When Madeleine and Reid were first born, we weren’t really sure how to interact with them. We couldn’t hold them right away, and even when we could, it was a specific type of holding, a pre-planned activity you had to coordinate with the nurse, involving tubes and wires and undressing and sitting for as long as you possibly could so that your baby could benefit from skin-to-skin time. Even touching them in their incubators had a protocol – no stroking or touching that could be stressful or overstimulating. Instead, we could firmly hold their head and feet, trying to recreate what it probably felt like when they were confined inside my body.
When your baby is born very premature, nothing is spontaneous, all interactions must happen carefully. You don’t hold them the same way as normal parents, you don’t have the same kinds of early experiences. But what we did have was their smell.
I think all parents love the smell of their infants, the sweet, warm, delicious scent that emanates from their otherwise poopy, pukey humans. I love it too, the way they smell when I nuzzle into them during a cuddle or after a bath, but in truth, I almost don’t even notice it these days. What I remember most vividly, a sharp, precise memory in what is otherwise a giant blur, is the scent of Madeleine and Reid in those first few weeks of life. The way it made our hearts swell and helped us fall in love with them. The way it made us parents.
When Madeleine and Reid were first born, and for a fair while afterward, they were kept in small, enclosed incubators to regulate their temperatures. Very early preemies cannot do this very well on their own, especially at the beginning, so the temperature had to be kept pretty high. I remember so clearly the warmth of their rooms, the way I’d be sweating sitting there in a t-shirt while a bitterly cold winter waited outside. But those were the days when even the act of opening an incubator porthole would cause the alarm to sound – even a slight change in temperature made a big difference.
Back them, all we could do was sit by their incubators while they slept, head in one hand, and feet in the other. A baby still has a long way to go at twenty-five weeks gestation, a lot more time left that should have been spent in the warmth and darkness of utero. So that’s what we did for hours at a time, sitting there, sweating, with our hands on their little bodies, trying not to move much, if at all. And when it was time to stop, when we had to close the portholes and leave our little ones, the one thing we had left was the scent left by our babies on our hands.
“Here!”, Matt would say, holding out his hand, and I would close my eyes and it would smell so strongly of Madeleine, whatever that meant, the incredible, unique, delicious smell of my baby girl. I would do the same and offer my hand, the one that smelled like Reid, and we would smile at each other during this strange little ritual, understanding that the incubators and the tubes and the monitors were not who our babies were, but that those smells were our children.
We knew them so well that at night, when we came home, if we tried hard enough we could conjure them in our minds. When the hospital gave us hug blankets – little squares of flannel that the babies heads would lie on – I would wear them eagerly inside my shirt all night long before bringing them in the next morning. The babies couldn’t really see me, couldn’t really understand what was going on, but I hoped that when the nurse laid them down onto their hug blankets they would smell me, and that it might comfort them the same way their smells comforted me.
Later on, once the babies we wearing clothes, Matt and I would bring bags of the babies’ laundry home with us to wash. Once we’d get in the door we’d go through it piece by piece – “Mmm, this one smells like Madeleine!”, “Oh, this one smells just like Reid!” – and envision the days when they’d be home and we wouldn’t have to rely on smelling their clothes to feel closer to them.
Now that those days have arrived, it’s even better than I could have hoped. Seeing them everyday, hearing them laugh or cry, watching them eat and roll around, feeling them snuggle in when I pick them up after a nap. But, I really don’t notice their smells anymore. I guess I don’t have to.