“There's a click in her hip,” the pediatrician announced. I watched her pull my baby’s hips apart like the wings of a butterfly as she performed a Barlow maneuver—the routine newborn exam done to check for hip abnormalities.
Grace was 1 day old. She was my first child, and I had obsessively prepared for her. I’d taken CPR, first aid, and breastfeeding classes. I’d bought multiple brands of pacifiers. In her top drawer, I had folded and refolded my favorite onesie that said, “All of God’s Grace in One Little Face.”
“She has hip dysplasia,” a specialist told us three weeks later, referring to the instability of Grace’s hip. It’s a condition that affects one in every 20 babies. “She’ll need a harness.”
“A harness?” I cringed. My baby, who looked as fragile as an eggshell, would have to wear a chest strap with stirrups that angled her legs out like a frog’s. Twenty-four hours a day. The doctor explained how it would prevent her hip from dislocating while her socket fully formed. Without it, she could walk with a limp and have lifelong pain. But all I heard was the word harness.
“And no onesies underneath,” the doctor said. As I watched Grace thrash around in her new gear, I choked back my urge to tell him to take off the harness. I hated it.
At home, I cried about all the tiny outfits Grace would never wear. Every nursing position was awkward and frustrating for me.
“This is not a big deal,” people said.
“I know,” I’d respond. “We’re so lucky that it can be fixed.”
Most conversations minimized my experience of having to adjust to a new, unexpected normal and gave me the bottled-up feeling that I was being silenced. It was just a fixable click in Grace’s hip. What right did I have to grieve? I felt guilty about my self-pity.
Then one day, on a walk with a neighbor, I finally voiced my frustration. “The dysplasia is not nothing,” I said. I pushed Grace in her stroller. She cooed happily in her harness and looked at me with eyes the color of the ocean.
“Of course it’s not nothing,” my neighbor said warmly. “And worse things do happen to babies—”
I took a deep breath, preparing for what she’d say next.
“But nothing worse has happened to your baby.”
My eyes welled with tears. It was a big deal—to me and all my loved ones. And it was Grace’s first big deal. It wasn’t cancer or a terminal heart condition—I could not imagine the pain those parents felt—but it was also not nothing. It was, quite simply, my introduction to the unpredictability of parenthood, to all the things I would not be able to control in Grace’s life.
I’d had no sense that the harness was a scapegoat for my disappointment about not having the “perfect” able-bodied, squishy baby I’d dreamed of. I hadn’t yet reconciled the contradiction of wishing away Grace’s condition while still wanting her exactly as she was.
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Slowly, I made the psychic shift from Grace is hip dysplasia to Grace has hip dysplasia. I accepted the harness as a fact of our life that was helping her. I put the “God’s Grace” onesie in the attic and began to appreciate the other things I hadn’t anticipated about Grace—from her coppery-colored eyelashes to her fingers that curled like cat paws.
She was in the harness for three months. On the day her hips were deemed “normal,” I dressed her in a blue “Hip, Hip, Hooray” onesie. I ran my hands over her bare legs. She squealed with the sense of freedom we both felt. I watched her kick her legs and marveled that she would not remember any of this. She didn’t even have her first tooth yet. I was the one who had to absorb the emotional impact of this setback, as I probably would countless times in the future. Motherhood, along with all of its joys, would bring a continual cycle of letting go.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's February 2020 issue as “Farewell, Mom Guilt.”