Throughout my life I have always been fascinated by other people’s stories. I was a journalism major in college and was known to be more engaged in listening to the conversation at the table next to me at a restaurant than my dinner companions’. I always joked that I was interested in other’s tales because my own life was pretty dull. That all changed the day the ultrasound technician informed my husband and I that I was pregnant with triplets. I was 18 weeks along, had an 18 month old daughter, Anna, and was in the middle of my PhD program. I was quite convinced that this was not something I could handle and over the next weeks and months. I seriously struggled to see the reason for what at the time felt like a disaster.
I knew that my triplets would be born early, and what I feared even more than having four children under age two was raising children who I was sure would have long-term impairments due to their prematurity. I had been so excited about having a second baby and growing our family. All of the sudden all of the happy scenes I had imagined of our new addition were replaced by images of sick infants born too early, sleepless nights, days spent in the NICU, and endless days filled with diapers and bottles.
I made it my goal to make sure I carried the triplets as long as possible and was soon on full bed rest and terbutaline. I knew a few people who had twins but no one who had delivered very prematurely so I had to strike out on my own to find information and stories of people who had been in similar situations and survived. The internet, as most of you know, though, can be a scary place. For every story with a happy ending, there was one that ended in tragedy. I read conflicting information and advice almost every day and was quickly overwhelmed. My in-real-life support system was invaluable, but many were unsure of what to say or how to help me. People tended to tell me every story they knew of premature infants and what I quickly dubbed the “miracle stories” of one pound infants who survived. While I appreciated their efforts, I got to the point where I did not want to hear anything at all. The stories with less than stellar outcomes terrified me and those of women who had carried triplets to 37 weeks made me feel guilty that my body seemed to be failing my babies.
After being hospitalized for three weeks, my daughters Sarah, Lucy, and Emily were born at 32 weeks and 1 day. Although they were small, they were remarkably healthy and spent their 30 days in the NICU learning to breathe and grow. I could tell countless stories about that first year and how crazy life was but instead I will tell you how hard those years were for me emotionally. In addition to struggling with the daily physical care of three premature infants, I was also dealing with feelings of guilt, anger, and isolation. I still struggled to comprehend why my life story was so different from what I imagined and seemingly so different than what was around me. My life and my experiences did not look my friends, my family, or what I saw on TV.
As I mentioned earlier, as all of this was happening I was middle of obtaining my PhD in Health Communication. I initially thought that my dreams of a higher degree would never be fulfilled, but in a move that many people saw as slightly crazy, I decided to move ahead and focus my dissertation on women who experienced high risk pregnancies and premature birth. I wanted to hear their stories and I also wanted to know how the stories they had heard about pregnancy, childbirth, and preemies influenced the ways they understood and told their own narratives. Thanks to the help of nearly 50 incredibly open and generous women as well my parents who provided countless hours of free babysitting I completed my project and graduated in May 2010 shortly after the triplets turned two.
I share this story not to brag or showcase my accomplishments, but to share with you how healing the process of interviewing and talking with these women was. For the first time I sat down and talked with women who “got” it. There was no shame in sharing our feelings of anger, frustration and guilt, because we had all been there. I struck by how different the stories were, but also how similar. In analyzing the interviews and doing research I realized two major things.
- Most women felt alone, as if they were the only one this had ever happened to.
- There needed to be easier ways for women to share and find stories that matched their own.
Fast forward four years and my girls are now ages 8 and 6. Life is still hard, but the terrible scary days of my pregnancy and birth are now far behind me and we are fortunate that my daughters have no delays. I am convinced that it is important that I share my story with all of its ups and downs, but also that I share other women’s stories. Because of my degree and position at the local university, I have a platform where I can continue to study this issue and write about it. Just a few months ago I signed a book contract which is allowing me to continue my research and share my findings with a broader audience.
This is where you come in. I need your stories I would love to hear them. Each of us who has been through the preemie journey has an important story to share, and out stories can be so helpful and useful to others, both other preemie mothers, but also those who interact and support preemie parents. If you would be willing to share your story with me as part of my research project I would love to talk with you. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may sometimes wonder why you are on the particular journey you are on, but as Ira Glass once said, “Great stories happen to those who can tell them,” so please join me in telling your story.
Jennifer Hall is the mother of four daughters, an 8-year-old and 6-year-old triplets who were born at 32 weeks and spent 30 days in the NICU. When she is not busy being a mom, she teaches communication courses at Purdue University. Her research has focused on the experiences of women who have endured high risk pregnancies and premature birth and the stories they create to make sense of their situations. She is passionate about educating the public about the preemie parenting experience and providing support for preemie and NICU families.