One year in, parenting has taught us about vulnerability and gratitude
Note: This piece is in my voice, but Chasten and I worked on this together and I’m thankful for his help.
One sunny afternoon a year ago, I answered the phone and my whole life changed. I was in the middle of a work trip, preparing to take off for the third state so far that day when my husband, Chasten, called. I could tell as soon as I heard his voice that it was about something important, and it was: the adoption agency had called with news we’d long been hoping for.
It was what they call a “surprise” adoption scenario — a mother had given birth that day and wanted to arrange adoption. The agency explained that there were some sensitive circumstances and potential health complications for us to weigh, but also that we would need to quickly decide whether we were prepared to travel to the rural hospital and begin the process. And one more thing to consider: it was twins!
Like many hopeful parents, we’d had our share of painful false starts during our time on adoption lists, so I hesitated to allow myself to believe in this one. And we asked ourselves if we were really prepared, after hoping for a child for so long, to instantly become parents to two. But we knew. I’ve never felt so uncertain and certain at the same time: certain of what we should do, uncertain of all the ways it would change our lives.
Soon I was on a red-eye flight, and Chasten was on the highway. Within hours of that first call, we stood in disbelief as morning sunlight beamed through the window of a hospital room, overflowing with indescribable joy as we held our newborn children in our arms for the first time.
They were perfect, beautiful, heart-melting, a girl and a boy whom we named Penelope Rose and Joseph August. Born premature, each weighed around five pounds. Chasten and I marveled at how tiny they were, how utterly vulnerable and dependent.
Health issues meant nearly two anxious weeks in the hospital before we were discharged, but the day finally came. We picked up car seats from the local big box store and set out for our house in Michigan. Once we arrived, there began the blur every new parent will recognize, as we fed, changed, and swaddled our new son and daughter until days and nights blended into a flow of activity seemingly outside of time itself. We grew accustomed to all that comes with parenthood: sleepless nights, blown-out diapers, late-night bottle warmings in the glow of the refrigerator light. There were frequent doctor visits to check on their health concerns, daunting mountains of laundry, gnawing fear and bottomless love. We scrambled to acquire all the clothes and gear we would need, and to find at least a part-time babysitter to help as we got our bearings.
Meanwhile, we entered the complex and sensitive stage of getting through all the procedural hoops to finalize the adoption. It was hard in those weeks to believe they did not yet permanently belong to our family, because we knew the moment we saw their faces that we belonged to them.
Though used to a very public life, under the circumstances we were much more private than usual. Colleagues at the department stepped up to filter the incoming while I began a parental leave, taking time to be there for everything the kids needed.
The twins’ early health needs often called for constant, active care. Penelope developed severe reflux, terrifying us when she would stop breathing and turn purple in a matter of seconds. More than once, it happened in the car, prompting Chasten to hurriedly pull over so we could unbuckle her from her seat and help get her breathing back into rhythm while standing on the side of the road. Even at home, it became a major challenge, because it meant she needed to be kept upright for a while after feeding. After spending half an hour or so just to get her to take a couple ounces of formula, another hour would come of careful monitoring while she digested before we could attempt to lay her down again. Then we’d start it all over an hour or two after that.
As every new parent discovers, the time between the feedings is where you take care of everything else: diapers and paperwork; laundry and shopping; bottle cleaning and formula prep; work items that couldn’t wait just because I was on leave; and occasionally, sleep. And then, just as you’re getting caught up on one of those things, it’s time to start feeding again. Or, the smell of the diaper and the piercing protest of a screaming infant remind you that the difference between day and night means nothing anymore. After a presidential campaign, a wartime military deployment, and eight eventful years as mayor of my hometown, I was no stranger to very hard work. But this was a completely new level of sustained sleep deprivation.
Every parent probably has a memory of a moment that shows you just how deep the sleep loss is running. For me, it was when I reached for a cup of coffee, put it to my lips, and suddenly realized it was not a mug but a baby bottle. After admitting to ourselves that we were barely functional while trying to do it all side by side, Chasten and I developed a shift system so that each of us could at least count on four or five consecutive hours’ rest. He would stay up as late as he could, braced with a cup of coffee he would pour himself just as I headed upstairs to bed. Then he’d tap out, around three in the morning, when his eyes could no longer stay open, and my turn would begin, fumbling for a coffee mug and some of the homemade granola a neighbor had kindly dropped off, while the first bottle of the day (or is it the last of the night?) was in the warmer.
