The Lucky Ones

I was the one little girl in my ballet class who had hips. I was fully developed at 12, before most of my friends. My mom and grandmothers had no trouble at all getting pregnant and carrying their babies. An obgyn told me when I was pregnant with J that I should have no trouble delivering because all the room in my pelvis was “nice,” a moment that embarrassed my husband and still causes us to giggle to this day. I am healthy and somewhat athletic. I thought I was built to have babies. I always believed that I could do labor and delivery. I just knew it.
And I never got a chance to try.
I still struggle with how my two deliveries happened. There was nothing peaceful, magical, or beautiful about either one. Both were scary—terrifying, really. Both required major surgery. Both had complications. Both ended in tiny, tiny babies with long NICU stays. Seeing your child for the first time is still special, but I don’t think it has the same aura when he is whisked from you within seconds to be intubated and stabilized. The thought that your baby could die right before your eyes is a fear that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Neither my husband nor I saw J enter the world—the first people to speak to him were the doctors and nurses saving his life. My husband wasn’t even allowed in the room because I was unconscious. We prayed it would all be different with M—most of it was but not in a good way. I still had complications, a VBAC as an option flew out the window, and I was terrified and awake for that C-section. But, I had one lovely blessing: We got to hear M cry when she was born. It sounded like a tiny kitten mewing, but it was M and she was alive and we were there to hear it. Just like in other people’s stories, just like in the TV shows and movies, I looked to my husband, and I cried and said, “She’s here! She’s here!” I cherish that one moment because it was the one thing that seemed like it should have been, like what other people experience.
Sometimes I am a little jaded. Most women I know complain about some part of the delivery experience: it was painful, it was too long, they had to have a C-section, they wanted a water birth, the baby was whisked away, they had to take drugs when they wanted to go au naturel. I get it. I really do. I too wanted more control over my deliveries. But, here’s the truth: so much of what happens during labor and delivery is out of our hands. If you have a water birth with no pain meds or if you have a home birth in your own bed with your husband holding your hand or if you had a relatively quick and easy birth in the hospital, good for you. You should be proud, but you should not be judgmental because the simple fact that you had a chance to do those things is a blessing. So many things can go wrong in labor and delivery, and I believe modern medicine has separated us from that reality. It doesn’t mean you have to be frightened of the process or that you can’t have goals and dreams for what kind of birth you want. But, one of my pet peeves is when someone moans about not being able to have a drug-free delivery. I want to scream: “Do you know who you’re talking to?! Someone always has it worse.”
If you’re here, you probably have more experience with preemies than you’d like and so you know about pregnancies and deliveries not going as you’d hoped. But, I will say this: Both my tiny babies lived, and every time I feel a twinge of jealousy for other mothers with more normal experiences, I remind myself of that fact. My babies lived, and one of the joys of this journey has been a total transformation in my perspective. So many things in life are trivial now. It’s like I’ve had a near-death experience, only it was my children, and now everything in life is more precious, more beautiful, and more sacred. So, I allow myself a little room for sadness or disappointment and reflection on how things were so terribly different from how I’d always imagined. And then I smack myself around, look at my lovely children, and tell myself to be grateful. The truth is that NICU birth stories are terrifying by and large, but for those of us who leave the hospital with a baby, we are the lucky ones.
My friend with quads born at 28 weeks has said this to me many, many times: “We are the lucky ones.”

Inadequate

Last night, I snuggled next to J at bedtime. I felt his bony, little shoulder on my cheek. I watched him chatter and giggle, and then I closed my eyes and thought about those first two days after he was born. When we were separated. I saw him through a glass box, and then they wheeled him away to a hospital 30 minutes from mine. My husband visited him. My mother, my father, and my sister visited him. My mother-in-law and my father-in-law visited him. But, his mother did not. When I think back to that time, it feels like a Twilight Zone. They put me to sleep, they took my baby, and then I sat in a hospital room for two days waiting to see him again. It was surreal. Was I even pregnant? Did I really have a baby? Was he really alive? Was I a mother? I certainly didn’t feel like it.

