Grace in Life

The last two months have taken me away from the world of preemies. We’ve been building a house. I started back to work for the first time in two years. M graduated from therapy. It’s like we’ve hit cruise control as we fly down the highway away from the Preemie Years.

Both kids are having incredible growth spurts. At M’s two-year check-up, she was already in the 30th percentile; as a three-month-old, she still weighed 5 lbs, so her growth over the last six months has been phenomenal to witness. J apparently doesn’t want to be outdone, or shorter, than his sister, and finally he’s not the smallest 4-year-old we know. He’s gone from 2T clothes to 4T clothes in less than six months.

My preemies are big kids now. They run and jump and play. They scream and fight. They have crying fits and tantrums. They laugh and squeal with joy. They climb and slide and dig in the dirt. They eat and talk–and eat and talk at the same time. We’re so busy that some of these moments pass me by, but, honestly, at least fifteen times a day, I pause just for a second to reflect on these people my babies have become. I never lose sight of who they were, the limitations they faced, and the dark places that trapped us.

I have no doubt that I am a better mother and a better person than I was before it all, but sometimes I still feel tangled in memories that I cannot seem to quite escape. For the first time in more than fifty months of mothering, I scheduled no therapy this month. I talked to no therapist. There were no discussions about development and ability and goals for the future. Some parents never get there; some kids always need extra help. And that fact crosses my mind nearly every time I watch the kids play. From the outside, I look like every other mom at the park, but I’m not thinking of what I’ll cook for dinner or what time we’ll leave. I’m always here and there, in the now and past, comparing the tiny baby images in my head to the children I see running around me.

Just when I think maybe it’s time for me to bow out of this community, something pulls me back. Today, I got a beautiful e-mail from a reader telling me her story, which sounds much like mine and probably yours too. She said things only mothers of preemies say; her words take me right back to that place. And now I’m not so sure I’ve said all I want to say about having tiny babies.

One thing that I’ve been thinking lately about these last four years is that one of my favorite statements about parenting small children was never more true than with preemies: “The days are so long, but the years are so short.” It is difficult, challenging, and exhausting work, parenting children who have special needs. Then, you blink, and that tiny baby who fit in the hollow of your chest is so heavy you can barely carry him. But, with our babies, there’s also another line too: “The babies are so tiny, but their spirits are so big.” And the more time that passes, the more I believe that there’s just something special about tiny babies who are a steady reminder of grace in life.

The Worldview of Little Kids

J wore his glasses to school this morning for the first time. I prepped him with the rules: don’t take them off, don’t let other kids touch them, and ask a teacher if you need them cleaned. He’s so responsible that he probably didn’t even need the list of rules.

The glasses are heavy on his little face, and his right eye is completely blurry when he wears them–this is to be expected and will hopefully improve as his condition improves. But, all of the social stigmas on wearing glasses? Just like it never dawned on me to be embarrassed about wearing braces in the 4th grade when it was still a novelty to all my classmates, it hasn’t crossed J’s mind to be embarrassed about his glasses. And I was right that his little friends wouldn’t even notice the change in J.

His teacher told me when I picked him up that she asked his classmate if he noticed anything different about J today. The little boy thought for a minute and said, “J has bug bites on his face,” referring to the two, tiny mosquito bites that are barely noticeable. The big, blue glasses? Not so much.

Have I mentioned lately how much I adore little kids? They might poop on you, wake you up in the middle of the night, and throw temper tantrums in public, thus proving how difficult it is to parent, but their worldview is so refreshing!

It’s been an hour, and I’m still chuckling to myself over J’s little friend.

“Hey, J. You’ve got to watch those mosquito bites. They’re totally covering up your complexion.”

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.

To All the NICU Dads…

You are just what that tiny baby needs. With tender fingers and strong hands and with sweet words in a deep voice, there is no one like you.

Don’t forget how important you are.

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.

