Monday, September 30, 2013

Oceans Apart

Yesterday, I went through our bins of preemie and newborn baby clothes. I was surprised at how little emotion I felt as I methodically separated the clothes into piles: donate to the NICU, sell at consignment, and keep for the kids. There were only a few items that I kept for the kids, just a few reminders of their time as tiny babies. I thought I would be sad as I pilfered each bin, ruthlessly getting rid of the clothes my babies wore when they were tiny. When they were in the NICU.

In an odd way, it was the realization that I will never have another tiny baby that made me sad. It's not about the clothes at all.

So, as I worked at my task, J wandered over to me. He now has two favorite words: no and why. I love both of them, because they mean he's developmentally where he should be, challenging and questioning everything about his world. Until he asks me "why?" over and over and I run out of answers. This serves me right for all the questions I asked as a child.


J: "Mama, what doin'? What doin', Mama?"

Me: "I'm sorting through your baby clothes. These are the clothes you and M wore when you were tiny."

J: "Why?"

Me: "Why am I going through the clothes?"

J: "Why, Mama?"

Me: "I'm going through the clothes so we can give some away."

J: "Why?"

Me: "Because we don't need them any more."

J: "Why?"

Me: "You're big, not tiny any more. You and M can't fit in these clothes."

J: "Why, Mama?"

Me: (Sigh...) "Because you grew."


I held up a tiny onesie, one that I'm keeping for J. It's the size of my hand. It shows how small three pounds really is. I held it up for J and told him that when he was little he could actually wear this onesie.

He looked at it, he looked at me, and then he ran off. The conversation was over. And he has no idea what I'm talking about. For him, the idea that he was ever tiny makes no sense. He still lives in the here and now. The past is too far gone for him to appreciate, especially a past he can't remember.

But, some days I feel haunted by his past. His past was the one that marked me, changed me, shifted everything in my life. His past is the one that terrifies me with what ifs. Now I know so much more than I knew then. Thank goodness I had no idea how fragile his life was.

What if that tiny baby hadn't lived?

I know one day he'll be bigger. One day he'll have more perspective. One day he'll have his own big babies, and he'll be amazed by the trinkets I've saved from the NICU. That onesie will shock him when I hold it up, a witness to how tiny he really was.

But, now? Now, it means nothing. J and I are oceans apart. All he knows is being big and healthy. He can't imagine that he was ever separated from me, that he ever lived in a hospital, that his life was anything other than it is now.

And I keep imagining him as that baby, that tiny, fragile, fit-in-your-pocket baby.

I'm glad he doesn't know what I know. Actually, I hope he never knows. I want him to know his story. I want him to read the journal I wrote just for him. I want him to grow up knowing he's special, that his life has meaning and purpose. I want him to sift through the trinkets I've saved, the microscopic blood pressure cuffs and the tee-niny hospital ID bracelet. I want him to appreciate where his journey began, and I hope that he'll love that his mother and father tried so hard to make the most of his first days in the world, though they were spent in a hospital. Maybe he'll even read these words. 

But, do I want the man whom J will become to ever know what his mother and father actually felt? Never. I hope he has big babies. I hope he rejoices in his big babies, and I hope he never has to see them in a hospital.

I hope his babies are so big that they skip newborn onesies. I hope J's wife complains that her babies didn't even wear all their newborn clothes. I hope I'll smile to myself and think about how J was six months old and wearing his newborn clothes. I'll think about that first onesie he wore, the one his daughter can't even fit on her doll. And I'll be so glad for him.

In some ways, I hope J and I are always oceans apart.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Inside A NICU Reunion

Last weekend we went to the NICU reunion. It was our 3rd reunion, and this time we had two preemies. Two preemies who can breathe without oxygen. Two preemies who can eat without a feeding tube. Two preemies whose brains remember to tell their lungs to breathe, all without a nurse to nudge them toward life. Two preemies whose bodies don't show the scars of all the needle-pricks and procedures. Two preemies whose minds don't remember being left by their parents, day after day and night after night.

NICU reunions have games, crawling races for babies and bouncy houses for the big kids. There are free snacks and drinks, and we go home with t-shirts for the kids. Some of the staff dress in costumes that match the theme of the reunion, and doctors and nurses, dressed in real clothes instead of scrubs, pose for pictures with all the preemies they once nurtured. It's all fun and games.

