My Cup Runneth Over

September and October passed so quickly. I often find myself lost in the daily rhythms of raising kids: wake up, feed the kids breakfast, take J to school, run errands, each lunch, nap time, and on. Each day blurs past me and into the next one, and before I know it, months have passed.

So, I can’t say when M stopped walking and started running. Each milestone was so arduous until August. Every move she made was monitored. Then, she finally started walking at nearly 20 months old and never looked back. She is such an energetic, athletic, busy, curious, wild child that I’m sure I’ll sit on the sidelines of the soccer field when she’s in high school, and I’ll reminisce with the other parents about how long it took her to walk. And that she’s been making up for it ever since!

With my son, a motor delay led to a speech delay; we worked so hard to help him physically that his brain had little energy left for talking. But, I’m amazed to witness my daughter shattering goal after goal, whether it’s gross motor, fine motor, or language development. Each week she’s a new child with new tricks. And I feel a little guilty that in all this rush, I’m failing to document all the cute things she says and does.

I simply cannot keep up.

But, when your child has started life so tiny, so fragile, and so inundated with a developmental uphill climb, there is something extra special about watching her soar. And for the first time in the more than four years that I’ve been a mother, we’re now looking at a future without therapy of any kind. I cannot even speak to how grateful I am. My cup absolutely runneth over.

Childbirth Small Talk

January 2013 078At a kids’ party last week, I realized something: I am very uncomfortable around any discussion of natural childbirth. Like sweaty palms, looking for an escape, must use my baby as a buffer kind of uncomfortable.

I was those women, before I had my own babies. I watched The Business of Being Born and complained about the high rate of C-sections and how doctors rushed long labors even though both mother and baby were healthy. I might have even questioned women who actually chose C-sections or bottle-feeding over the more natural options, though I am no longer in any position to judge, if I ever was.

In many ways, I tend toward a naturalist way of thinking. I believe in recycling and reusing and reducing consumption. I cloth diapered both of my kids. Ask our contractor if I don’t love me some trees, and I’ve proposed adding chickens to our future garden. I love organic produce, and I only use cleaners made from natural and harmless ingredients, most of the time. I have a hippy bleeding heart for the natural world.

So, on one hand I totally get the sentiment that in pregnancy and childbirth, less is more when it comes to intervention, but I feel so uncomfortable when the topic of childbirth comes up. And with a bunch of women with small children, it’s bound to come up.

I can small talk with the best of them. My husband says I can talk to a fence post. But, childbirth is not a topic of chit-chat for me, and I can’t small talk birthing babies.

I remember the things I was asked to do in the trenches of emergency childbirth, and I am confident about the kind of woman I was when I was trapped in that dark corner. I know I was tough as nails. I know I was a fighter. I know my husband and family were proud of me. And I forgive my body for what it did to all of us.

But, in a conversation about the ills of C-sections, what do I say? Somebody, please tell me? Yes, so many women have C-sections for all sorts of reasons that probably don’t justify the risks and the expense of major surgery. But, I wasn’t one of them. Without medical intervention, my husband would be a widower who lost both of his tiny children. That is my reality.

What a conversation killer.

So, I keep my trap shut and don’t say a word. But, then I haven’t done myself or other women like me or the women who speak of things they don’t understand any favors at all. It’s all still too painful for me to casually mention that my body in pregnancy was like the bad apple in the Berenstain Bear book I read as a child: perfect on the outside and a mess on the inside. I don’t want to shock or frighten or sadden, so I do the worst possible thing, which is shut down completely. This is no way to make friends. This is no way to advocate for preemies. Shutting my mouth is no way to raise awareness about how more research is needed to understand even the basics of some of pregnancy’s most common disorders.

I sit there like a lump on a log, contributing nothing. Why do I clam up?

I am afraid. Of being judged. Of being pitied. Of being misunderstood. Because it feels worse to open up and then be shut down than to ever open up at all. I realize this sentiment translates to so many of us, and I wonder what kind of people we would be if we didn’t feel so isolated. The larger our communities get, the more lost I fear we are, away from the people who know us best. Some of my dearest loves in life who are my soft place to land are scattered–no lie–all over the world.

I realize that at the kids’ party I didn’t even give the childbearing-discussing women a chance to be curious or understanding or sympathetic. I prejudged them. But, then I picture myself in that situation again, the odd woman out talking about one of life’s most painful topics for me, and I still can’t imagine what to say or where to begin.

