It didn’t feel right

I remember distinctly the first, and the second time, someone called me “Mom”. It was hours after Big Man’s birth, and I was being wheeled to his bedside just before he was transferred to his NICU. A nurse said, “Here comes Mom.” I looked around. I didn’t feel the least bit like a mom. I certainly didn’t feel like this baby’s mom – I’d failed him in every way in my mind, my body booting him out well before it was time, not protecting him the way I should have. There was so much guilt wrapped up in that word, “Mom.”

The second time I was called “Mom” was five days later, when I finally got to see him again. I walked up to Big Man’s isolette, and his  nurse whispered to him, “Your mom’s here.” I still didn’t feel an ounce his mom. I had been pumping every three hours faithfully since his birth days earlier. Spouse had brought video of him for me to watch every day. I’d signed the form for his birth certificate. But I still didn’t believe I was a mom. Everything about the process was wrong at that moment in time.

I was afraid of my child. He was so tiny. He was connected to so many tubes and wires. His face was covered in tape, his eyes covered by goggles to guard them from the bili lights he was under for jaundice. In my heart, it was my fault he was laying there, when he still should have been inside of me. I held him that night. He was too small for me to hold in my arms, so I held him on a pillow. One of my biggest heartaches is that they could have put any baby boy before me and told me he was mine, and I wouldn’t have known the difference. I’ve never said that out loud before.

Days passed. I spent hours every day next to his isolette. One day, I saw him kick out one leg, stretching beyond the boundaries of his cuddler, and I realized that was the exact same leg, the exact same motion he’d made while still inside of me. I connected the baby in front of me with the baby that had been in me. Suddenly, the name, “Mom” didn’t seem so wrong. His primary nurse encouraged me to take an active part in his daily care, even if it were just to take his temperature a couple of times a day before diaper changes. I gained faith in myself, and started to not flinch when someone would call me “Mom.” Eventually, I was the one changing his diapers, flipping him from side to side, watching his color instead of the machines so much, even occasionally pushing his feeds through his feeding tube. Once he graduated to an open crib, and was off the vent and CPAP, and able to be dressed in more than a diaper or hospital t-shirt, I changed his clothes as well, and then gave him baths. I read to him. I talked to him. I held him. I grew into my Mom name. By the time he came home, three months after his birth, I knew him, I knew me as his mom.

The guilt never leaves…the guilt over his birth, the guilt over being afraid of him, the guilt over not knowing him, the guilt of not being there for him his first five days of life. The first time I was known as Mom, it didn’t feel right. It took me awhile to get there. I don’t know if that hurt ever quite goes away.

And I thought that was hard

Big Man was born 3.5 months too soon, and spent ninety-three days in the NICU. I spent countless hours driving back and forth to spend countless hours sitting by his isolette. I watched him forget to breath, watched his heart rate drop, watched him turn gray, watched him battle his own infections, watched machines keep him alive, watched him fight to survive. And I thought that was hard.

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Big Man on his birth day

Big Man came home from the NICU, and we had a home health nurse out every other week, a developmental specialist out every month, bi-weekly doctor visits for weight checks, monthly doctor visits for synagis shots to keep him from getting RSV. My life, my schedule was not my own. He didn’t want to be put down, ever. I had to learn to let go of my want for routine, schedule, time. And I thought that was hard.

When Big Man was four months old, I discovered I was pregnant with the Princess. I faced a pregnancy certain we were going to be back in the NICU. I was full of fear and anxiety. I saw a specialist OB (perinatologist) every other week, until we got past the gestational age Big Man was born. Then she had to be induced at 41 weeks 1 day. And I thought that was hard.

Big Man was developmentally nine months old when the Princess was born, so I basically had two infants under one roof. They are twelve months and nineteen days apart. Sleep was at a premium. Bottles were everywhere. We all three cried for hours every evening. And I thought that was hard.

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Big Man had high muscle tone on his left side, and a mild speech delay. Enter therapists visits to the weekly routine. And I thought that was hard.

