August 17, 2019

The Nonstop Panic of Parenting

“He was born in the afternoon, in February, and his heart wasn’t beating. The labor had been long—his mother had grown exhausted of pushing but still he would not come. His head was stuck in the birth canal. His heart rate started dropping low and stayed down with every contraction—deep decelerations, we call it—and so the obstetricians knew it was time to rescue him with a Caesarean section.

The three of us on the baby team—my intern Caroline, the respiratory therapist, and me, the senior pediatrics resident—were paged to the operating room after the ob-gyn surgeons had scrubbed in. We pulled on hats and yellow gowns and gloves and masks, then quickly began setting up the baby bed with oxygen, suction, and heat. Caroline went to introduce our team to the parents. It’s a variation of the same introduction every time: “We’re the baby doctors! We’re so excited to meet your baby! Do you have a name picked out? When he’s born, we’ll bring him over to the baby bed . . . ” I could hear the baby’s heartbeat projected across the room, and when his b.p.m. slowed to the sixties I checked to make sure we had supplies to place a breathing tube and run a code on a newborn if we had to.

I think, now, of the contrast of that moment: Caroline reassuring the mother, just as she is supposed to do, while I prepare for a possible nightmare, just as I ought to do. We on the baby team try to hold the peril of these moments inside ourselves, because the way we communicate about risk and injury around birth can have lifelong consequences for parents and children. If we get this communication wrong, studies suggest, the family can be beset by what pediatricians call vulnerable-child syndrome: a durable feeling that this particular child is always at risk, and an irresistible urge to shelter the kid that can actually hamper his development and harm his relationship with his parents.”

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