It was joyful, too, of course. Some of the sweetest moments happened during those bleary feedings around one or four in the morning, as Penelope’s dark round eyes blinked up at me from behind the bottle, or when Joseph, whom we quickly nicknamed Gus, produced a resounding and adorable burp that echoed like a little joke just between us.
After a few weeks at home, we finally had something of a rhythm established, and the kids’ sleep stabilized to the point where — sometimes — we could actually both go back to bed after that one or four a.m. wakeup and feeding. I began to transition from leave, increasing the number of memos, decisions, meetings, and appearances I was handling. And Chasten and I embraced “dad life” in full force: comparing swaddle techniques and mastering the diaper change, sorting through the confusing array of stroller accessories, even acceding to once-unthinkable family decisions like trading in both our cars to get a minivan that would hold two dads, two kids, and two hounds on long drives between Michigan and Washington.
By October, we had started to feel more confident and comfortable with all the routines (and the surprises) of parenting. Then one day, the kids got a cold. Soon it was a cough. Then Penelope started to have trouble breathing. Over FaceTime, our doctor expressed concern about the way her belly was retracting under her ribs as she worked to take in air. Chasten drove her to the Emergency Room while I stayed home with Gus. His skin took on a mottled look, and by the next day he was admitted to the hospital too. Just as we had during our first days with them, we again learned to live out of a hospital room, this time in Traverse City. We would take turns shuttling supplies from home and sleeping by the kids’ side, and I would try not to distract the nurses when the phone rang with a work call.
They were sick with a respiratory virus called RSV — and soon, so were Chasten and I. For us it just meant a nasty cold, but for premature infants like them it was a serious threat. They needed oxygen for a few days before being well enough to be discharged — just in time for me to head back to Washington for a day of important in-person meetings and events. I flew back that evening and found Chasten, sick and exhausted, with both kids curled up on his chest, and persuaded him to go to bed while I took the overnight shift.
We tried to recover our balance, thankful that at least we seemed to be out of the woods medically. But we weren’t. That Saturday, after a weekend White House Zoom meeting, I was stirring chili in the crock pot at home in Traverse City and looking forward to the normalcy of watching the Notre Dame game, when Gus’s breathing took a turn. The belly retractions were happening again, and soon Chasten was once again taking one of our children to the hospital while I stayed home with the other.
Two liters wasn’t enough oxygen for Gus. They tried four, then more. Chasten’s mother stayed with Penelope for a while so I could join him in Gus’ room, where we watched things go from bad to worse. Periodic visits by a single nurse turned into anxious and repeated consultations by a large and growing group of respiratory therapists, nurses, and doctors constantly in different combinations, always asking what seemed like the same questions.
We started hearing words like “serious” and then “critical,” and soon the doctor was recommending we immediately transfer Gus to a full-scale children’s hospital in Grand Rapids, about a hundred miles away, and place him on a ventilator. Next thing we knew, the doctor had determined that the ventilator couldn’t wait — Gus would need to be intubated now and then transferred. To spare our emotions, he encouraged us to step outside the room while they did the procedure, saying “it’s not a pleasant thing.” We clutched each other in a long hug in the hallway standing just outside the door, trying through tears to reassure each other over the sounds coming from inside his hospital room.
The situation would typically call for a medical helicopter, but bad thunderstorms meant the chopper couldn’t take off. I prepared to go back home to look after Penelope while Chasten jumped into the ambulance to accompany Gus for the trip down, fighting off nausea and holding onto Gus’ tiny hand as it sped down the roads for nearly two hours amid the gathering storms.
The next morning, unable to believe all this was real, I threw together a diaper bag, a couple of suits and whatever else I could quickly assemble for an unknowable number of days away. I buckled Penelope into her car seat in the minivan, and started driving south towards Grand Rapids. Once there, we set up shop in a hotel room just down the road from the hospital, turning to friends and cousins who fortunately lived nearby and offered to periodically watch our daughter while I joined Chasten in Gus’ room.