When Big Man was nearly two, and the Princess eight months old, we moved….400 miles away.  I left my career of ten years. I left my family. I left my friends. I left my church. We moved in with spouse’s  (awesomely amazing) parents for eight months while our new home was being built. I found a new job I hated. It took forever to build new relationships. I had two toddlers in a new place, and I wasn’t entirely happy…yet. And I thought that was hard.

I had two toddlers under one roof – two toddlers who were like the wonder twins. I couldn’t keep up with their creative disasters. They finger-painted with baby shampoo in the middle of Big Man’s room. Baby shampoo NEVER comes out of carpet, ever. They unraveled a Costco-sized package of toilet paper up and down the upstairs hallway. They threw another Costco-sized package (out of the plastic wrapping) into my big jacuzzi bathtub. They ran away, down the street and around two corners, while I fed their six-week old baby brother. Big Man cut ALL of the Princess’ hair off, to the scalp, twice. They colored the underside of the pool table. I caught them, frequently, eating frozen waffles underneath the dining room table. Ditto bags of candy they’d climb on top of the fridge to retrieve. And I thought that was hard.

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I had three kids under four. I can’t even list all that drama, but I thought that was hard.

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The Herd in earlier days

There was a time they were all three involved in multiple sports….baseball, soccer, dance, piano lessons, golf. I lived at whatever field it was the season for.  I spent hours and hours in the car getting them each to whatever practice, game, lesson, or recital. And I thought that was hard.

Big Man was diagnosed ADHD, and with a mild visual processing disorder in second grade. We chose to medicate the ADHD. He fought the medication for the first year. I’d find pills hidden in the kitchen drawer, under the lazy susan in the middle of the kitchen island, and pretty much anywhere but in him if I didn’t watch him take it and make sure he actually swallowed it. He got glasses, and we got an every-six-months schedule of appointments with the pediatric opthamologist. And I thought that was hard.

I had three in elementary school. I went on field trips. I taped, glued, cut, copied, read to kindergartners and third graders, ran the book fair, was on the PTA, and basically lived at the school. We lived in nightly homework hell. And I thought that was hard.

Little Man was diagnosed on the autism spectrum, and ADHD, in second grade. It nearly broke me, but we finally had an answer, and a plan, and help. We entered the world of IEP’s, special education, accommodations, speech therapy, psychiatrists and therapists. And  I thought that was hard.

We moved on to middle school for the older two – ugh, middle school and middle schoolers. They each got their first phones, and we had to start talking about internet safety, data plans, and had to come up with rules of how we would handle things. And I thought that was hard.

Now here we are…..two days away from having three teenagers under one roof. Two are in high school. I was ill-prepared for the drama, the angst, the emotional rollercoaster, the pushing back against rules we’ve had in place forever, the angry words that instantly bring tears to my eyes, the eyeball rolling, the intense search for independence, the life-lessons they are learning through which I just want to help but know I need to stand back and let them have at it, come whatever the natural consequences will be. I’ve watched my biggest baby boy struggle to find his way academically when it used to come to him so easily I think he took it for granted. I’ve watched P fight to find herself – somehow losing (hopefully temporarily) the brave, bold, confident girl we used to know. Then, recently, came the day Big drove himself and P to school, his driver’s license finally earned. And I think this is hard.

Within the next five years, I will watch as they have all the rest of those “firsts”, as they graduate, and leave for school, only ever to come back for what will essentially be visits between semesters and school years. I know I will look back on all those things I thought were hard and will know that was nothing, because watching them go be their own people, away from us, my heart living outside of me (possibly far away from home), now that, that will be hard.

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The Healing Baby

Little Man will turn 13 later this week – that’s right, we will have THREE teenagers under one roof. (send wine)  He doesn’t seem thirteen to me. It doesn’t seem possible on the one hand – it feels  he was just born. On another hand, because he’s autistic, and because he’s the youngest of our three, he just seems so much younger than Big Man and the Princess seemed at thirteen. Is that always the case with the youngest?

I knew, even after having our boy, and then a year later, our girl, that I wasn’t done, for many reasons. I’d always imagined myself as a mother of three kids. I didn’t feel done with having babies, although Spouse would have (back then) been good with just the two we had. In my heart, something was missing. More than that, I was hurting. I’d suffered a miscarriage, I’d had our firstborn ridiculously early, my pregnancy with the Princess was full of stress and anxiety we would go through another premature birth. I needed a pregnancy on my terms.