Perspective

M a few days after she came home

M a few days after she came home

I saw a friend’s preemie for the first time today. Her tiny preemie body reminds me so much of my babies, especially M, and I told my friend just that. But, I didn’t tell her that that little preemie body brought back such a rush of emotions, good and bad. It wasn’t so long ago that I was in her shoes, or shoes like hers. Just 18 months ago, I had a tiny, 5-pound 2-month-old at home. As stressful as it was, that time was so fleeting. Even then, I’d watch her sleep, and I’d say to myself, “Soak it in. She won’t be 5 pounds forever,” because with J it sure felt like forever but it didn’t last. Though M didn’t gain weight for three weeks after coming home, she did gain, and now she’s my wild thing, so mischievous and full-of-life. The two images crash in my minds eye, that fragile baby and this wild girl.

Sometimes, I wonder if I’ll escape the shadow of the NICU. It finds me even in the most joyful moments. Actually, that is its home, because every joyful moment is made more so by the knowledge that it all could have ended differently. It makes me clutch my children in parking lots and kiss them a few extra times at night and sneak back into their rooms at night to watch them sleep. It makes me quicker to apologize, and it also makes me quicker to challenge the kids in the ways they need to be challenged. If I hadn’t spent the last four years with babies in therapy, would I assess their development they way I do? Would I be frustrated that I’m a stay-at-home mom, when I never planned it that way? Would I look people in the eyes when I know they’re suffering and tell them that I can’t fix it but I wish I could?

It would all be different, but then none of us–our entire of family of four–would be who we are now.

I don’t think I will escape the NICU, and maybe I shouldn’t try. After all, the whole reason I relish M’s ferocity in life is because when I met her all she could manage was a kitten’s mew. Perspective is everything.

M now

M now

 

The Open Wound: Having More Children

Family Pic

In the months after J’s birth, I struggled with what had happened, how suddenly he had entered our lives. I felt paralyzing guilt that I, his safe keeper, had tossed him into the world so early. Before J, I had been the preemie in the family; born at 36 weeks and weighing 5.5 lbs, I had been the success story. It never dawned on me that in a family of healthy pregnancies and healthy babies, I could have a baby born 10 weeks earlier who was half my birth weight.

In the months after J came home, the isolation almost did me in. We had moved to a new city six weeks before J’s birth, and now the timing of it seems spectacularly orchestrated. But, in those lonely winter months, I felt used up, spent, hung-out-to-dry.

As one hard day slipped into another, my baby grew, and then he thrived. We thought it would be a good idea to try having a full-term baby. No one could say what would happen, and everyone said the next time would be different.

And she was.

Again, there was the shock and the disappointment, but this time there was fear not just for my baby but for myself. Preeclampsia is a killer, and anyone who has had it will tell you that it feels like a killer. In the hours before M’s birth, I felt my body coming apart, and because I was already J’s mother, I was terrified at the thought that I would lose the chance to mother him.

I’ve said before that having M freed me from guilt. What has happened defies all reason and is beyond all logic. It makes no sense. And after another NICU stay, I found myself remade. I let go of the doubt and guilt. In so many ways, M healed me.

Except for one: her birth made it clear that I had no business having more babies. It remains an open wound for my husband and me.

I always wanted to have children. I always envisioned being a mother. I always thought I’d have three kids, maybe four and at least two. So, here I sit the mother of these two lovely children, blessed in every way. The logical feeling would be peace; the obvious reaction would be acceptance. And I do have peace about how I had my babies. I cannot separate having preemies from being a mother because it is all intertwined in a lovely chaos. I’m usually a pretty clearheaded decision-maker, and obviously, I shouldn’t tempt fate by having a third biological child. My husband and I already made that decision, with very heavy hearts, last year. But, the truth? The truth is that I am not the least bit mollified by having a boy and a girl. Sure, life might be simpler with two children. I am plenty busy with a bright future ahead of me. I should put my baby-rearing days in the rearview mirror and be glad for it; after all, the last four years have been brutal.

The problem is that it doesn’t feel right. It’s been 19-months and counting, and I still have no peace. I do not feel complete. I’ve donated my baby clothes and consigned my baby toys. I’ve been praised for having the All-American family. But, it still feels like a knife in my heart when people tell me I’m lucky to be done with my childbearing. This decision was never of my own making, and in fact, my husband and I have already agreed that if the decision were ours to make, we would choose another baby.

So, I will say it. I will say the word. Adoption. I can’t say whether we’ll choose it, or whether it will choose us. I can’t say when or how. I don’t know. Maybe never. All I know is that I feel that there is much more to our story. I feel that there is room in our lives; maybe not now, with a wild toddler still dominating the show. But, there is a maybe. Most people with whom I’ve shared this sentiment don’t warn me away from adoption outright, but they don’t encourage it either. I assume they love us, and they’ve seen how we’ve struggled. I’m sure they think our lives will be simpler if we don’t choose such a complicated road. But, I am not the woman I was four years ago. I have changed. What once terrified me is now my normal, and I feel perfectly suited–and even called–to mother another preemie.

