The First Six Days – Kveller
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The First Six Days

After giving birth to my daughter, a health crisis spun us into a nightmare. Jewish prayers got us through.

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image via Canva

Day 1 

My daughter Mila was born on September 13, 2022, at 12:14 p.m. 

She was born on the smaller side — six pounds six ounces — and she came out after only one real push. Her first moments on this earth were bright and overwhelming, and I gasped and cried to see her on my chest, covered in baby goop, her dark eyes unfocused and confused. 

I think my first words to her were, “Little one,” and I think my first words in her presence about her were, “Why is she purple?” 

The doctor stitched me up while the nurses, dressed in neat navy scrubs, took my baby and wiped her down just a bit. When they returned her to me, I clutched her and repeated nonsensical, loving phrases again and again in relief, staring at the blood matted in her thin dark hair. She was small and perfect and I didn’t know who she looked like. She was quieter than I expected. 

The day passed in a blur, an amalgam of attempted nursing and text compositions to family, photo after photo, and a lot of staring at her, trying to find something — someone — in the grave little newborn features. 

Day 2 

She slept a lot more that night than we’d thought she would. The long five-hour stretch between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. meant we all woke up rested. I was euphoric that morning, full of hormones that made me glowy. My ankles were swollen, but I showered and dressed in the modest nursing-friendly nightgown I’d spent several days selecting. 

We prayed all together that morning, the baby on my chest, my husband at my side. The words of the morning blessing had never felt so real; I was brimming with gratitude and wonder at the small delicate miracle I held. 

Modeh ani l’phanecha, melech chai v’kayam. 

I am grateful in Your presence, King Who creates life and sustains. 

The sunlight that morning was soft and it touched everything in the room — our new little baby, in her pastel floral-print footie, my husband Max with his tefillin wrapped around him, me as I laid in bed. I couldn’t stop smiling. 

Day 3

The next day we were discharged from the hospital. The nurses warned us to keep up her feedings, because she had lost more weight than she was supposed to. Babies always lost weight in those first few days. 

We headed to valet services for our car. We were excited to return home — we’d left the dog (“our first kid,” according to my husband) with a close friend, and the anticipation of introducing Mila to him thrummed through us as we drove home. My milk still hadn’t come in, but the baby seemed restful and calm. 

Ma rabu ma’asecha. 

How great are your creations, God. 

Returning home felt different; home felt different. The weather was faintly blustery, blushing with the promise of fall. Our dog kept a respectful albeit curious distance from Mila. We thanked our friend who had watched him and posted some photos of our now-larger family on Facebook. 

Mila’s face contorted an hour into this idyllic time and we heard a sound. We rushed to change her diaper, lest she develop diaper rash. 

The diaper was full of diarrhea. It was also full of blood — an alarming sight in the diaper of my 3-day-old baby. This was the first bloody stool we’d seen, and I felt my stomach sink in detached panic. Recollections of relatives with allergies and an NPR segment on infant intolerances flashed through my head; I knew this wasn’t good. 

Max called the pediatrician right away. I was too busy trying to console my newborn, who proceeded to fill up five more diapers with blood and diarrhea, her tiny face scrunched up in pain. 

We drove there, shaking, at the precipice of our whole lives changing again. 

The pediatrician took Mila from me to weigh her. She screamed as he poked at her and examined the diapers; it was cold in the room and she was hungry. She pooped more and bled more in those few moments. It was a lot of blood; I could see the pediatrician did not look pleased. A part of me receded deep inside, away from everything, as the sensations of the room became too much for me. Her never-ending screaming as she sought comfort, the faint smell of my own blood that still clung to me from my labor, the aggressive circling of my thoughts to my 16-year-old cousin who was still anaphylactic to eggs and dairy.

In some distant way I recognized how different this moment felt from the moments before it. I remembered a book I’d read in which the protagonist said something along the lines of, my life was split between the before and the after. I knew that this was where our lives split. 

It was puzzling, the pediatrician told us. “It has to be a milk allergy, especially if you have this family history. I’m going to give you a special hypoallergenic formula and you should stop breastfeeding for 24 hours. But this is the earliest I have ever seen this allergy manifest.” 

As we left the clinic with three bottles of liquid Similac Alimentum, I cried. My skin felt thin and insubstantial. She too cried in my arms — hungry? angry? afraid? 

