Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Fraud Mama

In the hours and days and months after J was born, I was a fraud. A fraud of a mother. Certainly, mothering takes all shapes. No one mother is the same, and no one mother does it just right. But, in all of the ways I believed I would be a mother to J, I was nothing.

For starters, there was his birth at 26 weeks. Boy, that was a flop. I'm pretty sure you're supposed to at least get to your 9th month.

Then, there was the manner of his birth. Emergency C-section wasn't the route I had planned. I'd chosen a highly-dignified yet hard-fought natural birth in which I'd be quite the champion. Instead, I turned out to be a chump at labor and delivery.

To add insult to injury, I had J at a hospital that could only care for babies born at a minimum of 32 weeks. It never crossed my mind to seek out a hospital with a NICU any larger, since I was planning on that full-term, natural birth thing. So, just hours after J's birth, he got his first ambulance ride to a hospital 30 minutes away. He now loves anything with wheels, so surely I get points there?

I'm pretty sure I lose ground on the next one, though. I met J for the first time just after my anesthesia wore off. The doctor wheeled him to my bedside, and then he was gone. I didn't see him again for two days. His own mother didn't visit him--couldn't visit him. Other family rushed to town to see the tiny baby, but does that make up for missing a mama?

And then there's all the bonding we missed. I didn't hold him until his 5th day, and even then, it was just kangaroo care, not at all what I'd had in mind when I pictured snuggling my newborn.

In my mind, this list went on and on. I accounted for every mistake, every failure, every way I let J down. It began at his birth and continued for two and a half years. Years.

Of course, I loved him with my whole heart. I sacrificed in every way. I gave until I had nothing left to give him. And I walked through the world, unable to relate to most mothers I met who had birth stories I envied. Every, single subject was painful for me to discuss, from breastfeeding to walking, talking, and eating. Every thing I knew about parenting revolved around prematurity, and nothing I knew seemed to have a place in a regular parenting conversation. I knew better than to compare myself to other mothers, and I knew it was unfair to blame myself for J's birth. But, I could not forgive myself.

Until M.

She is the result of preeclampsia, another surprise for me. She is a preemie too. She is sweet and giving, a ray of sunshine, people have said. She and J will have each other. With her birth, the entire dynamic changed. This story is no longer about J and me, about what I did or didn't do; it is now the story of our whole family. Prematurity is a bond we all share. It is a uniter, not a divider. And, slowly, as the shock of M's arrival waned, I realized so did my shame.

When I talk to mothers in the NICU, they are so full of anger at themselves. It is painful for me to witness because I want to save them. I spent so much energy punishing myself, but it's not an anger I can quell in someone else.

Every mother has to reach her own place of forgiveness, in her own way.

Somewhere along the way, in the middle of long days and longer nights of parenting two preemies, Fraud Mama disappeared.

Here I am, in her place.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Pivotal Moment

I've noticed a human tendency, especially among athletes or people whose identity is found in their physical fitness, to equate health with achievement. Having just spent a couple of days sleeping on my cold bathroom floor, I'm certain that health is a gift.

I've thought lately about pivotal points in my life. Every person has them, the moments that separate your life into before and after, and certainly having preemies must rank somewhere near the top of mine. But, as I sort through memories that play like horror movie reels, what one moment stands alone?

J's delivery was so rushed. Once the doctors and nurses realized that my labor could not be stopped, they prepped me for not just an emergency C-section but for emergency surgery with full anesthesia. As I lay tipped back in the hospital bed, practically standing on my head with my feet toward the ceiling, controlled chaos was all around me, a rotating door of people handing me waivers, advising me of my rights, asking me to choose a NICU downtown, explaining the procedure, taking my blood pressure, informing me on all the ways they would try to save J's life. It was too much way too fast. My mind was whirling around in on itself, stuck trying to process: I am having this tiny baby now. As they rushed me to the operating room, I was completely disoriented. Someone forgot to tell the interior decorator that if the ceiling is white and the bedsheets are white and the hospital gowns are mostly white, all the patient can see as she's wheeled to her fate is white, as if she's already dead and on her way to Heaven. As they popped open the operating room doors and the bright light hit my eyes, I yelled back to my husband a goodbye, a pathetic, last-second, nearly-forgotten goodbye, and I had a pivotal moment. I was lying on an operating room table. All I saw was white and steel. All I could feel was cold. Would I live? Would J live? Would both of us meet on the other side?

