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Ready for Air

Ready for Air: A Journey through Premature Motherhood

Kate Hopper
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 304
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctt46nq1b
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  • Book Info
    Ready for Air
    Book Description:

    For Kate Hopper, pregnancy is downright unpleasant. She is tired and heavy and worried, and she wants her wine and caffeine back. But then, at a routine checkup, her doctor frowns at her chart and says, "I'm worried about a couple of things"-and unpleasant suddenly seems like paradise. What follows is a harrowing, poignant, and occasionally hysterical journey through premature motherhood, from the starting point of "leaking a little protein" to the early delivery of her tiny daughter because of severe preeclampsia and the beginning of a new chapter of frightful, lifelong love. Half a million babies are born prematurely in the United States every year-almost one every minute-each with a unique story, and Hopper eloquently gives a voice to what their parents share: the shock, the scares, the lonely nights in the neonatal intensive care unit, the fierce attention to detail that makes for sanity and craziness, the light of faith, the warmth of family, and the terrifying attachment. Through it all runs the power of words to connect us to one another, as Hopper draws on her gifts as a writer first to help her navigate this uncertain territory and then to tell her story. With candor, grace, and a healthy dose of humor, she takes us into the final weeks of her pregnancy, the this-was-not-part-of-the-plan first weeks of little Stella's life, and the isolated world she and her husband inhabited when they took their daughter home at the onset of a cold Minnesota winter. Finally, frankly, Hopper ventures into the complicated question of whether to have another child. Down-to-earth and honest about the hard realities of having a baby, as well as the true joys, Ready for Air is a testament to the strength of motherhood-and stories-to transform lives.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-3993-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. 1
    (pp. 1-5)

    It’s midmorning, but already the air is thick and the streets are gummy. Heat rises in rippling waves from the asphalt, inflating me beyond what pregnancy seems to mandate. At seven months pregnant, the only shoes that still fit are plastic flip-flops, and as I make my way slowly into the heart of downtown, they slap against the concrete. I should have splurged on the parking ramp next to my obstetrician’s office, but it’s a luxury I can’t afford.

    I didn’t expect pregnancy to be so unpleasant. My mother claims that she never felt better, that she was “full of...

  3. 2
    (pp. 6-15)

    As I drive the ten minutes home to our small two-story house in South Minneapolis, I stare at my thick fingers on the steering wheel. A few weeks ago, I removed my engagement and wedding rings and tucked them into a corner of my jewelry box. This seemed a normal-enough ritual, something that many pregnant women do during their third trimester. But now that I know my swelling is not normal, I can’t believe I ever thought it was. My wrists are as thick as ankles. And as I stare at my stretched skin, worry takes over. I have no...

  4. 3
    (pp. 16-24)

    I spend the following week trying to take it easy—I lie on the couch in the afternoons—but each morning I still head to campus, slogging through the heat. I don’t mention preeclampsia to my students; instead, I complain about the heat and joke about how huge I’ve become. I pretend that everything is fine.

    But the next Wednesday, at my thirty-two-week checkup, Dr. Bradford tells me that I’m leaking more protein into my urine. Before my appointment, I paged through my pregnancy books again and read that proteinuria is the result of damaged small blood vessels in the...

  5. 4
    (pp. 25-30)

    On Friday morning, my dad arrives at our house at 4:45 to drive Donny to the airport. He’s flying to Seattle for the A-League Soccer semifinals. It’s a two-game total-goal series. Tonight the Minnesota Thunder will play there, and on Sunday they will play Seattle here, in Minnesota. Whichever team scores the most total goals will advance to the championship next weekend.

    As I lie in bed and listen to my dad start his car, I suddenly need to see Donny one last time. He leaned down to kiss me before he left, but I was groggy. Now I’m wide-awake...

  6. 5
    (pp. 31-47)

    In the car on the way to the hospital, my dad drives and Rachel sits beside him. I’m in the back, and I don’t feel like talking to either of them. I’m not nervous, exactly, but I feel the weight of it, of things not going the way I had planned. Hot wind whips through the car, loosening my hair from its ponytail, and I wonder if Donny got my message. I don’t have a cell phone, so he can’t call me, but as soon as I am admitted, I’ll try him again. It seems wrong that he is two...