Except for the parents.

Am I the only one who smiles at each child running? Every baby here is a miracle. The boys and girls jumping in the bouncy house? Their parents weren't sure they'd live, much less walk. And to see them jump? They feel they've hit the lottery.

There are meltdowns and temper-tantrums and babies crying. There is laughing and talking and plenty of noise. But, for the families, don't we rejoice in the mayhem of little children? There was a time when all we heard was an eerie stillness marred by the beeping of machines. Our babies couldn't cry for all the things in their noses and mouths. And their lungs weren't strong enough for them to do much more than croak like tiny frogs.

We walk into the hospital with big kids, and at the end of the reunion, we leave with our children. We don't have to leave them behind. We don't have to fret and worry. We don't have to mourn and grieve. We don't have to do any of that any more. After countless hours and days and sometimes months, we brought our babies home. We have cared for them. We oversee therapy. We push each and every milestone, always mindful of giving our babies the best possible outcome.

And then here they are. A bunch of energetic, happy, and, most importantly, healthy kids. In fact, if you didn't know you were at a NICU reunion, would you mark all these children as preemies? You would never know.

I don't know how many NICU reunions we'll attend. Eventually, the kids will outgrow them, and we'll know fewer and fewer people, until we aren't sure there's a reason to attend. As a family, we'll decide to do other things with our Saturday afternoons. But, I'm not sure I'll ever be ready to walk away. There is something so healing about being in a huge room full of people who know my pain and who rejoice in my children. There is something so beautiful about seeing all these kids who began their lives as survivors. There is something so moving about being a part of this community.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Letting Go

I wonder if all parents feel this way.

I want to teach J to be brave. I want to let him go. I don't want to shelter him and fret about him until he's unable to forge his own way.

I confess that I still wipe down grocery carts when I shop with J, but generally I've put away the hand sanitizer and the alcohol wipes. I let him scrape his knees and hang off the deck rails, the ones close to the ground, when he pretends to be Super Grover. And when we get to the doors of his preschool each morning, I let him go.

I take M to Mother's Morning Out. Other people care for her. She touches other babies, babies with runny noses. I let her go.

But, I never, not one, single day, leave them without thinking about their dots for fingernails, their heads the size of a clementine, their bodies hooked to machines. I never, not one, single day, walk away without looking back, glancing back just like I did when I left the NICU. I need a parting glance. I need to fill my heart with them, even as I walk away. I must leave. I must let them go, even when I'm afraid.

Call me crazy to wipe down shopping carts. Call me crazy when I institute strict hand-washing guidelines in our home. Call me crazy when I fret over the beginning of RSV season. Call me crazy. You wouldn't be the first.

But, if you haven't walked in my shoes, you don't know what it's like to hold a baby whose body fits in your hand. And you don't know the strength it takes every day to make the choice to let your kids be kids. Just because I see preemies when I look at J and M doesn't mean the world sees them that way. And I don't want my kids to always be preemies just because that's what I see.

Maybe other parents feel this way too. It's just they see newborns instead of preemies when they look at their kids.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What My Heart Sees

Last night my husband called me into M's room. This is what I saw with my eyes:

But, this is what I saw with my heart:

And words can't express my gratefulness. My eyes met my husband's eyes, and I saw my emotion reflected in his eyes. His smile matched my smile. Both of us thinking about the baby M once was.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Balancing My Two Preemies

I love my two preemies equally. They are so different, but I have really great kids.

With that being said, J was such a challenge for his first year. Some of the struggle was with me. I was a new mom in a new place with a very new role in life. And some of it was him. He didn't feel well. He was a very bright mind trapped in a delayed body. He was frustrated, fussy, and fidgety.

He became my world. Every, single thing I did each day was about him. The therapy. The feedings. Struggling with him over naps and bedtime. The entire day was a devotion to him. I'm not sure how healthy that arrangement is, but it was what I needed to do for him and for our family.

Everything about M is different. She was less premature. Her body is less rigid, and she seems more at peace with the slow progression a preemie makes through milestones. Honestly, M is the sweetest child I have ever known. Her disposition is like sparkles and sunshine, all the time. She is joyful and patient, even when she waits for attention from a mother wrangling a busy three-year-old boy.

