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Child Not Mine
When love is the lesson, biology doesn't matter

Unable to bear children after two ectopic pregnancies in her twenties, the author volunteers at an infant ward and for three hours a day she holds babies. Some are abandoned, some abused, others are premature or sick. As she sits and rocks she wonders what their tiny lives are all about?
By Brenda Miller  

I bend and thread my arms through a tangle of I.V. lines and lift the child away from her crib. I back myself into a rocking chair, by now an expert at holding the array of tubing aloft, hardly noticing anymore the bandages, the bruises, the cuts.

Infant Ward

This child is not my own, but still the words of possession slip from me: my baby girl, my sweet baby. I've never seen her before this minute, but I think I know what she needs: the lights at her hospital bedside dimmed, her loose arms girdled securely against her chest. This patient has no name except "Girl _______," a family surname typed on the identification card at the end of her crib. She's too young, too early, to have a name like Betty, or Jennifer, or Anastasia. She surprised everyone, caught her parents without a crib or a car seat, without the casseroles in the freezer, without the stamina. I pat her back, I shade her eyes, I clutch both her hands in my palm, strong against her sternum. She relaxes and makes a soundnot a laugh or a sob,but something in betweena sigh moist with resignation.

It's a moment of simple communication, common here on the infant ward at Children's Hospital. I gurgle back to her and so we converse, our rudimentary voices vibrating the cord that governs reflex. Conflict resolution is reduced to this: she sticks out her tongue; I stick out mine. She blinks; I blink. She makes a gurgled moan, and so do I. She cries, and my voice veers up in commiseration: yes, I know, everything's going to be all right.

Though, of course, I know no such thing. I know nothing about her except her immediate physical needs and desires. I don't know which organs are failing, or if there are gaps that weaken her heart, or where her parents might be. I'm just a volunteer; every Wednesday I put on a blue jacket with my name tag, then I hold babies for three hours. I'm just a volunteer, I say when a parent mistakenly asks me about medications, or when a doctor arrives to pass his flashlight across a baby's face. That "just" modifies me; I become a presence inconspicuous yet necessary as a ceiling tile, or a light.

I know nothing, and in lieu of knowledge I cultivate instinct. I slip through the halls, almost invisible, drawn by a baby's cry anywhere on the floor. I snap on the latex gloves. I bend and thread my arms through a tangle of I.V. lines and lift the child away from her crib. I back myself into a rocking chair, by now an expert at holding the array of tubing aloft, hardly noticing anymore the bandages, the bruises, the cuts. The baby might promptly fall asleep, but I go on rocking and rocking. I can't put her down, not yet. I know she feels me rocking even in her sleep. I hope she drifts into a dream of comfort and love without surcease. Her breathsour and bitterbecomes my breath, her stuttering heart my own.

Or she might stay awake, gazing at me and wondering. I rock "Girl ______" for two hours. The motion reminds me of the davening of Jewish men at the front of the synagogue: the repeated half-bow to an unseen presence, the bodily gesture of prayer. The baby blinks slowly, her fingers tug at the oxygen tube in her nose, her pupils expand just slightly when they alight on my face. Three different I.V. bags dispense liquids drop by drop. The tubes converge into a single needle piercing the back of her hand, held rigid by a padded splint. A nurse beckons to me, so I lift the child back into her crib, place her on her side, and tuck a rolled blanket against her back. I watch her a few seconds more, my chest already cold with her absence. I know, if she's lucky, we'll never see each other again.


When I first learned I couldn't have children, I tried to redeem this fact by thinking I could now mother all children, Sometimes, as I rock and rock with these babies, I feel myself approach such an ideal,But, more often, I look around the ward and feel only cranky and useless, overwhelmed by the infants: so many of them nameless, unwanted, their eyes shut tight against the world.

