All parents get wrapped up in the minutiae of parenting—are these apple slices cut small enough? Which brand of diaper is really the best? But it helps to remember than fretting over such things is a luxury afforded to parents with less earth-shattering things to tend to. Zoila Darton knows this all too well, as she spent a terrifying stint in the hospital with her newborn, Dakota, as he fought for his life. As a result, she doesn’t think things such as meeting milestones like clockwork matter all that much. Having her baby healthy and in her arms matters far more. In today’s Mom Talk, Zoila shares her story, and offers a gentle reminder to opt for kindness over comparison.
My son Dakota smells like cookies. He always has, since the day he was born. My son Dakota also loves to move his body. He always has, since the day he was born. My son Dakota is the most precious, perfect creation. He has been, since the day he was born.
When Dakota was born, he surprised us. He came into the world five weeks early, and it was clear that he would always perform at his own speed. Since his birth just over a year ago, Dakota has hit some incredible milestones. He has also taken his time with a handful of those milestones, some of which parents painstakingly wait, push, force, and obsess over. For example, Dakota will not clap on demand. This doesn’t bother me or his father as much as it seems to bother other people who ask why he doesn’t clap. He’s just doing it in Dakota time. In fact, I’m almost certain he doesn’t care to clap because things just aren’t clap-worthy. Additionally, he does not walk. He doesn’t really stand up without assistance and it seems he just doesn’t care to. He has both stood up on his own and walked once before but won’t commit. Does it upset me? Does it concern me? Frankly, no.
What does upset me is when other people decide to sound off on how we should be teaching or showing or helping our child to reach his certain milestones. What these mostly well-meaning people don’t know is that we’re just happy he’s alive.
On the evening Dakota was born we were not prepared. Dakota’s due date was March 13th. My water ruptured on the evening of February 6th. I had been at a client dinner just down the block from our apartment in Hollywood, and had been taking frequent bathroom breaks. This wasn’t unusual per se, but something felt different this time. By the time I arrived home, I had peed myself—or so I thought.
I walked through the door and announced with shame that I had had an accident. My husband, being the ham that he is, replied: “It’s OK, babe! You’re pregnant!” He was right. I quickly put the accident in the back of my mind and went to change so I could cozy up on the couch with Zach and watch my millionth episode of The Office. As I changed my clothes I noticed the dripping continue. Something wasn’t right here. Could I be in labor? No. He’s not supposed to arrive for another five weeks! I called my doctor and doula and they requested I get to UCLA Santa Monica ASAP. I guess this was happening.
Zach calmly went to pack a bag while I sat on the toilet dripping. He came back with a decades-old pair of socks that he had worn when he was born. That was it. I told him we’d probably need more items. like clothes for me, maybe a book, the car seat and just—more stuff! He packed a proper bag and we were off. We cruised to Santa Monica in our 2007 Saab droptop listening to Ella Fitzgerald. Everything was serene. We were so excited that we didn’t have time to feel nervous. I will never forget how relaxed we were as we drove west with a Nate Berkus hand towel stuffed between my legs.
Once we arrived at the hospital we were quickly checked into a room. The nurses were fabulous and kept me relaxed. I wasn’t experiencing any contractions yet, but we were concerned that Dakota was still in breach position, as he was a few days ago at my eight-and-a-half month check-up. We needed to wait for the ultra sound tech to arrive so we could find out if the baby was still breached. I was shocked to discover there wasn’t one on site, but I would soon find out I knew next to nothing about childbirth and more so, caring for a baby at home.
The tech took his sweet time, about an hour, and by that time I was having minute-to-minute contractions. I had only been at the hospital for about 90 minutes, so to say it escalated quickly is an understatement. Our son was ready to make his appearance. As much as I’d like to describe every detail of my delivery, here’s the cliff’s notes version to save time, because this story is about what happened after Dakota was born.
When they discovered Dakota was still breached, it was time to prep for my c-section. While I definitely imagined an unmedicated birth or at least a vaginal birth, I was flexible and ready, because all that mattered at that moment was a healthy baby and mama. The c-section felt odd. I was freezing, spread out on a crucifix-like palette, and I could feel my guts being moved around. See, when you get a c-section they have to remove most of your organs, take out the baby, and put them back. It was a dull feeling, not pain. Zach was right next to me the whole time and when our son was brought out it was almost as if in a flash we were transported to an island of bliss. We were parents, let the adventure begin!
We spent four-and-a-half days in the recovery room. I could probably write a book just on those four days. Those precious days will always be wonderful memories, despite what came after. I am grateful for the moments we spent wrapped in new parenthood. Unfortunately, things took a turn for the terrifying just a couple hours after being home with our new baby.
When you finally get to go home after four-plus days in recovery, it’s a feeling similar to getting a new toy for Christmas. You unwrap the treasure, and now it’s yours to care for and hold close. Bringing Dakota home was the most exhilarating experience in my life. We had prepped his room and purchased his little clothes. We were finally parents.