Walking into that room for the first time, I was both reassured and frightened by what I saw: all the apparatus and technology of today’s pediatric ICU, with more monitors than I could count and various tubes and wires running from inscrutable pieces of equipment into the small bundle that was our son. He looked impossibly tiny, even more vulnerable than when he had more or less fit into the palm of my hand, here as he lay on a bed that was designed for a child but still seemed absurdly big for him, sedated and swaddled in a blanket while a nurse monitored his vital signs.
Most parents don’t start off expecting to be among the ones who know their way around a children’s hospital. But suddenly it’s you. Soon the hospital was our new home base, and in different combinations, through days and sleepless nights, the two of us cycled between Gus’ bedside in the ICU room, the cafeteria with its six-cheese lasagna special, and the nearby hotel with Penelope’s bassinet, endlessly grateful to the friends and family who helped us cover down.
Parenting is lots of things, and one of those things is terror. You watch your infant, sedated and surrounded by wires and tubes and monitors and medical personnel coming and going constantly, and wonder how we could live in a universe where a few weeks could be all that a child gets on this earth. (In one dark moment, I wondered if my weeks of parental leave would amount to the entirety of my time with our son, this beautiful infant whose face I had seen for the first time just weeks earlier and whose life had now come to matter to me as much as my own.) I prayed. I looked for meaning in tiny fluctuations in the vital signs on the monitors. I thought of my father, whose last days played out on a ventilator in an ICU room like this as he lost his battle with lung cancer, though Chasten repeatedly reminded me that this was a completely different situation. We tried not to hassle the medical staff with our million questions which were really just one question. And they patiently repeated the one honest answer, which was that with this kind of virus, the only way you know it’s getting better is when it’s stopped getting worse.
Becoming parents had quickly and totally redefined our sense of reality and of our place in the world, but now that reality seemed to be closing in on us. Sometimes it felt like the whole world had become the four walls of this hospital room. But the rest of the world, and its needs, hadn’t stopped, starting with our daughter. We alternated taking time at the hotel to take care of Penelope. Our babysitter had made it to Grand Rapids and set up shop in our room at the Embassy Suites, helping to share the load.
Work couldn’t wait either. My leave had already been winding down, and now I was tending to issues that couldn’t wait or be delegated. Sometimes, that meant taking a deep breath while looking down at my unconscious two-month-old son, on life support but still strong enough to reflexively keep his grip on my finger, and then realizing I had two minutes to get into a Zoom meeting with transportation stakeholders, a phone call with a Senator, or a TV interview. I would gently unpeel his tiny fingers from around mine and turn away from the bed. I’d put a tie on, go to a nearby room (or in one rushed case, the bathroom), open the laptop, pick a virtual background so no one would be distracted by seeing that I was taking the meeting from a hospital, and get to work.
A wave of container ships was bearing down on the West Coast after multiple factory shutdowns in China had stopped and then suddenly restarted production there almost all at once, straining the limits of the measures that we had been working on since early summer to help companies’ supply chains adapt to the new dynamics of Covid-19. Meanwhile, every time I glanced at a TV, there were reminders that this was an intense period in the formation of what would become the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. One night I found myself calling House members late into the evening from the hotel room, checking in to shore up support and collect input on concerns and sticking points that needed to be relayed to the White House. Penelope, wide-awake, was not in a good mood, but would refrain from screaming on one condition: that I hold her. I remember looking up at our reflection in the dark window, my daughter in one arm while my free hand was taking notes on the feedback from whichever member of Congress I was speaking to on the phone.
Days blurred together, the machines kept beeping, and we lived in the space between hospital and hotel, between cafeteria visits and Zoom calls, between fear and boredom — a swirl that made me think of our pastor in South Bend, who in his sermon at our wedding had described love and marriage as playing out in the space between “the sublime and the mundane.”
And then, after about a week, it stopped getting worse. It wasn’t going to end like it did for my father. Gus stabilized, and day by day, started clearly getting better. The moment came when the medics were confident he could come off the ventilator, or at least try. I made sure to keep a space in the work schedule between Zooms and calls so I could be there when they took out the breathing tube (also not a “pleasant thing,” but a very positive milestone, and I needed to be there for that) and put him on regular oxygen. As Chasten and I took turns sleeping in that room, a new hope came into our hearts as we followed the process of weaning the oxygen down and then away completely, and gradually withdrew the fentanyl while taking care to minimize symptoms of withdrawal, then begin coaching him to feed again from a bottle and not a tube.
