Sunday, March 17, 2013

Nina: Poster Woman for Chicks with Balls

Nina is Grace Under Fire

Our playgroup has spent the better part of the past 13 years “shopping for Nina”. By this I mean shopping for men for Nina. See, Nina has spent a good chunk of these past 13 years single. It’s a fun and vicarious pastime for non-Jewish Yentas like myself to find suitable bachelors for her.

Soft-spoken, sweet, kind, lovely and graceful, Nina has no trouble attracting men on her own though. Random men in bars and life become smitten and want to protect her, take care of her…sometimes to the point of obsession.

Though her soft-spoken demeanor might stir male fantasies of heroic rescues, Nina serves as her own knight in shining armor; breadwinner, healer, advocate, protector and tireless stable fixture in the lives of the 3 people in her care.

Nina is THE poster child for Chicks with Balls (actually “poster woman”…see the poster, post card and advertisment in CAN Journal coming out in June to advertise the opening reception of the art show on August 9th…she’s on all of them). Early in CWB I wrote a laundry list*  of struggles and triumphs my Chicks have risen to. Nina could put a check by most of them. She truly is grace under fire.

When we met 13 years ago in the playgroup that saved my new mom sanity, Nina was 25 with her first toddler. I was 37 with my third. Her daughter Lexi, still in diapers, was already talkative, outgoing, outspoken and had forged the strong identity that will grow with her into the Broadway actress she aspires to be. At that time, Nina and her husband were living with Nina’s parents, who have been constant and loving rocks of stability through the events to come.

Over the next few years of weekly playgroup for our toddlers and playgroup therapy for the moms, we saw her marriage come apart.

At the time we were all, more or less, “home with the kids full time”; an enviable, yet much-maligned position you can choose if your spouse makes enough to support the family. Nina’s option to stay home full-time with Lexi dissolved with her marriage. Knowing she must be the breadwinner from now on, she returned to school to finish her education and become a nurse. After several years of tireless dedication and full time effort, Nina emerged from school, highly employable with a nursing degree.

She would now be able to support herself and her daughter without need for a male protector. She did, however, meet a man before too long and remarry. Nina continued as breadwinner while her new husband, a veteran of the war in Iraq, returned to his schooling. She also gave birth to a beautiful healthy baby boy, Jake. Loving her role as mom, Nina became pregnant again, and, ever the over-achiever, this time it was twin girls.

Early in this pregnancy, I asked Nina to pose for me for Chicks with Balls…to which she immediately agreed. I pictured painting a lovely and doubly giant pregnant belly. Already, at this point Nina was highly qualified for CWB. Little did either of us know how her life would unfold in the coming months and years as she continued to unequivocally earn her title as poster woman for Chicks with Balls.

This third pregnancy was not the uneventful bulky but safe passage her previous two were. She developed placenta previa, a condition where the placenta slides down and blocks the cervix, thus endangering mother and babies with possible infection and excessive bleeding.

When Nina was put on bedrest, and then admitted to the hospital for heavy constant bleeding, she knew the score…she was a nurse. Her demeanor, however, made it seem like merely a frustrating inconvenience, not the life-threatening powderkeg her condition actually was.

After another release and another readmission, Nina was finally sentenced to the hospital bed for the duration of her pregnancy…which would hopefully be a long time still. You see, at this point, she was only about 18 weeks…barely half way on the road to a full term pregnancy.

Problem was, those babies were coming; but if they came now it would be way too early. Each day the girls could be kept at bay was a victory where lungs, hearts, brains, bones and vision could develop the healthy natural way…safely in the womb.

The doctors realized that delivery was imminent though, and the pneumonia Nina had developed complicated things more. Despite all efforts to prevent it, the babies came. Nina delivered Cadence and Carmella at 19 weeks, each baby weighing about a pound and a half.  

As luck would have it, she gave birth on a morning I went to see her in the hospital to bring her a stack of books and magazines for what I hoped might be a long boring hospital stay for her. Her husband had attended the delivery, and came out to tell me the news. Though tensions in their marriage had been running high for some time now, he rose to the occasion and was a strong presence for his wife and children through this dangerous situation.

Each baby looked about the size of a kitten. Cadence and Carmella were immediately taped, tubed and rushed up to separate glass isolettes in the neonatal intensive care unit. The tape that held breathing tubes onto their tiny mouths left little showing of their sweet purple newness. And so the womb simulation continued, blipping, beeping, monitoring their every beat and breath in their separate oxygen infused isolation chambers.

Happily Cadence thrived.

Sadly Carmella did not, and passed away a few days after being born way too soon.

I’m going to get the Kleenex now.

Let me take a little omniscient writer’s detour and wipe some tears.

Nina’s situation is just the kind of circumstance that Chicks with Balls is all about; secret pain, the awkward torn emotions that no greeting card acknowledges, celebrating a birth while mourning a death.  How do you deal with it when you’re the mom? Where do you put this into your history…into the happy fun tales you tell your children about when they were born? For Nina, neither full joy, nor full mourning was allowed to run its course.

As protector and knight in shining armor of her family, she absorbed the aftershock of this tragedy and triumph with the superhuman strength sometimes magically granted to those who have work to do.

And work she did. Knowing Cadence would spent the rest of her gestation (3 months or more) in the NICU, and knowing she’d need to be home with her as long as possible when she did come home, Nina did not use her maternity leave for her own recovery, but went back to work as soon as she was allowed to drive. She also pumped breastmilk many times a day to fuel her daughter’s growth; just like she had done for so many years each with Lexi and Jake.

Daily visits to the NICU and coordinating frozen breastmilk deliveries, were squeezed in after full days of working as a nurse…at a different hospital across town. Nina’s mom resumed her role as daytime caregiver for the other two children.  When Nina came home each day to her toddler, teenager and husband, they all required more energy from this already stretched dangerously thin mom. But Nina didn’t break…she calmly bent with the storms, but didn’t break. Her marriage did though, and issues that had been put aside with the advent of immediate dangers to be fought, resurfaced as normal life returned.

Years of trying to make the marriage work came to an end. Nina realized she could do this alone…because to a large extent that's exactly what she'd been doing for years.

Now, two years later, Cadence is indeed thriving. She chats, she laughs, she expresses opinions, she crawls, stands and walks. She is hitting many benchmarks and is the petite poster child for beating all the odds. And Nina will be turning 37 with her third…like I was, when we met 13 years ago…when none of this was part of the plan.

I marvel at the strength and resilience of Nina. She is truly grace under pressure, and I’m hoping that from here on in it is smooth sailing for her and her family. She deserves nothing but the best, for the best is what she gives.

I called Nina’s portrait “Grace Under Fire”.


  1. Hi Judy!
    Your work is incredible! I will try to visit your show.
    Cristina-member of NOIS

    1. Thanks you Cristina! You made my day before it even started! Come introduce yourself at the show… I'd love to meet you!


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