As a kid, there are easy lessons and the hard lessons. For me, the simplest of principles was empathy. The golden rule made more sense to me than phonics, which is saying a lot, because HI! spelling bee champ all the way. I was so into equality that I played public defender and prosecutor on the playground like I was getting paid. I meted out justice in schoolyards across the country like I was Julio if Paul Simon was actually singing about a crazy case of third grade gossip stemming from your pal’s half-tried attempt at a spin-the-bottle game after the track meet. I LOVE EQUALITY. Do unto others, at a very early age, resonated with me as a deeper recognition that it is our responsibility to keep things even. And I wanted everything to be even. Always.
Unfortunately, this love for fairness came (as all great things do) with a price. My fatal flaw, even during my campaign of childhood rights-fighting? Jealousy.
Envy is one of the seven deadlies for a reason. It’s ugly. We don’t even like to talk about it as grown-ups. It manifests in ugly ways: whining, pettiness, defensive trash-talk. We can hardly confess its presence as one of the basic levers of dissatisfaction – what is the reason we’re unhappy with X, Y, or Z? Because we have seen it different, heard it different, are giving it different, or helped it play out different. And when this “it” doesn’t happen for us – after we work hard to foster it, or at least to not endanger it, well – we just don’t get it when we don’t get what we want.
Not to get too heavy, but jealousy has always been my Achilles. It started with an awful lot of whines about my brothers getting this or that, but really reared its ugly head (or tendon!) in fifth grade when I had a friend who was adopted. I was so taken with this romantic notion of a mystery past. It was a luxury I loved reading about in Anne of Green Gables but would never have, because not only did I know exactly where I came from, it couldn’t be ignored — I looked just like them, I acted just like them, I laughed just like them… Still, I was taken with the incredible opportunity of “adoption” — what depths of possibility for who you are! I immediately started lying to people about whether or not I might be adopted. This lasted for a week, at which point my Mom started substitute teaching at our school, and my self-constructed hero story was blown right out of the water. Point – envy. That’s my sin.
Pregnancy was really good to me. A short way into my second trimester, I bumped into a friend who admonished me to make sure I was nice to my husband. I protested – I was happier pregnant than I think I have ever been in my entire life. I talked to my mom on the phone every day, showered without whining, finished books I’d been lazily letting myself ignore for years, kept my room clean and my laundry off the floor, and I absolutely, certainly, was a sweetheart of wifery. Somehow, I miraculously lost weight while pregnant, and the few pregnancy woes I had turned into sweet blessings.
Terrible heartburn for which I took no medications? Jeez, what a strong constitution I have! Edema in my left leg meant from the knee down I appeared to have a bizarre extension of thigh. Oh, what a funny fat ankle I had! Wasn’t Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut about an ankle? This was a LITERARY situation. Although I did worried about the potential impact of the breast reduction I’d had ten years prior on my ability to breastfeed, I read every book and chapter and article I could find about BFAR (breastfeeding after reduction), and kept a positive attitude. At night I would feel the soreness just below my armpits and think, there is no way this is not going to work. I was so babydrunk I managed to turn breast pain into a huge plus.
Six months in, when my pregnancy threatened to turn from sweet to sour, I was still optimistic. After the first level 2 ultrasound I had, when the high risk obstetrician said she was concerned about my cervix’s ability to do its duty to the fullest, I thought, meh, she doesn’t know how awesome I feel. My own doctor supported this attitude – I looked great and felt great, she assured me, so the weekly ultrasounds prescribed at the time were not really necessary. Later, when a routine ultrasound looked a little funny, I maintained that I felt AMAZING. I was put on “pelvic rest” and let go. Then, after some additional concern, a positive fetal fibronectin showed I was leaking baby glue and I was ordered to return for a non-stress test. I came, got hooked up with belts and monitors that looked a lot like the radar detector my dad used in our minivan when I was in middle school – and was apparently having contractions. Again with the bed rest talk, and I protested – I felt awesome. I was given leave to return to work, but only if I would come back for another NST in a week. I made the appointment and went back to work.
On the day that I came back, it turned out I was dilated. And then, “later that same day”, my water broke.
Here’s where the jealousy comes in.
In the beginning, enormous bellies were the thing I coveted the most. The worst part of the punishingly uncomfortable time I spent in the hospital, leaking amniotic fluid onto a puppy pad for ladies after my water broke, was watching hugely pregnant women come and go from their appointments. I would never get to be as pregnant as they were. I was admitted at 30 weeks – a full two months early. Then, after eleven days on hospitalized bed-rest after my membranes ruptured, I went into hard labor. But still, jealousy. I had an epidural that I’d never planned because my labor was so stressed. I was in labor for such a long time because my body still didn’t know what it was doing. And ultimately, it’s unshakable: who controls this body? I couldn’t stop feeling responsible. So grew a whole huge mess of women to be jealous of: those whose bodies and selves (thanks, Nancy Hawley) are capable of birth.
