I’m sitting on a slotted wooden bench, nearly shoulder to shoulder with the other moms. We’re strangers mostly but we share a common thread, linking us on this bench as we talk among ourselves, pausing often to gaze intently through the two-way glass set deep into the wall we’re facing.
Those are our babies in there, just on the other side of that glass, in someone else’s charge.
One of the mothers asks me about my daughter.
I smile as I point her out, my tiny wisp of a girl who is the littlest one in the room.
We watch as she stretches up on tiptoe and twirls across the floor before the instructor sends her back to the bar with a gentle admonition that she has gone too early, to wait her turn behind the other dancers, and I laugh as I tell them how she’s never been one to do what was expected of her.
It’s a Friday morning toddler ballet class and sitting on this bench laughing, in my infinity scarf and shiny pink lip gloss, no one sees the post traumatic stress disorder.
It was at one of those ballet classes when the thought flitted across my mind. “This is how my life with her started. Sitting in an uncomfortable chair and watching her through the glass.”
It feels wrong and out of place because we are here, three years on and healthy at dance class and I am thankful and where did that come from?
I remember the first time it happened, the dark panic infringing on an otherwise bright day. I ran into an acquaintance, belly round and beaming with pregnancy glow. “I’ll be 25 weeks tomorrow” she said as she rested a hand on her bump and I felt my body freeze.
Excusing myself in what I hope was a polite manner I made my way to the ladies room where I sank into a stall and tried to breath through the panic. I felt crazy, room spinning and unable to stop the thought that was unfurling like a banner in my brain: “I know what her baby looks like inside her body right now.”
I have seen that gestational age outside of the womb and its image will forever be beautiful and haunting.
There were other moments. They would come when I least expected, in circumstances that I would not foresee as a trigger, and then I would feel the tears wet my cheeks. I didn’t cry when I sat waiting to see if she survived the surgery or when I held a tourniquet on a blown vein as a nurse called out the door for help or when I twisted a length of tube through my fingers and practiced putting it down her nose.
But then two years later I run across a miniature blood pressure cuff, just a couple of inches in diameter, and I suddenly break into a torrent of tears accompanied by a pain that felt like daggers.
There are also the nightmares, the ones where I am back in the NICU, weaving my way between the rows of isolettes and I can’t find her. I can’t find her and I know she is gone and no one is telling me and I just want to hold my baby. There are those nights when I wake up in a sheen of sweat and silently slip into her room to watch the rise and fall of her chest because I can catch my breath again when I hear her exhale.
It comes less often now and I am stronger but I don’t do this alone. When the pain bubbles to the surface I press into my support and I let them support me. I spent so much time during our NICU stay focused on the health of my baby and attempting to be strong in the circumstances that I pushed away my own emotions and now when they flood in unexpectedly I reach out and accept the help.
So now when the thought trickles in at ballet class I can take hold of it and turn it around.
They told me she might never walk and now I watch her gleefully spin in circles, arms in first position and I am so proud.
We have both come so far.
(Even if the teacher is telling her that what she is supposed to be doing is plies.)
If you think you might have post traumatic stress disorder, which is not uncommon among parents of preemies, please talk to your healthcare provider and ask your hospital for references to a local support group. My preemie mom support group is invaluable to me, even three years on.