By Amie Klempnauer Miller
I am obsessed with excrement. I call the nurse, even though it is Sunday, to ask how concerned I should be if we have not had a soiled diaper in thirty-six hours. Wets, yes. Stools, no. Our daughter, Hannah, now just two-and-a-half weeks old, has been a slow starter in this arena. The nurse is reassuring, suggesting that Hannah might just be a “reluctant pooper.” She advises me to give the baby a sitz bath, to kind of warm things up down there. If that doesn’t work, she says, try a little anal sphincter stimulation with a rectal thermometer. If that doesn’t work, try half of a glycerin suppository. If that doesn’t work, good Lord.
And so we begin. Jane, my partner and Hannah’s birth mom, pours a bowl of warm water and we dip our baby’s little bottom in it. She screeches and urinates. Nothing else.
We put a little KY jelly on the rectal thermometer and give the anal stimulation a go. I cannot believe we are doing this. We are lesbians, for god’s sake. The only lesbians I have ever known who thought about anal stimulation were the women who always scared me when we lived in New York.
Still no stool, so we decide to give up for a while. Jane carries Hannah into the living room where she slumps down into the oversized blue armchair, the baby lying in her arms. Hannah is feeling mellow, now that we are not dipping her in bowls of water and coming at her with gooey probes. She begins to root around Jane’s chest where she knows hidden food awaits. Her mouth hangs open, like a baby robin groping for a worm. Jane pulls her shirt up with a look of resignation. The fatigue of new parenthood is setting in like a slow, looming storm front. The adrenaline of the first two weeks has dripped away. Hannah sucks for ten minutes or so and then falls blissfully into sleep.
Jane sets Hannah—gently, gently—into her carrier and tucks a pink-checked flannel blanket around her legs. We go into the kitchen to make lunch.
“Why did we do this?” Jane asks. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” I mutter. It’s surprising how quickly you wear down. Some things are not as bad as I expected: We get more sleep than many people, since our baby sleeps for one four-hour stretch each night. Before Hannah was born, I stocked the freezer with lasagna and soup and meatballs, so our diets haven’t been limited to take-out and toast. But the worry of new parenthood is far worse than I anticipated. The anxiety is intense. Hannah rasps and gurgles in the night and I leap out of bed to make sure she is still breathing. Her umbilical cord is seeping a little: Does that mean something is wrong? She spits up and I have no way of knowing what is normal and what is too much. If she soaks half of her bib, is that too much? Are three spit-ups okay, but six too many? Is this gastroesophageal reflux? Or is it just infancy?
I dread the evening because I know that the anxiety always gets worse after dark. With dusk comes fear. I tell myself that I needn’t be so worried. We have a support network, Hannah has checked out well at all of her doctor’s visits, and we have access to a twenty-four-hour nurse line. But at night, worries become obsessions and remote possibilities become impending certainties. I wait each night for the dawn.
Jane and I feast on each other’s anxieties. One of us worries about something, anything, reasonable or not (but best if it contains a kernel of possibility, a morsel of fact), and plants the seed in the other’s head. It takes root. It grows. We offer half-hearted reassurances: “I was just reading about encopresis, which is really terrible, but it usually doesn’t occur until later. She probably won’t develop it.” Meanwhile, each of us knows that the fear is growing, that the assurances are not heartfelt. And just as we know this, we know that we are feeding our own neuroses. And just as we know that, we become less and less able to do anything about it. We each withdraw, pulling back behind our own veil of worry.
“I think she’s fine,” I say. “But of course, we can call the doctor. Do you want to?” (You’re It.)
“No. I don’t think we need to call. What’s she doing? Is she all right?” (Now you.)
“She’s okay. I just wish she would have a stool. I can’t believe it’s been thirty-six hours.” (Your turn.)
“Why’s she crying again? Should we call the doctor?” (Back to you.)
“I don’t know. Maybe. What do you think?”
And on it goes.
My cousin, mother of two miraculously grown children, calls to check in. I tell her the Saga of the Stool. Stephanie suggests that we bicycle Hannah’s legs (already doing that), hold her vertically (gravity), and try not to worry (hopeless). As we are talking, Hannah begins to screech. Jane waves at me and says that she thinks it’s time for the suppository. I get off the phone. Jane carries Hannah into the nursery and puts her on the changing table. The glycerin suppositories, made for children, look impossibly enormous. I take one from the bottle and cut it down by two-thirds. We are ready.
Jane removes the diaper and almost whoops. There is a poo. Not a huge one, but not a smudge. We are thrilled. I put the suppository back into the bottle, we clean Hannah up, and we go back into the living room, grinning giddily. I am so pleased that I call Stephanie to report.
“The eagle has landed,” I say.
She’s as excited as I am. This must be the bond that holds parents together: shared excitement over basic bodily functions that are otherwise not discussed in polite company.
“That’s wonderful,” she says, and I know she means it. “Things are moving.”
We sink into the sofa, Jane cradling Hannah. I am exhausted. I feel like I’m in boot camp, but at least we have had a victory. We have made it another day.
