It Is Time

Hopefully, the last move with small children is behind us! We are settling into our new home, the one where we didn’t have tiny babies. This is the home with the big, wooden playset. This is the home with plenty of land for the kids to explore. I am so filled with joy that we are here, after so many months of talking about this place. This future was a dream of mine when I sat in the NICU with a tiny frog for a baby snuggled onto my chest, a baby attached to monitors that dinged and bellowed if I moved even slightly.

I am so grateful to be here in this place. But, I am so exhausted, so weary and so tired. Sometimes, the talker in me has nothing left to say. I’m correcting and guiding and entertaining two little ones, which can leave a mother with little emotional reserve, but the exhaustion is deeper than that. I am waiting, even in this joyful present, on the shadow of the past. I have spent the last five years moving and having tiny babies and caring for tiny babies and moving and then moving again. People have much worse, and I know I’ve been blessed. But, I’m tired, of chaos and stress and fears that whisper to me in the dark of night.

A few weeks ago, I sat on the same velvet-covered pew in the same church where I sat so many Sundays as a child and as a teenager and as a newly-married woman. My mind drifted from the sermon to a reflection of where I am. How did I become this woman? How did I have these children? Surely, I am still a girl with big dreams and plenty of spunk. Sitting there, I was overcome with the sensation of who I was before my NICU babies, the defining moments of my life. I will never be that person again, but for the most part, I am grateful for the person I have become. The one exception is the yoke of fear I carry around my neck, the fear of the unexpected. The most traumatic part of having my babies was that no one saw it coming. How can I ever trust the present when the future is so uncertain? But, then isn’t that life? Tomorrow is always a gamble, and today is always a gift. As I sat in church staring at the same stained glass I saw thousands of times as a child, I asked for help with this fear that sneaks in on me in the dark of night. It is time for me to release it, this one thing that most separates me from the girl I once was. I had the confidence of youth that things would work out, and in my adulthood I have realized that “working out” might have a different meaning from my intention.

Now, that we are in this present, I need some time to fill my emotional coffers. I need some peace. I need understanding and patience for the twists and turns of life. I need forgiveness for myself. But, most of all, I need to release this fear. It is time.

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.

The Phoenix

© fotographic1980/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

© fotographic1980/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When J was born, I lost the girl I was.

The weight of the world was on our shoulders.

It’s sad to think about the very moment you lost energy, freedom, and naiveté to be replaced by responsibility and fear and exhaustion. That pivotal moment marked my entry into true adulthood, where every battle was about the life of someone else that represented the ultimate responsibility.

M brought me healing in so many ways. I let go of some of my grief and anger, because there was no room for it any more. In her dramatic fashion, she showed me that all my questions about J’s delivery were pointless. I couldn’t have gone to the hospital earlier or asked more questions or rested more or walked less and carried him full term. The current of a preterm delivery was going to carry J and me to that operating room, and no amount of questioning after the fact would change that fact. Besides, with M I could have died. And she could have died. So, as if I didn’t learn the lesson well enough the first time, life itself became so beautiful.

One of my favorite bloggers Beth Woolsey just wrote a piece about the process of rising from the ashes, and it dawned on me that the phoenix is the perfect way to describe the way I feel about being a Preemie Mama. I will never be the same. Life will never look the same. But, I was remade better than I was before. More fierce. More determined. More grateful. More flexible. More sympathetic. More patient. More purposeful. More flexible. And most of all, more resilient.

My favorite part of what Beth said is that it’s our job as the survivors, as the remade people, to reach our hands back into the fire for those coming behind us. And I can’t think of a better explanation of what this blog is for me.

If you’d like to read her entire post, here it is at bethwoolsey.com.

 

Thanks, Troll Lady

I saw a discussion on Facebook on another Preemie Mama’s page about C-sections and some of the negative feelings women have about emergency deliveries. A woman posted a comment that I found striking. She was discussing full-term births, which is an entirely different realm from preterm births, so her perspective is clearly different from mine. But, I found what she said so dismissive of preemie mothers, of the heartaches and challenges. It’s not her opinion that matters to me, and I don’t need her permission for my feelings, either. It’s just that I’m blown away by how callous she is.

