A room of her own

img_6178

When we moved into our house three years ago, I immediately marked one upstairs bedroom as “the nursery.”

It’s bright and sunny, getting the best light in the house, and also the one closest to our bedroom. I was pregnant by the fall, and the nursery transformed from a Pepto Bismol-pink monstrosity to the pale blue little guy’s room that Oliver enjoys today.

Down the hall was another room: lime-green walls, purple carpet. Dark purple. A third bedroom above the garage was set up for guests while the middle bedroom — now affectionately dubbed “The Hulk Room” — became a storage space. A very cluttered, nonsensical storage space.

When we learned we were expecting our second child, one of my early thoughts — aside from, you know, oh my God — was the need to transform this dumping ground of childhood memorabilia and outgrown baby equipment into a haven for Baby No. 2. Until we learned she is, in fact, a she, we were toying with the expense of replacing the grape purple carpet — but given a little lady is less likely to find it bothersome, we decided to keep it and save the money.

It’s a bold decorating choice, for sure.

“Preparing the nursery” is a rite of passage for expectant parents — even if “the nursery” is nothing more than a corner of their current bedroom or family room. No matter. Babies need love, nourishment and a safe place to sleep. Truth be told, Baby Girl will likely be sleeping in a bassinet in our room for the first six-ish months of her life, just as Oliver did. Still, I feel this pressing weight — this nesting need, I guess — to get her bedroom ready.

valspar-comet-dust-5006-1aSpencer painted the walls last week, instantly transforming the space from eye-assaulting Hulk chic to calm, placid gray. We chose a color called “Comet Dust,” which seemed just right for encouraging this girl to dream big dreams.

I have no problem with pink. I grew up in a bright-pink bedroom with bright pink accessories, bedding and feminine touches, and I think pink is upbeat and fun.

But I wanted something else. Taking the walls down to that subtle gray has completely transformed the space — just as we hoped it would (no carpet replacement necessary). My husband was up late painting, so I didn’t see the final results until the next morning — and in that weak light, standing there before Oliver called out in the room beside this one, I thought, Yes. This will work.

I’ve spent hours browsing for artwork for these fresh, neutral walls. I want to adorn this space with hope and love and optimism, just as I did with Ollie’s. Oliver’s room was completed during the month he spent in the NICU — a welcome distraction and a focus for my anxious energy. But this time? Well, I’ve seen what can happen if you wait too long. I feel better have items checked off the ol’ to-do list as soon as possible.

HomeGoods is a good place to kill time and paychecks, and I ran there last week on a lunch break to “look around.” I was there for a curtain rod, actually, but it’s impossible to leave with just a curtain rod in a place like that.

In the children’s decor section, the blue/pink contrast is stark. Boys’ items on one side; girls’ on the other. For boys, of course, are step stools covered in footballs, “Travel the world!”-style posters, ceramic trains and robots. And for the girls? Ballerinas and princesses, pink fur-lined lamps and handheld mirrors.

To be honest, I was there to inspect a castle. My mom texted me a photo of a canvas print featuring an ornate princess castle the day before, and the bright purple was similar to our carpet color.

I found the castle. It was pretty. And big. Large enough to fill half of one of those blank, blank walls.

But then I saw the map.

I’ve always been fascinated by geography — other places, other cultures, other lives. I won a globe in elementary school and used to spin it as hard as I could, letting my finger fall on some far-flung place I’d then look up in my world atlas. What and who would I find in Korea or Cambodia, Jamaica or Portugal?

Maps hold a strange fascination for me — and this one is bright. Bold. It’s playful and unique — unlike any I’ve seen before.

At $40, it was a little more than what I’d wanted to spend; I’ve been doing pretty well finding items at thrift stores and on clearance at Michael’s. But I fell in love with it. This map spoke to me. I knew that if I left it there, I wouldn’t stop thinking about it until I’d returned . . . and would probably find it gone. So that was it.

