If there's one parenting certainty I've absorbed, it's that no one outside me, my husband and our pediatrician ever wants to hear about the contents of our baby's diapers. That is, except for a recent Friday night, when every single person we interacted with over the course of seven straight hours wanted nothing more than to find out about the contents of our baby's diapers. Or more specifically, one diaper in particular. The one with the blood in it.
It's damn near impossible not to become cartoonishly fraught trying to navigate the world with a baby. Behind every innocuous-looking toy is a choking hazard; hiding invisibly on every surface is a staph infection; every stranger who tells your kid she's beautiful is probably secretly a recruiter for a child pornography ring, and so on. You ponder these atrocities, sit with them, struggle to prepare yourself in some way for them, and then try to re-orient yourself to reality: The odds of your baby being given a staph-infected choking-hazard toy while being forced into a child prostitution ring are pretty slim, at least compared to the odds that you'll have to eventually buy her a pink tutu.
Except for the day that you pick your child up from daycare, take her home, change her diaper, and see a thick streak of bright red blood. That appears to be coming from her vagina. The mind reels at the possibilities: This is far too late for the inaugural menstrual period that occurs the first few weeks after birth in baby girls; this is far too early for precocious puberty. What's left, according to your best friend the Internet, ranges from tragic rare cancers to bladder or kidney infections to injuries to, finally, the two words parents lose their ability to be even remotely blasé about the second they become parents: sexual abuse. Moreover, the on-call pediatrician doesn't like the symptoms you're describing and sends you to the emergency room.
So off to the nearest ER we go at 9 p.m. on a Friday night, evidence in hand, hoping someone would tell us the kid had stuck a few raspberries in the wrong place and all was well. You never want to find yourself staring down The Sick-Fuck Factor, forced to acknowledge that all the horror stories actually happened to real people just like you.
But the ER doctor was perplexed: As he examined her while she kicked and sobbed, he couldn't deduce exactly where the blood was coming from, and the moment he asked us to relay the day's events again and heard the word daycare, he and the nurse exchanged a look. He said he couldn't rule out foul play at this time. He would also have to report the suspicion of abuse.
This is where the old you's brain would search for a sarcastic joke or a nice dissonant little semantic juxtaposition to make dark comic fodder out of the particular bleakness of the situation, out of all the world's woes. But the old you was anesthetized the second this ordeal began, and now the new you's stomach takes a nosedive to the floor and lands with a queasy thud that sends your brain scrambling for equilibrium. And as the doctor and nurse leave the room to make their official phone calls, you realize there is no comic relief in the world you can summon to ease this terror.
So you don't let your brain accept this possibility. It is now 10 p.m. on a Friday night. Your baby has some kind of infection, that is all. You focus on the sound of the homeless drunk guy in the next room moaning in pain as he's asked to give a urine sample, the girl on the gurney passing in the hall babbling incoherently about the guy who injured her.
The nurse comes to explain that the doctor wants to catheterize the baby to take a urine sample, but because he doesn't want to contaminate any potential evidence of abuse, he is ordering a rape kit. The trauma team has been called, but it will take some time for them to arrive. The police will be notified and must make a report as part of the state's mandatory reporting laws. Do you have any suspicions about her daycare providers? Who are they? Where are they located? How many other children are there? Are the children always supervised?
The daycare! The daycare you vetted exhaustively, the one you pay top dollar for! The one with the yoga and the organic mangos! You cannot picture it even as your brain reminds you to not be that naïve person who cannot picture it, to not be the person who, dazed, says to reporters what everyone says to reporters about bizarre and tragic cases of abuse: "They seemed like such nice people."
It is now midnight on a Friday night. Your baby is exhausted and fussy but cannot fall asleep in such bright light with all the announcements squawking in and out over the intercom. "Volunteer to the North side," it bleats. The nurse has come to walk you over to the rape treatment center, where an earthy woman greets you, herself expecting, apologizing for the delay and explaining, that at your baby's age and with the bleeding, it's better to rule out any issues just to be sure.
