Born That Way by
(354 Stories)

Prompted By Babies

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6 week old David

In the eternal “nature vs nurture” debate, I can assure you that both play a big factor in how one’s child turns out, but babies are born with certain traits that cannot be denied.

David was born 10 days after his due date; I labored for 37 1/2 uncomfortable hours and he was whisked off to the neo-natal ICU, with jaundice and a fever (he was fine within a few hours). I joke that he has been slow and deliberate ever since, could sleep through anything (we used to vacuum under his crib and it didn’t wake him) and is habitually late. He is naturally reticent, was very shy as a youngster and worked hard to bring out a more sociable personality.

Jeffrey was delivered on his due date in 45 minutes and has been running around since (not so speedy any longer). Cracking my knuckles used to wake his SO active brain and he was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 5. He was a smiley baby, but at an early age showed great frustration and could throw a temper tantrum that would melt your face off.

New-born Jeffrey

I love both my children dearly. They are brilliant and sweet. They have many interests in common, but are so different in so many ways, yet they both have the same parents and were raised in the same household.

I nursed each of them a year. I did a lot of research and believed it was the healthiest course to take, if I was able. Babies are so soft and smell wonderful (most of the time). Holding them as long as it took to make sure they were properly nourished was an intense experience. David looks the most like me and nothing could quite describe how I felt as I nursed, feeling that my eyes gazed up at me. Occasionally I would have to play “mean Mommy” and flick their toes to wake them to get them to continue to nurse, ensuring adequate nutrition. Even then, Jeffrey was easily distracted and would look around, rather than concentrating on the task at hand!

Watching them hit their milestones was another amazing task that certainly happens within ranges, but was different for each child. Turning over, holding up the head, holding up the body, scooting, crawling, taking those first tentative steps, those first words, solid food. Then of course, babies no more, but full-fledged toddlers. Jeffrey was slow to walk, but crawled so quickly that we called him “turbo-charged”. No need to walk…he got around just fine, thank you very much.

Infant diseases are terrifying, particularly for new parents. When the babies start teething and crying from pain, we didn’t know what was going on and they’d start wailing, we just wanted to give them Tylenol all the time. I didn’t have any parents or other adults around to help or give sage advise and I couldn’t call the doctor for everything. David had colic and the cramps caused him to wail. His doctor did prescribe something, which soothed him

Poor little Jeffrey contracted meningitis at 11 weeks, brought home by David from day camp. David had a high fever, head ache and stiff neck, but he was four years old and the doctor said he’d be fine. Jeffrey hadn’t had his first shots yet. His fever spiked to 104 degrees. His doctor watched him for several days, assuming she knew what it was, but couldn’t be sure if it was viral (OK – it would pass) or bacterial (very dangerous; needed to be on IV antibiotics STAT!). The fever ebbed and flowed. When it spiked again, she sent me to Children’s Hospital for a spinal tap (and we called Dan home from out of town). I sat on the floor of the hospital, listening to my baby scream, as I cried too.

The nurse brought him back to me with an IV of antibiotics in his tiny arm (to be safe, while they waited for the culture to come back). She put me in an isolated room, without offering me food or water. She said they’d get me a room on the isolation ward when one became available. I asked what was going on. She said if it was viral, he’d be fine, if it was bacterial, there could be consequences like blindness, deafness or death! With that, she left me alone. For hours. At one point, our doctor called on a line in the hallway (this was 1989, long before cell phones). She said she knew he’d be fine and to hang in there, she’d visit later in the day. Eventually, we got up on the ward. A chair in the room could be made into a bed for me, as I could not leave my nursing baby. Dan came later with David. They had gotten McDonald’s. David thought that was a real treat.

Except when Jeffrey slept, I held him round the clock, close to my chest, for two days. I sang to him constantly. I showered when the nurse came to draw blood from his heel. I couldn’t stand to hear that cry. In later years, before I understood all his sensory integration issues, some of which led him to find my high-pitched singing voice intolerable, I joked: because I had sung to him for those two horrible days, he subconsciously couldn’t stand my singing because it reminded him of his hospital stay.

After 48 hours, his cultures came back. The meningitis was viral, not bacterial and he was released from the hospital. He would be fine. But in all the years since, as we went from doctor to doctor, searching for a diagnosis for Jeffrey’s behavioral, learning and other differences, I always began the conversation with that infant illness, wondering if there was any lasting effect. The doctors always assured me that was not the case.  But I always wondered.

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: David, Jeffrey, personalities, labor, meningitis
Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. John Zussman says:

    So many striking, witty lines in the beginning of this story, such as “a temper tantrum that would melt your face off” and how babies “smell wonderful (most of the time).” And then you get down to the scary tale of Jeffrey’s meningitis and we are right there with you. So glad for all of you it came out okay. I also hope they have more rapid testing methods now, so parents today don’t have to go through that agony.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I hope so too, John. For meningitis, I would think they still have to do a spinal tap (which on anyone is a difficult procedure – on a small child is excruciating). Then wait for the spinal fluid to be cultured. I just don’t know how long that takes these days. Those 48 hours seemed like an eternity for us.

  2. Marian says:

    Besty, this is so moving and heartfelt. I can only try to imagine the agonizing situation of a parent who would do anything to help their child.

  3. Suzy says:

    Wow, what a journey! Reading the first part of your story, I was nodding and comparing your experiences with mine. Every child is different, but some aspects of motherhood are always the same. Then I got to the part about Jeffrey’s meningitis. OMG, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to go through what you went through! You were so strong for him! Thankfully it turned out to be viral, but I don’t blame you for wondering if there was any lasting effect.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Suzy, as I wrote this story, I honestly didn’t know where it would take me. At first, I just thought about the differences between my two children, but then I got into childhood diseases and how inadequate I felt as a mother, which brought me to the meningitis story. I try not to think about it too often, but there it was. It felt important to tell it, since it was scary in the moment and did leave me wondering, given all that came after. I had to be strong for him. We are our children’s advocates and protectors, after all.

  4. Risa Nye says:

    As someone who stood by a baby’s hospital bedside for months, my heart goes out to anyone who had to suffer through what you did. This is a touching story, and scary at the same time. Must’ve been painful to relive all of that–but I also know that a parent never forgets those feelings.

  5. I loved this recounting, Betsy. Great picture of you with baby David! Your depth of experience glowed in this piece, including ups and downs. Very heart warming. Babies DO smell wonderful most of the time and the meningitis scare really communicated the underlying cause for that constant awareness of child vulnerability. Lovely!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Maybe I’m experience now, Charlie, but I sure felt out of my depth then! And yes, parents are constantly vigilant, and rightly so. Harm to little ones can come so quickly. Thank you for reading and commenting.

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