I hadn’t bothered to take a cart at HomeGoods, so I shouldered it all the way to check-out: a very pregnant lady on a mission, waddling with the world in her arms.

I don’t know if baby will care about geography, or world history, or physics, or Jane Austen. But I want to believe she and her brother will find more inspiration in a world map than they would in a princess castle.

Dream big, my babies.

Comet Dust, indeed.

Advertisements

Handing him the spoon

Oliver

We’re inching closer toward sippy cups, not bottles. At meal times (which are now breakfast, lunch, dinner — same as us), Oliver grabs the spoon to “feed” himself. He’s cruising along the furniture, scaling walls and gripping ledges. He said his first word: “baby.” Now he says it all the time.

These developments fill me with joy, of course. We’re making strides! He’s growing up! At 15 months old, Oliver is a toddler. He toddles. His face his slimmed — along with those rubber band wrists. His legs are long and strong. He is tall enough to reach door handles and drawers, to pull down objects I never imagined he could reach. He surprises me daily by what he absorbs and parrots. He misses nothing.

Oliver is growing. And it is wonderful. I just didn’t expect to feel so . . . sad.

There is one blank date left in his “milestones” book — the one I’ve used to mark all his firsts since birth. It’s for first steps. And though I’m happy thinking about slipping on his first pair of shoes, about leading him along sidewalks and down new paths, I also feel intensely nostalgic when I realize the “firsts” are nearly done.

Will I miss the 3 a.m. feedings, the temper tantrums, the many bites of sweet potato that wind up in my lap — not his mouth?

Well . . . no. But yes. But no.

It’s bittersweet. Everything.

Parenthood is a study in opposites. It feels laughable to say I’ll miss washing bottles every night when it’s been the bane of my existence, but here’s the thing: it became our new normal. It’s a ritual, even a soothing one — and the idea of everything changing, as it so often does, fills me with apprehension. I just got used to this.

In some ways, I feel like I’ve only just found my mama footing. This stage is now comfortable, knowable. I don’t have to remind myself I’m a parent anymore — it’s been absorbed into my bones. And with my son now reaching for me, patting my cheek, resting his head on my shoulder — the only shoulder he sometimes wants in the world — well . . . that’s it. That’s it. What could matter more than that?

It isn’t all sunshine, of course. It never is. After a great visit with our family in New York, Oliver came home with a fever that burned him up for five days. The doctors couldn’t figure out why. It would climb to 102, 103, 104 — and just when Spencer and I would start to panic, fumbling for our car keys in the dark, it would break. He would rest. And then it would start up again.

There were many 4 a.m. baths in lukewarm water, frantic phone calls to the after-hours number, lots of pacing as we debated whether to drive to the hospital or urgent care or wait until morning, waiting and waiting and watching his chest rise and fall.

The panicky dread of those moments isn’t unique to us, certainly. No parent wants to see their child sick. But every time Oliver gets ill, I sink back into unpleasant memories of our month in the hospital. Sometimes I have to physically force myself to sit, take deep breaths and remember this time isn’t that time. Our 3-pound baby is now a 27-pound tank. He can handle it. We can handle it.

But that is easier said than done. One of my guilty pleasures is “Little Women: LA,” a reality show chronicling the lives of a group of friends, and several ladies are pregnant this season. Elena is expecting twin boys — and toward the end of her pregnancy, which is being documented now, she develops preeclampsia. Noting that she’s only 34 weeks pregnant, everyone is panicking at the idea of an early delivery — how risky, how dangerous, how life-threatening. “She can’t deliver this early!” they cry.

And I delivered at 32 weeks.

Preeclampsia changed everything. The idea of becoming pregnant again — and possibly not having the same happy ending — is terrifying. Thinking about adding to our family, well . . . I could get preeclampsia again, or I could not. And there is no way to know. There is no way to prevent it, to predict it, to expect it. If anything, I have a higher chance because I’ve had it once. It was severe, and it set in early.