  7. 6
    (pp. 48-53)

    The sun has moved to the other side of the hospital, and my room is cast in blue shadows. Donny and my mom have gone down the hall to relay the news to my dad and Rachel, who have been waiting in the family lounge. Mom will call my friends Jess, Claire in New York, and Emily in Colorado. She will call Sara and Grandpa, both of whom have been waiting for updates. She will explain the decelerations, the C-section.

    I’d been so smug. I’d sat in birthing class feeling superior, wanting nothing to do with the drugs, the interventions....

  8. 7
    (pp. 54-62)

    My mom and Karl are waiting outside the operating room. Their faces float above me as I’m pushed down the hall. “Did you see her?” I ask. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

    They’re both smiling. Their floating heads nod. Yes, yes. She’s beautiful. Good, we’re all in agreement. I smile as well, but it’s difficult for me to keep my eyes open. I close them and open them and close them. When I open them again, I’m in the recovery room. The nurse who assisted in surgery, the same one who told me I could hold the plastic mask in front of...

  9. 8
    (pp. 63-67)

    It’s late Sunday night when I finally turn the corner. At eleven o’clock, the nurse holds up my bag of urine and says, “Eight hundred ccs. That’s good.” At that moment I know I’m going to be okay. My kidneys are beginning to function again. I smile at the nurse and fall back asleep.

    What I don’t realize is that at that very moment Stella is also turning a corner. But I am not thinking of my daughter. I don’t know that she’s having trouble breathing, that the plastic tent over her head and the tube of oxygen blowing into...

  10. 9
    (pp. 68-75)

    On Monday afternoon, I’m moved to a large room in the postpartum area of the maternity ward. There is a pullout chair where Donny can sleep and three large windows. It seems almost luxurious after spending the last three nights in that small square across from the nurses’ station. The flowers people sent line the window, and I’m struck by the way light pours through the glass vases. The stems, surrounded by water, are brilliant emerald green.

    When all of my things are unpacked, Donny and the nurse help me into a wheelchair. Donny will take me to see Stella....

  11. 10
    (pp. 76-84)

    On Tuesday morning, when the nurse wakes me at seven to pump, I start crying and can’t stop. Donny climbs into my narrow bed and wraps his arms around me. I press my face into his shoulder and weep into his T-shirt. I cry for Stella, lying under the unremitting glare of the phototherapy lights. I cry for myself, for the tender wound stretching between my pelvic bones. I cry because I don’t know what else to do.

    When Dr. Williams, one of Dr. Bradford’s colleagues, rounds at nine, I’m still in tears.

    “Your hormones are going wild right now,”...

  12. 11
    (pp. 85-90)

    On Wednesday morning, Donny reports that Stella is doing okay and that her oxygen is almost room-level. That’s good, I say, though it doesn’t mean I can hold her. It doesn’t mean I can take her home. Dr. Williams has checked my incision and told me I’ll be discharged today. I’m going home without my baby.

    I change from my hospital gown into the maternity overalls I wore to the hospital on Friday. That was just five days ago, but I’ve lost twenty-two pounds, and I look like a deflated balloon.

    I crawl back onto my bed to pick at...

  13. 12
    (pp. 91-97)

    On our drive home from the hospital, I’m surprised by the leaves lining the street. The oppressive heat that made me miserable less than a week ago has vanished. It’s been replaced by fallen leaves and a chill in the air. But it makes sense that the weather would turn while I was in the hospital because everything else has changed: I am someone’s mother now. I have a baby, a sick baby with a bruised lung.

    I stare down at my baggy overalls and remember that our last birthing class is tonight—the other expectant parents will spend the...

  14. 13
    (pp. 98-102)

    Thursday morning in the NICU, Donny and I stare down at Stella, who is now off the ventilator. There is a plastic box over her head and a narrow tube going into her mouth; it’s taped to her cheek. Her lips are thin and yellow with jaundice, not the lips I imagined my baby would have. But still, I’m pleased I can see her lips.

    She bats against the box with her tiny fists, furious. I don’t blame her for wanting it off—it makes me feel claustrophobic just to think of lying under that box, not being able to...