The bloody diapers continued. She didn’t like the formula, and we fought her to eat for hours. She screamed and screamed. I negotiated with myself in my head. If she’s still having these diapers at midnight, we’ll go to the ER. But the pediatrician said to wait 24 hours. OK, if she won’t finish this tiny bit of formula, I’ll call the pediatrician. 

Max and I didn’t speak much. The crying reverberated through our heads. 

Our floor was covered in open-faced bloody diapers. Our dog laid in the far corner of the room, afraid to be near our baby in her agony, his face unhappy. I plugged in my pump and tried to read the user manual, my head foggy and hurting. I threw out my first tiny bottle of pumped colostrum and sobbed. 

At 11 that night, I laid down to sleep. The baby had stopped crying within the last hour, and I was hopeful that maybe things were improving. But then I heard another squirting sound, and I knew it was more blood, and we knew that we needed to go to the hospital. 

Mila was small and silent in her car seat. She did not cry. 

Mila held by her father in the hospital

Photo courtesy of Ruthie Hollander

Day 4 

The room had a bed and a chair. 

We took turns holding the baby so the other could sleep. Max was pallid with exhaustion, and I had cried so much — and eaten so little — that I felt empty. 

They took Mila again and again, to do an infant ultrasound, to do x-rays, to weigh her. 

When they tried to take blood, they were unable to get even a full drop. She had stopped making pained noises somewhere along the line. Each time they pushed the needle into her skin I felt it in my stomach. I couldn’t look away. 

Her legs were white, thinner even than they had been hours before. She had lost more weight since the morning, now only a little more than five and a half pounds.

Doctors and nurses trickled through our room. They were concerned and thoughtful; they echoed the pediatrician’s earlier expressions that it was just so early for such a severe allergic reaction to happen. 

A nurse found us struggling with the bottle, trying in vain to keep Mila’s eyes open. She sat with us on the hospital cot and taught us how to feed her. She tickled her small feet while whispering endearments and encouragements into the room’s stale air. We watched Mila suck weakly at the bottle and I begged silently: please, let her eat this. 

Sometime on the first or second day — the before — we had scheduled a kiddush and a baby naming ceremony for that Shabbat at a synagogue in our community. At 4 a.m. on Friday, Max left a voice message with their secretary: “We understand if you can’t cancel it at this point, but we won’t be able to attend.” 

We were moved to a new room. Seconds became minutes became hours in this room. We were in the pediatric ward, and our room had a cage-like crib and covered windows. The time spent awake and moving around so soon postpartum had taken their toll on me: piercing pains shot through me each time I shifted. 

The nurses in the ward were thick-skinned and skilled. We had slept so little that we were almost incomprehensible. They took turns with us, coaxing her to eat little by little, allowing us brief opportunities to close our eyes and rest. 

Intravenous fluids and a prescription for hydrolyzed amino acid formula meant continued improvement. We met with a GI doctor who specialized in pediatric digestive issues and who also thought this was a dairy allergy — and an allergy to soy, too. “The blood might stay in her stool for a month while her intestines heal,” she told us. “But I want you to go back to breastfeeding her, because I think it would be more harmful if you lost that relationship.” 

That morning led into an afternoon and then into a Shabbat, oscillating between some memories that are still refined, sharp, while others are blurry from chaos.

Somewhere in there I asked Max if we should just wear sweatpants rather than aim for a patchwork Shabbat somewhat reminiscent of the ones we had always observed. What would it look like to pretend not to be heartbroken? I couldn’t even imagine. 

He answered, “She deserves her first Shabbos.”

I drove home to shower and get clothing for the weekend, leaving Max to painstakingly feed Mila formula. It took me a slow, indecisive hour to pick out matching clothes and headbands to dress Mila in for that first Shabbat. I got back to the hospital room only to find him in tears and called a nearby friend to ask if he could shower at their house. Max found a different synagogue within walking distance where he could potentially give the baby a name. 

Friends dropped off boxes and boxes of food and prayer books, so much that we needed to borrow a transportation wagon to bring it all back to our room. I found myself in tears as I unpacked it all — first, at the generosity and giving, at all the people who I felt so intimately at our side, and then again, when I realized that everything had soy in it, and I would not be able to eat almost anything. 

20 mL, 30 mL… pumping, feeding. Moments of reprieve as I slowly moved around the room, setting up a plastic tablecloth, paper plates, a stuffed dog that looked like ours. Max came back to find us in Shabbat clothes, Mila’s small, drawn face overpowered by a bright pink bow. 