It’s a roll of the dice. And I’ve never been a gambler.

We’ve reached the stage where well-meaning folks ask if we’ll have a second child. I probably get asked this once a week: by friends, acquaintances, readers. To the outside world, the world in which I look like a “normal” woman with a healthy child, I understand the innocence of that question. But there is no easy answer.

“We’ll see,” I say. What else can we do?

Contrary to, well, this entire post, I actually try not to dwell on the past — or the future. We’re usually too tired for that, anyway. Things could have turned out poorly, but they didn’t. I look at my son and feel relief and love and joy.

Oliver has been working with professionals to get “up to speed” with developmental tasks — particularly physical ones, like crawling — for a while. One of his therapists recently pointed out that it was me who was uncomfortable with Oliver feeding himself, projecting my fears of choking and other harm onto his daily habits, well . . . that hit me like a slap.

But she was right. And now I think constantly about how I cannot let my anxiety hold him back. Even when that is hard — or feels impossible. Even when I want to bubblewrap him and never leave our house.

So we try new things at dinner, even when he gags on foods he cannot possibly choke on (pureed green beans, anyone?). Even when I know we’ll spend longer cleaning up the mess than he actually spent eating. I let him grasp the lip of the coffee table, ready to spring into action as he moves along. We stand by as he pushes a toy walker, looking so proud as he plants each foot. He’s always walking toward the door, seeking sunshine. He loves peeking out.

I barely breathe when he falls asleep in my lap — a rarity these days. I’m still even when my arm is asleep. Even when I can’t reach the TV remote. Even when I have to use the restroom, and I’m starving, and I don’t think I brushed my teeth that morning. Even when I need to rest myself.

Savor it, hold on to it: that’s all I can do. Nudge him forward knowing he’ll always have a safe place to land — as long as his father and I can help it, anyway.

We hand him the spoon.


Coming and going outside the OR

There’s an unspoken camaraderie that forms in a room where no one wants to be.

My son underwent minor surgery this week. It was planned, scheduled months ago — a procedure to correct something we learned about at birth. Padding down the NICU wing just days after he was born, a nurse pulled us aside to tell us there was an “issue.” Had we been told about it yet?

(Excuse the vagueness about the condition itself, but I want to be sensitive to my son’s personal story . . . it’s his, not mine.)

But the issue was not life-threatening; it could be corrected. Nothing that should affect him in the long term. We took comfort in that.

On Wednesday, we woke at 3:30 a.m. to get into the city by 6 a.m. for his appointment: the first of the day. Spence and I were fortunate to have my father — a well-versed D.C. driver — take us to the large facility. He sat with us all day, fielding questions from our family, as my mother- and father-in-law waited at home with dinner already made.

I’d been dreading this moment since that first mention in the NICU: having to return to a hospital; watching Ollie go into an operating room; seeing him in pain. I had nightmares for weeks leading up to Wednesday, fear upon fear building like tortuous blocks in my mind.

Anesthesia. Recovery. Complications.

I willed myself to be calm: to get into a state of peace. Sometimes I felt angry again, wondering why our 10-month-old had to go through this — any of this — and, as usual, why we couldn’t be “normal” with a “normal” experience.

Whatever that is.

As we sat in the waiting room, the families of 30 other patients filled in around us. We carried coffee and smartphones. Most wore matching looks of fear and exhaustion, springing to life as soon as Smith or Blair or Thompson were called to the front desk.

It was like an airport waiting lounge, all of us unsure if we were coming or going. Parents studied a digital screen with the status of each OR. Patient in, 7:32 a.m.

They kept us all informed. The place was loud — noisy, even — as relatives chatted nervously in small circles. Some napped, heads back or resting on shoulders; others tapped at phones, zoning out on Facebook. The desk phone rang constantly: nurses with updates. Name after name, family after family.