  15. 14
    (pp. 103-109)

    On Friday morning, the alarm sounds at 5:30. My dad will be here in half an hour to take Donny to the airport so he can fly to Charleston for the A-League final. Donny curls into me for a moment, and as I shift onto my side, I notice that my breasts are painful and as hard as rocks.

    There is no way I’ll be able to fall back asleep until I pump, so when Donny gets out of bed to shower, I slide from the bed as well, careful not to jostle my incision, which still aches. It has...

  16. 15
    (pp. 110-115)

    After Rachel drops me back at home, I pump, make myself a sandwich, and go down in the basement to check e-mail and return phone calls. Then I go upstairs and crawl into bed. I remember what the nurse said to me a few days ago, on the day I was discharged from the hospital: “Develop a routine.” I’m amazed how quickly I have done this.

    When my mom takes me back to the hospital in the evening, I stop in the freezer room with my jars of breast milk. The freezer is lined with shelves of blue bins, each...

  17. 16
    (pp. 116-120)

    Saturday night my whole family drives to Brit’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis. It’s dark and smoky. We make our way upstairs, where the televisions are all tuned to the A-League final. Fans with Thunder jerseys congregate around tables and in small groups, and I feel nauseated as we move through them. One of Donny’s friends says, “Hey, how’s it going?”

    I’m not sure if he knows about the baby. If he did, he wouldn’t have asked that, would he? I want to ask him how the fuck he thinks it’s going, but instead I wave at my deflated belly and...

  18. 17
    (pp. 121-126)

    On Monday morning, Donny is out the door early. I get out of bed, make my tea, and pump with gritted teeth. The pain that I didn’t mind a few days ago has intensified, and my nipples are chapped and bleeding. After fifteen minutes, I can’t stand it anymore, so I turn off the pump, slather my nipples with ointment, and ease myself into my bra.

    I eat breakfast and wait for Dr. Gregor’s call. I appreciate the time it takes her to call me at home, and she always reassures me: Stella is having a good morning; Stella digested...

  19. 18
    (pp. 127-137)

    How many times have I been told by doctors and nurses about the importance of breast milk for a preemie’s immune system? Pumping is my one clear-cut job, the one thing I can do for my daughter that I know is making a difference. But it has become so painful that I’m not sure what to do. I know I can’t quit. Stella is back up to two ccs of my breast milk every three hours and is finally gaining a little weight. She is benefiting from my pain.

    But something has to change. On Tuesday morning, I finally admit...

  20. 19
    (pp. 138-142)

    When I raise the quilt on the isolette on Friday morning, Stella is tucked into herself, sleeping. Rachel, who has driven me to the hospital again, says, “Aww, she’s so cute.”

    She actually does look cute. She’s filling out, which almost makes her look like a regular baby. I have an urge to pick her up and press her to my chest. But I need to check in with Kally, who is on the other side of the room talking to another nurse, Kris. Though Kris has never been Stella’s nurse, I like her. She has blond hair and wears...

  21. 20
    (pp. 143-149)

    I’ve run into Amy a few times in the hallway, and I know they’re getting ready for Noah’s surgery, during which a shunt will be placed in his head to drain the cerebral spinal fluid from his brain into his abdomen. Amy must be nervous about it, but she doesn’t seem nervous. Last time I saw her, she said, “Well, Noah has one of the best surgeons in the country.” She held up a folder. “I did my research.”

    I wonder if it’s the fact that she’s already been through so much that gives her that air of calm assurance,...

  22. 21
    (pp. 150-154)

    On Sunday morning, I call my mom to apologize again. I had said I was sorry last night after I pumped, but I knew it was too late. The hurt in her face was still there when she left our house. So this morning I call and tell her she can visit Stella today if she wants. I use my daughter to barter for forgiveness.

    “No, no,” she says. “I’ll see her tomorrow.”

    “Okay,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

    Donny and I are also subdued. We step carefully around each other, as if we know that any collision will result in...

  23. 22
    (pp. 155-165)

    Tuesday morning is clear and sunny. It’s September 30. Stella is seventeen days old. I get up with Donny, as I always do. He gets ready for work, and I pump. Then Donny kisses me good-bye, and I shower quickly. I’m scheduled to see Dr. Anderson this morning before I go to the hospital. If my incision is healing properly, I’ll be able to drive again, which means I’ll be able to go to see Stella whenever I want, without having to arrange a ride. I also have a list of questions for Dr. Anderson about preeclampsia, about what actually...

