Three Tiny Babies

I want more children. I always saw myself having three kids. I love being a mother. It is painful watching M go through every stage and thinking, “This is the last time.”

Before M was born, people would ask since we were having a girl and we already had a boy, if she would be our last. I said that if everything went well, we might consider a third baby. But, what I was really saying was, “I want a third baby, and I hope everything goes well so that we’re able to have three kids.”

Everything did not go well.

When M was born, I heard the high-risk doctor say to the nurses that there was too much scar tissue from my first C-section. I heard him say that he was having to make another incision to get her tiny body out. I knew what that meant. If the sudden birth of a 26-weeker weren’t enough. If the sudden preeclampsia weren’t enough. If the arrival of another 2-lb baby weren’t enough to keep me from dreaming about more babies, the very real possibility of my uterus rupturing from multiple incisions was. Every time I said crazy things to my husband about having more kids (probably the only person to whom I admitted such craziness), I always came back to my role as a mother. I have never been a risk-taker, so why would I start now by risking my own life as my children’s mother?

I believed that as time faded the horrors of preeclampsia, as the incision healed, as I became healthier and less sleep-deprived, as we fell out of the NICU routines and back into a peacefulness at home, as M grew bigger and fatter, as life moved on, I would be satisfied by two children. My mom said she knew she didn’t want more children, and the decision was still hard. Surely life would be simpler with these two lovely children. I would make peace with it.

My husband remains on the fence, as he has every right to be. Only a woman, only a mother would stew about whether or not she’d have more babies. He’s so bogged down at work and at home that he doesn’t have the energy to think about more babies. I agree with him. Except that for me, it doesn’t require energy. It’s just where my mind goes every time I see how fast my tiny babies are growing up. I can’t help it.

And even as we make permanent arrangements that will end our ability to have more biological children, I still feel like things are being left undone. I feel like there’s more to our story.

I still have a baby out there somewhere.

It makes no sense, so I don’t usually talk about it. I should be glad to get back to life. I should be glad to leave these hard years behind. I should be glad to make the next years about balancing my professional and personal lives, instead of throwing all my eggs into the child-rearing basket.

And, yet, more time passes, but things don’t get easier. I reject the decision that was made for me. I want a bigger family, not for the work that it is now but for the blessings it will bring in the future as we watch our children grow. Raising babies, especially tiny babies, is hella hard work, and it’s not for everyone. But, it is for me. Even on the hardest days, I believe in family.

So, where do we go, and what do we do? My husband and I have put so many of our goals on hold these last three years, and 2014 will be a year of us moving those front and center. Maybe actually moving. If M is healthy enough, we want to move to a place where we see ourselves raising our family. We have so much to do in our personal lives before we can really contemplate adding another baby to our family. And so we wait. I guess I’ve learned to be more patient, so even though the thought is always on my mind, I’ll tell it to rest awhile. We’ll see what happens.

But, here’s the point to this confessional: When I think of adopting, I’m overwhelmed by the decisions. Private or foster care? Baby or toddler? International or domestic? And can we afford it? How would it affect our family?

It is scary.

But, the one thing that feels right is: preemie. I want another preemie. That sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But, it’s all I know. I know preemies. That is what we have. I think back to our first NICU stay. There was a baby no one visited. She had no name. She was just a baby in a box waiting for a home. I wanted to scoop her up and love her. Plenty of children in this world need a good home and a family to love them. But what feels right for me is another preemie, a preemie without parents able to help her grow and develop, a preemie without parents to advocate for her.

And that’s where I lose my husband. A preemie? Haven’t we done our tour of Preemie Duty? But, if I’m being honest, I think I’m a better, more experienced preemie mother. What would I do with a “normal” baby? What do you do with a baby who just rolls over or a toddler who just walks or a child who just talks? Every stage is so crucial, every milestone so anticipated, every change so monumental with a preemie. In a funny way, it’s become my comfort zone. It’s my identity. It’s the one thing that unites my babies the most, the thing that knits our family together. It’s the foundation of our lives as a family of four, this sense of gratitude we’ve all developed. And I cannot imagine adding another member to our family who didn’t share that connection.

Isn’t it funny how that happens? The foreign becomes the familiar. The trauma becomes the salvation. The dark brings such light. And the lady with two tiny babies wants a third.

(I think?)

A Celebration

My husband came home last night and said a coworker’s wife had their first baby, a healthy, 7-lb girl. His boss sent the new parents flowers from the company, which is such a nice gesture. When you celebrate a joyous occasion, don’t you want to know you have support from every corner of your life? But, my husband’s question to me was, “Why didn’t the company do that for us?” And we both know the answer. When you have a preemie, people don’t send flowers and cards and balloons and presents. They feel sorry for you. I had to cancel my baby shower because it was the week after J was born. I didn’t even bother to plan a baby shower with M, and it’s a good thing. We would have missed it too. You don’t leave the hospital with a cart full of gifts from well-wishers. I saw those people, and they didn’t have preemies.