A week later, we are convinced that Hannah has cystic fibrosis. The beauty of this anxiety is that it has some degree of rational basis. After Jane became pregnant, we learned that she carries the most common genetic mutation that causes the disease. We immediately confirmed that our sperm bank screens all of its donors for the thirty most common mutations and does not accept anyone who tests positive. But still, we worry.
I scrutinize the entry on cystic fibrosis in the Boston Children’s Hospital Guide to Your Child’s Health and Development—which we own—and learn that symptoms include wheezing, coughing, and digestive problems. Every time Hannah wheezes, snorts, grunts, gasps, or spits up, all of which she does with regularity, I am convinced that it is confirmation of chronic illness.
We learn that the initial test for cystic fibrosis is a sweat test. The doctor collects a little sweat from the child and measures the saline content. An elevated salt level can signal a positive result. I stay up at night and feel my heart clench when Hannah snorts. Jane admits that she has secretly been licking the back of Hannah’s neck to taste for salt.
By the time Hannah is ten weeks old, we’ve let go of our cystic fibrosis worries. Now we think she might be deaf. She doesn’t turn her head at our voices and she doesn’t startle at loud sounds. I try to test her hearing by ringing the doorbell. No response. I snap my fingers. No response. Jane and I begin sneaking up on the poor child and clapping behind her head. No response. We remind each other that she does seem to listen to music and calm down when the bathroom fan is running. But these could be anomalies. Clap. Nothing. I begin searching the Internet for resources on hearing impairments. I should know better by now. I quickly find the suggestion that parents try to test their child’s hearing by clapping behind the baby’s head.
We remind ourselves that she had a hearing test in the hospital and passed it just fine. But the tech was busy that day, I think. What if they just did a social promotion? Jane calls the pediatric clinic. A doctor calls back and says that the hospital test is ninety-nine percent accurate, but there is some concern that she isn’t startling.
I scurry back onto the Internet. Jane and I make a pact to stop trying to startle Hannah, at least until after her next doctor’s appointment, which is in a week. I think about doing it anyway when Jane goes to the grocery store, but I resist.
At eleven weeks, Jane takes Hannah to the doctor for a check-up. Everything looks good. The doctor isn’t concerned about her hearing or the startling lack of startling. She reassures Jane. Hannah gets weighed and measured, her growth noted and compared to other babies her age. At two weeks, she was below the fiftieth percentile in overall weight and now, at eleven pounds, three ounces, she is in the seventy-fifth percentile. Excellent. Her torso is exceedingly long; she has grown to twenty-four inches in total body length, putting her in the ninety-fifth percentile. But her head, which was in the ninetieth percentile for circumference, is now in the fiftieth percentile. It grew, but at a slower pace than the rest of her body.
“Do you think her head isn’t growing fast enough?” Jane asks me that evening. She knows better than this. She understands statistics and the fallacy of percentiles, especially when it comes to diagnosing normality. “Do we have a pinhead baby?”
I imagine Hannah all grown up: a giant torso with a head the size of a Vidalia onion. Our little Onion Head.
“I think,” Jane says one day when the baby is peacefully asleep in her bouncy seat, “that I have been assuming that something is wrong with Hannah rather than expecting her to be all right.” I have also been constantly worried that there is something grave, something dreadful that has eluded the doctors, that is lurking behind the diaper pail, hiding under the crib, waiting to snatch our baby away. Some of this is a product of reading too many articles and watching too much television. We have heard the stories about sudden deaths, freak viruses, and bizarre conditions that go undetected. It feels threatening to trust her to be healthy, as though we might be blindsided if we do not remain diligently on guard.
I suppose our neurosis is normal, although I sometimes wonder if it would help to have a husband in the house who would say, “Oh, she’s fine” and turn on the Packers game. I have made a lifelong art of worrying and I’m not about to stop now. Still, I do realize that I need to let go of at least a little of it before our pediatrician refuses to see us anymore.
It’s a thin line between fear and love, a line that has become perforated since Hannah’s birth. The two passions intermingle, and anxiety courses through my heart. Is it possible to love a child wholeheartedly but without fear? Or does the magnitude of our vulnerability as parents demand that we stand on guard against all dangers, real and imagined?
I lie in bed at night and watch the clock, counting the hours until dawn.
Author’s Note: Jane and I are still worriers, but our fears lessened somewhat after Hannah really did get sick with a couple of nasty viruses, one of which landed her in the hospital. While we were there, one of the nurses noticed how willful Hannah is, even when hooked up to an I.V. “You’re strong,” she said several times to Hannah. “That’s going to serve you well.” Hannah is strong, as it turns out, and Jane and I are beginning to let ourselves trust her to recover when she gets sick and trust ourselves to give her what she needs to grow and thrive. And, we’re happy to report, her head is a perfectly normal size.
Amie Klempnauer Miller is the author of She Looks Just Like You (a Memoir of Nonbiological Lesbian) Motherhood (Beacon Press, 2010). She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her wife Jane and daughter Hannah.