In fact, as I write this, I’m simultaneously dredging up difficult emotions and being entertained by a toddler trying on a red Thomas hat and squealing “PEE-PIE” as my eyes meet hers. I have come to see this messy life as such a treasure. Sure, traveling with little ones is trying, much of our house is infested with crumbs and goodness knows what else, and my husband and I don’t get many date nights. But, life is joyous and sticky and full of love. I am witness to miracles on a daily basis, and I’ve fallen in love with being a mother–which is the total opposite of my dark days as a new mother when I cried to my best friend that I didn’t know how I’d go on. Sometimes, you have to be torn apart and thrown asunder to be remade.

So, back to my point. I guess I’m surprised by the reaction, by the stigma against adoption. Just like I always planned to be a mother, I always considered adoption. I discussed it with my husband before we were married. Though we’ve arrived in this place from a journey we never expected, the possibility of adoption isn’t really a radical idea for us.

Maybe more time will bring more peace. Maybe we will feel our family is complete in another year or two. Certainly, our lives are full, and adventuring down an unknown road is frightening. But, when did anything in life become certain? All I want is the freedom to consider the future of our family. Whatever decision we make will be mulled, as we generally mull all of our major decisions, certainly ones of such magnitude. Sometimes, it feels like because we had sick babies who survived, we’re supposed to accept our fate and not want anything more. I think that’s a universal preemie parent frustration, the sentiment that we’ve already challenged fate and won. I would never turn to a family with several healthy, full-term children and tell them to quit while they’re ahead.

The worst decisions I’ve ever made have been fear-based, not doing something because I was too afraid. The best decisions? The ones that involved me jumping off metaphorical cliffs and hoping for water down below. I refuse to live my life scared, not in spite of the last four years but because of them. We were spared nearly everything I wasted my time fearing, and all the things that happened were outside of my realm of possibilities. That will teach you to stop living scared.

So, all I’m saying is the your-family-is-complete topic is extraordinarily painful. So many wounds surrounding our preemies have healed, or at least have begun to heal. But, that one, the one about the size of our family? It is still an open wound.

And nothing about the size of our family has been decided, yet.

Gone Is The Long Babyhood

J LaughingRecently, J has taken ownership over his role as Big Brother. It used to be that M was crawling in all the wrong places (usually through J’s toys) and throwing all the wrong things (like J’s toys) and generally making a mess of things. But, as M has started walking more and crawling less, it’s as if her brother sees her differently. She’s no longer the baby who needs protection and redirection; she’s the little sister who is playing on J’s team. They run through the house and push toys all over the place. They squabble and squawk and giggle from one end of the house to the other. J’s imagination is on fire these days, and he thinks of all sorts of creative activities for them to do, which generally involve imagining that they’re repair people of some sort in large trucks. As hard-headed and opinionated as M is, she must not fully realize that J is organizing her play; she’s just glad to be allowed on his team.

What made me notice how much the play around here has changed is how J talks. Everything is “we” now. (We’re hungry. We want to go for a walk. We like peaches! We do not like to clean. We love dogs, Mama. We want more apples, please.) All this “we” business is adorable.

But, J also speaks for M about how she’s feeling or what she needs, which I actually find extraordinarily helpful. I can’t always see her signing or hear her babbling, so she’d developed a habit of just screaming until I came running. Now, J translates what she wants and yells it in my direction (usually in the kitchen). “MA-MA! M says she wants more blueberries, please!” I also find his translations sweet because he sees her pointing to her blueberries and signing more and he thinks to add the please part.

As with everything preemie-related, I catch myself watching them and traveling back in time. Two years ago, I couldn’t get much of a word out of J, and now he’s not only expressing his own needs in long sentences and paragraphs but he’s also expressing his sister’s needs. What happened to my tiny babies?

That long Preemie Babyhood that consumed the better part of four years is officially over.

Another Victory

I took the kids to the activity center last week to a free play session in the gymnasium. The entire room was lined with mats, encouraging kids to tumble and run and play wildly to their heart’s content. It was a joyous chaos.

Not long ago, I never would have considered such a place. My son is reserved and cautious; a year ago he would have taken one look at that wild room filled with loud, squealing, out-of-control children, and he would have walked back out the door. For so long, he was delayed in his speech and in his physical abilities. He was small for his age, and other kids pushed him around at playdates and in parks. Even if they meant him no harm, he was nervous around kids he didn’t know, especially wild ones playing in wild places.

It wasn’t long ago that M didn’t move enough to play in a gymnasium. Now, she’s crawling AND walking; she’s toddling and falling and exploring her world in ways she couldn’t just a few months ago.

I’m always struck by the sensation that people outside of our world who don’t know us have no idea of these sorts of victories. J was jumping off of mats and hanging off of bars. M crawled for a solid hour straight, only stopping to smile at other children bumping into her, before racing off to new discoveries. Nothing about these children suggests all the therapy it has taken to get us here. All of the interventions and teachers and advice and doctors. All of it.

