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"The moment I wimped out"

It had been forty hours since I’d slept. I lay still, despite the pain in my back. My skin itched underneath the tape that covered my epidural site, and my stomach and legs ached. I wanted to roll over onto my side and sleep, but was scared that the coarse sheets would rustle, and the rubber mattress would squeak. And that would wake the baby.

The baby, my baby, was only thirteen hours old. When I had told my husband to go home and rest, I had been full of painkillers and euphoria, eager to spend the first night with my new daughter. But now the anaesthesia had worn off, and I was physically and emotionally exhausted.

I slowly lifted one heavy leg, crossed it over the other, then shifted my hips to turn over. I paused. The baby snuffled, grunted, then made a sound like a cough. I froze.

She wailed.

My eyes filled with tears, and I bit my lip to stop myself from swearing. Maybe she would stop and go back to sleep. I’d fed her only an hour ago. But her cries got louder and shriller until I was sure she would wake every other baby on the ward. I couldn’t hear any other infants crying; it was only my baby.

I tried to swing my legs over the side of the bed without pulling out the catheter that hooked me to the bed. I leaned forwards and lifted the baby out of the bassinette, then held her to me. Her scarlet face glared out at me underneath a pink hand-knitted hat, still too big for her. I held her tight as I sat on the edge of the bed and bounced up and down. She opened her mouth and shook her head from side to side, but soon, she was quiet. I managed to lie back down on the bed without disturbing her. This was the way I thought it should be: we were together, we were calm, and we were as close as we’d been only thirteen hours ago, before the umbilical cord had been cut.

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My breathing deepened and my limbs relaxed, but then the door swung open. I jumped. A beam of light swept the room., shining on the empty bassinette, then on me. I screwed my eyes shut, then opened them again. A nurse stomped over to the bed, frowning.

I bit my lip. “I was just giving her a cuddle.”

“It’s against hospital policy.”

“She wouldn’t settle…”

The nurse leaned towards me and picked up my daughter; I shrank back. My baby began to cry. I wanted to reach out and snatch her back, but I didn’t.

“Don’t cuddle her,” she said. “She’ll smell your milk. When you’re at home, get your husband to settle her, or she’ll just want to be with you all the time.”

My face burned. “Oh, OK, that’s a good idea.”

That’s a good idea? What was I thinking? Aren’t babies meant to want to snuggle up with their mothers? My instincts said so, and my head agreed. After all, I am a child psychiatrist: I know the importance of responding to an infant’s cues.

But I wasn’t a doctor at that moment in a strange hospital with a new baby, sore, tired and emotional. I was a patient, just another name above a bed, a bed that had been slept in by countless other new mothers, and a bed that would be filled as soon as I left the hospital.   I was on the other side of the system in which I usually worked, and I didn’t like it.

Is this how my patients feel? Overwhelmed and powerless? What I wanted to do – what I knew I should do – was tell the nurse to give me back my baby, and that she was wrong. What I did was completely out of character: I smiled, I nodded, I let her do what she wanted, and then when she left, I cried.

The next day, it was a new nurse. I told her that I wanted to go home. When I got home, I cuddled my baby as much as I wanted and I fed her off to sleep any time she was unsettled.

And I still do.

Have you ever wimped out? Gone against your natural instinct ?

Dawn Barker is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, writer, and mother of two young girls.  She blogs here and you can follow her on twitter @drdawnbarker. Dawn’s first novel will be published by Hachette Australia in early 2013.

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