As I sat outside with my son today, enjoying the sunshine, listening to him babble about the trees and birds; I took a deep breath and beheld this little miracle in front of me. Many of us take for granted the miracle that is a child, the miracle that is a baby, and the abundant miracle of a preemie baby. To the mother's who are about to embark upon the journey of caring for a preemie, let me be the first to say that in the coming weeks or months you will given lots of information on your preemie's general health, wellness, ability to breathe, eat, sleep, etc. The list of information that will consume your brain is limitless; but the one thing that no nurse or doctor can prepare your husband or you (especially you) for is the emotional mountains and valleys that you will confront daily. Many people forget that in the midst of everything, the parents and YOU, mom, are frightened. I want to be the first to tell you it is ok to cry, it is ok to have fears, it is ok to rejoice in the smallest of things; because with a preemie all we have at times are moments of triumph! I have walked in your shoes and my journey made me appreciate every single moment...even the ones that seem to tear you apart. This is my story and my advice.
Two years ago as I was being wheeled into the hospital after finding out my water had broken at 28 weeks, I was terrified - not for myself but for my yet unborn son - my treasure. I managed to keep from going into labor until my 34th week...by then my body could no longer meet the challenges and it was time to bring my son into the world. I remember crying quietly to myself, and thinking "God, he is so small...protect him."
I went through 12 hours of labor, came close to losing my son, and then the elation of hearing him cry...and then silence. My heart stopped...a NICU nurse ran up to my bedside with a tiny bundle...he said, "kiss your son...we have to help him...he isn't breathing right." I beheld his tiny face for a moment and my baby was whisked away. The next few hours were a hazy conglomerate of feelings. They wouldn't allow me to go see him until I had my feet back...I had to wait for the ephidurhal to wear off. Finally I looked at the nurse and said, " I have one good leg, bring me a wheelchair, and wheel me in, I have to see my son." I wasn't prepared for what I was about to see and to say that it brought me to tears would be a gross understatement. You see everyone expects to see a plump little bundle...curled up, looking babyish. As I sat by my son's bassinet, all I saw were wires, a breathing mask, tiny wrinkled hands and feet, and that's when I heard my son's whimpering cries. I knew he was being taken care of, I knew he was safe, but inside my heart all I felt was deep sadness that somehow I had failed him. The next morning, I was allowed to hold him. This small moment that most parents take for granted was heaven here on earth, a moment where time stopped, and finally my heart felt whole again. The hardest part for me was each day having to separate and leave my baby in the NICU...it sounds so easy..just walk away, they are being cared for, they are safe...but the practice of it for weeks can leave your heart torn up. Every night I would find myself crying into my pillow, hoping that my son didn't feel that I had abandoned him - sounds silly but these are the things we often worry about.
The next few weeks were full of milestones and setbacks, but the thing that astounded me the most was the resiliency of life. The amazing ability to defy the odds. See what most people forget is that preemies are fighters, big things in small packages! My son's name means "brave warrior" and in the first few weeks of his life he proved that he would bear his name well. My son was not gonna let being small downplay his big personality - and for that I am grateful.
The goal of a preemie parent is to control the stress you feel, because it can overwhelm you if you don't. One thing, that caused me undue stress, which looking back I wish someone had said "Sweetie, don't worry about it," was that my breast milk never came in. I pumped and pumped, but nothing came. My son had not learned to suck yet, and was being fed through a tube, but I wanted to somehow function normally - I didn't understand why once again my body was defunct.What I didn't know then, but came to learn is that many preemie mamas struggle with milk production. All I felt was ultimate failure as the nurses tried to help me get my son to latch and poor baby - he latched but there was nothing there to reward his hard work. The last time I let them try this, my son got so angry and wailed...it was then that I determined that formula was the best thing for him...the extreme frustration he was dealing with over my inability to get over breastfeeding was not worth it. I needed to get over the idea that breast milk was best! I needed to step over the well intentioned comments..."well he will be healthier if you produce breast milk"..."you aren't trying hard enough"...and my all time favorite " well when I had my baby I had milk coming out my ears." These things did nothing to help my son, or help me! My son needed nourishment, I couldn't provide it, BUT PRAISE JESUS I don't live in the pioneer days and there is something called formula! I could provide and meet my son's needs with that! Mom to the rescue.
May I share some words of wisdom on this topic? It took me a long time to get over the guilt of NOT being able to breast feed. People's comments about the necessity of it and how it was the best thing, did nothing to help my feelings of frustration and deep sense of failure. If there is a woman in your life who is facing this same situation, tread lightly, remember that our bodies are different, not one is made the same! Be kind and loving. Sometimes the only thing she wants to hear is that she is a good mama, and is doing what is best for her baby - and sometimes the best thing is formula. Remember that you aren't walking in her shoes, and be compassionate.
Finally, my son was allowed to go home...all 5 lbs of him. I was so elated, but then the fear crept in again. He was just a little sprout and how was I equipped to take this little bug home? Nothing I owned was "preemie" sized. From blankets, swaddlers, clothes, swings, cribs, bassinets...nothing didn't swallow up my sweet tiny baby! Thankfully, those fears subsided and life as a family began, with a few minor adjustments. Remember that there is no parenting manul for a preemie, but here are a few things that I learned that helped my son adjust! Buy a sound machine or turn a fan on, it helps with their feelings of security, and sounds a lot like the noisy NICU with all the swooshing and whooshing. And never let a day go by without lots of cuddle time...you need it just as much as they!
I write this today, in the hope that it will give someone the strength they need to handle being the parent of a preemie. I would not have chosen this for my son, but despite my plans, God used my son to illustrate a bigger picture. Life is fragile, it is unexpected, it is mountains and valleys, and it is about learning what you are made of. No matter how small we may be, we are stronger than we ever imagined. I have heart scars, but the bandaid is now this beautiful child sitting in front of me, smelling the flowers, and holding my hand. His hands are still tiny, but those little hands taught me how to be strong.