I want to be clear that it’s not about the actual gifts; it’s about the gesture.

My husband’s comment about having preemies made us both a little sad. “There’s no celebration.” Why isn’t there a celebration? They are still babies, we were still new parents, and bringing them home was still a joyous occasion–it’s just that it took us longer to bring our babies home.

Babies are special. Preemies are just extra-special babies, and they deserve a celebration too.

Preemie Mama Thoughts

How does a Preemie Mama think?

The other day I noticed that M recognized her brother’s name. I said it over and over, and she searched the room with her eyes until they settled on him. And because she’s got the sweetest disposition, she smiled every, single time she recognized him. I was surprised that she already knows his name, and she’s known her own name for a while. So, I started testing her. Did she know Mama and Papa? And she did. Each time she searched the room until she found the person. Of course, all parents are excited to see their child learning, but here’s the difference. I am a Preemie Mama surrounded by statistics about all the ways my children will be different, abnormal, delayed. I am thrilled every time I see J run or laugh or talk. I am overjoyed at how smart he is–far more intelligent than my husband or me. It is just another way he has overcome the odds.

So, what was my first thought at realizing M is learning names? Relief. Because it means that she’s already overcome some of the statistics.

And that’s how a Preemie Mama thinks.

The Way It Is

Why is it that other people need to find a reason for my preemies? I’m not talking about my mother or my father. Not my husband. Not my best friend. Of course, people so close to the situation want to hash and rehash what happened, both times, in the hopes that maybe we’ll finally figure out what went wrong…twice. I really love that my friends and family want to talk it out with me because their support helps bring closure to the two most traumatic events of my life.

I think I’ll always wonder what went wrong. And I don’t think I’ll ever know the medical reasons. I look at my miracle babies. J would have died just a few decades ago because he relied on respiratory surfactants to help him breathe. And M and I both could have died from preeclampsia. So, yes all three of us are phenomenally lucky, and that is beginning to be enough of an answer for me. I had these crazy things happen, but look at the joy that has come from it.

I love that people ask questions. I love when people are curious about my preemies. But, I’m always amazed that they feel there must be some reason. Was there a family history? No. Were there warning signs? No. Was I over-weight, under-weight, too old, too young? No, no, no and no. The question that hurt the most was when I was still so vulnerable over my son’s birth. He had only been home a month or two, and I was emotionally raw from the first NICU experience. A friend told me her doula wanted to know if I’d been taking my prenatal vitamins. I was too fragile to even get mad, but now the question irritates me. On one hand I want to scream, “Of course I was freaking taking my prenatal vitamins!” On the other hand, I’m amazed that anyone who is frequently present at births could fail to realize that much of the good and bad of labor is out of our hands. And when I think back to how rapidly my body spiraled out of control both times, I can’t help but be a little snotty, “You really think a prenatal vitamin would have stopped that train wreck?!” Of course, that’s in my head, but maybe I should have said it.

No, I didn’t do anything to deserve those labors, just like I don’t deserve the two precious babies who came from them. The only answer I have, the only one that gives me any satisfaction, is that this is how it’s supposed to be. I am supposed to be the mother of preemies. I have tiny babies. And that’s just the way it is.

The Killjoy

I don’t want to be the killjoy. I’m practical by nature, but I’d rather not be the woman at a baby shower who stops light banter with some awkward comment no one wants to hear. But, seriously, at a baby shower who wants to talk to me? I have one horror story after another. Give me a condition, and I’ll tell you someone I know with it. I operate in some alternate universe, in which I have many, many happy endings to awful, traumatic, and tragic stories. Mostly happy endings.

I can count the non-preemie babies I know on my fingers. Preemie babies? That’s what I know.

My dearest friend from J’s NICU stay has quads. During our last trip to the zoo, I looked across all the children lined up, five toddlers and a baby, none of whom weighed more than 2.5 pounds at birth. I thought, “We are a walking ad for March of Dimes.” My world is foreign, totally foreign to most moms, and I’d actually like to keep it that way.

My sister-in-law has almost my exact due date with my son. I have been counting the days. She is now just two days from when I had J. The thing is: I don’t want to count the days. I can’t help it. I don’t know how to look at a pregnancy and assume it will be long and healthy.

I guess I wouldn’t blame her if she cut off all contact until the baby is due.

I don’t want to scare people, and I don’t want to depress them. I don’t want to be the person no one talks to during pregnancy. I want to hear fears, without overshadowing them with my own sadness. I want to be a sympathetic person, which means I can’t overwhelm others with my story. I am living in a strange and lovely world, but I have to find a middle ground between hiding that story and thrusting it onto people. I’d like to be a source of information and comfort for those who need it, and I’d like to share the vitality that comes with almost losing everything. I believe we should give back as much as we receive, and we have received so many blessings that it will take a lifetime of giving back to make any headway at all. But, being so passionate about a cause like preemies also separates you from other moms who have no idea what you’re talking about.

