As the parent of a preemie, at some point during your NICU stay, or soon after, you will hear the famous, or infamous, “catch up by two” expression. This means that by two years old, your child is expected to have caught up developmentally with his or her peers.
While for later-term preemies this may be true, in the world of micro-preemies it is far less common. The earlier your preemie was born, the less likely he or she is to be all caught up by two years old. For many of our children, catching up is a myth.
What happens when you realize that your baby is far from caught up at two years old, or three years old, or even later? What happens when you realize that you are far from the NICU but prematurity will always be a part of your child’s life?
You may be angry. You may be sad. You may compare your child to your friends’ children, and get depressed. You may get unreasonably upset when strangers remark that “she looks so tiny. You need to fatten her up!” And you may feel guilt, overwhelming guilt, for not achieving some artificial and unreasonable benchmark.
At two years old, our daughter had been walking for only a couple of months, and she was so small she did not look like she should be walking. She had a severe feeding delay, getting most of her calories from bottles of fortified formula. She had constant reflux and routinely vomited several times a day. Catching up by two was, for us, in the same league as unicorns.
I felt like a failure. I failed at keeping her safe in my uterus for 40 weeks. I failed at keeping her identical twin sister alive. I failed to protect her from countless painful procedures and interventions. I failed to catch her up by the deadline. Does this seem familiar to you?
While I considered myself a failure, I looked at my tiny 2-year-old and saw a miracle of strength and resilience, a child who fully embraces life, its challenges and joys. She was, and continues to be, an inspiration. I am pretty sure you feel the same way about your child.
Two years later, after a long road that led to a successful kidney transplant this past March, we have a sturdy four-year-old. She still has some minor motor delays, but holds her own in a typical Pre-K classroom. Is she caught up? I don’t know, and I don’t care. She is hilarious and defiant, cuddly and a troublemaker. She likes to tap dance. She is a great little sister.
Prematurity will always be a part of her life, but it no longer defines her.