Little Man was just that – a pregnancy on my terms. He was my happiest pregnancy, even with that awesome morning-but-really-all-day sickness during the first trimester. I was relaxed. I was calm. I was so happy. I sang to him, I talked to him, I played music for him, I constantly had my hand on my belly. The day after my due date, having been dilated to 3cm’s for almost three weeks, I was induced. He took his time coming out, and there were a couple of hours of stress, but then he was here – the only baby put on my belly at birth. I fell in love instantaneously.

I won’t lie and say that day was perfect. We did have some stressful hours that day. He wasn’t in a good position, I wasn’t progressing, and then he started having some heart rate decelerations. We talked c-section, but then my doctor got him shifted, and things went quickly from there. Little Man had some junky breathing hours after birth. He spent some time in the nursery, and there was a brief consideration of sending him to the NICU. But then they brought him to me, and I held him, and he settled.  His first two nights home, he didn’t sleep, at all. I did, for real, fall asleep standing up. But day three home, he became the perfect infant, for the most part.

Before I got pregnant with Big Man, I had dreams of a very blond little boy. Well, Big Man was born with platinum hair that all fell out, and came back in brown. Little Man was that blondie I dreamed of, to a T. He was my healing baby – he helped me recover from all the pain, fear, guilt, grief of a too-soon birth, and then a too-soon pregnancy right after our NICU stay. He was my baby, my way.

When he was diagnosed on the spectrum, I remember feeling somehow that healing was being torn away. My perfect pregnancy, near-perfect birth, perfect baby wasn’t perfect anymore. But then a beautiful friend reminded me a diagnosis doesn’t take away who he is, how he came to be. Autism couldn’t touch how I felt the day he was born – all those cherished memories weren’t gone. He was still that beautiful blond toddler I’d dreamed about and held in my arms.

Thirteen years ago, he took away so  much pain, and brought so much joy. He completed our family, completely. I’m so grateful God saw fit to make me this precious boy’s mom.

Those Nights – Empty Crib

I’ve written lots about the days I spent on hospital bedrest, Big Man’s premature birth day, and his many days in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).  There’s one thing I haven’t really ever talked much of, except for with friends who experienced it themselves, and that’s all the nights I left his bedside and drove home, leaving my son behind to the care of doctors, nurses, and machines.

I was released from my hospital five days after Big Man was born. I’d gone five days without seeing my son in person, staring at the two polaroid photos we’d been given, and watching video of him on the 2 x 2 inch screen of the video camera Spouse had bought the day our sweet boy was born. We sped to his hospital where I saw him, and held him, and began a “new normal” routine.

My days were full of routine – wake up, pump, get showered, eat breakfast, pump again, and begin the forty-five minute drive from home to the NICU. I was typically there by 9, and I’d sit there with him until 3 or 4, only leaving to pump again or go have lunch during shift change. To get to and from his hospital, I faced all the commute traffic the Bay Area could throw at me, so I generally tried to get out of there before rush hour started, or stayed until long after it was over.

I hated those drives home. I hated walking away from my baby boy to go home. I hated leaving him. Many of those nights, I cried nearly all the way home. I can’t even really begin to tell you what I did at home each night…I’m sure I made dinner, maybe stopped on the way home to get groceries, paid bills, returned phone calls, walked the dogs, fed the cats, watched tv. But mostly, my brain was wrapped up in the fact my too-small boy was not with us. We were a family, but a split family. He was not under our roof because my body had failed him. He was 4o miles away. His crib in his room was empty.

Blessedly, I didn’t have to walk past his room to get to mine each night, but too often, I found myself in his room, sitting in the glider beside that empty crib, thinking about all I could have done, should have done, all we’d lost, all we were waiting for, all that could go wrong, had gone wrong. When I was with him in the NICU, I focused purely on him – how much weight he’d gained, how many times he’s stopped breathing during the night, where he was on the developmental chart, how he looked. But at night, with no baby right there before me, I felt all those awful things I wouldn’t let myself feel when I was with him during the day.