  24. 23
    (pp. 166-169)

    Years later, I won’t remember exactly what I did when I woke from my nap. I know I called the hospital and was told that Stella was stable—that she’d only had a few apnea spells since I left. Maybe I also went down to the basement and searched “sepsis, infant, NICU” and scared myself all over again with the possibility of her death. Maybe I checked e-mail. I probably made myself a sandwich. I must have pumped. The only thing I will remember clearly is a feeling: guilt. Thick and slow in my veins. Sitting like a rock in...

  25. 24
    (pp. 170-178)

    On Wednesday morning, I arrive at the NICU prepared to be feisty, to speak my mind, not let the nurses cow me. I’ll stay by Stella’s bedside as long as I want and not let Kally make me feel as though I’m in the way. I am Stella’s mother, after all.

    I open the armhole of the isolette, and Stella stretches an arm above her head and opens her eyes. I take a deep breath, inhaling relief. Yes, good girl. You’re doing better now. If it weren’t for the IV jutting from her head, she would almost look like herself...

  26. 25
    (pp. 179-186)

    The next couple of days are a blur. The blood tests reveal that Stella’s infection was a coagulase-negative staph infection, and one of the antibiotics is discontinued. The one she needs is still injected into the IV in her head every day, but since she’s stable, I get the okay to nurse her again. Dr. Brown rotates off Stella’s care, and Dr. Lanning takes over. I’m not sure I like Dr. Lanning—she’s brusque and doesn’t call me at home in the mornings the way Dr. Brown and Dr. Gregor had—but when she starts talking about moving Stella back...

  27. 26
    (pp. 187-191)

    On Wednesday morning, Stella is in a bassinette when I arrive at the hospital. It’s not actually a bassinette, not one of those white wicker cradles with frilly pink sheets; it’s just a Plexiglas box. The nurse, Martha, tells me that Stella had a good night and that she sucked down each of her two bottles in less than five minutes. “She did great,” she adds, and I nod.

    But at nine o’clock when I try to get Stella to nurse, she swings her head from side to side and refuses to latch on. I wait a few minutes, rocking...

  28. 27
    (pp. 192-205)

    Stella is gaining weight—she’s almost four and a half pounds—and she’ll get the last dose of antibiotics to treat her sepsis today. If she continues to grow, the only thing keeping her from going home is her refusal to nurse.

    When I’m buzzed into the Special Care Nursery in the morning, I’m grateful to see that Pam is there. As soon as I’m situated in the rocking chair, she brings me a nipple shield. It’s not exactly the Dyna Girl version I’d conjured the night before. It’s a flimsy plastic thing that I dip in water and adhere...

  29. 28
    (pp. 206-216)

    The next morning, I have a headache. Donny comes in before he leaves and gives me a kiss. “How are you feeling?”

    “Headache,” I say. “What a lightweight.”

    “I’ll say,” he says, smiling.

    I woke up thinking about the brain bleed and all the questions I still have, but the thought of going in and waiting for Dr. Lanning makes me feel heavy all over. “I might skip the morning feeding and go to book group instead,” I say, feeling ashamed that I’m even contemplating this.

    “You should,” he says. “You don’t have to meet the lactation person until noon,...

  30. 29
    (pp. 217-235)

    On Saturday morning, Stella weighs four pounds seven ounces, down an ounce. But apparently her diapers from the night before weighed enough, so Dr. Brown comes over with a smile and says, “Well, today is the day.”

    And then there is a rush to sign papers. A nurse walks out to the parking lot with Donny to make sure he installed the car seat base properly. Pam packs all the bottles of my pumped milk in a cardboard box. She fills plastic hospital bags with tiny diapers, miniature bottles, extra pacifiers, and the thermometers, salves, and lotions that they used...

  31. 30
    (pp. 236-243)

    The trees lining our street change from green to yellow to red to brown—their color slowly draining away as the days become shorter. The maple tree in our backyard has been stripped bare. Sleet pelts the windows like a shower of pebbles. A rush of slushy water surges in the drainpipes. I have moved past exhaustion and into a state that feels otherworldly.