On Day 3 of my son’s life, I was released from the hospital. I remember my husband wheeling me into the NICU for the first time. The sounds were foreign. The smells were foreign. Overwhelmingly foreign. My husband had to show me how to scrub properly. He took me to J’s isolette, and he introduced me to his nurse. I felt out-of-place, truly like a visitor. And then I looked at that tiny baby in the big pexi-glass box under the bili lights.
Inadequate. I was wholly inadequate. I felt powerless, helpless, and clueless. Oh, and swollen and terribly sore too.
“Mama, WAKE! UP!” And here we are, J’s smiling face in my own. I am the one who knows him best. I am a hero to him, all-powerful and full of answers. If only I could go back and tell the woman I was then that she wouldn’t always be inadequate. If only I could tell her to be patient with herself and give it time.
We were all thrown into not just the deep end but a whirlpool. We were sucked under and spit out. We all struggled, my husband, my son, and me. But, then we all popped up to the surface, we found our places, and now we’re a family. 
And I might be many, many things, but inadequate is no longer one of them.

M’s Birth Story

I keep flashing back to a moment of desperation when my son was five months old, and life with a preemie was stressful. It was Christmas Day, and I was walking in a dusting of snow talking to my best friend on the phone. “I cannot EVER do this again,” I whined. And she told me that this time in my life wouldn’t last forever. She was right. I had several more long months ahead of me, but things did get better. So much better that my husband and I considered having another baby.
I wanted my son to have a sibling, and I had always thought—before I had a preemie—that I’d have three children.
And as much as I adored my son, I wanted a little girl too.
It didn’t take long before we leaped off of a cliff on the faith that another pregnancy would be different from my son’s when I unexpectedly had him 14 weeks early.
It was different.
The first part was easy, just like with my son, and at 13 weeks I started seeing a high-risk doctor, who monitored me for signs of early labor. Every week, I had an internal ultrasound, and I saw my baby on an incredibly clear flat-screen TV. And one advantage of the weekly visits: I found out at 15 weeks that I was carrying a baby girl!
I resolved not to worry between appointments, and as one week blended into the next, I began to relax. Once we passed the 26-week mark when I had my son, I told my husband that at least we wouldn’t have a repeat of that horror of having him so early. Christmas came, and in all the bustle of the holidays, I didn’t pay much attention to the swelling in my feet. I had to start sleeping propped up so that I could breathe, but since I’d never made it to my third trimester before, I blamed my baby’s growth spurt for it. What a cruel joke! It turns out M was growth-restricted and probably hadn’t grown after Week 26 or 27.
We went to spend a few days with my husband’s family in Texas after Christmas. I felt really big and bloated and tired, none of which is much of a cause for concern in your 7th month of pregnancy. My high-risk doctors had seen me just before the trip and okayed me venturing out of the state one last time. But, after a few days in Texas when I couldn’t put on my wedding rings any more, I started having a nagging feeling that something wasn’t right. The only time in my life when I’ve swelled at all was after my C-section with my son. Finally, on the evening of December 30, I asked my mother-in-law for a blood pressure monitor, and I was shocked by the reading. Normal blood pressure is around 120/80, and high blood pressure in pregnancy is 130/90. My blood pressure was 185/105, which is stroke-level. Given that I was pregnant and had no prior history with high blood pressure at all, I knew this was really bad. I called my regular OB, and she told me to get to an emergency room immediately.
I cried.
I cried because I knew.
I knew because I’ve had things go haywire with a pregnancy before, and though the circumstances were totally different, the feeling was the same. I was on a high-speed train racing out of control, and I knew it was headed off the tracks. I knew we were going to have another preemie. And I cried out of that feeling of dread and defeat and fear you feel when you know your health is in jeopardy and your baby’s health hangs in the balance.
On the way to the hospital, my husband held my hand, and we gave each other a sad look but didn’t say much.