Three things strike me about that moment. The first is that you don't know how many moments you get in life like that, moments when you are certain that your life is either about to be spared or ended. Most of us don't have many. And when you are spared, nothing in life ever looks the same again. I would say that moment marks the loss of the girl in me and the birth of the woman.

The second thing that strikes me is that I wasn't alone. An army of people buzzed around me, prepping me for surgery. My doctor was there readying herself to perform one of the more dramatic deliveries of her career, since it's not everyday you deliver a surprise 26-weeker in the middle of the night to someone you've never met. But, I felt more alone than I've ever felt. The anesthesiologist and the nurse anesthetist did more than perform their clinical duty; they stepped in for my loved ones. They stroked my cheeks with their fingertips and calmed me with gentle words. I'm glad I didn't know that some of the best and most challenging work anesthesiologists do is emergency surgery on pregnant women. They made me feel like their only job was to soothe me, to give me some peace. They were incredibly compassionate in a dark place for me. As I waited to fall asleep, all I could see were their eyes. Their smiling eyes I'll never forget. Their eyes, as I went to sleep. We should all be so compassionate, in whatever it is that we do in life. So much in this world doesn't matter. It is people who matter, and each one of us deserves love, respect, and compassion.

The last thing that strikes me about that moment is that should I be on an operating table like that again in my life, I want to know that I did the important things and I did them well. Maybe I'm not famous. Maybe my life's achievements don't win any awards. But, awards aren't the measure of a life well lived. Recognition is icing, but it's not the cake.

Which brings me back to my original point:

Health is a gift. Our choice is what we do with it.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Curing the Chaos

My children have a new daytime sleeping routine. They tag-team. My husband calls them whack-a-moles. One pops up, and the other goes down. At 10 a.m. M takes a morning nap. At 12 p.m., just at J is falling asleep for his nap, M wakes up. At 2 p.m. J rises, and they overlap for a few minutes. Then, I put M down for her afternoon nap. The synchronicity of it is unbelievable. There is not one minute in a 12-hour stretch that I truly have to myself.

The end result is chaos all over the house, from the kitchen to the mail bin to the laundry pile. The bonus room has a splattering of toys from one end to the other, like someone stood in the middle and threw toys in every direction (which he probably did).

The chaos is also in my head. Gone are orderly days when I planned anything, even something as minute as when I wash the dishes.

At 2 p.m. today, I took my first look in the mirror, and what a fright I found in a robe and sweatpants. "I am a skunk!" So, during my daughter's afternoon nap, I put Sesame Street on for J, and I took a shower. I got dressed. Then, I looked around the mess to see where to begin, an attempt to put things back in order.

And I sat down to blog instead.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Season Of Illnesses

Where in the world have I been?!

Well, two weeks ago we went on our first vacation in 18 months. Trips with the kids aren't stress-free, but they're still a welcome change from our routine. We spent a week at the beach with some of my family. J is just now old enough to really appreciate that we're on vacation, and some of his questions were amusing. Why are we at the beach? Why is Papa not at work? Why are Pop and Mae here? (His whole world has changed with his recent discovery of the word why, and he now uses it A LOT.) We had to teach him the point of a vacation because in his world it makes no sense to leave home to go stay in someone else's condo.

