Mothers and Preemie Daughters

Baby MI just read a Huffington Post article about a new “Human Placenta Project,” which aims to better understand the organ that makes growing babies possible. If the placenta fails, the pregnancy fails. If the placenta suffers, the pregnancy suffers. Amazingly, such an important organ is little understood.

It is thought (and I stress thought because no one really knows) that early-onset preeclampsia is related to a poorly performing placenta. Why and how and what to do about it are all questions up for research.

After I had J, I thought a day might come when I’d put preterm labor, J’s traumatic delivery, and the sorrowful months of his babyhood behind me. I knew they’d marked me, that they’d marked all of us, even our extended family. But, I thought as J grew and his health improved and we had big, healthy, full-term babies, that it would all seem like a dream.

In so many ways, M changed everything. Not only was my life forever marked by the way my children entered the world, not only was my childbearing over, and not only was this a way of life that I began to embrace…

M was a girl.

It’s different having a preemie who is a girl. A huge question looms: Is this genetic, beginning with me? Could M have preemies, like me. I have nothing to warn her against, because I never received a single diagnosis about anything. Maybe it is just me, but what if it isn’t? I want M to be resilient in the face of adversity, but do I wish this adversity on M? Never.

All the Preemie Mamas out there know exactly what I mean. All the parents out there probably understand too. But, I know the Preemie Mamas hope one day they’ll have the satisfaction of holding big, healthy babies and watching their children have the beautiful experiences they missed.

It’s even deeper than that, though. I am afraid for M, because preeclampsia was deadly. And it felt deadly. It was shocking how rapidly it took hold of me. It was a thief in the night, ready to take M and me both. And what if M weren’t as fortunate as me? What if she lost her baby, or her life, or both?

Sometimes, I feel like because so many people have healthy babies in our day and time that we’re complacent on research into pregnancy and pregnancy complications. Too many babies die unnecessarily around the world because of our lack of knowledge. Once things go haywire in pregnancy, it’s a crapshoot.

For my daughter, I have to believe that things will be different.

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If you’re interested in the Huffington Post article, here’s the link.

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.

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.

There’s No Such Thing As Perfection

I was pushing M in the swing at the park yesterday. In the swing next to us was a chubby, blonde toddler who was at M’s adjusted age, 16 months. My daughter is talking more. She’s slimmer. She looks like a girl, not a baby, in a tiny body. Yet, she doesn’t really walk. People are always curious about her age, because she doesn’t look like she’s 19 months old. And she doesn’t look like her 12-month body either.

I chatted with the other mama about all sorts of things, and we were talking about communication, which with toddlers can be so frustrating. I told her that J barely talked at 2 but that my niece knew 60 signs before she could talk well. I said it, while shaking my head, as evidence of how different children are, but I think she took it as so many new moms do, as evidence of her failings as a mother. She looked down and said, “That’s amazing. I wish I could do that. I’m trying to work from home and care for my daughter, so I just don’t have time for things like that.” I didn’t at all mean to point out her weaknesses or discover her insecurities as a mother! I had just admitted that my son barely said a word at age 2! So, I quickly said, “Oh, well my niece just took to it. She loved the Signing Time DVDs and learned so many signs from them.” I wanted to add that she was doing just fine as a mother. She was pushing a lovely, healthy, and obviously happy baby in a swing at the park, so she should be kinder to herself. I wanted to tell her that one of my insecurities is that I wish I could incorporate more projects and fun activities into our daily lives, but that the kids are so young and so active right now (especially my little troublemaker, M) that I’m exhausted just caring for them. At the end of the day, the house is filthy, the kids are filthy, and I’m splayed on the couch, totally done-in, and I have nothing to show for it. But, when did the bar for us become so high? As mothers, we’re not good enough if we stay at home or if we work or if we play constantly with our kids or if we let them entertain themselves or if we have structure or if we provide creativity. We’re always critiquing ourselves.

You know what? I dearly love my mother, and she wasn’t perfect. But, I wanted her when I was sick or sad or scared. I called her name at night, and I knew she would come running. I loved how smooth her cheeks were, how young her baby face (even in her 40s) was. She was feisty and hot-headed and sometimes strict with me. She wasn’t always on the floor playing with me, because she was cooking or cleaning or caring for my baby sister. But, she was always in my corner, she was always my advocate, and I always had the sense that she was nearby, just a call of “Mama?” away. Sometimes, as mothers we’re so worried about the job we’re doing that we forget that our kids don’t expect perfection. They expect love and for us to just try our best.

