Just Summer

I have been on a journey. I went away tired and ready for a vacation, but I found so much more than what I was expecting.

Growing up, I had a strong sense of self, and defending myself came easily. I found a bookmark from my elementary years that has a note in my handwriting on the back that says, “Don’t you ever, EVER touch my things again.” It was public school, and I had attitude.

My little sister had a birthmark as a baby, and I remember being on the playground with her, silently challenging anyone to say a word to her, my eyes meeting other kids’ eyes head-on. If they had hurt her, I probably would have knocked them between the eyes. I had swagger.

In high school, I was Student Body President two years in a row. The seniors were less than thrilled that a junior would speak for them at their graduation. I was unapologetic and unafraid. In fact, I discovered that I loved public speaking.

Peer pressure. What peer pressure? I did a move like my dog does, stiffening my whole body. If I didn’t want to do something, I refused. Solidly. Stuck in place. Stubborn was what I was.

As a teenager, I was dissatisfied with our youth group at church. We didn’t talk about anything spiritual, and I needed more. So, I went to our priest and asked for more. He kindly demurred. I left church for a while. My parents raised me to make my own decisions for my own reasons, and I did.

I loved the freedom of college. I chose my own courses. I met fascinating people. I studied French for a summer in Paris for goodness sakes. Whatever problems I thought I had, I didn’t have problems. Life was vibrant and beautiful and self-centered. I was young and naive and ready for a challenge.

My first job was a giant catastrophe. My husband and I were just beginning our lives together, and we were clueless and broke and in a city where we didn’t belong. We moved home with our tails between our legs. We had a series of stops and starts, missteps along the way. I found myself losing my voice, my swagger, my confidence.

I went back to graduate school, and I dreamed big. I was accepted to one of the best programs in the country, and I felt wholly undeserving. Looking back, I shouldn’t have sold myself so short. What happened to my sense of self? I let people judge me because I look younger than I am, and for the very first time that I can remember, I allowed people to talk to me as a child. Ask my parents. As a child, I rankled when people changed their tone to talk to me. “Why are they talking to me like I’m a kid?” to which my mom replied, “Well, because you are a kid.” Even then, I wanted respect, and I expected the respect one human being should show another. And yet, I lost that sense of self. I was so worried about politics and pleasing the right people and not saying the wrong thing to the wrong person that I said little. All my ideas, my hopes, my opinions, I squelched them, just at the time when I had the luxury of being in classes designed to plumb the depths of my thoughts.

I came to hate public speaking.

I lamented to those closest to me that I’d lost something along the way, and I didn’t know how to find her.

I had a baby while I was writing my dissertation. In a new city. Six weeks after we’d moved. He weighed 2.5 lbs. It was a shock, and there was no time to think about myself. I was struggling with guilt and exhaustion and fear. And a baby in the hospital.

When my son was 9 months old, I defended my dissertation. I became a doctor of philosophy. I was really proud that I hadn’t given up on myself. It was the culmination of a hard-as-hell year for me. I went to an academic conference, and everyone else was newly employed. I felt out-of-place because my world was therapy and developmental milestones. There was no room for anything else, least of all my professional ambition. I pushed pause, taught a few classes part-time when I could make my schedule coordinate with my son’s, and resolved to table my ambition for a while.

Nothing will humble you like motherhood. Nothing.

Then, I had another preemie, and again there was no time to think of myself. I delved into the care of my children. There was no choice to be made. I was doing what was right for my family.

But, all those hospital experiences, the determination it takes to parent a special needs child, and my newfound gratefulness at the simple things in life, they were working on me.

Last week, I attended the annual academic conference again. It had been two years since I’d seen most of my friends from graduate school. I also had a chance to see two friends from college and my childhood best friend. It was the first time I was away from my kids in two years. I expected to giggle and chit-chat and have nerdy discussions. I knew taking some time would reinvigorate me and give me a fresh perspective. But, I was wholly unprepared for what I received. The love. The acceptance. The kindness. The warmth. The encouragement. The support. It was absolutely overwhelming. I wasn’t the mother or the wife or the health advocate or even the teacher. I was Just Summer. And then the strangest thing happened.

For the first time in a decade, at a place in life where I sometimes look around and marvel at where this journey has taken me, I found what I was missing. I know the exact moment when it happened. I heard myself tell the truth and give some attitude while doing it, and I was amazed. After spending my twenties trying to find a balance between kindness and permissiveness, there she was, feisty, full of sass and a zeal for life.

I wanted to scream, “Where the heck have you been?!”

It was a relief, after all this time. But, it’s clear to me. To become this woman, I needed two tiny babies. I needed the career diversions. I needed these challenges, and I am so thankful for it all. On the surface, I am a part-time teacher and a full-time mother. But, underneath, I am Just Summer.

