, took care of the dogs, cleaned the house, vetted surgeons, argued with insurance companies, held my hand through the nicu tour, and meticulously painted and decorated a nursery for a baby that might not live.
And finally, as Hurricane Irene headed straight for New York City, he drove us to our Children's Hospital and then slept while I struggled through a long night of labor. The nurses joked about it at the time, saying that I shouldn't let him rest while I suffered- but we had a plan all along- he was my penguin.
Shockingly, when my son was born he was pink and let out a tiny cry. He had apgars of 8 and 9- miraculous for a CDH baby! I had been so certain that he would code at birth that my MFM actually grabbed my hand and put it on my son's head- I was paralyzed with amazement at his life. All the while, there was my husband- cutting the cord, joking with the doctors, and dutifully pressing the button that we all knew had stopped administering pain relief long ago.
As planned, within seconds of delivery, our son was whisked away to the trans-NICU and a few hours later my husband was finally allowed to cross the hall and meet our son.
All alone he walked the path from being a man to being a dad; and without me by his side he looked past the ventilator, the wires, and the tubes and fell in love.
I was stuck on a gurney in labor and delivery. For nine months I had protected our son. But in those first, most critical hours, it is the NICU dad who walks the solitary path into the perilous arctic night, who takes a tiny hand in his own and whispers secret words of love and encouragement that only his baby hears. Alone, he ignores the wail of alarms and takes in what the NICU nurses say, alone he talks to the doctors and specialists. Then he takes a camera in his hand, hoping that he can capture the moment, hoping that a few pictures can contain all the love to bring back to his wife who lies helpless and broken by fear on a gurney.
In retrospect there are a million moments, both big and small, that fill me with gratitude when I think about my husband. From working a full time job and commuting over four hours a day to take me into NYC to see our son, to running interference with everyone from family members to charge nurses, to making sure that there was a clean bottle waiting every single morning after our son came home; my husband relentlessly faced the hardships of each new day, always contemplating how he could balance even more of the load to further lighten my share of the burden.
But out of all these things, the one that I appreciate the most is that when I could not be there, he walked alone into the eye of the storm and surrounded our newborn son with warmth and love.
Hours later when I was finally well enough to be rolled on a stretcher into the trans-NICU, it was my husband that- fearless and full of pure joy- introduced me to our precious son. And for that, I am forever grateful.