Today is Peter’s first half-birthday. Son claims that there’s no such thing as a half-birthday, but he’s Vietnamese. Vietnamese don’t know anything about birthdays, half or whole.
I’ve been a mother for 6 months now. Like many women, my experience of motherhood has been filled with both laughter and tears, worry and pride, joy and fatigue. But I wouldn’t trade the privilege of being Peter’s mom for the world. And though I’m celebrating Peter’s half-birthday about 3 months earlier than I would have liked to, I have trouble imagining a world where events could have played out differently.
In many respects, I have to assume it’s easier when your first child is a preemie than when a younger child is the preemie. During Peter’s NICU stay, I was never torn between caring for kids at home and spending time with my newborn in the hospital. My only child was in the hospital, so that is where I spent my days. I didn’t feel cheated when I was unable to hold or bond with my newborn baby immediately after his birth; I honestly hadn’t thought sufficiently far ahead to imagine what might happen after my son was born. I also don’t have to worry about Peter catching viruses from older siblings; it’s relatively easy to quarantine him at home during cold and flu season.
However, the odd thing about having your first child arrive prematurely is that for the first weeks after your baby arrives, you don’t really feel like a mom. A new mom recently wrote,
My son was due March 14th and was born Christmas eve. I love him so much. He’s in the NICU and I’m home. I don’t feel much like a mommy except when I’m there with him. Is this normal? And when will I feel like a mommy all the time?
An understanding mother of a 30-weeker replied,
I think what you’re feeling is really very normal for a preemie mama. Most of us aren’t afforded that moment after birth where you’re supposed to bond with your baby. Instead, you see your baby in the hospital, with others doing the majority of their care. For me, I finally felt like a mom when my son came home and he was my responsibility alone. Until then, I felt like he was a kid I went to visit in the hospital. I hate the way that sounds, but that’s truly how I felt.
I gradually felt more and more like a mother over Peter’s first three months of life. I’m reminded of a quote from Stephenie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn:
Though Renesmee was very real and vital in my life, it was still difficult to think of myself as a mother. I supposed anyone would feel the same, though, without nine months to get used to the idea.
Indeed. Before Peter’s birth, I hadn’t really gotten around to dreaming about bringing a baby home from the hospital. I thought about big, pregnant bellies, about fetuses that kick you from the inside, and about acquiring a few baby essentials – a swing, for instance.
Even when I went into labor and delivery and discovered that I was in preterm labor, I wasn’t ready to think about delivering a baby any time soon. I would take the magical pills that should hold off preterm labor, and sometime in the not-so-near future I would give birth to a baby. He might (alright, probably would) be premature, but I would cross that bridge when I got there.
The bridge was right in front of me, but I couldn’t see it until a resident found that my cervix was fully dilated. And then I didn’t know what to think. Even when the neonatologist came and asked whether our son had a name, I didn’t know what to think. Thank goodness Son was there to christen his son.
It was oddly difficult to say her name. My daughter; these words were even harder to think. It all seemed so distant. I tried to remember how I had felt three days ago, and automatically, my hands pulled free of Edward’s and dropped to my stomach.
Flat. Empty. … I knew there was nothing left inside me, and I faintly remembered the bloody removal scene, but the physical proof was still hard to process. All I knew was loving my little nudger inside of me. Outside of me, she seemed like something I must have imagined. A fading dream – a dream that was half nightmare.
Before you make fun of me for quoting Stephenie Meyer, of all people, let me explain why I did enjoy reading her fairy tales: though her plot lines are pure fantasy, the emotional roller coasters that her characters deal with are very real.
After Peter’s birth, my OB met me during her rounds. She told me that Dr. Reine, the OB who delivered Peter, had reported that I did very well during the delivery. “She said that Kristin went to her happy place.” “Really? I thought I was screaming very loudly.”
Those who have read Breaking Dawn should recognize the analogy I’m making.
Early in my pregnancy, and especially while I was carrying twins, I had imagined that it would take months for my stomach muscles to bounce back to their pre-pregnancy shape. Instead, one week postpartum, I was already getting comments about how rapidly my waistline had reappeared. “Well, I never got very big,” I would reply sheepishly.
At home in my own bed, I would marvel at how my pregnancy already seemed unreal. My belly was empty, and there was no baby in our crib to remind me that I was a mother. The crib hadn’t even been assembled yet. Only the milk collected during routine appointments with my hospital-grade breast pump demonstrated that my body had not forgotten the child to whom I had just given birth. Unfortunately, breast pumps are not as cute or lovable as newborns. And they do not make a woman a mother.
During the first two weeks after Peter’s birth, I was mostly an observer. I brought my microbiology textbook and attempted to study it while sitting on a stool near Peter’s incubator and while pumping milk for him. I would listen in on rounds, ask a question or two, and tell the neonatologist that his plan to increase Peter’s lipids or start him on Neoprofen or order a cranial ultrasound sounded reasonable. If a nurse offered to help me take Peter out, I would hold him. I would cup his scalp in the palm of my hand and whisper to him through the incubator’s portholes. I did what I could, I did what nurses showed me how to do, but it wasn’t much.
Gradually, I learned to do more things. I learned to tell when an alarm really required attention – when it indicated that Peter should be stimulated – and when it was a false alarm due to the sensors not picking up a good signal. I learned to change Peter’s diapers. (I will probably always prefer to change diapers with the baby’s head to my left, feet to my right because I first learned to change Peter through the portholes of an incubator.) I learned to take Peter’s temperature. I learned to take him out of his incubator without tangling the cords and tubes tethering him to an oxygen supply and a monitor and an IV pump.
As I learned to take care of my son, I started to feel more like a mom. When the NICU staff referred to me as Peter’s mom, they weren’t teasing me. I really was this baby’s mother.
A big milestone was the day I first breast fed Peter. Though I needed the help of a nurse and a lactation consultant to get all the pillows arranged to support my 4-pound baby in a football hold, I was the only person in the world that Peter could latch on to and take milk from. At first, I needed others to reassure me that Peter was properly aligned for nursing and that he was coordinating his sucking, swallowing, and breathing well. Soon enough, though, I was able to decide when Peter was ready for a meal, take him out of his bassinet by myself, and when the meal was over and Peter had fallen asleep on my chest, report to his nurse how long he had nursed.
Towards the end of Peter’s NICU stay, as I became more anxious to bring my baby home, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could give his nurses instructions, and they would listen to me.
“Peer has goop in his hair from the cranial ultrasound. He needs a shampooing.”
“Alright. Patty, can you help Kristin give Peter a shampooing?”
“I think Peter should have his car seat test this evening.”
“I agree. Let’s do it now.”
“Let’s take Peter off the monitor now. It’s been 5 days since his last “episode.”
[silence as nurse removes Peter’s ECG and pulse oximeter leads]
Finally, I truly became a mom when Son and I brought Peter home and became sleep deprived as we struggled through the first week, trying to figure out how to get our son to sleep in his crib. Over the weeks and months that followed, I learned all my baby’s preferences and habits. We established daily routines and learned to play games. I watched him make progress, reach milestones, and grow at home, without any nurse or doctor looking over my shoulder, and I knew I was a mom.
Now that Peter is 6 months old, he has spent more time outside my belly than inside it. My pregnancy has become a fading memory. Admiring our adorable baby, Son recently asked me,
“Did you make Peter?”
“Yes, but I couldn’t have done it by myself.”