As I watched J play with a friend, I remembered how distraught I was in his first months home. He was so small and so fragile. He was terribly unhappy. Compared to a baby boy born just five days earlier and dressed in the same red Christmas outfit, they looked months apart–which felt like oceans apart to me. And now, they’re jumping and laughing as equals, as friends.

This is what we’ve worked so hard to accomplish. Two kids happily rolling and walking and sliding and jumping.

Early intervention should never be underestimated, because maybe these kids would have gotten here. And maybe not. But, it’s not a maybe worth chancing.

This small victory has been worth it. It has been worth all of it.

4 Years

Not-Jane

Having preemies affords some unique life experiences.

Like being friends with quadruplets.

I met my friend Not-Jane* in our Parents’ Reaching Out meetings at the NICU. After J’s birth, I was in desperate need of a support group. I was lost in the unknown, and the group of women I met in those meetings were the first people to validate my feelings. I am still in touch with a few of them.

I saw Not-Jane at the first meeting I attended. She was slim, and I had absolutely no clue she had multiples until she introduced herself. It turned out that J was only two days older than her four babies and that he was about a week more premature. I liked Not-Jane almost from the beginning, and I was curious about her experience of having four babies. After six weeks of passing each other in the NICU corridors, we became friends.

Not-Jane was a bright spot during long days, and I looked forward to daily check-ins with her. I remember huddling next to J’s bassinet, lost in frustrating thoughts, and seeing her walk through the doorway. We shared information and a little NICU gossip, and some of my clouds began to lift. Her friendship provided a sense of normalcy in a situation so outside the norm.

After J was discharged, I visited her at the Ronald McDonald house until the last of her babies was transferred to the NICU in her hometown. Then, I drove an hour and a half from my house to hers about once a month. It was RSV season, so we didn’t take our babies into public, for anything. Visiting her was respite from a very lonely winter.

I’ll never forget watching her juggle those babies. She lined up Boppies and marked bottles and organized a system to meet her babies’ needs. J was a very difficult baby during his first year, but seeing her conquer chaos was a reminder to me that my problems were temporary and could be overcome.

We celebrated surviving that winter with our first March of Dimes walk in April. We did it with other families we’d known in the NICU, and I was the only mother there who didn’t have multiples. With us were a set of twins, triplets, and quads. I was amused at all the double-takes and questions, because I could watch from the sidelines. No one noticed my singleton.

Every public outing for Not-Jane came at a price. People asked the most intrusive questions, like whether she had used fertility treatments to get pregnant. (When did that become an acceptable question for strangers to ask other strangers?) During our trips to the zoo, streams of people would stop us and ask if her babies were quads, and most of the comments were repetitive: “I don’t know how you do it!” and “I couldn’t have four babies!” and “They’re ALL yours?” Not-Jane had apparently heard the same things over and over at restaurants and grocery stores and everywhere in between because she appeared unfazed, but one time she leaned toward me and said, “What is my choice? I’m not going to stop going places because I have four babies.” I always admired that attitude, that her kids shouldn’t be punished because they were multiples, and as a result, her kids were excellent in public, even with people staring at them.

My favorite comment was when J was still a baby, and all five of our babies were lined in a row. Someone said, “You have FIVE BABIES!” Not-Jane replied, “Yes, we have quints,” and we laughed. We often met for lunch in the city. One time we streamed into a restaurant with our toddlers, who still looked like babies, and we occupied every high chair the place owned. I looked around the table at all those kids in all those high chairs, and I heard Jane’s voice saying, “We are the lucky ones.” I wanted to proclaim to the rest of the diners in the restaurant our success story, all the statistics these children had beaten.

And then I added M to our preemie brood, and Not-Jane mourned the fact that I’d missed out on another full-term pregnancy. I didn’t have to explain it. I knew she understood. She was one of the first people I told that I didn’t feel like I was done having kids, even though I’m done having babies. I knew she would understand that too.

Over the last year, circumstances have made our get-togethers more rare, and now I have moved five hours away. But, Not-Jane held my babies before most of their families did. She was one of three people I texted that I was being hospitalized with preeclampsia with M. I remember her kids as they were in the NICU, what each one of them looked like, and I can tell you most of the challenges her kids have overcome.

Some people sweep into your life at just the right moment. They laugh with you, worry with you, and cry with you. And no matter where they go in life, you feel a connection. With so many little people to consider, we seldom see each other, and when we are together, our conversations are punctuated with the chatter of six other voices. But, I am always glad to see Not-Jane, and I can hardly remember all my NICU firsts without thinking of her.

*Clearly, Not-Jane is not her real name. I’d like to protect her privacy, since she doesn’t go blogging all over the Internet like me. One of my favorite bloggers Beth Woolsey gives pseudonyms in this form, and it always makes me smile.