The empty crib, my empty arms, are the things I remember of those many long nights before he came home. I don’t talk about them often because those are the really dark memories of that time. But they happened, and they are part of the reality of having a baby in the NICU.

The Hand We’ve Been Dealt

Some might say we’ve been handed a less-than-stellar parenting hand. Trust me, before we got pregnant with our oldest, I didn’t intentionally sign up to have a micro-preemie nor an autistic child. And I know well too many parents who live a much more difficult parenting road, some too painful to even think about. So I don’t complain, much. Are our lives easy? Nope, but there’s never a promise of easy when you start down your life path.  You deal with the hand you’re dealt. That’s my take anyways.

I suppose we did have a choice. We could have told the doctors to not take any extraordinary  measures to save Big Man.  We could have quietly let him pass, fears of what his future might  hold taking precedent over his chance of survival. We could have walked away. We could have chosen not to fight. But I knew him – I knew his fight, even before I saw him face-to-face. I’d felt him within me, I’d heard his strong, fast heartbeat. I’d seen his tiny arms and legs on the ultrasound screen so many times. I knew long before he took his first breath we would fight as long as he had fight within him. We didn’t  know, even when we brought him home from the NICU, what his future might hold, but honestly, do you ever know what your child’s life is going to be? Life holds no guarantees. We took him as he came. We loved him, we watched him, we cried, prayed, laughed. We continue to advocate for him, raise him, fight with him and beside him.

The day (and admittedly for a few days afterwards) we found out we were pregnant with the Princess, I cried, so not ready to face pregnancy again so soon after Big Man’s birth. He was 3.5 months old. Our babies would be just a year apart, if I made it to full-term this time. I fretted, I worried, spent days full of anxiety, so sure we were going to end up back in the NICU again. I eventually reached a place of knowing our family was going to look a bit different than I’d planned, but we were blessed. And oh  how I fell in love with that little girl.

I recall so clearly the drive home from the psychiatrist’s office the day Little Man was diagnosed autistic. I called my friends. How would I do this? Why was this happening to him, to our family? What had I done wrong? Why did my baby have to suffer? A wise friend reminded me my baby was still my baby – a diagnosis did not change who he was. I would have to fight for him at times, I would have to find the strength inside to deal with the hard parts. I would go to the deepest depths when my nine-year-old told me this was too hard and he didn’t want to live anymore. I’d have to remind myself all the amazing things he’s capable of when it seemed all I was hearing was what he couldn’t do.

I guess I could have walked away, said this was too hard, too much, could have chosen not to fight for him and his needs. But I  never saw that as an option. I’m not amazing. I’m not extraordinary. We aren’t special because we continue to parent him. We deal with the hand we’re dealt. Our hand  may not look like yours, but you take what you’re given and you deal, or you don’t.  We just never imagined there was a choice for us, never considered any other option than loving our babies.

I Found My Voice – Prematurity Awareness

I wasn’t much for causes as a young adult. Oh, I had opinions, and I respected people who fought for what they believed in, but I just never spoke out. Nothing drove me to that point. I participated in walk-a-thons and read-a-thons for MS and other things, but I wasn’t engaged. Nothing mattered enough to move me that far.

And then I had a very  premature baby. Life as I knew it was upended, changed forever. All my dreams were shattered. I had a baby fighting for his life, dependent upon me to advocate for him. I prayed, I begged God to save him, I watched him battle for every breath, every second of every hour of every day. I thought to myself, “If this tiny boy can fight this hard, I can fight just as hard for  him.” I discovered a voice I didn’t knew I had – a strength in myself I never knew existed.

Fast-forward four years, and my discovery of how research funded by the March of Dimes had essentially saved his life. Add to that their providing of an online support community in which I found others who spoke my preemie-mom language, who understood my fears, my anxiety, my grief, my pain. And then an outlet, a focus….we formed a family team to fundraise and walk in that organization’s annual March for Babies. I haven’t looked back. We’ve served as a local Ambassador Family, speaking at numerous events, participating in radio, news, and print interviews, my precious boy’s photos splashed across all sorts of media.