We were an anxious crew. Older parents, younger parents, grandparents, siblings. Parents with children in wheelchairs; others with babies on a hip. Some with children too weak to stand. Others who — “Ella, please!” — just would not sit still.

We were all there because, at some point, the same words had echoed in a sterile room: “He will have to have surgery. She needs to have surgery.”

And I thought of our collective faces, a range of colors and expressions; wide eyes, closed eyes, eyes leaking fat but silent tears. We were wan and dull that morning. The nervousness beat like a pulse.

I willed my heart to stop pounding. My mind to be clear. The panic to dull. When it was time to speak to his surgeon, to shake hands with the anesthesiologist and ER nurse and recovery nurse — an endless stream of faces I studied, people intimately tied to protecting my child — I wanted to beg them to be thorough. Focused. Caring.

But I didn’t need to. It was obvious from each handshake, every soothing assurance, that they would be.

It took four hours. We read in the waiting room, tapping our feet; we walked to the quiet cafeteria, chewing lifeless salads. They called for us at the front desk with updates, and each ring made my mouth go dry.

“It can’t be bad news,” I tittered nervously to a woman on my right. She was well-dressed and serious, waiting alone for news on her daughter. “They wouldn’t call with bad news. That would be awful. They would come out.”

She nodded, clutching a magazine in her lap. “That’s true. Yes,” she said solemnly. “You’re right. That’s very sensible.”

See? I can still be sensible, I thought. Even when I’m scared out of my mind.

The waiting board clicked with updates: OR in. PACU. Patient discharged.

Finally, mercifully, it was our turn.

Surgery complete.

Heading home.


Ollie


Oliver has done so well — maybe better than his parents. He’s recovering beautifully and was back to his smiling self within a day. (The pain meds might have helped.) The surgery was successful, and we are so thankful he’s too young to remember a thing. After one rough evening when he first came home, he’s back to sleeping well and enjoying endless episodes of “The Muppets.” And I don’t complain.

I thought of myself last April: rattled to my core, shaky and hurting, terrified at the responsibility of caring for this tiny child. Worried about our future. Afraid of doing something — everything? — wrong. Nervous to even press a finger into his tiny, delicate palm.

But I am not who I was 10 months ago.

I am not even close to who I was 10 months ago.

I scrounged up all the patience and strength I possessed on Wednesday. I stood at my son’s bedside, leaning on my husband as we listened with the dedication of med students to Ollie’s team. Hanging on every word.

We asked questions. We took notes. We rubbed our son’s head, running delicate fingers through the dark curls that have suddenly sprung above his ears.

Sometimes I had to sit down — to gather myself, to breathe . . . but that’s okay.

I took Oliver’s hand and I held it.

And I stood up.


The naptime fight

My son hates to sleep.

I guess most babies do — perhaps because they’re afraid of missing something, an infant-sized dose of FOMO that compels them to scream their heads off when you even venture near the crib.

Where Oliver would once drift off in his rock ‘n’ play without much of a fight, our almost 10-month-old (I’m sorry, did I just type 10-month-old?) now loses his noggin if he even gets a whiff of you wanting to put him down for a snooze.

The problem? He’s exhausted, of course. And when he gets exhausted, he gets mad. Our easygoing, never-met-a-stranger child becomes a possessed possum when he’s sleepy: clawing his way back to consciousness, refusing to give up the ghost.

I have no idea what his kind day care provider does, honestly. She never reports a problem. But I’m kind of afraid to ask.

There is no foolproof solution to this. He once wanted his bottle before drifting off, but eventually gave that up. He doesn’t take a pacifier anymore. Spencer and I just do the best we can, soothing him into his midday snoozes with a story or well-timed car ride. He goes to bed just fine at night, thank God, but those naps are a fight that takes all the energy we’ve got. And some we don’t.

That’s most of parenting, I’m finding: everything you have until you are empty, depleted. It requires you to become an excavator, digging around for something — anything — to give again.

