“Beep. Beep. Beep. Suctioning. The acrid smell of burning flesh. Hushed murmurs from doctors and nurses surrounding me. The nausea washing over me in waves, wracking my body, numb from the spinal block. A nurse’s hand holding mine, the only tether holding me back from the all-consuming anguish threatening to overcome me. Waiting and crying. More tense waiting. Waiting for the precious and perfect cry of a baby boy born far too soon, a cry to let me know he was alive and fighting. It was weak and fleeting, but a cry did come.
‘He’s okay, I had to breathe for him for a bit, but he’s doing okay now, Mom.’
Those words, spoken by a nurse, broke me. The waves of nausea replaced by heaving sobs brought on by a flood of relief, terror, and guilt at having failed to carry my son to term. I was supposed to be his safe place, his protector, but instead, my body betrayed us both and put our lives at risk. I watched as they wheeled his small body out of the room, headed to the NICU, shattered at the thought I hadn’t even been able to touch my own baby yet. Motherhood already looked nothing like I had expected.
The rhythmic sound of hospital bed wheels moving down the hallway and the passing of white ceiling tiles accompanied me as I was taken to see my son for the first time several hours later. His tiny body lay bare underneath a warmer, with the exception of a diaper and more wires than I could count. Various tubes were coming out of his mouth and other parts of his body. His breathing, mechanical in nature due to the machine doing the work for him, an array of beeps surrounding us, singing their own sad song about my son’s rough start in life. Sitting there alone and helpless as I watched my son fight for his life, I felt as if there was no way this could be motherhood.
Hours and days passed, tubes and wires slowly being removed with each step forward only to be replaced soon after with each setback, as is life in the NICU. A myriad of firsts taking place in that small hospital room; first baths, feedings, singing of songs, telling of stories, outfits, hungry cries, diaper changes, and precious cuddles. Dark moments of frustration, crippling sadness, healing joy, overflowing love, paralyzing anxiety, and most importantly, moments of learning and growing that would shape me into the mother I am today.
This was our life for the first month after my son was born, an entrance into motherhood I had never expected; thrust into a world of premature birth, a world I wanted nothing to do with. A world where joy was hard to find and fleeting in its stay, yet where each small step felt like an enormous victory. As discharge day approached, I began to feel my world was no longer flipped upside down, and I was slowly finding my footing in this new life I was living. I had begun to learn the language of prematurity and no longer felt as if I was thrown into a new world I knew nothing about. This was a different type of motherhood, but it was beginning to feel familiar.
My journey to becoming a mother began long before my introduction to the NICU. It was 6 years prior when I boarded a plane to Nicaragua with plans to volunteer as a service worker at a Deaf school. Nicaragua was a place filled with extreme poverty, yet so rich in love, beauty, and generosity that it is impossible not to fall in love: hills covered in countless shades of green, brightly colored birds singing intricate melodies, 40-year-old U.S. school buses converted into Nicaraguan intercity buses thundering down the road at impossible speeds, and thick laughter resounding down the street.
Little did I know, it was here I would soon meet the man who would become my best friend, my husband, and the father to my son. We met when a coworker invited me to her home for the weekend, where I was introduced to her two brothers, one of whom soon became a good friend. Fast forward five years, we were living together in the U.S., married, working, and overall feeling like life was pretty perfect.
This was not my own fairytale, however, and that feeling of perfect did not last long, as my husband began drinking his way through his days and evenings off. Fights about money spent on alcohol began to fill every payday, and most ending in the conclusion that I did not have a right to an opinion about what he did with his money. A rift grew between the two of us, and despite my deep desire to start a family with this man, I knew it would be irresponsible.
As someone who had grown up in the foster care system because addiction had ripped my family apart, I knew better than most how unfair it is to bring a child into a family being devastated by this disease. This led me to the decision that I could not, in good conscience, start a family with the man I so deeply loved. I was losing him, quickly and helplessly, to a substance turning him into someone I did not know. While I could clearly see what was happening to him, he was living comfortably in denial.