Unfortunately, while we were on vacation, both kids came down with colds. On the way home, we had to stop in a CVS MinuteClinic for J to see a nurse practitioner, who confirmed that he had a double-ear infection. Then, a few days after we arrived home, we had to take M to the doctor, and she also had an ear infection. In fact, hers was so bad that her ear drum had ruptured, even though she'd never run a fever and wasn't overly fussy. The next day J ran only the second fever of his life, which brought on another doctor's appointment. A test showed he actually had the early stages of mono, though his virus has now traveled through the whole family, making mono an unlikely culprit. The end result is that we have been one sick--and busy--household for weeks now.

All this illness has made me extremely nervous about RSV season. Before J, I never worried much about cold and flu season. Being sick was an inconvenience for sure but not life-threatening. J's first winter was a terrible one for me, because we were housebound. But, I kept him illness-free until he was 17 months old, giving him some extra time to get bigger and stronger.

M is a different child and a different story. She's 9 months old going into RSV season, instead of 3 months old. She has an older brother who exposes her to all sorts of illnesses. I think she is stronger than he was because she was less premature and she's older. She's been in Mother's Morning Out for a few months, and until recently, I was sure we were making the right decision by exposing her to other babies.

I'm no longer so sure. It is unlikely she'll receive the Synagis shots to protect her from RSV, even though our doctor has been advocating for her to get them. And with all the illness lately, I'm really pondering what is in our best interest.

Pulling her out of Mother's Morning Out would have career ramifications for me. I've already abandoned most of my professional life, because caring for these two tiny babies has been my job, more than a full-time job. But, I'm having to make some hard decisions now that will largely dictate the next several years for me, and I am struggling. I think I know what I must do, but it doesn't make the decision any easier.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


I was going through photos, and I found this one. This is the very first time we took J into public. It was a beautiful April morning, and we ate at our favorite breakfast spot. Two things strike me about this photo. 1) You totally can't tell that J was already almost 9 months old, but you also can't tell that he was a 26-weeker. He already just looks small for his age. Small but healthy. 2) The joy on my face is so visible. After a terrifying early delivery, many long and exhausting NICU days, and an entire lonely winter spent at home, I look overjoyed to be coming out of a dark period. I look absolutely deliriously happy! And I was.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Space Where NICU Parents Meet

Parents with babies in the NICU have such a weariness about them. It's not just the lack of sleep; it's the constant stress. All the worry about all the things worth worrying about. Every parent has such a fascinating story. Each parent comes from a different place in life to this common ground that we all share. It doesn't matter your education, your socio-economic status, your birthplace, your color, your religion, your marital status, your gender. We are all NICU parents. We all have a long haul ahead of us. We all have baggage that we can't seem to leave behind. And we stand in the middle of the emotionally-draining, frightening, lonely NICU, and we wonder if we'll ever make it out of here. And not just here, as in the NICU, but here as in the emotional space where walking this road strands you. Having a baby in the NICU challenges everything you believe, everything you dreamed, and everything you love. It turns you inside out. Your pain is written all over your face. You feel as if people on the street must pass you by and feel sorry for you. They have to know that you're walking around without your heart, the one you left by your baby's bedside.

I remember so vividly that hollowness, that feeling of despair, that antsy desire to be anywhere but here and nowhere but here all at the very same time. Nothing is right in the world, and nothing is the same. Everyone has a different piece of advice, but none of them sound like what you need to hear. You are tied in knots, fit to be tied, tied down, ties flapping in the wind, hogtied. You don't even know what you are. One minute you think you have all this heaviness under control, and the next minute you're in the bathroom, balling your eyes out. You freeze people out, to save yourself from explaining. You wall yourself up, to hold it all in.

I wish it were socially acceptable for me go up to these NICU parents and hug them. I wish it were okay for me to kiss them on the cheeks. I have to maintain a distance, so they don't think I'm crazy, but I want to give them some warmth to take with them throughout their cold days. I want them to know that they are not alone. No matter who you are, being a preemie parent is a test in emotional endurance. We all have good days and bad days, and then we wake up the next day to keep going for those tiny babies.

The help I can offer feels so minute compared to the depth of their pain. I wish I could do more.