The nurse asks me to help pacify a distressed preemie, and I slip my hands through the gloves in the incubator and stroke a stomach the size of a newborn kitten's. He's crying, but I barely hear him through the plastic walls, and soon he settles down: his arms lie open at his side, his mouth shapes itself to an imaginary breast.

Around me, the ward projects an aura of stabilityno emergencies here, no alarm. One floor above us lies Intensive Care: many of the babies descend from that plane, returned from the brink, their parents exhausted and pale. One floor below is the emergency room: many of the babies ascend from there, successfully returned from seizures, choking, concussion. Sandwiched between the floors of panic lies this base of equilibrium, with its multiple I.V. stands, chairs rocking, babies sleeping, every breath monitored, every pulsemany of the patients so small they're only a swell of blankets in the middle of these vast hospital cribs. We're surrounded by the mesh of protocol: nurses slip from task to task, swaddling a baby in an instant, stripping paper off thermometers, writing every observation in their chartsthese actions merge into one, and they lull me into feeling that all is business as usual, nothing could really go wrong.

But in one of the isolation rooms a child is screaming: a little girl, two days old, born with no anus. "She poops out the same hole as she pees," the nurse cheerfully tells me, in case I need to change her. I sit in the rocking chair, holding the newborn as she grimaces. I can't help it, I become acutely conscious of my own body: my colon, my vagina, my rectum; I imagine how easy it would be for something to go wrong, for the parts not to match up completely. One small error, and a lifetime of pain, discomfort, complication. Maybe not even that. Maybe not a lifetime.

Sleeper couches fold out next to each crib, and often the floor space surrounding them is cluttered with overnight bags, magazines, bags of snacks. In these cribs, Polaroid photos of mom and dad hang at eye level, crayon drawings by siblings chirp I love you!, and colorful handmade blankets are tucked into corners.

When no parents stand at these bedsides, I wonder where they are. I wonder where I would be if my baby were in a hospital crib, attached to a monitor to make sure she was alive. If my baby were in the hospital for three months, would I have the stamina to sleep in one of these white leatherette chairs every night? Would I walk outside under the blossoming cherry trees that line the driveway of Children's Hospital? Would I keep walking, down to Lake Washington, and on and on, gulping the fresh air, trying not to scream? I don't know. I want to believe I would be at the bedside every minute, holding my child against my belly. But, yesterday I had a splitting headache, and I wanted nothing more than to put down the fussing baby at my shoulder. I wanted nothing more than to be unburdened beneath the cherry trees.

When I was 20 years old I had two ectopic pregnancies which left me unable to bear children of my own. The fertilized eggs had grown in my fallopian tubes and burst the narrow ducts. Both times, after the miscarriages, I woke in a hospital room and felt not only the bandages on my groin, holding me together, but a vague sense of guilt, the feeling I was being punished for some terrible, unnamed transgression. I wasn't a religious person, growing up in a casually Jewish household, but now I went to the Hebrew Bible and read about the barren womenSarah, Rachel, Hannahwhose stories confirmed my fears. Infertility was a deliberate curse, an act of intention by a God who "closed up" the wombs of inadequate women. Conversely, bearing children was a blessingan opening and an absolution.

When I first learned I couldn't have children, I tried to redeem this fact by thinking I could now mother all children, become a kind of everyday saint in my nurturance. Sometimes, as I rock and rock with these babies, I feel myself approach such an ideal, my individual body effaced in these ancient, maternal gestures. But, more often, I look around the ward and feel only cranky and useless, overwhelmed by the infants: so many of them nameless, unwanted, their eyes shut tight against the world.

Most often the cribs I approach are steely blank, the baby wearing a hospital issue t-shirt, the only decoration on the crib an identification card and a densely scribbled chart. No balloons, no photos, no drawingsonly plain, flannel blankets from the hospital shelves. This naked bed usually signals that the child has been abandoned, left to the care of the hospital or the systems that stand in place for such infants. The parents cannot be found, or refuse to come, or are under arrest.