    The days continue to be an endless blur of pumping and rocking and walking, and almost everything I do is now accompanied by my daughter’s wails. I have no idea why she cries so much. I...

  32. 31
    (pp. 244-250)

    It’s early November and Stella is two months old, but things aren’t getting easier. She still cries most of the time she’s awake, and nursing is still a struggle. Everything I’ve read about breastfeeding claims that most babies get the hang of nursing after six weeks. But of course they’re referring to full-term babies. Even though Stella is eight weeks old, gestationally she is only a few days old. Does that mean I need to wait another six weeks until things get easier? I can’t hold out that long. No fucking way.

    To make matters worse, Stella has developed diarrhea....

  33. 32
    (pp. 251-257)

    The next day, Stella cries all morning. As soon as I get her to latch on and start nursing, she pulls back as if she’s in pain. I grit my teeth. I take deep breaths and try to get her to latch on again. Nothing works. Finally, I pump and give her a bottle, and she sucks that down, but she doesn’t fall asleep. She’s still distraught, squirming and wailing and spitting up all over the couch.

    Finally I start doing my laps around the dining room table—Stella, Stella, I love you. Stella, Stella, I love you. But I...

  34. 33
    (pp. 258-262)

    When I research acid reflux on the Internet, I learn that it’s common in preemies because the muscle that separates the stomach from the esophagus, the lower esophageal sphincter, is often underdeveloped. It’s not strong enough to stay closed, so stomach acid sloshes up into the esophagus. One Web site says, “As the acid irritates the tissue inside the esophagus, it becomes inflamed and reddened. This condition is called esophagitis. Esophagitis is painful, similar to the pain of heartburn. This is why an infant will refuse to eat or stop eating—she is protecting herself from the pain of the...

  35. 34
    (pp. 263-267)

    Things DO feel easier in January because I know there are only a few more months of quarantine. Minutes and hours and days continue on their inevitable march, and soon it will be spring. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Stella continues to grow, and though breast-feeding is still sometimes a struggle, she usually has at least two or three good nursing sessions a day, and they take a half hour rather than an hour and a half. And in mid-January, when Stella is four months old, she finally begins to nap without being held. One afternoon,...

  36. 35
    (pp. 268-272)

    At the beginning of February, I sign up for a four-week class at the Loft Literary Center. It’s a class for advanced writers taught by local author Barrie Jean Borich, from whom I’d taken a course at the university a few years ago prior to entering the MFA program. I need to start writing again because I’m scheduled to reenter my graduate program in September, and if I don’t get started, I know I’ll never finish my thesis.

    I’m still planning to return to my book about San Vicente, about Sara and Betty and Tirza, the three generations of women...

  37. 36
    (pp. 273-276)

    With Stella out of quarantine, our lives develop a new rhythm. I continue to write one day a week, trying to get as much down as possible. But now Stella and I also spend as much time as possible outside. We go for long walks along West River Parkway under budding trees. I push her for hours, staring up at the pale green that is transforming the craggy trees into something fresh and lush. While we walk, Stella pulls off her socks and tries to get her feet into her mouth. She smiles up at me and tries to mimic...

  38. 37
    (pp. 277-284)

    On Stella’s first birthday, I wake to sun light pouring in our window and look at the clock. It’s 6:30, and I think, yes, one year ago this is when I jolted from the hospital bed, the magnesium sulfate thick in my veins. And later in the day, as we prepare for Stella’s birthday party, as I run to Target for the forgotten paper plates, I look at the clock and think, yes, this is when Dr. Anderson hooked me up to the rice bag, this is when, this is when, this is when. As if I need to relive...

  39. Epilogue
    (pp. 285-288)

    I volunteer in the NICU now, which has been entirely remodeled, providing a private room for each baby. I knock quietly on doors and spray foam onto my hands and explain that I’m a former preemie parent. Then I sit and listen to parents and grandparents describe the texture of their days as they sit next to their tiny babies, willing them to be okay. I recognize the same look in the faces of mother after mother—the fear, the not-knowing, the worry, the pure exhaustion. I never know which babies will make it out of the NICU or what...

  40. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 289-290)
  41. Back Matter
    (pp. 291-291)