It didn’t take long to confirm that I had preeclampsia, and the test results showed it was severe. There really was no chance that we could stop it or change it. The doctors and nurses just tried to stabilize me in the hopes that we could get back home and to a familiar NICU. For that night and the whole next day, I laid flat on my left side to promote blood flow to the baby and reduce my blood pressure. The doctors were so kind. They kept checking on me with the intent to get me home if they could.
My husband and I rang in the New Year in the hospital. Afraid. Away from home. And wondering what in the world we’d do with a baby in the NICU in a different state. All I prayed for was to get home. I knew we’d have M early. I knew she’d be small, and I knew she’d be in the NICU for a while. But, I just didn’t want our family to be separated with my husband and son at home and me in another state in the hospital with M.
Around 8 a.m. on January 1, the doctor on-call came into my room, and he pulled a chair up to my bedside. He said he’d woken up thinking about me and my situation. What would he want for his wife? He said that my blood pressure was steady and that I had a short window of time before the preeclampsia took over. He wanted to release me with the understanding that I would drive the eight hours straight to my hospital at home. I still feel amazed that given my diagnosis, a doctor would do something so radical and so unlikely and so incredibly kind.
Our family loaded our stuff into our car, and the hospital released me. We spent January 1 racing across a few states. I’ll never forget that trip for many reasons, only one of them being that I knew I’d never be pregnant again. Another lovely pregnancy was coming to an abrupt and unlikely end. As I walked out of a rest stop, I held my belly and thought, “I’ll never be pregnant again, and I’ll remember this moment and what it feels like forever.”
My parents met us at the hospital, and they took my son to our home. I actually felt pretty good that night and most of the following day. When they weighed me in the hospital, I told them their scale was broken, and I meant it. I had gained 20 pounds in 29 weeks of pregnancy, and then in one week I had gained 20 more. I looked puffy, but even the doctors said I didn’t look like most women with preeclampsia. I wasn’t flushed. I didn’t look swollen. And after days of liquid diets, I was scarfing down food and chilling out on my left side, watching TV to pass the time.
That day I had the last of many ultrasounds. There she was, the tiny star of the show. And she was tiny. They estimated she was about three pounds, and she was so low on the growth chart, that they deemed she had not been faring well while my blood pressure was high. The free flow of nutrients into the placenta depends upon healthy blood pressure, so I was starving her, even as a horrible witch of a charge nurse told me I should pray for my baby who would be in the NICU until her due date. As if I could do anything about my situation, and as if I hadn’t already had a preemie in the NICU for 91 days! There is just nothing nice to be said about someone who judges other people during a health crisis.
In a matter of hours, I went downhill quickly. My body had given subtle warning signs for about 10 days, but all of the sudden I felt my body fall apart. I was tired. My blood pressure was outrageously high and uncontrollable. My head felt like it was splitting, and all of the fluid that had accumulated in my abdomen was pressing on my lungs so I couldn’t breathe. My body ached from lying for so long on the left side, and as they started pumping me full of magnesium sulfate and labetalol for my blood pressure, I knew we’d reached the end. In fact, I begged for the C-section because I was starting to get really scared.
My first C-section was unfortunate because I was asleep and missed the birth of my son, but my second C-section was unfortunate because I was awake! I consider myself to be tough, but it’s unnerving to feel people cutting on you and to hear them discussing how they can’t get the baby out the original incision because of excessive scar tissue and how they’re making an additional incision. But, it was worth the odd sensations because I heard M cry. She sounded like a kitten mewing, but I was there to hear it. And my husband witnessed her birth. Her parents were there to welcome her to the world.
I asked my husband how big she was. Three pounds? And what day was she born? Did I make it to 30 weeks? Nope. She was born less than an hour from the 30-week mark, and she only weighed an ounce more than our son. Another 2.5-pound baby.

I wish I could say my children’s births were beautiful. They were terrifying. They were the worst days my husband and I have survived to date. I really hate that. But, they were also spectacular for one simple fact. Our tiny babies lived. Both of them. And that is beautiful.