Mere days after coming to this conclusion, I found out I was already pregnant, and despite my situation, I felt nothing but pure joy when the positive sign popped up on that pregnancy test. I did not know how things were going to work out, but I knew no matter what, I would find a way for myself and my child. There was a small part of me holding on to a naïve hope becoming a father would help my husband leave his obsession with alcohol behind, while the more logical side knew that would not happen.
The next 6 months passed in a blur of morning sickness, moving to a new town, continued disagreements on alcohol consumption, and my growing frustration and realization that my marriage may not last. This was only enforced by my husband’s increased manipulation of the money I had access to, despite my efforts to save money for when my son arrived, as well as his attempts to isolate me from my friends. Every attempt I made to publicly celebrate my pregnancy (maternity photos, gender reveal, pregnancy announcements, etc.) was shut down by him, each time stating he did not want someone to ruin how happy we were together. While I was not able to put a name to these actions at the time, I knew my relationship was not healthy and was steadily becoming toxic. Even as I recognized this, the idea of a future without the man I had fallen in love with was crippling. I had no idea how to envision my life without him, and wholeheartedly believed the man I had married still existed under his drunken duplicate.
Before I had the opportunity to process the mess my life was quickly becoming, I found myself in the back of that ambulance on my way to a bigger hospital and an urgent c-section. I spent the next month, day and night, with my son in the NICU, with no energy or time to contemplate what to do about my marriage.
One week after my son was discharged from the hospital, I found myself sitting on the couch, baby asleep, watching a movie next to my husband. My phone had buzzed, and as I looked down, I saw a message request from a woman I did not know. Reaching to open the message, I heard my husband’s breath catch, immediately instilling me with a feeling of intense dread. My world began to crumble around me in slow motion as I read the message, sent by a woman who claimed to have a two-year-old son by my husband of five years, asking for child support to be paid. Every illusion I had about my relationship shattered in that moment, my world once again flipped upside down and left me without purchase.
Every fiber of my being screamed for me to take my newborn and walk out in that moment, yet I hesitated because of the guilt I felt at the idea of my son growing up without his father in the home. Could I, a brand-new mother of a premature baby on oxygen, leave my marriage and successfully raise my child on my own? The idea terrified me. This terror, coupled with the pain that ripped through me every time I thought of walking out, left me feeling incapable of leaving. I had no ‘plan B,’ nowhere to go, and no money to support us.
It was not until a few days later, after a long talk with my parents, that I found the courage to end the relationship I had been so certain of at one point. My son deserved better than parents who constantly fought, better than a childhood filled with memories of a drunk dad, and I deserved better than manipulation and unhappiness. I did not know how things would work out, but I knew my son and I had each other, which was all we needed. Suddenly, I was faced with the challenge of providing for myself and my son, unable to go to work due to having a medically complex newborn. The only solution seemed to be to return to college and finish a degree, something I had yet to do.
I had lost myself so completely in my marriage I no longer knew who I was or what my dreams for my future were. While talking to my mother one day, I confessed my thoughts of going to nursing school, feeling very insecure of the idea. The affirming response I received from her was the reason I went home that day and filled out the necessary paperwork to start prerequisites two weeks later.
For the next 2 years, I threw myself into caring for my son and completing my classes, able to handle each day through sheer determination, despite the intense postpartum anxiety, PTSD from my son’s abrupt and traumatic birth, and the incredible sadness that had made itself at home in my heart. My ex-husband’s addictions eventually worsened, leading him to forget his desire to be a part of his son’s life.
1,101 days of single motherhood later, and it is still not the motherhood I had envisioned, but a much better one than I could have ever imagined. My choice to end my marriage felt like the end of the world but instead was just the beginning. With time, I realized this was my chance, my chance to get reacquainted and to fall in love with myself again. I now had the opportunity to start over and to grow myself into a strong and independent woman, with a new future I was excited about and could chase after with wild abandon.
I chose this life, hard but rewarding, and at the end of the day, I would not change it for the world. On the hardest of days when I hesitate, I remember I have never once regretted choosing myself over brokenness. As a single mother by choice, I get 100% of the cuddles, hugs, giggles, and love, and I know beyond the shadow of a doubt I am right where I am meant to be.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Mariah Kennell from Northern Colorado. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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