“I don’t think I’ll ever identify as a preemie parent.”
I remember saying those words to my best friend upon the early arrival of my son. It was not a label I felt entitled to wear, or a phrase I thought I would ever use to describe myself. If you’re thinking it was because I had a late-term preemie who only barely qualified as “early” you’d be wrong — my son was born at 31 weeks, weighing 3 pounds 3 ounces. Very premature by any standards, and yet I felt as though I didn’t belong in the world of of isolettes and measurements in grams rather than ounces.
I’ve had a devastating number of friends give birth to babies on the edge of viability. Babies whose survival was never a given. Babies whose NICU stays were measured in months instead of days. Babies who didn’t come home. Moms who didn’t come home. By comparison my son defied anyone who would call him a wimpy white boy, breathing on his own from the start and with only minimal setbacks during his six-week NICU stay.
I hope it is obvious that I didn’t wish for worse — did not want to see my son struggle more than he did. I wanted to distance myself from the worse-case scenarios as self protection. If I refused to join this club I hoped I could change the circumstances, to make it mean it wasn’t a big deal. He was never in any real danger, right?
It isn’t until I share Rowan’s story with others and take the time to look at their expressions that I see the truth. There is a lot of room between catastrophic scenarios and healthy full-term baby, and plenty of space for grieving what loss there is. I was only hurting myself by not leaving room to ache for all that we missed out on in those last nine weeks. I was only postponing my sadness and fear. I felt the universe demanded gratefulness for all that we had, and failed to let myself feel all the complicated feelings of those long NICU days.
This is not a club anybody wants to join. We don’t send in registration forms and admission essays hoping to gain admittance to this elite institution. This a group we are thrown into blindfolded and without any road map, because each family’s journey is different. We don’t get to chose if we belong — we just do.
So if you are starting this odyssey and are reluctant to participate, know that you’re not alone. It is not a contest in either direction and it’s okay to feel simultaneously angry because babies are going home ahead of yours, and acutely sad for the ones left behind. You are a preemie mom. You’re paving the way for those who follow, whether you want to or not. Your struggle is real and it is painful and scary and overwhelming, and you have a right to be terrified. You have every reason to mourn the end of your pregnancy, the birth, and the newborn stage you had been promised.
It’s okay to belong.
A Preemie Mom