But then they smile at you, reaching out a chubby hand or thoughtfully tugging a lock of your hair.

It is hard. It is so worth it . . . but it is hard.


sleeping


Yesterday morning, I sat by his crib as he rubbed, rubbed, rubbed his eyes and screamed, a red-faced and angry shriek that cut straight to the bone. It took everything I had not to reach in and scoop him up, whispering anything I thought would comfort him, but I knew the war would only wage again five minutes later.

I reached for a book, perching in the rocking chair just out of sight — close enough to hear every breath, grit my teeth through every cry, but not where Oliver would see me.

Maybe he sensed me there, trying to relax while my child kicked and howled. Maybe, in a strange way, it was comforting.

But he finally relented, falling fitfully into baby sleep. His face eased. The tears — thick rivers down his cheeks — quickly dried. I moved delicately toward him, pulling a bunched-up blanket away from his face, and crept downstairs to finally eat the cold English muffin I’d toasted an hour before.

And then the doorbell rang: solicitors. With pamphlets.

And I guess that’s just parenthood, too.


Snowy mama mettle

Ollie and me

Well, the Great Blizzard has become the Great Melt.

After five days snowed in at home, I finally got back to the office on Tuesday. “Civilization!” I cried, planting smooches on any human face I encountered. “People! Sunlight!”

Just kidding.

Well, kind of.

Though we made the best of it and I enjoyed being cozy with my boys, I was pretty claustrophobic by Monday. It snowed most of Friday and all of Saturday, finally stopping with 23 inches down by the early hours Sunday morning.

Spencer did a great job keeping our driveway clear, but neighborhood roads were still impassable until Tuesday. With temperatures climbing into the 50s (Maryland weather is nothing if not ridiculous), the roads began to flood. On the one hand, I was quite relieved not to worry about ice. But now, of course, there’s the issue of refreezing . . .

Anyway. Enough boring science stuff.

We never lost power, so there was no need for The Bunker. I knew we had rations to get through the long weekend (and then some), but having no heat was another animal entirely — so I’m very thankful we lucked out there. We never ran out of diapers or formula or water or any of the other essential items I gathered like a rabid Gollum, afraid of someone swooping in to steal my preciouses.

After the storm settled (literally), we went outside with Ollie for a grand total of, oh, ten minutes . . . long enough to snap a few photos. My sister and brother-in-law braved slick roads to come see the Ollie man and his first big snow.

He wasn’t too interested. But that was mostly because of the dreaded jacket/hood combination.


blizzard


Back when Ollie was tipping the scales at 5 pounds and we stared at him all day, convinced he would stop breathing without our vigilance, going outside at all was a process. The day after he came home, we went his first pediatric appointment just a few miles away.

The first night was horrible, of course. The month after Oliver was born but before he was released was the strangest of my life. I’d given birth, but our child wasn’t there with us. We made near-daily treks to his hospital in Baltimore, but . . . we had gone back to sleeping.

Sleep. Sleeeeeeeep.

I slept horribly throughout my pregnancy, especially toward the end. I could never get comfortable, especially since I’m a back sleeper (a no-no while expecting). After he was born, of course, I still wasn’t resting well . . . too many churning thoughts with insomnia. But when I could sleep, I did. For hours. Unbroken. For as long as I wanted, or could.

As soon as our son came home, of course, that rest became an exotic memory. When we arrived at Dr. M’s office that first morning, I was practically frothing at the mouth. We had barely slept, Spencer and me, and I’d spent most of the night staring at this impossibly small child wondering where he had come from.

No love lost for last May, that’s for sure.

When we saw Dr. M and introduced our preemie, it was a relief to learn she had welcomed a premature child herself. Our biggest questions were, of course, How do we do this? Are we ever going to sleep again?

(Yes. I wish I’d known that for sure nine months ago.)