October ended in hope. Deflecting questions from a very friendly usher about what I was doing in Grand Rapids, I made my way to a pew at the Episcopal Church downtown not far from the hospital and took my seat for an All Saints Day service. Our son was getting better, our daughter was healthy and safe, and the comforting and familiar words of the service gave me a sense of blessed and reassuring sameness, amid the swirl of unimaginable change that had defined not just the last few terrifying days, but the weeks since we had gotten that phone call and suddenly entered the most transformative adventure of our lives. All I could think of was how much we had to be grateful for.
Yes, sometimes parenting is terror. It is also dependency, and it is reason for constant and enormous gratitude. Especially at a time like this. Great doctors and nurses got our children through their illnesses, and we had been lucky to be able to turn to friends, our babysitter, family and faith. Even with the enormous advantages we had — a good salary, excellent health insurance, flexibility at work, and most important of all, each other — it had felt like we were barely keeping things together. I became newly mindful of the stakes of our policy debates about family matters, knowing that so many families in these predicaments have none of the benefits that we do, part of why a serious illness in the family can mean financial ruin for too many parents who don’t have the support networks that we were so fortunate to rely on. It really does take a village, even in normal circumstances, to raise a child, and our village had been there for us. But so had policy, from the research that helped create the modern medical strategies to treat our son, to the basic legal protections that came with my marriage to Chasten, ensuring we would be treated by our insurance company and by hospital staff like any other family.
Earlier this month, we celebrated the twins’ first birthday. Now completely healthy, they sat in highchairs in our driveway at our house (there were too many guests to fit inside, so we borrowed folding tables from Chasten’s parents, turned our garage into a buffet, and made the driveway our party zone). We looked around at the friends and family who had gotten us through this first year, wondering how we could possibly thank them enough and realizing that more than anything, a first birthday is a chance to celebrate everyone who in some way played a role in that formative and tender year of life for your children. Adults feasted on mini doughnuts, fruit tarts made by my mother-in-law Sherri, and a lake trout that my father-in-law Terry had spent hours preparing in his smoker the day before. The cool Northern Michigan summer sun streamed through the trees, defying the forecast of clouds and rain, as kids played in the bubble machine and their parents waxed poetic about all that they had learned in their own parenting journeys.
Chasten had nabbed two small “smash cakes” from Meijer, and we excitedly set them on the highchair trays in front of each child, wondering how they would take to their first exposure to cake. Penelope gingerly explored the frosting on hers, deciding to apply the blue and white paste to her cheeks first before venturing into the fluffy layer below. Gus studied the cake tentatively, then quickly got the idea, plunging his hands into it and joyously smearing it onto his face by the fistful.
It was hard to believe these were the same infants we had stared at in disbelief one year earlier at that little rural hospital. Was this cooing girl the same Penelope whose feedings we used to measure by the millimeter, urging her on to finish a set target no bigger than an adult sip, in hopes that the doctor would finally feel confident removing her feeding tube and at last let us take her out of the hospital and to her new home? Was this joyous and messy boy in his highchair the same fragile infant we had almost lost just weeks after he came into this world, helpless and sedated in that ICU bed? Here they were, four or five times the size they started, delighted by the world around them, boisterous and alive in every sense of the word.
And as much a marvel as their year of growth had been, it seemed just as much had changed in us. The first year may seem one of total transformation for your children, but what about their parents? It’s easy to overlook. “They grow up so fast,” the saying goes. But so do you. It is miraculous for an infant to grow, in one year, from lying swaddled and helpless to nearly walking, from seeing nothing but blurred shapes to smiling with delight and waving as they recognize you coming home after a long day. But it is also an extraordinary transformation for you — it certainly was for me and for Chasten. In one year, you go from someone absorbed in your own worries, hopes, and career, to having fully faced just how much in life is outside your control — and how magical it is to spend every day with someone who matters more to you than your old self could possibly have dreamed of.
As a candidate, I often spoke of how running for office (or being politically involved at all, even voting) is an act of hope. Parenting, too, is an expression of hope, indeed one of the deepest and most vulnerable commitments you can make in the spirit of hope. Your hopes for the future become living, breathing humans. You hope you can do right by them and raise them well. You hope for the best, even when confronted with the possibility of the worst. And the people along the way who help you through the journey help to vindicate your wildest hope of all — that through your children, the goodness of life will go on long after you and your hopes are old news.