Hello, Dear Readers,
It’s end-of-project eve. Four years ago, Herr Husband and I took Das Big Boy into the Launch Pad, a non-medical room in the NICU–basically like a hotel room–into which parents can take their babies to practice having them at home. The medical staff are there if you summon them, but leave you alone otherwise. Now keep in mind, Das Big Boy was on oxygen when we took him home (and would be for another eight months during the day and almost a year at night), and had a naso-gastric feeding tube (a tube that ran from his nose to his stomach into which we put breast milk) that Herr Husband and I learned to insert OURSELVES (for weekly changes). Everyone, and I mean everyone, we speak to thinks this last part is insane: friends who are nurses, friends who are lay people, Das Big Boy’s doctors, everyone.
That night, I barely slept. Das Big Boy (all 8 lbs 2 oz of him) didn’t sleep great either. The first thing we did was put him down on the bed, lie down with him, and marvel. Keep in mind he had never been on a bed before. He had never left his pod in the NICU, except for a horrifying (and unnecessary) VCUG, where they shot dye into his urethra to check for kidney reflux that he didn’t have. We had held him in rocking chairs next to his crib, and he’d been in a swing or a bouncer near his crib (we brought in a huge selection of stuff to keep him entertained once he aged into real time (past his due date)). But he’d never been anywhere else. Laying him on that fake hotel room bed and lying down with him felt like a revelation: he was ours.
It was like Christmas eve, and the night before the first day of college, and the night before my wedding all in one. I had that bubble-blooded feeling of gleeful, terrifying anticipation. We were still trying to figure out if we could make nursing work at all (ultimately, I felt so pressured to get calories into him that I gave up. I sort of blame medical pressure to fatten him, but also my own anxiety. Don’t worry. I pumped for 19 months.) So we tried some of that. We fed him some bottles and gavaged him some tube feedings. We held him and sang to him and walked around with him (something else we’d never done before, and something I wouldn’t do with an untethered infant until Little Liebchen. I used to startle at other people’s range with their unplugged babies). At around five am, I gave him a bath while Herr Husband slept, to be sure I could handle it. We managed. We began to feel natural. A bit more like a family. He was ours.
One of my readers, Andrea at An Early Start, a micropreemie mama and awesome storyteller, asked me what my biggest surprise since leaving the NICU has been. Like so many of the monumental things in our lives, there’s a dichotomous collapse that happens with me and DBB’s preemiehood. It’s everything and it’s nothing. I can forget it entirely and be defined by it. I can be enveloped by its lessons to appreciate the fuck out of my kid, or I can barely stop myself from using the word fuck when yelling at my kid. It telescopes into being incredibly far away and short, or maybe it’s incredibly far away and long, and yet sometimes it was so recently and interminable, or just yesterday and the blink of an eye. Sometimes it was traumatizing and sometimes it just was what it was. Sometimes it changed me profoundly into a stronger, better human, and sometimes I’m still the same flawed person I’ve always been, toiling on.
On the issue of strength, I do have something to say. I always thought of myself as a wimp. Some of my closest friends voted me (out of six of us): least likely to survive a zombie apocalypse, fourth smartest, and fourth nicest (but also best looking!). I always thought I was a wimp, too. In the event of a zombie apocalypse, I figured I would either lay down and die or become the prostitute hanger-on for a group of stronger people. As it turns out, neither of those is an option for a NICU mom. So I did what you do. Which is just doing. (Not in the prostitute way). So much of strength is circumstance. Now I’m still not going to go do Frigid Infliction, like some of my crazy friends, but I know I can keep going. Not because I learned that I’m some special paragon of strength, or because this experience made me stronger, but because I’m a person, and that’s what people do.
If the NICU didn’t give me the gift of strength, it did give me the gift of perspective. The problem with the gift of perspective is you have to cultivate it, keep finding it every day, every moment. I have some tricks for that:
1) Surround yourself with friends who have perspective. The mamas I’ve brought into the inner circle (and the original inner circle members) help me with this. NOT by reminding me to have perspective, which is a colossally annoying thing to do to someone, but by talking stuff though and being good role models. And by making me laugh. And by not complaining a ton about small shit. Or, if they’re complaining about small shit, by being funny about it.
2) Take a break. I suck at this. Like, really. Das Big Boy and I both have to have the last word in an argument (remember how he’s four? I suck.) so in the moment it’s hard for me to take the space to clear my head. But it does work.
3) Think love. It was SO hard for me to imagine ever feeling mad at Das Big Boy when he was a NICU baby and when he first came home. Herr Husband and I actually used to fight over changing his diapers because there were days that was the only way we could have physical contact with him. It’s hard to imagine a person whose shit for which you used to clamor doing anything that doesn’t seem miraculous. As it turns out, he does. But going back to the deep love that I’ve always had for him can help me keep perspective on what matters (my children growing up feeling loved and safe and happy in their family and continuing to grow as humans), and what doesn’t (ice dams, or whether we worked on crayons and coloring enough today, or how many fruits and vegetables were consumed (in a smoothie, of course)).
4) Have fun. Fun is good for perspective. Jump on the bed. Drink wine with your girls (meaning your friends, not your children. With them, I just recommend drinking wine in their vicinity). Go on an adventure. Eat donuts.
So that’s my surprise. How everything has changed, and how nothing has. How I can both love being a mom, and find it so important and rewarding, but also so tiring and annoying. So I guess in a way, it’s a surprise, but it’s also stuff I could have figured all along. Hope that answers your question, Andrea. Perhaps a bit too philosophical and a bit short on actual surprises. You never know what you’re going to get here with the ‘Frau.
Ooh! Wait! One actual surprise is that I wish I could have been a doctor. I love this medicine stuff, you guys. Still. Like so much. But I’m too old and want to spend too much time with my kids to go to med school or nursing school or PA school. Also, I think I’m banned from more grad school (by Herr Husband. Not by schools. Schools generally like me). Oh well. Live and learn. A cliché and good advice for what to keep doing. Go forth, dear readers. Live. Learn. And love, too. That’s the best one.