In the beginning, Oliver could not get comfortable at home. He’d spent his entire life in a cozy, temperature-regulated isolette with nurses tending to his needs around the clock. Ollie was suddenly in a dark, quiet room with two strangers — us, his parents — and I cried to my husband, “He wants to go back!”

We worried he was cold. Or uncomfortable in his snap-up outfit. I thought we were supposed to put pajamas on babies, not realizing that it makes no difference at all. So I’d forced a footed thing on him, thinking that was what we were “supposed” to do, only for him to spend the whole night miserably trying to kick it off.

He is, and has always been, a kicker.

I remember asking Dr. M what to do about the kicking. Terrified of SIDS, like all parents, I knew we could not have any loose bedding in his bassinet — but he just seemed cold and out of sorts. He kicked off anything we tried to put on him. She confirmed we could swaddle him . . . but he didn’t love that, either. Ollie hates being confined, so the wearable blankets we received are, um, ready to be passed along in pristine condition, shall we say.

Dr. M was comforting. She reminded us, in her gentle way, that we are his parents. The nurses are gone; the NICU is gone. We are responsible for his care, and we make the decisions.

“Sometimes you just have to say, ‘Little baby, I know what’s best for you, and this is what we’re going to do,’” she said.


Family


It seemed a little hokey at the time — especially given we feared Oliver was actually a vampire child, sleeping soundly during the day but alert (and shrieking) all night.

But I get it now. Ollie definitely has his own personality, with likes and dislikes and temper tantrums for the latter. He despises anything being on his feet or head, so hats and socks and hoods are immediately shucked off. Don’t even try shoes.

Jackets really irritate him — which is fun because, you know, it’s winter. And about 25 degrees. But as Ollie goes stiff-armed to avoid the sleeves, having a meltdown when I lift the hood to shield him from the cold, I summon my motherly courage — the mettle I guess I had in me all along — to give him the hair eyeball.

“I know,” I say. “Mama hears you. But my baby, I know what’s best for you, and this is what we’re going to do.”

And we do.

Er, most of the time.

Have to pick our battles, right?


Like a sack of baby potatoes

Ollie

I never thought parenthood would be so . . . physical.

Back in my pre-baby days, I only ever pictured myself cuddling a newborn. My chief concern revolved around babies’ floppy necks; I mean, aren’t they tiny and breakable? I was only imagining sunny afternoons curled up in our squishy couch or the whish, whish, whish of a rocker. Featherweight and lovely.

Oliver’s small size at birth — 3 pounds, 9 ounces — aligned perfectly with that fantasy. He fit in Spencer’s hand.

And then, quite thankfully, he grew. At almost 9 months old, our preemie now tips the scales at 23 pounds, 2 ounces. He’s wearing 18-month clothes. An adult-sized Santa hat recently fit on his noggin.

This kid is heavy. A warn anyone who swoops in to lift with their legs sort of heavy.

Baby chub aside, parenthood is physical in so many other ways. There are the practical demands of picking up and unloading a stroller, a car seat, the pack-and-play dutifully carted to others’ homes for a visit. If you’re bringing the baby to the car already strapped into said car seat, you’re lugging more than 25 pounds in one (formerly weak) arm.

Plus your purse. And lunch bag. His bottle bag, and maybe a diaper bag. And the Amazon package you have to return, an extra pair of shoes for running errands after work, your recyclable grocery sacks . . .

I’m tired just typing all of that.

Eh, I’m tired all the time.

I make two trips to the car before work every morning. When the temperature dipped below 20 degrees last week (don’t worry — we were back into the 60s yesterday! Yay, weirdo Maryland!), I sprinted out to my car twice to get it warming up with approximately half of my house loaded in my arms.

Then I had to go back for the baby.

When I do manage to keep a grip on Oliver, he’s learned to slap. He loves the sound his palms make when connecting with human skin, so I deal with his swats and hits and slaps — literal slaps — when we’re doing fun things like walking downstairs. Slipping down the steps while holding a baby is a major (and rational, for once!) fear of mine, so it’s natural that Ollie would add another element of danger. Just to keep things interesting.

