Fraud Mama

In the hours and days and months after J was born, I was a fraud. A fraud of a mother. Certainly, mothering takes all shapes. No one mother is the same, and no one mother does it just right. But, in all of the ways I believed I would be a mother to J, I was nothing.

For starters, there was his birth at 26 weeks. Boy, that was a flop. I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to at least get to your 9th month.

Then, there was the manner of his birth. Emergency C-section wasn’t the route I had planned. I’d chosen a highly-dignified yet hard-fought natural birth in which I’d be quite the champion. Instead, I turned out to be a chump at labor and delivery.

To add insult to injury, I had J at a hospital that could only care for babies born at a minimum of 32 weeks. It never crossed my mind to seek out a hospital with a NICU any larger, since I was planning on that full-term, natural birth thing. So, just hours after J’s birth, he got his first ambulance ride to a hospital 30 minutes away. He now loves anything with wheels, so surely I get points there?

I’m pretty sure I lose ground on the next one, though. I met J for the first time just after my anesthesia wore off. The doctor wheeled him to my bedside, and then he was gone. I didn’t see him again for two days. His own mother didn’t visit him–couldn’t visit him. Other family rushed to town to see the tiny baby, but does that make up for missing a mama?

And then there’s all the bonding we missed. I didn’t hold him until his 5th day, and even then, it was just kangaroo care, not at all what I’d had in mind when I pictured snuggling my newborn.

In my mind, this list went on and on. I accounted for every mistake, every failure, every way I let J down. It began at his birth and continued for two and a half years. Years.

Of course, I loved him with my whole heart. I sacrificed in every way. I gave until I had nothing left to give him. And I walked through the world, unable to relate to most mothers I met who had birth stories I envied. Every, single subject was painful for me to discuss, from breastfeeding to walking, talking, and eating. Every thing I knew about parenting revolved around prematurity, and nothing I knew seemed to have a place in a regular parenting conversation. I knew better than to compare myself to other mothers, and I knew it was unfair to blame myself for J’s birth. But, I could not forgive myself.

Until M.

She is the result of preeclampsia, another surprise for me. She is a preemie too. She is sweet and giving, a ray of sunshine, people have said. She and J will have each other. With her birth, the entire dynamic changed. This story is no longer about J and me, about what I did or didn’t do; it is now the story of our whole family. Prematurity is a bond we all share. It is a uniter, not a divider. And, slowly, as the shock of M’s arrival waned, I realized so did my shame.

When I talk to mothers in the NICU, they are so full of anger at themselves. It is painful for me to witness because I want to save them. I spent so much energy punishing myself, but it’s not an anger I can quell in someone else.

Every mother has to reach her own place of forgiveness, in her own way.

Somewhere along the way, in the middle of long days and longer nights of parenting two preemies, Fraud Mama disappeared.

Here I am, in her place.

Overjoyed

I was going through photos, and I found this one. This is the very first time we took J into public. It was a beautiful April morning, and we ate at our favorite breakfast spot. Two things strike me about this photo. 1) You totally can’t tell that J was already almost 9 months old, but you also can’t tell that he was a 26-weeker. He already just looks small for his age. Small but healthy. 2) The joy on my face is so visible. After a terrifying early delivery, many long and exhausting NICU days, and an entire lonely winter spent at home, I look overjoyed to be coming out of a dark period. I look absolutely deliriously happy! And I was.

Inside A NICU Reunion

Last weekend we went to the NICU reunion. It was our 3rd reunion, and this time we had two preemies. Two preemies who can breathe without oxygen. Two preemies who can eat without a feeding tube. Two preemies whose brains remember to tell their lungs to breathe, all without a nurse to nudge them toward life. Two preemies whose bodies don’t show the scars of all the needle-pricks and procedures. Two preemies whose minds don’t remember being left by their parents, day after day and night after night.

NICU reunions have games, crawling races for babies and bouncy houses for the big kids. There are free snacks and drinks, and we go home with t-shirts for the kids. Some of the staff dress in costumes that match the theme of the reunion, and doctors and nurses, dressed in real clothes instead of scrubs, pose for pictures with all the preemies they once nurtured. It’s all fun and games.

Except for the parents.

Am I the only one who smiles at each child running? Every baby here is a miracle. The boys and girls jumping in the bouncy house? Their parents weren’t sure they’d live, much less walk. And to see them jump? They feel they’ve hit the lottery.

There are meltdowns and temper-tantrums and babies crying. There is laughing and talking and plenty of noise. But, for the families, don’t we rejoice in the mayhem of little children? There was a time when all we heard was an eerie stillness marred by the beeping of machines. Our babies couldn’t cry for all the things in their noses and mouths. And their lungs weren’t strong enough for them to do much more than croak like tiny frogs.

We walk into the hospital with big kids, and at the end of the reunion, we leave with our children. We don’t have to leave them behind. We don’t have to fret and worry. We don’t have to mourn and grieve. We don’t have to do any of that any more. After countless hours and days and sometimes months, we brought our babies home. We have cared for them. We oversee therapy. We push each and every milestone, always mindful of giving our babies the best possible outcome.

And then here they are. A bunch of energetic, happy, and, most importantly, healthy kids. In fact, if you didn’t know you were at a NICU reunion, would you mark all these children as preemies? You would never know.

I don’t know how many NICU reunions we’ll attend. Eventually, the kids will outgrow them, and we’ll know fewer and fewer people, until we aren’t sure there’s a reason to attend. As a family, we’ll decide to do other things with our Saturday afternoons. But, I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready to walk away. There is something so healing about being in a huge room full of people who know my pain and who rejoice in my children. There is something so beautiful about seeing all these kids who began their lives as survivors. There is something so moving about being a part of this community.