Once we arrived home, Zach popped out to grab a couple of items. Since Koda was early, we weren’t totally prepared. I sat at home with my tiny angel marveling at his face and feet. I wrapped him tight in a blanket and swaddle I had hand-dyed with my best friend back in Brooklyn. Something was off though. My son felt a bit cold. Newborns tend to have a lower body temperature, but this just didn’t feel normal. I ran to grab the thermometer I had swiped from our recovery room, and as included in the instructions we were sent home with, I took his temperature by placing the thermometer vertically under his armpit. To my horror, the digital face read 95.5 degrees. I took it again. And again. And again. I was scared. Zach wasn’t home so I turned the oven on, put a blanket in it and sat under the sun while I nursed him on one breast and pumped the other. I was desperate for nourishment because I remembered his blood sugar going down during recovery, and the pediatrician mentioning that this could affect his temperature. When the blanket was warm, I wrapped him in it. I called my doula, but I was scared.
When Zach got home, I told him what was going on. We decided to rush him to the hospital. We’d been home for all of three hours. This wasn’t part of the plan. As we drove to the hospital I sat in the back seat with Dakota. I kept my finger in his mouth. It was the only way I could tell if he was breathing. Zach sped down Hollywood Boulevard. He went the wrong way down one-way streets. We were desperate and terrified.
When we arrived at the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital, Zach sprinted inside the ER with our tiny miracle wrapped in a blanket. He was so fragile. We were hysterical. I remember handing him off to one of the nurses. The way she spoke to me made me feel a bit more at ease—she had done this before and promised me our son would be OK. He was just over 4 days old. A little over 6 pounds. This was not part of the plan. As they administered a spinal tap and gave our newborn an IV drip we became stone versions of ourselves. We were paralyzed with fear. Our son was going to die.
Dakota had hypothermia and was severely malnourished. During our four-plus days in recovery we were trying to maintain a blood sugar level of 45. I would soon learn that pre-term babies’ levels should read between 65-90.
All I could think about was: Why didn’t I give him formula? Why did I have to insist on breastfeeding? Why didn’t the UCLA staff advise me to give my son formula? He was early and my body was not producing enough milk. Additionally, breastfeeding is the hardest job I had ever done. It did not come easy. I was lied to and now my son was paying the price of my naivety. We spent two-and-a-half days in the Children’s Hospital while our son was being monitored for a bacterial infection. When a newborn gets hypothermia, their bodies are more susceptible to bacteria. It takes two days to discover if anything incubates. Those two days moved in slow motion. We were able to hold him, but he was attached to a machine with a two-foot cord. I couldn’t nurse him so I was pumping around the clock—something I would get used to in the four months to follow. I was supposed to be recovering from my c-section, but instead I was walking around, hoping and praying our son would live. We spent my birthday and half of Valentines Day there. We slept on the equivalent of a twin bed, keeping a watchful eye over Dakota. It was a nightmare, but we were so thankful our son would be OK. The doctors and nurses were the most incredible people. When I die, that hospital will get some of whatever I have left. They saved our son’s life.
When we finally took our son home, we were in full-on survival mode. Everything was done with fear. It was the happiest, most terrifying time of our lives—an odd combination of feelings, but, as I would grow to find out, an emotion quite familiar to all parents. To this day, if there’s something as minimal as a light fever, it brings back a rush of extreme emotions linked to our scare.
The first four months of having Dakota home were intense for us. I wanted desperately to breastfeed him, but had to supplement with formula. I pumped 8-to-10 times a day for four months. Zach and I were essentially alone in this journey; our families and friends mostly lived in NYC. What followed was about nine months of postpartum depression, but I was so obsessed with “being strong” and “being OK,” that I ignored my depression and the fact that our son had almost died. If it weren’t for my mothers’ groups at Loom and The Pump Station and the strong will of my husband, I don’t know where I would be today. I look back on that moment in time, and feel so sorry for myself. I never allowed that part of me to rightfully feel the fear and the anger of almost losing a child.
Today I am strong and I’m more OK every day. I mother with as much purpose as I can muster and also try to honor myself and the woman I was before motherhood. I understand that life is going to happen and I cannot control the past or the future—all I can do is stay present. Every moment is precious. I literally smell every flower I pass by, love as hard as I can, kiss Dakota 90 million times a day, and practice joy as an act of resistance towards the fear that lives deep inside of me. Zach and I have this bond that’s deeper than just having a child, because when you almost lose a child, and you and your partner are crying in the ER, shit changes.
My hope for all parents is that you know you’re not alone in the fear. Don’t sweat the milestones, just love your baby deeply as you can and trust your instincts. And if you’ve lost a child, I cannot imagine your day-to-day, but know you’re not alone in the sorrow. And if you’re someone who is wondering why an 18-month-old doesn’t walk or doesn’t say “Dada,” keep your comments to yourself, because you have no idea what some parents go through. Most of us are just happy to have healthy kids and to only be depressed, terrified, and stressed on occasion.
If you’d like to donate to the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital, you can do so here.
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