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.

It’s his, but he doesn’t remember

I met with a  new local March of Dimes staff-person last week. As is typical, I shared why we volunteer, told our story – how we’re connected to the mission of the organization. She asked if Big Man does his own fundraising, tells his own story. Um, no. He walks, but when it comes to the talking, he leaves that to me. Why? Well…..it is his story,, but he doesn’t remember it, thank the good Lord. He knows my version of his story. He’s heard it a billion times. He did live it, but he has no memory of it. The baby in all the photos is him, but like any other baby, he has no memory of his early years, much less his too-early, dramatic entry into the world.

He does get why  his story matters. He does  understand prematurity was, is, and always will be part of who  he is, but all the emotions attached to his premature birth belong to others, not to him. Does that make sense? He lived it, but we lived the fear, guilt, pain of having failed him in any way. He was the feisty fighter who made it while we stood by, watching and praying. He did it, but we are the ones who remember.

He compared it to when people say I’m strong for having gone through all we’ve gone through.  My response always is, “You never know how strong you are until you have to BE strong.” He just lived – he doesn’t see anything amazing in that coming from him, but instead places the credit upon us, his nurses, his doctors. I say he had a strong will to survive right from the very beginning.

I keep encouraging him to own his story. I think he’s there now. He  had to write his own obituary in his psych class recently.  He did include his premature birth in his narrative. I was a little surprised by the inclusion. If you don’t know his story, you’d never guess his story. You can’t look at him and say, “Oh, yes, he was a preemie.” You can’t tell by looking at him, in other words. Well, I have to edit that a little bit – many preemie moms I know can tell by looking at a kid, but we know what to look for as we see it in our own preemies. The general population can’t look at him and know, without being told, he was born 3.5 months too soon.

I’m thankful he doesn’t remember at all, this story of his. I’ve always said I remember enough for both of us. But I’m glad he’s owning it, making it his, because it is his, even if he doesn’t remember one second of it.

These Two

I truly didn’t plan to have two kids twelve months apart. I get asked that a lot. I barely had a grip on having one child when I found out the Princess was on her way. I cried. Spouse laughed. Who does that – has two so close together? We did. I wrapped my brain around it, and dug in for the ride.

Big Man, being a preemie, was developmentally nine months old when the Princess was born….not walking, still in an infant seat, still in diapers, still on bottles. It was rough going. But, on the flip side, the two of them have never know anything but the other being there. They  have always been close, and it’s been an amazing relationship to witness. I thought they would brawl like crazy. Nope. Not in the least. They played together, they destroyed together, they drove me insane together. They learned together.

Last year, they were at different schools. They both seemed – at least in my eyes – to struggle a bit without each other, not that they hung out together at school, but knowing the other one was there seemed to give them each balance, strength, a base. This year, they’re both in high school, together.  They move in different circles, although they do have a couple of overlapping friends (those friendships totally intrigue  me because Big Man and P are SOOOOOOO different from each other). I still love their relationship.

I took all three to the mall a couple of weeks ago. Little Man is his own gig entirely, but the other two were asking each other if this shirt, those shorts, this jacket, these shoes looked good on them. I could see how they’ve always been, and I could see how they will be all their lives. They rely on each other. They bounce things off each other. They talk to each other about things they may or may not share with their brother, their parents, or their friends.

Their future boyfriends/girlfriends/spouses will have to pass the sibling test. They will have to understand and accept their relationship. They should know that, and just deal. To try to split that relationship apart would spell the end.

Sometimes I feel bad for Little Man – he is not as close to either as they are to each other. He’s the youngest, and just doesn’t have the same relationship with either as the older two have. I don’t know if he notices it.

I love that these two are so close. While I was completely freaked out about having two twelve months apart, it’s been the most amazing gift to them, and to me.

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.