I don’t want to be the zealot; I just want to share love. And I’m figuring that balance out.

A preemie mom is a fierce mom.

And sometimes a killjoy.

Three

J turns three next week. THREE! For us, this is a huge milestone. It is the goal we have all worked toward. Three, when J would catch up to his peers.

When he was released from the NICU, a social worker referred J to a caseworker with the state, and she has guided us through home intervention with a teacher, physical therapy one and then two times a week, speech therapy, and placement at a school for toddlers with developmental delays. We were always talking about the boy he’d be when he was three. Three, when he could walk and talk and would no longer need therapy.

The pattern of our weeks followed the pattern of his therapy. Naps and playdates and errands all revolved around therapy. The people I talk to are therapists. There have been times in J’s life when I’m convinced that J’s therapists knew him better than almost anyone else because they have seen him week in and week out. They follow his progress. They set new goals and check off old ones. They push him and encourage him and rejoice at the boy he’s become.

And here we are. Three.

This team of people have loved my child. Deeply and patiently. They gave me a social outlet when I had few friends in a new town and was housebound with a child who couldn’t go into public. We chat about J; they want to know everything new he is doing. They hear out my fears. They have given me priceless advice about parenting and preemies and childhood development.

This team of people know where I live. They come to my home. They talk to me by phone and text. They know my parents and my in-laws. They know where we go on vacation and what food we’re cooking for dinner. They got regular updates while M was in the NICU, and they provided a bit of normalcy during a period of upheaval for J. It is a wonderful and also intimate thing they do, coming into people’s houses and helping raise their children.

Our speech therapist has suggested we do a playdate with her 3-year-old daughter once we’re no longer clients. And our physical therapist will begin working with M in J’s timeslot the week after he turns three. M currently has one of the home teachers J had, and once she’s old enough for preschool, she’ll probably qualify for that too, following in his tiny, preemie footsteps. So, this whole community of people who have given J such invaluable resources over the last three years will continue to be our home for the foreseeable future. I can’t say I’m sorry about that because these people who love my child have also become my friends.

I hope other Preemie Parents have the same experience. I think about the children affected when I hear about budget cuts to early childhood education. Our state could have cut these resources, and our quality of life would have suffered with a baby who was 9 months behind in physical development. We have been phenomenally impacted by J’s team over the last three years.

Three. J will be three, and I cannot even believe it.

How Preemie Moms Are Chosen

The kids and I have been staying with my parents for the last week, so I haven’t had time to write. But, a friend tagged me in a post on Facebook about how God chooses preemie moms, and I think it’s such a sweet way to think of having preemies. I definitely feel chosen.

How Preemie Moms Are Chosen
(Adapted from Erma Bombeck)
Did you ever wonder how the mothers of premature babies are chosen? Somehow, I visualize God hovering over Earth, selecting his instruments for propagation with great care and deliberation. As he observes, he instructs his angels to take notes in a giant ledger. “Beth Armstrong, son. Patron Saint, Matthew. Marjorie Forrest, daughter. Patron Saint, Celia. Carrie Rutledge, twins. Patron Saint … give her Gerard. He’s used to profanity.” Finally, he passes a name to an angel and smiles. “Give her a preemie.”
The angel is curious. “Why this one, God? She’s so happy.”
“Exactly,” smiles God. “Could I give a premature baby a mother who knows no laughter? That would be cruel.”
“But does she have the patience?” asks the angel.
“I don’t want her to have too much patience, or she’ll drown in a sea of self-pity and despair. Once the shock and resentment wear off, she’ll handle it. I watched her today. She has that sense of self and independence so rare and so necessary in a mother. You see, the child I’m going to give her has a world of its own. She has to make it live in her world, and that’s not going to be easy.”
“But Lord, I don’t think she even believes in you.”
God smiles. “No matter, I can fix that. This one is perfect. She has just the right amount of selfishness.”
The angel gasps, “Selfishness?! Is that a virtue?”
God nods. “If she can’t separate herself from the child occasionally, she will never survive. Yes, here is a woman whom I will bless with a child less than perfect. She doesn’t know it yet, but she is to be envied. She will never take for granted a spoken word. She will never consider a step ordinary. When her child says ‘mama’ for the first time, she will be witness to a miracle and know it. I will permit her to see clearly the things I see – ignorance, cruelty, prejudice – and allow her to rise above them. She will never be alone. I will be at her side every minute of every day of her life because she is doing my work as surely as she is here by my side.”
“And what about her Patron Saint?” asks the angel, his pen poised in the air. God smiles.
“A mirror will suffice.”