Bellies After Birth

I just read a post on the Huffington Post about body image in the months after pregnancy. Here it is if you’re interested:

Kate Middleton and the Mom in the Mirror

I definitely agree with most of what the author says, especially about how unrealistic it is for any of us to believe we’ll ever look like we did at 15…particularly in the months after having a baby. One of my pet peeves is celebrities acting like they didn’t have trainers and cooks and housekeepers and nannies to help them have the time and energy to lose post-pregnancy weight in a matter of weeks. Besides, it’s their job to look good, as superficial as that sounds. Most of them need to get back into shape so they can act or perform or whatever it is that they do in the public eye. Most of us don’t have that kind of help and shouldn’t have that kind of pressure. But, in response to Kate Middleton’s small post-baby bump, the Weekend Today Show meteorologist said that she never knew women’s bellies didn’t just shrink after having the baby. That is what we’re dealing with here.

[Insert a major eye-roll.]

How in the world can a woman spend 40 weeks growing a baby and then 24 hours later look like it never happened?! It’s illogical, idiotic, and insulting. Especially for a woman to say such a thing about another woman!

In the weeks and months after I had my babies, I had people tell me that I looked like I had never been pregnant, and it didn’t feel like a compliment. I knew that’s how it was intended, but here’s the reality: if I had carried my babies full-term, I wouldn’t have looked that way. I only gained 15 pounds with my son, because I had him 14 weeks early. I hadn’t even gotten to the point in pregnancy yet when you actually start gaining a pound a week. When people commented on how slim I was, as I trudged in and out of the NICU, it actually made me feel guilty. When well-meaning moms said, “What’s your secret?” I wanted to respond with, “Skipping the whole third trimester.”

And so here’s my point. If the only way you can lose all your baby weight in a month or two is either to have an army of people helping you or have your baby three months early, then I think such a goal is totally unrealistic. We should be more focused on the cute baby and less focused on the remaining belly. And at least give a mom the same amount of time to lose the belly as it took growing the baby in it.

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.

This Strange Situation

M started physical therapy. With J’s former therapist. In his old time slot. One week the pt saw him, and then he turned three. The next week she started with M.

Today, as our therapist was shutting her car door, she leaned out the window.

“This is SO weird,” and she nodded toward my hip, where I had M perched.

“Okay, I’m so glad you said so, because it’s just what I was thinking!” I said, as I laughed. We were both picturing the fussy, stiff baby who became the scared, cautious toddler who became the laughing, running three-year-old too big for therapy. He’s at preschool now.

We paused for a minute, thinking about him and looking at her. And then I told our pt we’d see her next week.

Apparently, even medical professionals feel the strangeness of this situation. One preemie baby following in the footsteps of another.

I’m glad I’m not alone.

Out of the Blue

Sometimes, I think this journey is so mixed up in joy and sorrow, in early surprises and long delays, in personal sacrifices and favors given and received that I don’t know what to make of it. I know I’m supposed to write. I know I’m supposed to share my story. I know if nothing else I owe it to my babies to document their journey. But, how? How do you sum up the experiences in a few stories? How do you recreate the feeling of impending doom as you await the birth of a tiny baby or the joy of peeling out of the hospital with the baby in tow after a 91-day NICU stay?

How?

I am trying. I am trying to find the time and the energy to dig into my memories, my heart, and my soul to share what has been the most enriching, fulfilling, not-to-mention craziest experience of my life. But, I still feel incapable of really doing the whole experience justice.

I am praying for guidance as I attempt in my little human way to make sense of this journey, to find the purpose in it. As much as I know my children are miracles and gifts from God, I also believe there is more to the plan. Because, really, what healthy, young woman has not one but two 2.5-pound babies out of the blue? It’s like I got struck by lightning the first time, I ignored the lesson, and I got struck again.

So, I’ll just keep plodding along and hoping I find my way. Because, clearly, I cannot be left alone in a thunderstorm.

Accepting Help With Grace

I am fiercely independent. As much as it feels good to help others, I hate to be on the receiving end. It is most definitely a fault of mine that I’m a perfectionist, that I like to do things my way and to my specifications. I’ve long struggled with delegating. I enjoy the feeling of a job well done and of accomplishing things I hardly thought possible. I am terrifically competitive, with myself, and hardly a day goes by when I really have tackled all the things on the ridiculously long to-do list that I create each day. I have learned to manage these idiosyncrasies…I think. But, what has not gotten easier is asking for help–or even worse needing help. I really am just like my toddler who says “Self!” and pushes my hand away; I want to do it myself.

Here’s the thing: You cannot possibly do it all by yourself when you have a baby in the NICU. You can’t. You need to simultaneously talk to the doctor about that formula issue and find out the baby’s stats for the day from the nurse and hold said baby and take your other child to school and call the insurance company about the ever-increasing bill you aren’t so sure they’re covering and go to the grocery store and cook food to feed your family and check work emails which has become a career in itself since you’ve been away and recover from major surgery and pump breast milk like there’s no tomorrow.

