Let Her Eat Cake: First Birthdays for Preemies

February 7, 2014
J with his first cupcake

J with his first cupcake

We just celebrated another preemie first birthday. And it was almost as difficult as the first.

With my son, who was a surprise 26-weeker out of an otherwise uneventful pregnancy, I was blindsided by his first birthday. I was completely unprepared for it. Aren’t first birthdays supposed to be joyous, a celebration of life? I didn’t feel joyous at all.

Overwhelmed. Distracted. Depressed. All the darkness surrounding his traumatic birth completely overtook what I’d thought would be a happy day.

At his birthday party, I embarrassed myself by blubbering about how special the day was when we could have lost him. I guess the guests understood, but I was disappointed in myself. Who comes to a first birthday party to the see the honoree’s mother cry?

I was sad about all the things I thought we’d be doing on J’s first birthday. We weren’t doing any of them. Learning to walk? He’d just started rolling over. Starting to talk? I didn’t know it then, but it would be another year before he was saying much of anything. Even seemingly small things were disappointments. Opening presents? He wasn’t at all interested in tearing paper. Eating cake? He’d barely begun to eat solids. So, cake was totally out of the question. For some reason, that one really bothered me. Don’t all children have a picture of their first birthday with their cake?

After J’s birthday passed, the cloud lifted. Things became easier and easier as we traveled through his second year.

M’s first birthday was eight days after Christmas, and for the two weeks prior to it, I was mired in thoughts about where we were a year ago. The surprise preeclampsia. The hospitals. The crazy New Year’s Day car ride across three states, trying to get home before I’d have to deliver M.

Again, I couldn’t even focus on how special a birthday is supposed to be. At least this time I was prepared.

With M, I finally realized what is so difficult about a preemie first birthday. It’s not just a celebration of life; it’s also the annual marker of the beginning of a very difficult time. It’s a reliving of all the challenges of an early birth. It’s being awash in the memories of a baby born too soon. I couldn’t look at M and see a noisy, army-crawling baby; I kept looking at M and seeing that tiny, starved body. As parents, we want only the best for our children, and being born early is full of complications and pain for our babies.

At least in the dark days before M’s first birthday, I knew that the sadness would lift, and it did. Her actual birthday was a sweet, quiet day spent at home, just the kids and me.

I’ve decided that while I’ll ensure my kids’ birthdays are celebrations for them, they will probably always have a sad side for me. But, a day that is full of happy memories is Homecoming Day, an annual reminder that the NICU phase did end and our lives as a family began. J was hospitalized for 91 days and M for 59. Bringing them home was so thrilling that I can’t even begin to put words to it. So, the kids didn’t get to eat cake on their first birthdays. We didn’t even have a real party for M. But, I can give them something special: Homecoming Day, a second day of the year that is all their own. It’s a day to celebrate all that was good about their beginnings and all that makes them special.

And at M’s Homecoming Day party in March, you can be sure she will have a cake.

Do you celebrate Homecoming Day with your preemie? If so, I’d love for you to share your ideas!