What I Learned When My Wife And I Unexpectedly Gave Birth To A Baby With A Cleft Palate

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What I Learned When My Wife And I Unexpectedly Gave Birth To A Baby With A Cleft Palate
Family

If you've ever seen a child with a cleft lip smile ear-to-ear, their smile extends a little further.

My wife Laura’s delivery with our first child was hell, and that’s speaking from my perspective; I know things were infinitely worse for her. We arrived at the appointed hospital a week after her due date and proceeded with the planned-upon induced labor procedures.

Even after numerous interventions from the medical staff, she still labored unsuccessfully for over 48 hours. Eventually, our child’s heart rate indicated distress and the medical staff chose to perform an emergency C-section. We welcomed a beautiful and perfect baby boy into the world: our first son, Michael.

Being the kind of person who stubbornly insists on learning from past experiences, Laura scheduled a C-section for the delivery of our second child.

We arrived at the hospital at the appointed time, underwent the appropriate prerequisites, and were soon ushered into the operating room for her punctual, as-expected surgical delivery.

Soon after the child was delivered, however, and before we were allowed to see him, another doctor unexpectedly entered the room. He approached us with sympathy and explained to us — as we stared at him like deer in the headlights — that our child was born with a deformity. 

He assured us that it was minor, but it was a deformity nonetheless — he had a cleft palate. The upper roof of our son’s mouth had a gaping split and his upper lip was not joined together. He appeared healthy otherwise, the doctor told us, but he was, in fact, a cleft baby.

So ended our dream of the perfect second delivery. While the process went more smoothly, the end result was definitely more unexpected. As my wife and I grappled with this unexpected development in the days ahead, we learned that while mostly treatable, a child with a cleft palate will require several surgeries as well as years of speech therapy to overcome their condition.

Even more immediately pertinent, the gap in the child’s upper “palate" would prevent him from being able to create a vacuum to suck. This ruled out breastfeeding entirely.

Even though my wife bravely attempted to breastfeed, it was unsuccessful and we ended up feeding our boy through a dropper — as if he was an abandoned baby bird — for his first few days of life.

While cleft palates are usually detected in-utero by ultrasounds, thereby giving the parents a chance to mentally prepare for the condition, our son’s cleft palate was not detected.

The deformity came as a complete surprise. It was a classic example of life handing us something that we did not expect. But this unexpected gift from life has taught me three things.

First, I understood to 1/100th of a degree how difficult it is to be a new mother.

By far, the hardest part at the beginning of Gabriel’s life was his the inability to breastfeed. This required constant bottle feedings throughout the night. With our previous child, Laura would allow him to breastfeed at night while she dozed and I slept soundly by her side.

As two working professionals, Laura and I agreed (through her heavy lobbying) that sharing the bottlefeeding would be fair, and I assumed “Gabe duty” on the nights that I was off work. Never happily, never readily, never in a clear state of mind. Maybe this is how Laura felt the entire time with first child? Fortunately, with Gabe, we each had our nights off, even though Laura never had that luxury the first time around.

Second, Gabe taught me that money isn’t everything.

As someone who grew up in less than privileged conditions, I often idealize — nay idolize — the prospect of making enough money to give both myself and my family as much as we could ever desire.

But when the prospect of the money that you have — and the child who needs the surgery that costs a lot of that money — comes into conflict, the decision is not as difficult as I would have previously expected. The child wins every time.

For people who love money and all that it can buy, but do not have children, I think this will probably be very difficult to swallow. But in my experience, the child wins every time, no matter the monetary cost. In this small way, the obsession with 'having enough money' was stricken from my heart.

Finally, having a child with a disability — albeit a minor, often correctable one — has taught me the disabled often have a different viewpoint from our own.

Gabriel is full of more joy that I could have ever imagined. And this is after the fact that he had to undergo an excruciatingly painful lip fusion therapy that corrected his cleft lip at only six months of age. At 11 months, he is the most joyful and exploratory baby. He enjoys trying to rip the flowers off of his grandfather’s plants, much to his grandfather’s protest and chagrin. 

Gabriel has another surgery coming at 12 months that will be even more difficult than his previous lip surgery.

In this surgery — from my understanding — they will prosthetically patch the gap in his skeletal structure on the roof of his mouth before they cut the upper muscle on the top of his mouth and stretch his palate muscles across the roof of his mouth. This is the surgery that will likely require at least a decade of speech therapy to mitigate the effects of artificially stretching mouth muscles.

But based on what Gabe has taught me thus far, even the road ahead offers challenges at the same time that it offers promises.

At this point, I don’t care how much the therapy or surgeries cost. Gabe has won me over with his smile.

And even though most people can’t attest to this, if you have ever seen a child with a cleft lip smile ear-to-ear, their smile extends a little further. They definitely have a handle on joy that I am still trying to learn from in my life.

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Luke Palumbo grew up as a Third Culture Kid in Mexico City, and yet somehow became a die-hard Green Bay Packers fan. He attended college in Wheaton, IL, where he met his wife Laura. They currently reside in Edison Park with their two boys, Michael and Gabriel, and their sometimes overly-friendly dog, Jäger. 

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