Then there came the autism diagnosis for Little Man, four years ago now. I had to again learn to advocate for my child, reach down deep inside and gather a strength I didn’t know I was capable of, to fight for my child’s needs and a place in a world completely NOT designed for him.

My voice – both written and spoken – was found through my children. I didn’t choose this path. I didn’t choose these battles. But they are our story. I speak out. I write. I advocate. I research. I help others just starting similar journeys. More than this, I’ve been given the courage to use my voice in other areas of life.

Today is World Prematurity Awareness Day. I’m wearing purple in honor of my beautiful survivor, for all those other precious babies who have come out the other side of a too-soon birth, and those for whom their early birth took them from this earth. We in this house are perfectly aware of Prematurity. We’ve lived it. But the voice I gained sixteen years ago, and the voice I have continued to develop over those same sixteen years, enables me to reach out and help others around me be aware of the severity of the problem of prematurity.

The Little Things – PTSD and the Preemie Parent

There have been numerous studies showing parents of preemies suffer from PTSD. Makes sense – you go through something so full of trauma, guilt, fear, anxiety, living minute-by-minute – you’re going to have ongoing emotional and psychological fallout. Most days, I don’t think about what we went through; it has been sixteen years after all since Little Man was born so early. But all it takes is one little sound, smell, sight and I am right back in those moments. I feel it, all over again. I forget we’re where we are, and I’m back in those days of fear, highs and lows, two steps forward and three steps back, having everything out of my control.

My mom had open heart surgery in 2009.  I went up shortly after the surgery itself to be there for her. She was in the critical care unit. I was in her room with my sister, all of us talking, when someone in a room nearby must have dropped oxygen sats and heartrate. The bonging alarm went off. My heartrate accelerated, and I broke out in a cold sweat. I heard that bonging every single day in the NICU, often coming from my own son’s monitors. You go into panic mode every time you hear that sound. I can still hear that sound in my mind. I will never forget that sound. I doubt I will ever hear it without reacting with panic.

I shave my legs almost every single day (TMI – sorry not sorry). If I go more than 48 hours without shaving my legs, I get twitchy. The reason? When I was on hospital bedrest, I went over  a week at a time without having my legs shaved. I can’t stand that feeling. It reminds me of laying helpless, lonely, bored, and terrified in that hospital bed. Same goes for washing my hair. I can barely make it 48 hours without washing my hair because it takes me back to those 16 days in that hospital room.  Seemingly little things, yes? But still – little things that can set me off all over again.

I spent months reaching for the foot pedal every time I went to wash my hands. If I smell that antiseptic soap ever, I’m back in the NICU, washing my  hands before I walked through the double-doors into the NICU pods. Half the time when I wash my hands, I still mentally sing the ABC’s as we were taught early on the NICU – because that’s about how long you’re supposed to lather and wash to make sure your hands are really clean. If I come across a foot-pedal sink, I’m back in the NICU too.

Seeing pictures and videos of preemies in the NICU send me right back to Big Man’s early days. There’s a distinctive way NICU babies move with all the wires and tubes connected to pretty  much every extremity. I’m reminded one of the things I hated the most – that board strapped to his arm or leg to keep the lines straight. God I hated that board. I hated the mass of tape over and around his mouth to hold the ventilator and feeding tube in place. I hated the nurse who ripped the tape off his face one night, tearing off layers of his too-thin skin, leaving him with a dark splotch on his face he carries to this day. I hate that I still cry when I think about this.

We played music for him throughout the day as soon as he was able to tolerate the stimulation. I had to toss those cd’s when we got home from the NICU. I couldn’t stand to hear those songs anymore. When I heard them, I could smell and hear the NICU again. I still get the sweats when I hear any of those songs, which blessedly isn’t often at all, but still.

Most days, I don’t think about the NICU, or hospital bedrest, nor all the attendant fear, grief, anxiety, pain, heartache, stress. But those little things, man, they’ll do  me in in a heartbeat. PTSD for parents of preemies – it’s a real thing.  Just ask a preemie parent.