She said that she is appreciative of her children, and she realizes they wouldn’t be present without the intervention of a C-section.

Valid points but a bit misguided. You can love your children and dislike the way they entered the world. It’s not mutually exclusive. Just because I adore my daughter and could eat her chubby cheeks up with smooches doesn’t negate my right to detest the sickness, the suffering, the fear, and the overwhelming sadness that surrounded her birth.

But, the thing the woman said that really amazed me was that you can’t feel cheated and blessed at the same time.

Why does that statement upset me so much? Trolls say awful things all over the Internet, and usually I just sweep that sort of negativity under the rug and carry on. People who understand this journey buoy me and give me strength. They are the ones I look toward when I need reassurance. Not some Troll Lady who has had both a natural birth and a C-section with her full-term babies, which apparently makes her an expert on all birthing. By all mothers. Everywhere.

I never knew women could be so unsupportive until I became a mother. And not just a mother, but a mother to tiny babies. It’s like when I needed a big hug from mothers everywhere, I was thrust into a lion’s den. I’ve lost a few friends over it, because I no longer have room in my life for such wasteful negativity. But, it never ceases to amaze me, this tendency for mothers to criticize and judge and dislike and interrogate and intimidate and chastise other mothers. Somehow, just when we should become our most humble–because we’re wiping poopy bottoms and leaking breast milk all over ourselves–instead we become hardened to the experiences of others.

But, my reaction to Troll Lady is more than just a distaste for mommy judgment. When someone uses the word blessed, it has a spiritual connotation, which puts that person on really dicey ground. How dare someone question my ability to feel both cheated and blessed? I am entitled to my own feelings, and I have had many internal dialogues with my God over how all this stuff went down. And I’m quite sure He knows that every day that I wake up to my two miracles, I buckle under the weight of my gratitude. I know I am blessed. Because a few short decades ago, my husband would be living alone. Without his son, his daughter, or his wife.

The more I thought about the Troll Lady’s comments, the more I actually appreciated them. I had never given much thought to the words cheated and blessed. As a matter of fact, those words and their relationship pretty much sum up the baggage I’ve been carrying around for the last 3.5 years. The push and pull between them is exactly the conundrum I feel.

So, I couldn’t help myself. I had to respond to the troll, which is probably the worst thing you can do. You can’t fix stupid or mean. But, just in case she’s misguided and she ever comes across another preemie mama, for public service reasons entirely, I replied:

“You may be right. It might be a preemie mama thing. But, feeling both cheated and blessed at the same time is actually the best way to describe how a preemie mother feels. I’ve never heard it put so simply before.”

And I meant it. Thank you, Troll Lady. Because I finally have the concrete definitions for the emotions I feel: terribly cheated but incredibly blessed.

Thank You?

I was at the zoo last week pushing the kids in the double jogging stroller, and I was wearing jeans, a boxy pink sweater, and running shoes. Like most of my days with two small children, very little effort went into my appearance. Which is why the following conversation surprised me.

Two women were pushing their strollers toward me. As they passed me, I could feel one of them looking at me. Then, I heard her say, “And look at her. She has a baby, and she doesn’t even look like she’s had a baby!”

I actually glanced around to see if any other women with babies were walking by us at that very moment, but she must have been talking about me.

First of all, thanks. I’ll try to take that as a compliment.

Second, looks are deceiving. Yes, I do have a baby, but she’s not nearly as young as she looks. She’s 10 months old now, four months older than she looks.

Third, women shouldn’t judge themselves so harshly. I am wearing my regular jeans again, which I do consider to be an accomplishment because it’s been a rough year. And I do have two small kids. But, what that lady didn’t know is that I don’t have babies. I have two-pound kittens, which explains why I don’t look like I’ve had full-term babies. I haven’t.

Fourth, it always stings a little when people say things like “you don’t look like you just had a baby.” I know it’s meant as a compliment, and I understand the intention. But, I always think back to those tiny babies and those awful deliveries. And it actually feels like an indictment, like a reminder of some major failures in my life. I always want to ask if someone would really trade being a few pounds heavier with seeing her tiny baby struggle for life.

So, thank you, I guess?

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.