The Long Babyhood

One of the biggest misconceptions I find about preemies is that they’re like other babies, just smaller.

Preemies aren’t at all like full-term babies. Sometimes they come home on oxygen and heart monitors. They go to extra doctor’s visits and checkups. Preemies often have digestive problems—most of the ones I’ve known have had to take medicine for acid reflux, for example. The fear of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) is real, and parents of preemies often have to keep them at home and out of public until their immune systems strengthen. With my son I felt that so many people didn’t understand how trying and difficult that six months was for us when we wanted to see people, live in the outside world, and show off our baby. But, when you have preemies, your first priority is to see that they get healthy.

Preemies are usually tiny for their age. I’ve worried about my son being picked on because he’s hardly ever played with anyone his own size. A pregnant woman at a consignment sale once asked me for advice on clothing sizes, and I had to laugh before I could answer her. I have no idea what “normal” babies wear. My babies wear newborn sizes until they are five or six months old! Heck, my son still wears 18-month-old t-shirts, and he’s nearly three!

Both my babies were four, five, six months old and trapped in bodies that didn’t move. My son didn’t roll over or sit up on a timeline that was even comparable with his adjusted age. He skipped crawling, and he didn’t walk until he was 17 months old—and he’d had physical therapy for nearly a year. You have to learn to alter your expectations to the reality of your child. It’s not fair to expect them to grow and develop as a full-term baby because they have had an abnormal entrance into the world. Growth and development varies so widely that your best bet is to challenge your child based on a realistic timeline, and I believe therapists are excellent at helping you set those goals.

Preemies don’t mind noise and light because that’s what they’ve known in the NICU. My daughter preferred to be awake at night, a fact we didn’t learn until her first night at home. Very kind people advised us to expose her to daylight and noise to help get her on schedule. The problem was that she slept best when it was noisy and bright because she was accustomed to a NICU environment. In fact, my son went through a horribly fussy period soon after he came home from the hospital. I attribute it to several things, but one of them was that he went from the bustling hospital environment to a boring, quiet home. I couldn’t possibly recreate what had become normal for him, and he really struggled to acclimate.

Preemies have been separated from their parents and cared for by an army of people. That fact really bothered me with J because I was supposed to be his mother, and every night I went home without him. No matter how hard you try to bond, it’s just not the same when you don’t spend every waking moment with your baby. One of the hardest moments in the NICU with my son was when I realized that his night primary nurse knew him better than me. When I reflect on the sadness I felt in that moment I still, three years later, want to ball my eyes out. My NICU babies didn’t care to be rocked, because they were hardly rocked in the NICU. It was easy for me to put them in their own beds with no singing, rocking, or breastfeeding at bedtime because I didn’t do any of that in the NICU. My son was so independent. He didn’t really need me for his first two years, just as long as someone was caring for him—or so it felt. I believe I was the very best mother I could have been, but I didn’t feel like we bonded until after his first year when he could interact with me.

One of the hardest differences—and also one of the most special—is that a preemie is a baby for a really long time. I didn’t sleep through the night for a single night for six months with my son. When we had my son’s first birthday party, he wasn’t able to eat cake, a seemingly trivial thing that made me really sad. He was barely eating baby food. He was wearing 6-month clothes and had only recently learned to sit. I remember thinking how weird it was to celebrate a first birthday for a child who really was still a baby.

My daughter is six months old, but she’s wearing 0-3 month clothes, she’s just now learning to roll over, and by most measures, she’s still a newborn. A few weeks ago, I took her out of the house to run an errand for the first time, and people stopped me to ask how old she was. I could tell they were a little shocked, because what brand-new mom has a pressing need to rush to Home Depot for a wreath holder with her newborn and a toddler in tow? They were even more shocked when I told them her age. This is a difference between my children—it took too much energy to explain it all to strangers with my son, but now that I have two preemies, I take pride in their unique journeys.

My babies are tiny and needy and adorable for a LONG TIME. I can’t relate to people saying that the first year goes by so fast. For me, it doesn’t at all. My babies take forever to do anything. But, there is also something magical about it. My best friend told me with my son that I was getting to preview him three and a half months before his due date. What a preview and not always a good one! But, one way to look at it is that you’re with your baby way before you should be, so you do get to witness them go from TEE-NINY to big kids.

That first year with a preemie can be so challenging, but isn’t that a fact of life? We all have moments that test our endurance and resolve that usually serve to make us more resilient. Now, when my son calls for Mama or when we lie in his bed and sing songs at bedtime or when he tells me he loves me “BIG!,” I treasure it because we have come a long way from me being a new mother with a tiny baby. My experience with my son also makes it easier with my daughter. I think I’m more patient about giving her the time she needs. I know she will be my baby for a really, really long time, but M is my last biological child. I see it as I get to savor this long babyhood.