There aren’t enough hours in the day. And if you’re exhausted and stressed, you’re not able to be as competent in the NICU as you need to be. The terrifying part of the NICU journey for me was never knowing what was around the next bend, so if you show up too tired to function, how will you make some of the hard decisions asked of you?

We were so lucky that even though we have no family in town, my mother and my mother-in-law basically took turns living with us. With M, it was absolutely crucial because we also had a little boy at home who needed attention. There was no way for both my husband and me to be at the NICU together unless we had help at home. Not to mention all the household chores I physically could not do. Our mothers ran our home, from caring for my son to overseeing his therapy and schooling to cooking and cleaning for us. They did everything I could not do, and there really aren’t enough thank-yous to ever repay them. EVER!

During our first NICU stay, I struggled to release my control on silly things like how the pantry was organized. During the second time, I was at first too sick and then too tired to care. I finally accepted that whatever help they offered was a blessing of their time and energy; it was a sacrifice for them. Who was I to demand how they organized my pantry? That’s like asking for help and then specifying how and when you receive the help. I’m embarrassed that I was ever so thoughtless! And I hope they didn’t notice.

To be fair to myself, I was learning how to accept help in a way I’d never needed it before, and I was suffering from the shock of having J at 26 weeks. And I was a new mommy, with all sorts of normal fears and emotions that compounded the stress of the NICU. But, with M, I was different. I was overwhelmed by the kindness and support our mothers offered–for a second time in three years. I was so amazed at the time they gave us–months and months of it. And I was relieved, that I could put some of the day-to-day burdens aside and focus my attention on M and the NICU.

My in-laws currently live with my ailing grandmother-in-law, and I find myself empathizing with both the caretakers and the caretakee. It is challenging all the way around, but what I keep coming back to is this one nugget of wisdom I gleaned from the NICU: Accept help with grace. Help is a gift, and it is a gift that you can pass on to others when it is your turn.

Besides, you never know when you might need help again. Like when you have another unexpected preemie.

Like a Monkey

I am so tired, and it has been a long day. The kids have been tag-teaming all day so that one naps while the other one is awake. So, just a quick thought for today. I was playing with J this afternoon, when he walked up me by holding my hands and scrambling up me with his feet. I could not believe that A) he is strong enough to do this after all the months we worked on rolling over, crawling, sitting up, and walking and that B) he is fearless enough, after being too cautious to try anything remotely dangerous. It was a simple moment, but for me it was thrilling to see him hanging from my arms like a monkey. Just an average little boy doing what little boys do.

Being Compassionate

One of the best life lessons that the last three years have taught me is how to be compassionate. When someone is sick or housebound, when someone has lost a family member, or when someone is just in a dark place in life, what do you say? What can you do? Before the NICU, I thought about people, I really did. Sometimes I stewed over situations that really had nothing to do with me. I felt sorrow for people, and I offered up prayers and sent positive thoughts their direction. But, so many times since I didn’t know how to fix their problem or even what to say to make it better, I just didn’t say anything at all.

When my son was in the NICU, sometimes the silence was deafening. Of course I knew people cared, but on the dark days, I looked around and wondered who was standing with me, who was supporting me, who wanted to help. And truthfully, most of us are too busy, too wrapped up in ourselves to take the time to be compassionate.

I promise I’m not trying to keep score, but I remember every person during the 150 days my babies were in the hospital who called me or sent a card or sent me a message on Facebook. Dear friends in South Korea called from literally halfway around the world. The last communication I had from a childhood friend who committed suicide was a message on Facebook. He saw that I was online one night, and he asked how my baby was. I gave him the pat answer, a few stats on his weight gain and oxygen levels, and I thought that would be the end of it. He had the compassion to ask more questions, and then to tell me he was thinking of me and praying for me. Now, looking back I suspect his own pain made him sensitive to the pain in others.

The beauty of being compassionate is that you don’t have to speak words of wisdom or fix a situation. Sometimes just being a lifeline, a warm hand on a shoulder, a sweet card in the mail, a friendly voice on the other end of the line, that is all you need to do. We just don’t want to be alone. We don’t want to wallow in self-pity and doubt. We want someone to recognize our pain and validate it.

Now, I look back, and I see so many missed opportunities. So many things I left unsaid and undone. And I am sorry for it. But, I have resolved to try to be more compassionate, which is not to say perfect. In the hustle of daily life with two small children, I still leave so much unsaid and undone, but instead of letting myself off the hook with an at-least-I-sent-them-positive-thoughts (as if people are automatically notified of these thoughts like I’ve texted them), I buy cards and send them, or I pick up the phone and use it, or I type out an email or a Facebook message and hit enter. Or with my ailing grandfather, I picked up his hand, looked deep into his eyes, and said, “I am so sorry, and I wish I could do more.”

You never know the joy your card or your hug or your flowers bring until you’re in a place of despair and sorrow. And I thank the NICU for that life lesson.