It all begins by blaming yourself.
For weeks, you’ll rack your brain, trying to pin point the exact decision you made that ignited your child’s prematurity. Was it something I ate? It must have been that last minute business trip plane ride?
Days, weeks, months, entire seasons will go by and you’ll still be waiting for your child. You’ll forget to water your vegetable garden. Remember? The one you planted last spring when your heart and your belly were full. The one you planned to harvest this fall with your new bundle of joy. The pumpkins have shriveled up and the corn is nothing more than raccoon food.
Time will be your new adversary. You’ll spend countless nights accompanied by the glow of monitors and humming of central air, counting the minute hand.
You’ll wake up in the middle of the night to the cries of an iPhone alarm, and suckle a faceless breast pump. Some days you’ll be so far inside your head that you’ll eat tasteless meals and consume tasteless beverages.
There will be countless hours spent at a tiny bedside, listening to the hushed whispers of neighboring parents, wondering who has it worse and how long before they get to go home. It’s hard not to compare yourself to them. Well, to everyone really. To all the expectant mothers who still waddle gracefully to the grocery store and doctors appointments.
You find out that a few coworkers are also now expecting and their pregnancies are viable and healthy. You wonder why? How? Both are older than you, so what are they doing differently that you could have done? These are the thoughts that haunt you during your baby’s NICU stay and will continue to pummel you like waves long after. Like when you hear that coworker had a beautiful four hour, unmediated labor in a birthing center down the street from her house. You see the posts on Facebook. A wrinkly, full-term newborn strewed gracefully across an exhausted but elated mother’s chest. A post that reads, “We are all happy and healthy”. That word “healthy” hits you like a punch to the gut. You wonder if she would have the strength to endure the unrelenting NICU routine you’ve become accustomed to. The hours spent watching monitors for bradycardia and tallying up the number of apneas during the day. But, you know she would. You know any parent would because they have to.
Becoming a parent is a choice, but the exact moment of parenthood is one of the most unpredictable experiences you’ll ever face. Immediately, you’re forced to suspend all control and forgo all expectations. If you’re linear, like me, your due date will be your battle cry. Your target. You’ll think, “I can do this. My child will come home on that day because he’s suppose to.” And, you’ll cry when that day comes and the doctors tell you he’s just not ready.
When that day passes, you’ll feel like your sailing without any wind. And just when you’re in the heart of it, the gust you’ve been dying for starts to materialize.
Your tiny baby starts to amaze you. Seemingly overnight, he’ll begin to eat better, stronger. The once overwhelming volumes of milk will start to flow naturally for him. The bradys that once signaled his heart – and yours – momentarily slowed down come less frequently. The monitors that tracked his sleep apena will instead be replaced by his slow, steady breathing.
That baby, who you’ve waited for, starts to materialize and it’s the most exciting and frightening thing in your life. For so long you’ve been a visitor by his bedside, but soon you will become the parent. You will be his biggest advocate, his advisor, mentor, and lifelong guardian.
Your heart will swell with the thought of it all. With the memory of this tiny life and all you have been through together. The lessons you learned. Of knowing true fear. And pity. Guilt and doubt. Of humility. Of patience. Of learning to love something greater than yourself. You’ll wonder how you will ever thank your child for these gifts. How you will ever find the words to tell him just how much he means to you, and that you would gladly take the journey again because you’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel.
You’ll think about the future, and sometimes late at night, reflect on the past. And that guilt you felt in the beginning will stay with you, making its way into those late-night thoughts. But now, you’re wiser because you know the truth. You have a premature child and the guilt and sadness, but also the unrelenting love and pride, is part of your story forever. And what a story it is.
About the Author
Jill Hulings is a professional writer and corporate communications strategist living near Seattle. She began her career as a newspaper reporter and has been published in numerous publications, including the Associated Press, The (Longview) Daily News, and The Tacoma Weekly. This spring after suffering from severe preeclampsia with her first and only child, Jill gave birth to Theodore, who was delivered via cesarian section at 29 weeks and four days, and weighing just 2 pounds, 5 ounces. Although born without any debilitating conditions, Teddy spent 96 days in the NICU at Swedish Hospital before coming home on Jill and her husband’s wedding anniversary in August. Jill lives with her husband, Nate, son, and their cat, Murrow (named after the famous journalist).