Shabbat dinner was something brokenhearted and full of faith — joyful, devastating. 

We sat there in that room with Mila’s nurse, who told us all about her children and laughed as Mila fought the formula. The nurse (I desperately wish I could remember her name) sat down at the table I’d set up in plastic and probed Mila’s mouth with the preemie bottle’s nipple. 

The sensation that God was holding us in His arms pervaded that room. Something changed; something had changed. 

I will never forget it — 

I quartered my brisket and chewed slowly, 

my daughter breathed calmly and her cheeks began to regain color, 

the tough nurse I’d been afraid of sat with us for more than an hour, allowing us the dignity of a meal, and I knew that we would survive, 

and I knew that we could flourish. 

Shabbat in the hospital

Photo courtesy of Ruthie Hollander

Day 5 

There is an idea called a ta’anis dibbur in Jewish tradition, the idea that on a grave or mournful day such as Yom Kippur, you might eschew unnecessary, irrelevant or non-elevated language, anything non-Torah related. That Saturday was a ta’anis dibbur for us, unintentionally so — we overflowed with gratitude, faith, belief, grace, love. In that ugly room with a caged crib and no windows and fluorescent overhead bulbs, we were holy. 

Max went to synagogue and returned bright-faced — he had seen others there who knew us, and the baby-naming had moved him. He read a book of selichos, poems and prayers, recently published by his rabbi. I read the beautiful illustrated baby books we had so carefully selected to my little sleeping newborn. The nurse came in and out, took notations on Mila’s weight, silently turned on my pump. There was no need for words, but when we spoke we felt rushed with the need to answer others’ calls the way they had answered ours. 

Lightness propelled us. 

We were breathlessly aware of the intensity of the human condition, of the other rooms on our floor containing infants sicker than ours, of the nurses with muscled arms who might seem harsh until they hold our child, of the Jews and the non-Jews, of the desperate and the hopeful. 

I wish I could describe it in more than words — it was the most certain I have ever been of anything. 

Day 6 

They sent us home that Saturday night after midnight. 

L’havdil bein kodesh l’chol, bein yom v’layla. 

To differentiate between holy and mundane, between day and night. 

Mila had stopped losing weight, and she could eat slightly more than an ounce at a time. Our footsteps were light and our minds loud. 

In the car, we turned on Ishay Ribo, and I drove home on that still dark evening with his words in my ears — 

V’im adam haya yachol lizkor, 

Et hachasadim et hatovot, 

Et kol harachamim et kol hayeshuot 

Betach kach haya moneh 

Achat achat v’achat, achat u’shtayim 

Achat me’eleph alphei alaphim v’rov rivei rivavot 

Nisim niflaot she’asita imanu 

Yamim v’leilot…

And if a person could remember the graces, the favors 

All the mercies, all the salvations 

Thus he would surely count 

One, one and one, one and two 

One of the thousand thousand, thousands of thousands and myriad myriads of miracles and wonders which You have done for us 

days and nights. 


Mila approaches her first birthday. 

She is bold and joyful. When we leave our apartment, she squeals at people on the street; everyone is a potential friend. Her eyes are big and dark like mine; her chin is pointed and her nose small, like her father’s. She’s thin — has never really passed the 30th percentile in weight — but her head is big (86th percentile at last measurement). Over the last few weeks, two little bottom teeth have sprouted. 

The stairs in the house, the dog, hidden wires, closed doors: nothing is a match for our Mila. We spend our days laughing and panicking as she discovers new ways to endanger and entertain herself. Sometimes we sit back and watch her play independently, shaking a maraca or opening brightly colored books. 

She loves being in the Baby Bjorn, giggling at synagogue, other babies, full-fat Greek yogurt, dogs and dog parks, dancing, public transportation, singing, patterned clothing, clapping her hands. Mila is so full of love, so fearless and happy, that we wonder what we’ve done right — is it replicable? Or just good luck? 

I don’t look back at what happened as traumatic or miraculous. Somehow it seems to be distinct from that binary, on a plane of its own, like a dream I clutch at that quicksilvers through my fingertips. I’ve wanted to write about it since it happened — needed to — but the words were so hard to grasp that it took me almost a year to do it. 

Happy birthday, my little Mila. 

You changed everything. 

Thank you.


Photo courtesy of Ruthie Hollander

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