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9/11: The Day I Became a Mother

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On the terrible day of September 11th, 2001, one woman learned how motherhood changes everything.

yvette and daughter christiana

Yvette Manessis Corporon: My daughter was born on May 6, 2001, at Lenox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. After nine hours of labor and 50 minutes of pushing (thank goodness for ample Greek hips and whoever invented the epidural), Christiana made her grand entrance into the world. My husband Dave beamed with love and pride as he took our freshly swaddled baby and placed her in my arms. Bursting with emotion, I looked down at her little pink face and couldn't believe how lucky I was to be holding this perfect little baby girl in my arms.

But that's not the day I became a mother.

On September 11, 2001, Christiana was 4 months old and I was still enjoying an extended maternity leave from my life as a news producer for WCBS in New York. Dave, a cameraman for Fox5 in New York, called me as I was feeding our Christiana and told me what had happened less than a mile away, just across the river from our apartment -- where our beautiful baby sat in her bouncy seat playing with her stuffed bear.

I grabbed Christiana and put her in her floppy, white eyelet hat -- it was a gloriously sunny morning and I didn't want her to get a sunburn. We headed to the roof deck of our apartment and there I stood, alone with my baby in my arms, and watched as the North Tower of the World Trade Center burned. The gaping hole was huge, the smoke and fire horrendous, and I knew that Dave was either down there already or on his way to cover this catastrophic accident. That's what we all thought -- it had to be an accident, right?

I watched the smoke fill the air, praying and wondering what it must be like for those poor people trapped inside the burning building. I thought about how terrifying it must be for those down on the ground, knowing Dave must be there by now. I was amazed that -- in the midst of this horrific scene -- the sky around the tower flickered and twinkled with what looked like little shiny bits of confetti. I imagined they were the pulverized remnants of the coating that reflected the sunset on the towers every evening. This was the same coating that made the gleaming towers look like two exquisite works of art. They made my evening runs magical as I marveled at them, huffing and puffing across the Brooklyn Bridge every night in my attempt to finally lose the baby weight.

I stood on the deck with Christiana in my arms and watched. I watched as a gray plane came into view from the tip of New Jersey. I watched as it looped down around the Statue of Liberty and turned north. I watched as it headed toward the towers and I silently thanked God. It must be a rescue plane, I thought. They're going to rescue people from the roof, above the fire. They're going to douse the flames so more people can get out

But of course, I was wrong.

See Dave's gripping original 9/11 footage below, shot minutes after the first tower was hit. 

Squeezing Christiana tighter, I watched as the plane continued heading north. It was low and it was fast. And as I stood there watching it, everything changed. In that moment, I realized this plane was not there to help. In that moment, I realized that this was not an accident. It's not helping, it's not helping, I repeated again and again outloud. But there was no one to hear me -- no one but Christiana. Alone on the deck of my home, holding my beautiful, innocent baby in my arms, I watched as the second plane slammed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

And then, in that moment, I finally became a mother.

As the world changed around us and right in front of my eyes, I finally understood what it was to be a mother. I wanted to sink to my knees and cry and scream like all the screams I heard coming from the streets and homes of my neighborhood, from my neighbors and friends. But I couldn't afford the luxury of all that emotion, of all that precious time wasted. I was a mother, and I had a baby to protect and keep safe -- and that's all that mattered.

What was on those planes? What if they had chemical weapons on those planes? That was all I could think of as I raced back down to my apartment. I was terrified that there may be more planes coming, terrified that my baby would breathe poisoned air. I put Christiana back in her bouncy seat and closed all the windows. I placed towels under each and every door and window sash, and I prayed I was wrong for the second time that morning.

I had stopped nursing just two days before. I never did produce enough milk -- and breastfeeding for me was an endless, frustrating cycle of nursing, supplementing, and pumping in order to stimulate more milk. After an exhausting and difficult four months, I had finally decided to stop. But now, everything was different. I didn't know if and when it would ever be safe to go outside, if stores would be open, and if I would ever even be able to buy formula again. I needed to feed my baby, to make sure she had enough to eat. It was up to me to keep her safe, to sustain her and keep her well-fed. It was up to me to keep her happy, to play peek-a-boo, sing to her, and elicit smiles and giggles when all I wanted to do was curl up in a fetal position and cry. But there was no time for that, because I was -- after all -- Christiana's mother. I began nursing again as I watched both towers burning on television.

As I was nursing, Dave called. He was now at the base of the flaming towers, looking up at them. "Don't worry," he said. "They got the second tower, what more can they do? The worst is over." Unfortunately, Dave was wrong too. "Take care of our baby," he said before hanging up.  Of course I would -- that was my job. I was her mother. And just as taking care of Christiana was my job, I knew Dave would be doing his. To know my husband is to know he is an incredible photojournalist. I knew he would be capturing history, that he would be right there, under and inside the Twin Towers alongside the firefighters as they did their job. I just wanted him to be safe in the process.

As Christiana played on the floor, I went to her bedroom to get a diaper. I walked back into the living room and stared at the television. The picture had changed; what I now saw on the screen didn't make any sense. I didn't understand what I was watching. And then everything changed again. The South Tower had collapsed. I knew Dave was there. I sank to my knees. In my mind, I was now a mother and a widow as well.

Thankfully, I was wrong again. Dave was finally able to call home about an hour after the second tower had collapsed. He's lucky he survived -- and for a while, he didn't think he would. After assuring me he was all right, he hung up and went back to work, again telling me to take care of our baby. Dave has always been the guy you want next to you in a breaking news situation. He's fearless and smart and will always get his shot. This news story began no differently, but it ended like no other.

By now, everyone has seen the iconic footage of 9/11, which has been played around the world. The cameraman stands his ground, shooting toward the flaming towers while hundreds of people race past him. The camera pans up to catch the tornado cloud from the collapsing tower kick over a building and barrel down the street toward him. People are now flooding past him, running for their lives, but he stands there and keeps shooting. Finally, he turns to run away himself, the camera still rolling as the debris cloud closes in on him, coming at him from every direction. There's no escape. It finally overtakes him. Sound becomes muffled, and the camera goes dark.

Millions of people around the world have seen this footage and wondered what happened to that cameraman. Did he make it out alive? Did that footage cost him his life? That cameraman is my husband, the father of my children, my Dave. As everything turned black around him, the debris filling his lungs, he thought of me and our little baby back home, across the river in Brooklyn. He thought that was it -- that he would die there on Broadway, like the ash-covered victims of Pompeii we had seen on our honeymoon. What have I done? I've stayed too long, he thought. He feared he would never hold our baby again, never see her wobble her first steps, or walk her down the aisle at her wedding. But thankfully, that was not to be the case. To those who wondered what happened to that cameraman, not only did he make it out alive -- but he also made it out a father.

Every single one of us has a story about that day; how we survived, mourned, came together, and came away different. But as different as our stories are, it made so many of us realize the same thing: Giving birth doesn't make a woman a mother. Having a child doesn't make a person a parent. It's that one defining moment in our lives -- whether it's facing a health crisis, a catastrophic event like 9/11, or even a menacing bully on a playground -- that makes us understand what it means to be a mother or a father. It's when you realize that nothing matters more than the safety and happiness of your child.

9/11 changed all of us. How could it not? But it's also the day countless women everywhere finally realized what it truly means to be a mother. And I'm just one of them.

next: Vacationing Girl's Message in Bottle Follows Her Home
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