Preemies are not small full-term babies, and parenting a preemie is its own unique roller coaster of joys and challenges separate from the standard newborn experience. Here are 9 ways the experience of parenting preemies is unique.
- Having a preemie begins a journey, one that often has twists and turns. Our babies don’t come straight home from the hospital, and the hospital isn’t a brief stop but a central part of what can be months of ups and downs as our babies work their way home to us. There are good days and bad days, steps forward and steps back, and as the parents of preemies, we know that we are definitely not in control.
- Common experiences and emotions unite preemie families. Discussions about bradys and oxygen saturation form a language other preemie parents speak. I have found great comfort in surrounding myself with people who understand that part of my life.
- The same experiences that unite preemie parents sometimes serve as a wedge between the dearest and oldest relationships we have. During the NICU journey and its aftermath, we are in a different world from our friends and family. Many of them may empathize with us, but few of them have walked in our shoes. I had to take a break from some relationships during that time because things said with the best of intentions still have a power to hurt me.
- Our babies have a unique set of milestones. The first time they get one ml of breast milk or wear clothes or breathe without oxygen are joyful reminders that progress is being made, and they are some of the happiest moments I remember from our NICU days.
Preemies are still preemies once they come home. This was one of the biggest misconceptions I faced with J. I struggled with the reality that even after months in the hospital, I was bringing home a baby who still needed special attention and could not go into public for months. To comments like “Well, at least your baby will sleep through the night,” um, NO. My 3-month-old was developmentally a very demanding 6-pound newborn when he finally came home.
- It can take years for a preemie to reach developmental milestones. I was crushed by casual comments about my baby not walking at 17 months or my son being so small or my daughter needing physical therapy at 18 months. Many people unfamiliar with preemies do not realize that it takes years, YEARS, for a baby born months early to catch up. I didn’t want pity for either of my children—I wanted acceptance and appreciation for all the hurdles they overcame to simply walk or talk.
- Some questions may never be answered. Having a preemie is like having a huge question mark in your child’s life. Is unusual brain development the reason both my children are left-handed in a family of right-handers? I may never know. There are so many questions that surround this journey, and I have to accept I may never know their answers.
- Witnessing the power and beauty of a tiny life is awe-inspiring. I will never forget the first time I saw J. Those fingernails like pinpricks and the diaper smaller than the palm of my hand. But, even in those early days, his personality was visible, that steady resolve that I now would recognize anywhere. He isn’t the first to try anything, but he never faltered. He showed up every day ready for life, and I love that about him. Parents of preemies realize that each of these babies is a unique person in such a tiny package, and watching them fight their way home is as miraculous and magnificent as it is painful. How can you not treasure life when you have seen a tiny baby fight for it?
- For all the experiences, like baby showers, that we missed, we have amazing experiences that are all our own. I will never forget the surprise I felt walking into the NICU and realizing that my daughter, five days old and weighing all of exactly two pounds, was not attached to oxygen. My husband and I looked at each other, speechless, and then I cried. After two months of watching J fight to come off oxygen, I appreciated that moment even more, and it is one of the most profound moments of my life. Beautiful experiences like that are scattered across years of difficulty like jewels, and no matter where I am on this unique parenting journey that I certainly never planned, I always come back to one truth: I am so grateful I get to mother these kids.