Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Magic of Preemies

Today is World Prematurity Day. Instead of dwelling on the negatives, all the risk factors and statistics, I want to celebrate my preemies today, because there are so many blessings to being part of this community. So much of what I write is raw as I'm working through complex feelings about traumatic events, but as my preemies get bigger, older, and healthier, I've realized that I also love being a mom to preemies.

These are some of the reasons why:

1. It's not just the hard parts about having babies that are extended with preemies. All the delightful things extend well into the first year too. Chubby baby cheeks; tiny fingers and toes; sweet, toothless grins; nighttime cuddling; swaddled, sleeping babies; cooing baby chatter; tiny infant clothes; and sweet baby kisses on velvety skin. I wonder what it's like to have babies for a few months when I have them for more than a year.

2. I have been inducted into a community I never knew existed. From Michelle Duggar to preemie mama bloggers to friends from our NICU, I now witness the successes and accomplishments of preemies across the country. Even if I don't actually know all of these children and their families, I revel in their achievements, because I know the struggles and odds they've overcome to do the simplest things. There is a common language among preemie families. We throw out O2 numbers and how many bradys our babies have had. We discuss therapy and developmental delays. We share suggestions for where to buy tiny clothes and how to store breast milk. When we talk to each other, we can drop all the explanations. This kinship replenishes drained emotional reserves.

3. Much of my identity is now intertwined with what it means to be the mother of preemies. I'll admit that in my earliest days as a mother, this fact weighed on me. I had no friends with preemies, and I knew no one to give me any guidance. Because I wasn't a mother before J, I had no mommy friends to give me strength, and everything I knew about parenting seemed to have its root in J's prematurity. Now, as the kids get a little older, I find that I still have an entirely different set of experiences from many moms, but it doesn't discourage or defeat me any more. All I know are preemies, but they give my life so much meaning and purpose.

4. I always wanted to be a person who didn't sweat the small stuff, but small stuff definitely gave me the sweats. Until J. The last few years have been difficult, but they've also forced me to focus on what is most important in life. And everything else is just noise and chatter. It has also given me the freedom to see my career ambitions in a new light and to explore them from a different perspective. In J's earliest days, so much of my world felt lonely, dark, and shuttered from the daily lives of everyone around me. I see it all differently now. I see options, opportunities, and chances everywhere I look, and I also have the patience to realize that just because I can't do it all right now doesn't mean I can't do it all one day.

5. I still wouldn't call myself patient. As most mothers, I am constantly telling myself to be more patient, to speak more kindly, to be more understanding, to take more time to enjoy the chaos of life with small children. I have much work to do, but I believe one of the gifts of life is the opportunity to constantly smooth our rough areas, to better ourselves to become the best person we can be. If 150 days in the NICU, if two emergency deliveries, if two long babyhoods of little sleep and much problem-solving, if all that won't teach you at least a little patience, then I guess it's hopeless! I do find myself ignoring whining, overlooking faults and foibles, and listening to the big fears that come from small bodies much more than I ever thought I would.

6. The lows of having preemies can be pretty low. Like the day we found out J had a heart defect. Or the night my in-laws drove us to the emergency room because my blood pressure with M was stroke-level. But, the highs are so much higher. I won't ever know how good it feels to bring a full-term baby home after a few days in the hospital, but what about the elation you feel wheeling a 6-lb, 3-month-old out into the sunshine for the first time? What about watching your 17-month-old who never rolled or crawled finally...finally...finally take his first few steps, watching him gain his hard-fought independence for the very first time? The simplest things take on new meaning: smiling, talking, walking, eating, and even breathing. I cried at the sight of my 2-lb baby girl breathing on her own, and I told my husband that I probably would have cried at the miracle of any baby that small breathing. But, given that it was my own daughter, it was a spectacular moment. Absolutely spectacular.

7. My best friend who has known me for 26 years told me after she saw J in the NICU that I was previewing him. At the time, all I could think was that I didn't want to preview my baby. I wanted what every other mother wants: a big, healthy, full-term baby. But, the more I thought about it, the more what she said resonated. It realigned my perspective. I could not look at him and expect to see a baby who had enjoyed 14 additional weeks of growth and development in utero. I had to see him for what he was, a 2-pound miracle, a pre-baby, the tiny baby who would become the baby I would take home and raise. And then I also started to realize that I was getting to witness J's phenomenal growth and development despite great odds and that I was getting to know his unique personality months before I was supposed to even lay eyes on him. Besides, how many people ever hold a 2-pound baby?

8. The people I've met have been amazing, such as NICU nurses who love on palm-sized babies with tenderness and incredible skill. They have an arsenal of tricks to cure most of what ails the tiniest bodies, and they manage to navigate the treacherous emotional waters of parenting babies whose parents have to leave them behind everyday. Sometimes, they make all the difference with a smile or a kind word of encouragement in an otherwise awful day. The doctors I met were dedicated and devoted to a chosen profession with so much heartbreak. The volunteers were so giving of their time. What mother wouldn't love the lady who rocked her screaming baby after a transfusion when he couldn't eat? How can you possibly thank someone for that? And I cannot heap enough praise on the team of therapists and teachers who have encouraged my kids toward each milestone. After our PT leaves, I see the results in M immediately. After I pick J up from school, I hear the confidence and enthusiasm that his teachers, skilled in developmental delays, have instilled in him. This phase of my life has left little time for friends, and there have been weeks when the only people I talk to are these teachers and therapists. They have been not just a lifeline for my kids. They have saved me.

9. The last time I did kangaroo care with M, I memorized her tininess, the way her fragile body felt against mine. She fit in the cavity of my chest; it was like holding a furless kitten. I measured her minuscule fingers in my own. I stared at her dots for nostrils and her pinpricks for fingernails. I felt her skin, her nearly translucent skin, against my own. I listened to her breathing, breath out of a mouth the size of my pinky fingernail. I knew it would be one of the most beautiful moments of my life, witnessing a magic so few witness. And it is magic.

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