As preemie mothers, we feel even more guilt, because of all the things we feel we put our kids through in those early days and weeks and months. So, I’m sensitive to the other mama on the playground, pushing her daughter and thinking, “Another thing I’m not doing. Signing with my baby.” But you know what? None of us is perfect. We’re all just trying to do our best.

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.

 

The Worst Goodbye

I knew it would be hard. I said it would be hard. But, it wasn’t hard. It was excruciating.

Leaving the kids’ school for the last time was gut-wrenching, and I’m not even exactly sure why.

I know I’m terrible at goodbyes. I hate watching people I love walk out of my life. But, I’ve said goodbye to plenty of people I love. I’ve left places I love. I’ve known I was closing chapters in my life before, but nothing compares to this goodbye.

I was completely unprepared for how it hurt me.

That last day, I watched from the booth on the other side of the one-way mirror for the last time, knowing that I might never again observe my kids in such a way. There is something amazing about witnessing your kids as they are when you aren’t visible, when they are standing on their own two feet without your presence to guide them.

That last day, I collected their art projects and extra changes of clothes.

I teared up as I individually thanked every, single person I saw, because they all are part of my children’s successes.

Their faces were sad too, because J had been at the school for longer than probably any other child. The age limit increased at exactly the time he would have aged out, so instead of getting nearly two years there, he had three.

I could see how much J meant to all of his teachers. That child isn’t the most exuberant one or the funniest or the silliest. But, he is solid and reliable and thoughtful and kind. His loyalty is rewarded by a small circle of people who love him fiercely. And maybe that’s what hurt so much about leaving. I was prepared for saying goodbye to people whom I respect, people who devote their lives to the service of helping children. I knew that leaving a place where we were all so comfortable would sting. But, we were leaving people who knew my children better than most. The purpose of coming home was to change that, to give my kids a chance to grow up around family and dear friends. But, in their early years, the dearest friends my children knew were their therapists and teachers.

Every teacher who said goodbye to J had tears in her eyes. They rubbed his head for the last time and patted his back and sent him off into the world a boy instead of a baby.

One of J’s teachers even walked us out into the parking lot, as if she couldn’t bring herself to say goodbye. She watched us walk away. I was so touched, but I stitched my face into a smile for the kids as I buckled them into their carseats. I managed a cheerful “Say goodbye to your school!” as we drove away.

And then I silently cried all the way home.

The Timing That Is Not Our Own

Closing on our first house

My husband and I are living in our fourth city as a couple, and as we prepare to move again, I can’t help but see a pattern to all the moves. With each transition, we changed a bit. We met new people, and we changed jobs. Our accomplishments and failures varied. Each place asked different things of us.

I see very clearly why we were here in this place, directly between a city with excellent NICUs to our north and a college town with an amazing preschool to our south. When we first came to look at homes before we moved here, I was newly pregnant, and our realtor had to remind us to view each home as parents. Did the house have a yard? Could you cook in the kitchen and see children playing in the living room? We had wanted a cottage near downtown, but instead we chose a comfortable home in the suburbs because it was close to my husband’s new workplace. We didn’t concern ourselves with the ratings of area hospitals or preschools, because we had no idea what lay ahead of us.

Almost from the moment we arrived with the moving truck, I was unhappy. Nothing about this place felt like home. In the six weeks before J was born, I wondered what we had done. And I knew my feelings weren’t the moving jitters that settle down after all the boxes are unpacked. I had moved enough times to sense immediately that this place would never be Home for me.

But, when we have kids, it’s not really about us, is it? With four years of perspective, I see vividly that this place was never about my husband or me. It was about what our children would need.

And, oh, how their needs have been met. Obstetricians who performed skillful emergency surgeries. An amazing NICU filled with dedicated professionals who cared for our children in all the ways we couldn’t. A pediatrician who has rejoiced with us. A speech therapist who helped J find all the words that jumbled in his head, frustrating him in ways he couldn’t communicate to us. A physical therapist who has known my babies since they were stranded in newborn bodies and who has been the only friend I’ve seen on a weekly basis for the last 3.5 years. A preschool with more devoted and talented teachers under one roof than a parent could ever expect, a place that has become a second home for my kids. These people have been life-sustaining in so many ways, and they have been an emotional oasis for all of us.