Now here’s where it gets disturbing: baby is born eight weeks early. So this baby? He doesn’t come home. He lives in the hospital. And my envy impulses turn ugly.
Every day, about four times a day, I drive to the hospital in the suburbs from my home in the city, and every day, I drive past at least one woman struggling with a car seat on the side of Main Street. I am so jealous of these women that I actually despise them. I loathe them with every single fiber of my being, in a way that I didn’t know you could hate strangers who weren’t oh, I don’t know, racist or rapists or otherwise Really Bad People. I begrudge them every “oof” they utter as they struggle with their car seats. Why?
Everyone I know told me constantly, regarding labor, “oh, it’s awful, but you get to bring a baby home”… and I didn’t. For the worst day of my life, which lasted for almost a month, I didn’t bring a baby home. I came and went from the hospital three or four or five times a day without a baby. I spent the first month of learning motherhood with a kid with a pick line in his arm and a gavage tube down his nose and at least eight people watching us all the time. I watched creepy green lines snake up and down on graphs on monitors above his head, listened to ominous beeps and wondered whether or not any nurses were paying attention, anywhere, ever, because they all seemed to be staring at me when I was trying to hold my child but somehow when alarms went off no one was around.
I was allowed to hold my son every three hours, and not for too long. So now, I’m jealous of pregnant women, women with car seats, and at this point, I am also jealous of everyone I know who did not have this problem. I’m especially jealous of friends who confidently dole out advice gleaned during their baby-experiences, because their advice is like foreign garble-talk that I can’t get a Rosetta Stone package for — not even because I can’t afford it, but because I’m just not allowed.
New development: I become jealous of everyone, ever, and bad.
This starts where the story ends, in the waiting room at the Children’s Hospital, hanging out for the two hours (at least! every time!) it takes to see our pediatric surgeon. Instead of doing a whole lot of other things – like maybe thinking how strong and awesome these adorable kids around me are, whether or not they’re in wheelchairs, or how wonderful it is that there are so many kind parents in this room who want to talk to me about my son and recommend doctors or hospitals or methods of coping, all I can think about is all of the people who will never be here, and how I can’t trade places with them. And I am super pissed.
I can’t understand why we’re here, and I can’t understand why we have to keep coming back, and I can’t understand why we must wait so long to be condescended to so deeply (side note: if you know of a decent pediatric surgeon with a speck of bedside manner in a hundred mile radius, please tell me, because we’re in the market for a new one). I feel awful for every snuffly little breath of my infant son who needs to eat and is fussy and sleepy but can’t sleep and I feel awful taking his clothes off and putting them back on and I feel awful while med students parade in and out of the room to gape at him under the direction of the aforementioned narcissist doctor and in that moment I am jealous of everyone else in the world. No really, everyone. I hit fever-pitch. It winds up funneling into a class one storm of angry. This green monster should come with a Greek name and an area warning complete with beeps on your television. It doesn’t ask questions or take names: if you are not standing in this room right now, I want to live your life. I want to be you so badly that I would break my back bending to get there.
The worst part is that I am not without reason. Through all of this, there is a tiny clear voice reminding me that there are plenty of people who would actually be jealous of me. Plenty. I know some. Parents who would so gladly trade this baby for their empty arms. Or this room we visit only occasionally for the hospital rooms where their babies live. Trade my stress for their mourning. And I am capable of counting blessings, starting with the basics – we’re here. We made it to 32 weeks. Our problems in the NICU were minimal.
But the problem with jealousy is that it’s an irrational response to anxiety and grief. It’s wholly selfish. It does not care about logic, it is a wailing bleat of “unfair, unfair, unfair” that can’t be tempered with reason. And because I know it’s unreasonable and frankly, not remotely practical, I feel even worse about feeling jealous.
The sad truth is that I don’t have a great closing here. I’m working on it? Maybe admitting I have a problem is the first step… in which case, here I am. Chances are, I’ve spent most of the last four months of my life wanting to be wherever you are. And I’m sorry. Let’s move on.
Author’s note: I’m updating this, six years later, to say that at the time this was written I didn’t understand that I was deep in the hold of NICU PTSD. I still have PTSD, because it doesn’t go away, but with help and work that I wish I’d had and done sooner, things are better. Visit this page to learn more about NICU PTSD and consider seeking help. ❤