The mother has not visited for three weeks, a student nurse tells me, and so I hold this baby closer and whisper in its ear, as if these few hours could somehow make up for a lifetime of negliect.

I pat my hand rhytmically between their shoulderblades, mimicking an intr-uterine heartbeat, giving them as overriding stimulus aound which to organize chaos.

Today I walk by an isolation room where the i.d. card reads: "Doe, Jane." Beneath this card, a green slip of paper asks the parents or guardians of this child to come forward and fill out the requisite paperwork. I know this means the parents have disappeared. The shades are drawn; the door closed. I hover a moment but hear no cry, nothing to demand my presence, so I move on, my hands pushed deep into the square pockets of my blue jacket.

In the next room there is a baby girl born too early, at 30 weeks, to a teenager who received no prenatal care. The baby's bones were so brittle most of them fractured during delivery; now she's almost blind, her lungs are malformed, her hearing damaged. But, two months out of the womb, she seems determined to live: she sucks on her bottle voraciously, tugging the nipple into her mouth, her eyes popping. The mother has not visited for three weeks, a student nurse tells me, and so I automatically hold the baby closer, whisper in her ear, as if she needs it more than the others, as if these few hours could somehow make up for a lifetime's worth of neglect.

When I get home I tell my boyfriend about this child, about her medical problems and the absent mother. He responds: "Why didn't she just get an abortion?" And since he has spoken my hidden thoughts, the ones I've tried to suppress all afternoon, I become angry and leave the dinner table. I go out on the front steps and cry. When he comes out to apologize, I say: She is not an abstract concept anymore.

After my three months on this floor, the question of abortion has become more troubling to me, has sharpened into the one essential question: when did the few, divided cells inside a teen-aged girl become that baby whose weight I still felt in my arms? Certainly the girl might have been better off choosing abortion; perhaps her child is destined for nothing but a life of trouble and pain. But is there really some threshold between non-human and human that is crossed at three months, four months, or six? Does a fetus become human only when it looks like a person, with hands and fingers and hair? How do I explain the grief I still feel at my own miscarriages? The embryos were only four weeks old, but I still have the nagging sense that somethingsomething humanhas been irretrievably lost.

I have no answers, but I have too much time to question such things while I rock back and forth, these babies breathing rapidly in my arms. Some of them look as though they're still in the womb, they're that wrinkled and tenuous. I pat my hand rhythmically between their shoulder blades. I mimic an intrauterine heartbeat, giving the babies one overriding stimulus around which to organize chaos.

Sometimes they stop breathing a moment, suspended, and I panic. I nudge them a little, and their breath starts up, normal, smelling of milk. Their chapped lips twitch up into the reflex of a smile.

To volunteer, they say, is to be aligned with the fullness of your own volition. The term "volunteer" stems from the obsolete word "volunty" which means "that which one wishes or desires." You do this work because it comes from you naturally; if that impulse falters, you may stop, no questions asked. The volunteer tomatoes in my garden grow without any prompting from me; they arrive out of nowhere, and the volunteers are the hardiest ones, sticking it out long past the others have withered from drought or flood or disease.

My boyfriend said: "Perhaps you will be a blip on her memory, a second of comfort".

I remembered that one eye, open wise but focused on nothing. I could not reach her. When I stroked her, I'd tried to explain: this is what touch can mean.

We glance sideways at each other, us volunteers. We see the blue jackets out the corners of our eyes and nod. We come for different reasons, I know, though the motives all reduce to two or three identical lines on the application forms: I want to give something back to the community. I love kids. I'm interested in being a doctor. Hovering behind these lines are the other reasons: I'm lonely. I'm childless. I want to feel as if I matter. I want to be missed when I'm gone.