The days have been so very long, and I’ve wasted plenty of time yearning for new adventures for our family in a place that feels more like home. But, I’m amazed to discover as our time here draws to a close that it hurts to leave. This was the home of our babies, the anchor during difficult storms, our prison during winter quarantines, and our refuge during days that sucked the life out of us. Leaving here closes the chapter on tiny babies and NICUs. We came to this home as a couple, and we leave as a family.

This place has taught me about timing. We are not the masters of time, no matter how much we think we understand the plan. Having two tiny babies was never in my plan, but I would never change it. And living here might not have been of my choosing, but it was never about my husband and me. Our reason for being here was those babies who needed so much love and care in their early years.

And this week I’ve had one final lesson to underscore the point. Since M was born nearly 18 months ago, I’ve been saying that I didn’t want to leave her physical therapist until she could walk.

M took her first two steps at home this week, and she took four steps in therapy today. She is beginning to walk, the week before we’re leaving.

Sometimes, it is inexplicable how neatly the loose ends of life are tied.

Why Women Leave

Me, when I used to be a teacher

Last year, I read Lean In. I am a mother with a Ph.D., so a discussion about women in the workplace touches on sensitive issues for me. I keenly feel the decimation of my career–or, on an optimistic day, the delay of reaching my professional goals–so I don’t really need anyone to remind me that I took my nine years of higher education with me when I left the workforce. And I agree that it is a terrible shame.

But, I always feel that the discussion about women leaving the workplace occurs in a vacuum. It doesn’t take into account real life. Yes, in theory, I would have a tenure-track job, and I would be awesome at it. In my time at home, I’d also be a wonderful mother, wife, daughter, sister, and friend. And then I’d do some community service for good measure. In theory, my kids would go to an affordable, safe, enriching full-time preschool, and I would have no guilt about leaving them there. And in theory, I would make at least half as much as my husband, and his job would come with the flexibility to pitch in on all the extras having kids requires.

That is not reality.

In her book, Sheryl Sandberg acknowledges that life’s demands are complicated. But, I always feel that the conversation is one-dimensional. It lacks the curveballs that life throws us, and we all, men and women, have them. Nothing goes just as planned, and for many of us, we find ourselves on journeys that carry us away from traditional employment. I always want to know when the discussion about women deserting the workplace includes women who are battling cancer. Or caretakers of elderly parents. Or military wives whose husbands move every year, limiting their ability to find employment. Or mothers of sick kids. Where do we fit? Because women leave the workforce for all sorts of reasons, and it is simplistic to discuss us as one monolithic mass of disappointment.

My first love before I met my husband and before I had my babies was reading. I devoured books as a child. I grew into a grammar nerd, and by far the best hourly job I ever held was as a grammar editor when I was just 18 years old. I always admired teachers and how honorable the intention of teaching is. A great teacher really can change a person’s life. Both my parents were teachers, at different points in their professional lives, and I think in my heart of hearts I always believed I would combine my three loves–learning, writing, and teaching–into a career. And I did, for a short time. I was going to be a professor, before I had preemies.

I never made a conscious decision to leave, and I have never made peace with the fact that I am gone. Never. So, to the woman at the academic conference who said ugly words of judgment and to the people in the grocery store who see me as a sweet, young, little mama–I am more than either of those characterizations.

Women like me may yet return to the workforce, but in the meantime, do you know what we’re doing? We’re giving back to the world around us. We’re getting well and taking care of our parents and holding down the fort and watching over babies in the hospital. These jobs are not easy, and the pay does not come in the form of dollars. But, is everything in this world about money? Sometimes, the hardest jobs are the ones with no paycheck and no vacation days.

I was handed a set of circumstances, and I would not exchange them for someone else’s. No matter how discouraged I may get, I am never sorry for the choices I’ve made. If I had it to do all over again, I would choose those two tiny babies: the ones who didn’t ask to be born and who suffered greatly in their first days and weeks.

Lean in? What I want to know is: when I can lean in, will the workforce accept me? Will it accept all of us who left for our own very good reasons? Or will we be asked what we’ve been doing for the last four years because a resume can’t define where we’ve been and why we left?

We still have prejudices in this country about what constitutes work and what makes a good employee, and I think any discussion about leaning in should also include the issues of affordable childcare, equal pay for equal work, paid leave, part-time employment, and flexible hours. We could do more as a country to retain good employees. And we could keep more women in the workforce. But, first we’d have to address why women leave.

And that answer is complicated.