I wanted to have more than one child, because I wanted them to learn that we are all part of a community. We have to wait our turns. We have to find our place. We must learn to give and to take. Not one of us is more special or important than anyone else. We are all precious with wants and needs, and we must make room for each other. Having siblings is only one way to teach small children those lessons, but for me, it was a very important way. I was afraid the world would always revolve around J in our house if he didn't have a little friendly competition.

But, here's the problem: M is so generous, so loving, so peaceful that I worry she doesn't demand enough from me, and I don't give enough to her. She too needs therapy. She needs to be challenged. We must work after each milestone, just as we have worked with J. And I'm finding the hardest part of having two preemies is that I can't focus on either one. I guess all mothers of more than one child feel this way? Certainly, all families must find a balance, and some days one child needs you more than another. But, J is still so demanding and M is so the opposite that sometimes I look deep into her big, blue eyes and ask her if I'm doing enough. In the shuffle to and from J's preschool, in the rush to cook dinner and clean the house, in the middle of three-year-old temper tantrums, am I stopping enough to talk to M, to touch her fat, little feet, to kiss her and tell her I love her, to smell her sweet baby smell, to treasure her the way she deserves to be treasured?

I don't know. I really don't know. But, I think I should try harder. The easier child shouldn't get passed over because she's easier. As M's personality is unfurling one petal at a time, I'm discovering that one of the challenges about her sweetness is that this busy household sometimes takes it for granted. We all dote on her a little, even her older brother. We all talk a little baby talk to her and feel her velvet skin and bask in her bright smile. But, I think we should do it even more. We should reward her for being so lovely. Let the dishes pile up. Let the floor go unswept. Let the clothes stay wrinkled in a mountain on the couch, at least for a few hours. My husband should get home from work a few minutes earlier to see her before bedtime. J should put down his toys to play with his sister, who can now reach for the toys he hands her. We should all give M the attention she deserves.

M is already 8 months old, and her babyhood is going so much faster than J's did. I must remember to pause more and enjoy the sweetest baby I've ever met. Even if she doesn't demand it.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Just Keep Paddling

Every time we drive downtown, I am transformed into that woman. She's terrified, and she's lost. Every building is unfamiliar. The landscape is one road sign, one mile marker, and one interstate exit after another defining the distance from home to the unknown. She has only lived in this strange city for a matter of weeks. She has no friends here. A family member or two come to visit and to help, but she feels so very alone. For the first time in her life, she has no community, no support network, and no friends to help her on the most difficult journey of her life. She is lost, physically and emotionally. She never expected to be here. She has no idea how to get home, either metaphorically or in reality. Life bounces from one car ride to another, one traffic jam to another, a series of moments that divide one trip to the NICU from another. The only times she feels secure is when she's with the only other person in the trenches too. She clings to his presence.

Until the day she had to drive to the NICU by herself. She had to park by herself, walk to the hospital by herself, pass the happy people leaving the hospital with balloons and presents and healthy babies by herself, ride the elevator by herself, sign into the NICU by herself, and scrub by herself. She had to ask hard questions by herself. And maybe most difficult of all, she had to touch that tiny baby, take his temperature, and change his diaper, using just the tips of her fingers through the holes of the isolette. By herself.

And she realized that she could do it all. She could do it all by herself.

There are things in life I don't understand, people I don't understand, and problems I don't understand. But, since those days, I empathize with people who feel lost, for whatever reason. I can't diagnose their problems, I don't want to judge their problems, and I certainly can't fix their problems. But, I get it. What it feels like to be lost. What it feels like to have so little hope. What it feels like to wear your pain like an ugly coat.

But, what gives me more strength than anything to face the unknown is the knowledge that I faced down the fear. I overcame sadness, loneliness, anger, and loss. I can't say it was easier or harder than someone else's journey, but I can say it was awful. And I wish I could be a beacon of light for someone bouncing around in a skiff in a foggy ocean, wondering where they're going and when they'll get there. I just want to tell them to keep paddling. Just keep paddling. Don't give up.

You are stronger than you know.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

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?)