The Beginning

My pregnancy with J was so easy: no morning sickness, no major weight gain, no diabetes, no risk factors for anything at all. I loved knowing I was carrying a new life. Every ultrasound was thrilling. During the first ultrasound, I remember being amazed that something so tiny had a heartbeat. The whole world was shifting, our priorities were changing, our lives were being irrevocably reshaped. We bought our first house; we moved to a new state; we bought some baby furniture. I took long walks, just my baby and me. My mom said something almost prophetic when I was four or five months pregnant. “I hope you don’t have problems later on because the first part has been so easy.”
We had lived in our new home in a new city for six weeks when I started feeling pressure. I thought about the next three months. How would I survive it if I already felt so uncomfortable? I was naïve, and I had no idea that things were spiraling out of control.
Two days before my son was born I went for a check-up. Everything seemed fine, and I didn’t complain about how uncomfortable I was feeling.
Saturday morning we went to the Farmers’ Market, but by the afternoon, I was feeling off, odd, and really uncomfortable. We canceled our dinner plans, I researched contractions online, and I took a bath to relax. I also hydrated myself, thinking maybe I had just gotten dehydrated in the summer heat. At dinnertime, I just knew something bad was wrong. I packed an overnight bag. I called the doctor, and we hurried to the hospital. The ER lost my paperwork and failed to rush me to labor and delivery until my husband complained. By the time they started monitoring my contractions, it was about 10 pm.
They didn’t tell me something I didn’t already know. I definitely had contractions. In my heart, I knew they were wasting their time hydrating me, but I hoped the muscle relaxer would help. After an hour or two, I thought the contractions were better because I couldn’t feel them. My husband, who could see the monitor, told me they weren’t.
When the nurse finally checked me in the wee hours of the morning, I could tell she was upset. She hurried off, saying she was calling the doctor, whom I met for the very first time in the middle of the biggest health crisis of my life. She told me the news. Not only was I dilated to a 3 out of 10 but my son was breech. His foot was actually pushing the sac through the birth canal. I was at risk of his foot breaking the sac, allowing the amniotic fluid to rush out and pulling parts of him with it. He was in immediate risk, and an emergency C-section was our only option. They tilted the hospital bed until I was practically on my head to use gravity to keep my son inside me. The anesthesiologist consulted with the doctor, and they decided there was no safe way to give me an epidural or a spinal block. They would have to put me under. This meant that not only would I miss our son’s birth but also my husband would be alone in the waiting room during the surgery praying for both of our lives.
I was 26 weeks and 4 days pregnant.
I was beyond terrified because it wasn’t just about me. I had no way of knowing how my son would tolerate the surgery. Would he even live? Everything moved so fast, with me signing waivers, talking to doctors and nurses, and being prepped for surgery that I didn’t have time to call my parents. As an after-thought I told my husband to call our parents and my best friend and give them the middle-of-the-night shock everyone dreads: someone you love is being rushed into emergency surgery. My poor Daddy threw on clothes, hopped in the car, and left my mom and sister at their house because they were taking too long; he shaved nearly an hour off of a four-hour drive.
Everything was such a blur that I didn’t even tell my husband I loved him. On the operating room table while I waited for the anesthesia, I begged my nurse to tell him I loved him because I was afraid I might not wake up. I’d never even had major surgery before. As we waited for me to drift off to sleep, the anesthesiologist started stroking one of my cheeks, while the nurse anesthetist patted the other, and I will always be grateful for that kindness, that human touch during a dark time. I was staring into their eyes, and then nothing.
I woke up enough to ask if my baby lived. The answer was yes. Thank the Lord! I asked where my husband was—he was on his way into the room—and then I fell asleep again.
The next thing I remember was being roused to see my son before they transported him to a NICU 20 minutes away. I was mesmerized by his tininess. I had never seen anything like it. He was a kitten in a glass box. I looked at his miniscule hands and feet, the size of my fingertips. I studied his face, his dark hair, the length of him, all 13 inches. I looked for myself in him and only found my husband. “How unfair!” I joked with him, a moment of joy in a sea of sorrow. And then they whisked my baby away, no cuddling, no touching, no more of his mother’s love. I didn’t see him for another two days.
It was the beginning of his 91 days in the NICU.