I Came Home

I went to see a nurse practitioner yesterday because I probably have a minor hernia because I might have picked up a large box while moving. Thanks to two emergency C-sections and three incisions, my abs aren’t what they once were.

Anyway, I hadn’t seen the nurse practitioner in seven years, since we last lived here. She walked in the door, looking down at her chart, and then her green eyes met mine. I was in the process of babbling that she probably didn’t remember me, and she interrupted me with, “Yes! Yes, I do remember you. And I always wondered what happened to you.” I briefed her on grad school and why I left in the first place, and then she asked, “Do you have babies?!”

Why yes, that’s an interesting topic. So, I told her about having preemies, and then a totally foreign thing happened. She told me her little girl is now a teenager who is babysitting, and just like that I have my nurse practitioner’s cell number and her daughter as a third babysitter. We just went for six months with no babysitter and no backup plan and no date nights, and without even trying, I have a list of people to call in a pinch.

I’ve spent the last four years with kids in school and therapy in a suburb in one direction and babies in a hospital in the city. And I lived in between, in a place where I knew almost no one. When I dashed to the grocery store, I knew I wouldn’t see a friendly face. One time I was surprised to run into my neighbor. I wanted to exclaim, “What are YOU doing here?!” until I realized that sounded ridiculous because the grocery store is five minutes from our neighborhood.

Having kids puts you in all sorts of pickles. You need to take one to the doctor–or even worse, the ER–but you don’t want to take your other child. You need to be in two places at once. You lock yourself out of the house, and you’re stuck outside with kids and no one to call. We’re just not meant to do it all alone, and for the last four years, I’ve had wonderful support for the kids but not really for me.

I feel such relief not to go it alone any more.

As I was leaving the nurse practitioner’s office, she gave me a big hug and said, “I’m so glad you’re back.”

That’s why I came 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.

Modern Fatherhood

I said something to my husband last week that I almost immediately regretted. And the more I thought about it, the more stupid the sentiment behind it was.

He was frustrated with the kids, and I was frustrated with the kids and with him. I spouted off, “I don’t think you’re capable of taking care of both of the kids by yourself.” (Is there any wonder where M gets all her attitude?)

Nope, not my finest moment. I apologized, and he graciously accepted. But, the statement made me think about the man I chose to be the father of my children and of our roles as parents. For now, I work inside the home, and my husband works outside the home. What I was taking for granted was that he defers to me on the day-to-day raising of the kids not because he’s inept but because he respects me. He knows that I am the one talking to their teachers and scheduling therapy and putting them down for naps. I spend many hours a week alone with the kids, so I do know their always changing patterns and tendencies. But, his deference should never be mistaken for an inability to care for the kids or for his lack of involvement.

After all, he is the person who was much better than I was at changing palm-sized diapers with his pinkies. He was fearless in the NICU with those tiny babies, and that is the man I want my children to emulate.

This week, I’ve seen so much discussion on TV and online about modern fatherhood and how involved so many dads are. My own father has resented the image of dads on television shows and movies. He was never bumbling, and he was always present in our lives when we were little. He is still a guiding force for his adult children. Because of his example, a deal breaker for me in finding a partner was a man who didn’t want children or who wasn’t interested in being an equal parent. In a country where men have little to no guaranteed paternity leave, where they are disparaged for staying home with their children, and where changing tables are almost exclusively in female restrooms as if fathers don’t change diapers… I should know better than to fall into a stereotype that demeans both my own father and my children’s father.

So, I made a promise to myself. I will not say disparaging things about my husband in front of the kids, especially when it comes to his role as their father, because I want them to see parenting as a partnership and to have strong relationships with both of us.

(And as evidence of his capability as a father, my husband, bless him, is putting the kids to bed while I write this post.)

So, as Father’s Day approaches, I just want to add my voice to the chorus of people praising involved fathers. Our society often portrays dads as bumbling when in reality so many fathers are excellent parents. And my husband happens to be one of them.