I sit in my dark room, waiting for my three-year-old to fall asleep. My infant daughter is in the next room wrestling with sleep, too. Through the monitor, I hear her cough over and over again. My heart pounds to the sound of her coughing. I sneak into her room when her cries pierce the silence. Even in the dark, I can see her little chest heaving, struggling. I pick her up and hold her close, her damp, and burning forehead rests on my chest. I lower into her grey chair, unclip my nursing bra, and calm her the only way I know how.
Her cough is not a normal cough. She barks like a seal, and because I’ve been down this road before, I know this means croup. I kiss her forehead and guess her fever is over 101 degrees. After a slight respiratory virus last month, I decide to take her to Children’s Hospital.
I’m home alone with my three children. Waking them for a late-night trip to the hospital is the last thing I want to do. My husband works nights five minutes away, so I text him and my parents to see who can stay with our older children. My parents arrive shortly after my husband sends a text saying he will be home from work as soon as he can. I buckle my daughter into her car seat, jump into the driver’s seat with my mom as a passenger, and head to Children’s Hospital thirty minutes away.
I didn’t think I’d doubt myself when it came to the health and well-being of my children. Before I became a mother, I figured sickness was black and white. They are either sick, or they aren’t. But sickness is a gray area, like everything in motherhood. Your child shows no symptoms, but a doctor visit for something else shows a double ear infection. Your child shows a myriad of symptoms, but nothing turns out to be wrong.
It seems whenever I take my children to the doctor, their symptoms improve. I realize as we walk through the hallway into the exam room that their fever is gone or they aren’t tugging at their ear. After I check-in at the reception desk, I sink into a chair and wonder if my daughter’s cough will still be this bad when we see the triage nurse.
I lay my daughter on my lap once we are settled into the exam room. I watch her chest rise and fall. I stare at the stats on the computer screen above the bed and watch her oxygen level linger around 90.
“Did she have any blue around her mouth? Did she lose consciousness at all?” the nurse asks, typing my responses into her computer. I tell her no, this only started a few hours ago. I brought her in as soon as I heard her bark.
“Did you see her lungs retracting? Did she pull her chest in at the ribs?” the nurse asks.
“Not that I could tell,” I answer.
They were only trying to get a grasp on the timeline, but I tend to think everyone can see I am not fit for this job.
“I feel like some of the things they say are backhanded comments to make me feel bad about my decision to bring her in,” I tell my mom in the Urgent Care room.
“I don’t hear it that way,” my mom reassures me.
I’ve never been confident speaking my mind or showing authority. My words always come out meek, small, unsure. Even when I’m confident, as soon as the words leave my mouth, doubt creeps in, and I begin to second guess everything I’m saying.
“She had bronchiolitis and RSV last month,” I tell the doctor. I also tell him my son had croup when he was a toddler.
“You’ve been through this before?” he asks, “So you know what you’re doing.”
A nervous laugh slips out. I nod my head. My lack of faith in myself surprises me.
A few hours later, we are on our way home. My grip on the steering wheel is not as tight as it was earlier, but my mind still has worst-case scenarios playing on repeat. I thought after six years and three children, I would be more confident in my mothering. I wouldn’t doubt my decisions or second guess myself when diagnosing croup or RSV or anything else that ails my children.
Urgent Care happened on a Tuesday.
Thursday morning, my daughter’s barky cough does not improve, even with the steroid given to her in Urgent Care, which was supposed to last three days. Her fevers hold steady, her breath is rapid, she retracts. I start the timer on my phone and count her breaths — 60 after a minute. I count again. I put my hand on her stomach and feel the outline of her lungs with every inhale.
Because I always second-guess myself, I call the nurse line at Children’s Hospital. I get dressed while I wait for the nurse to call me back. I change my daughter’s diaper, pack the diaper bag for what I expect to be a long day in Urgent Care when the nurse calls me.
“If she has retractions and her breathing is rapid, I do suggest you come in as soon as possible.” I buckle my daughter into her car seat and race to the hospital.
As my daughter sleeps soundly on the gurney in the room, I rest my hand on her stomach. I watch her oxygen level drop. While the nurses hook her up to oxygen, I am transported back three years. I am in the same hospital with my other daughter struggling to breathe. We left that day with an oxygen tank, surprised by a whole new set of fears I never anticipated.
“Her flu test came back positive,” the doctor tells me four hours into today’s stay. “You aren’t going home tonight.”
I didn’t expect to doubt myself, not when I can clearly see something wrong. But I wonder if my eyes are deceiving me if it’s all a figment of my imagination if I’m exaggerating. These are all things I’ve heard my entire life, and it has seeped into my subconscious, and I don’t trust myself. I delay every decision I have to make, hoping someone will swoop in and declare themselves the real adult and demote me back to an easier time when I was only in charge of myself.
I want to cry with relief. I was right.
While in the hospital, my daughter required copious amounts of suction to prevent her mucus from making its way into her lungs and causing pneumonia. Nurses came in every hour to suction her while I watched, helpless and afraid.
“You guys can be discharged,” the nurse tells me after one night. “Do you feel confident suctioning her at home?”
Doubt burns my eyes. I try to blink it away. She walks me through the steps, explaining the best way to suction with the Nose Frida I have at home.
“Yes.” I choke on the answer I think she wants. The one I need to prove to her and myself that I’m a competent mother capable of sucking mucus out of my child.
We leave the hospital. She sleeps soundly through the night, her body exhausted. Her fever breaks, cough subsides, and breathing is back to normal, thanks to the oxygen snaking out of her nose. She requires little suctioning, and I think we are nearing the end. I can handle it after all.
In the morning, my older kids are elated to play with their baby sister. I watch from the couch drinking coffee, soaking in the happiness we all feel to be together.
One aspect of motherhood that surprises me is how quickly things change.
That evening, I find myself in my daughters’ room, listening to her rapid breathing. I see lung retractions, so I FaceTime my pediatrician sister in Montana.
“Watch her breathe,” I say instead of hello.
“Take her in,” she says. I nod and am out the door.
“I didn’t want to leave,” I tell my husband. It’s our third trip to Children’s Hospital this week. “I should have told them I didn’t feel comfortable. I wanted her to be okay.”
We make our way through the double doors, straight to the desk and are almost instantly recognized.
“She started having retractions. I called my sister, a pediatrician, and she told us to come,” I use my sister as the voice of reason, doubting myself even though my daughter is clearly in distress.
The result? An additional two-night stay. I sit in the purple recliner next to the hospital crib and cry.
“It’s been a busy week for you guys, huh?” our night nurse asks. She checks my daughter’s temperature and oxygen before listening to her lungs.
“The worst week I’ve ever experienced as a mother,” my tears come to a stop.
“She has a lot of mucus,” the nurse tells me. “I’m going to get a helper, and we’re going to suction her out.”
She walks in with another nurse. After they turn on the vacuum, my husband I watch the thick mucus trudge through the hose.
“I’m not surprised to see you back here. It’s a good thing you brought her in. Don’t worry; we’ll take care of her.” she tells me while I comfort my screaming child. I nod and kiss my daughter’s head. I was right again.
Jacey Rogel is a wife and mama to three. She writes in the margins of her day, which now means waking up before the sun. When she’s not writing, she can be found reading, and with a cup of coffee. Jacey’s work has appeared on Coffee + Crumbs. She writes about motherhood, books, and more on her blog.