I don't know if I'm missed when I'm gone. I get in my car and remove the blue jacket, the name tag. My hands smell like baby, or of the soap at the ward sink, a vaguely nauseating combination of hospital and the insides of latex gloves lined with talc. My left arm will be sore for a day; I'll live the rest of the week mostly inside my office, writing, or going to the health club, riding my bicycle through the city streets to the bay. Then comes Tuesday. My schedule takes on a pleasing and necessary weight. "Tomorrow I'm at the hospital," I say to no one in particular, marking it again on the calendar.

Yesterday I held a baby who'd been beaten into a coma. I held her for my entire shift, her body unnaturally rigid, her cry like a cat's meow. Her nerves could still respond to pain, the nurse told me, but otherwise her brain was absent, her pupils fixed. She was six months old. "Doesn't look like she'll come out of it," the nurse said. She touched the baby's head gently, then left me alone with her. This girl seemed most comfortable nestled tightly against my side, while I remained motionless; any movement startled her reflexes and made her cry. Once, she sucked her pacifier for 20 minutes, this instinct bypassing the dead circuits in her brain. I memorized her eyelashesdeep black and impossibly long, curling against the ridge of her cheek.

I couldn't help but imagine the scene the moment the large hand struck the soft spot at her temple, the impact, the crack of bone. I held her in the crook of my arm; I became rigid, like her, stiff as a catatonic. Hours later, when the nurses and I finally wedged the girl upright in bed, I saw her face full-on for the first time. She was awake: one eye wide open, the other halfway closed. Her pupils blank. Her tongue resting dumbly inside her mouth.

When I left the hospital, I sat in my car and cried from exhaustion and fury. I drove home, my hands white against the steering wheel. I made dinner. I went to a movie. My boyfriend said: "Perhaps you will be a blip on her memory, a second of comfort." Perhaps. "Do you know how," he said, "when you're sick, and what you remember from those days is the hour a cool breeze came through the curtains, cooling you? That moment of relief?"

More likely I'll be nothing, or only a part of the continuum of pain. All that night I felt this baby's weight on my arm. I remembered stroking her knee, her calf, her toes already stiff, as if in rigor mortis. I remembered that one eye, open wide, but focused on nothing. I could not reach her. While I stroked her, I tried to explain: this is what touch can mean.

I am there only once a week. I hold usually one baby, maybe two, sometimes three. How do these nurses bear it, the doctors? I want to ask them, but they're too busy. The babies keep coming, arriving from Intensive Care, from the emergency room. Like sponges, the babies absorb all a family's frustration, an entire community's pain. They emerge, tactile evidence of abstract phenomena: here is the mottled face of poverty, there the body of abuse. Here are the hands of racism, inequity, and impotencebruised from the repeated probe of an I.V.

Today is my last day on the infant ward. I'm moving to Salt Lake City, and I know I'm going to miss these children more than I can say. The nurse, whose name I've never learned, has asked me to hold a little girl two months old, tiny as a newborn. This baby has a deep, phlegmy cough, so I need to wear a gown, gloves and a full facial mask to feed her the bottle. She stares at me, astonished, grinning so much the nipple keeps popping from between her lips. The world to her is all eyes, looming above pink paper masks, and I can sense her trying to strip these masks away with the force of her gaze. She wears a hospital issue t-shirt, and socks that slither up her calves like leg warmers. No books, balloons or drawings decorate her room. I see no name on her chart.

Who are you? I ask her, smiling under my mask. The nipple slides from her mouth. Her eyes are so bright I can hardly bear to look at them. They will burn me, I think, excavate all my fear and desire. But I lean a little closer to hear what she might say. Her arms windmill around her headpointing out the window to the cherry trees, to the other babies, to the nurses, and back to me. She keeps her gaze steady on my face. I am everything, she laughs. Who are you?

Who am I? I am a woman holding a baby not my own. I take her weight, light as it is, and hold her the way mothers will always hold infants: close to the breast, the heart.

The above is the unedited version. The edited version appeared in The Utne Reader, Mar-Apr 2000. Bimonthly. 1624 Harmon Place, Minneapolis, MN 55403, USA. www.utne.com. Published with permission.
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