They cannot tell you anything definitively, she says gently, but you they have special lights and high-tech video equipment, and they will at least be able to tell right away if there are any tears or abrasions. You are guided into a soft-lit counseling room filled with stuffed animals and whimsical paintings of animals framed on the wall. There is a basket filled with snacks, bottled water, ladymags and generously placed boxes of tissue.
It is all designed to comfort the traumatized, and for some reason, it is the stuffed animals that get to you. You feel your eyes welling up but know that you cannot — will not — get upset in front of your baby who is entirely unaware of why she is here, who is instead laughing and smitten with the large green turtle and soft fuzzy gray rabbit she has just made the acquaintance of. But if you were in any way still clinging to the idea that you are a free person in the world somehow immune to all the clichés of sentiment, you were wrong.
The other counselors eventually show up, and there are forms and questions, about previous injuries to the genital area, about bruises, about neglect, about behavioral problems.
We are asked to relay the story about how we discovered the diaper again, now for the sixth time. They are polite, they do not suspect us of anything, they reassure us, and we wonder what it is must be like for the parents who are suspected of something. For children this age who cannot themselves disclose anything, she continues, every precaution must be taken. It only takes a minute for a daycare worker's boyfriend or another caretaker to abuse a child in a daycare setting.
The exam begins. Our daughter is examined naked with a black light, then has her mouth and private parts swabbed. The examiner, to her credit, is warm and efficient with children and somehow puts her at ease. Then it is time to record her genital examination. We have to hold our baby down and pull her legs back so the nurse can look inside her with a bright high-definition video camera. She squirms and cries, and then it's over. We hand over the diaper for criminal evidence.
Nearly six hours into this ordeal, we find out that we are lucky, that there are no tears or abrasions. Everything is intact. It is highly unlikely she has been mishandled in any way. It is 2:00 a.m., but we still cannot leave. We must go back to the ER and wait to now get the urine exam. Exhausted, we wait. In the next room over, we overhear another patient on the receiving end of some sobering news: "With all the aspirin you took, your kidneys are shutting down and your electrolytes are way off. Also, you have pneumonia."
The police have arrived and want to question us.
We tell our story again, hopefully for the last time. The officer is polite and re-reads the report to us for accuracy, and because the fear of the imaginable worst has finally been lifted, we are able to experience some small amusement when he has to read our use of the phrase "poopy diaper" out loud back to us to confirm the official record. The results will take hours to get back for the urinalysis, so we opt to go home and collapse into bed at 4 am. We are sent home with referrals for counseling and the knowledge that police or social services may follow up in a few days time.
At 8:30 a.m., loud banging on the front door reveals a different set of police officers, who have not been communicated to clearly that we'd already given the report to a different officer at the hospital. My husband is forced to recount the story once more. The daycare will also be investigated, just to follow up for the record.
A few days later, we are still awaiting test results to determine the exact cause of the bleeding, which has since stopped as quickly as it came. Still reeling from our brush with the protocol of a system that both terrifies and comforts — terrifying to consider that our child could be abused, comforted that such a swift and thorough system awaits for just such situations (although, admittedly, this has just added yet another kit to the backlog of unopened or untested kits in the state of California).
In the grand scheme of things, we remind ourselves that it could have been so much worse, that the inconvenience and emotional upheaval is in retrospect, just that — an inconvenience. No innocence lost. Well, except maybe ours as parents, forced to acknowledge that in spite of the fact that our every efforts are meant to avoid precisely this kind of horror, the best we can do is merely minimize the risk; that this kind of tragedy can happen to the best prepared among us.
Ultimately, nothing made us feel as hopeless as what the counselor said when we mentioned how unfathomable the idea was of our daughter being violated now or at any age. "The thing is," she said shaking her head. "We deal with kids in here all the time who've been abused. Younger than her, even. Infants."
Tracy Moore is a writer living in Los Angeles.
Image via Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.