He’s also a little furnace. The exertion of carrying him combined with his natural warmth makes me feel overheated in the coldest breeze. Even now, in winter, I wear tank tops at home because I am sweating about 90 percent of the time. Holding Ollie is like wrestling an alligator — especially now that he suddenly has his own opinions. And prefers to be free of my tender grasp.

My man wants to run.

He’s not even crawling yet — an elusive milestone that bothered me for a while. Preemie parents know the odd mixture of pride at all your baby has already accomplished interspersed with sadness because he’s not on the “normal” full-term timeline in baby apps and parenting books.

But then I picture the sweet, exhausting day when I’ll have to chase my son and haul his baby butt up and down three sets of stairs.

And the house looked so beautiful when we bought it.

It won’t be long. The baby wheels are churning, churning, and he’s gone from rolling over occasionally to literally leaping from our arms and trying to walk — or, more accurately, jog — around the living room.

He’s going to be a wily one.

Good thing I’ve now got serious muscles.


How to help a preemie parent: Prematurity Awareness Month

How to help a preemie parent

Until my son was born two months early, “prematurity” was a foreign concept to me. I knew friends of friends who had preemies and had heard stories over the years, sure, but did I think it would happen to us? With our first child? Not for a minute.

But who does?

When we took a childbirth class in late March at the hospital where we’d once planned to deliver, we were the couple with the furthest due date (June 5). Everyone else looked ready to pop. In reality, as I developed severe preeclampsia just weeks later, we probably delivered first. Oliver was born at 32 weeks gestation in April.

By the end of this month, Ollie will have been out in the world longer than I was ever pregnant. This milestone brings a bittersweet mix of joy and relief, sadness and longing. My pregnancy went so fast, ending so abruptly. I’m still working through my complicated feelings about that . . . but that’s a post for another day.

After our sweet 3 pound, 9 ounce baby boy came into the world, friends and family rallied around to offer support and strength. Though I wasn’t always in a good place to receive it, I did feel it — including from my friends here in the blogging community.

Many friends contributed to a GoFundMe started by sweet Trish and Lyndsey, and we were so thankful for your encouragement and donations. I don’t know if I ever issued a public thank you, but if I didn’t, please know how deeply we appreciated that incredible kindness. It came at the absolute best time, and we thank you so much.

November is Prematurity Awareness Month. We definitely know why I had a premature baby, though the exact cause of preeclampsia itself is unknown. Of the nearly 4 million babies born in the U.S. each year, preeclampsia affects approximately 200,000 expecting mothers. Less than 1 percent will have to deliver their baby before 34 weeks gestation . . . still, I was one of that group.

Preeclampsia is defined as a potentially life-threatening pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and signs of damage to the kidneys or other organ system, according to the Mayo Clinic. Left untreated, it can lead to seizures, stroke and maternal and fetal death. The only “cure” is delivery of the baby and placenta.

In my case, my blood pressure began trending high around 30 weeks. I was monitored at home and admitted to two hospitals before doctors finally decided it was too risky to both my life and the baby’s to continue the pregnancy. The morning I was induced, my blood pressure was greater than 200/140. We needed to get the baby out immediately.

So we did. He’s here, he’s perfect, and we love him dearly. Never for a moment do I take for granted how fortunate we are to have such a sweet, healthy child, especially in light of his two-months-early arrival.

But I am still sifting through the emotional impact of that early, traumatic birth, as well as my own lingering hypertension issues. Much of my energy of late has gone toward getting a handle on the anxiety and PTSD I feel in the aftermath of Ollie’s birth. Every day is a process, a step forward.

Help a parent

Though we’re very clear on what caused my son’s prematurity, many women will never know for sure what caused their early labor.

An infant is considered premature if he or she is delivered at less than 37 weeks gestation. According to the March of Dimes, 500,000 babies are born prematurely in the U.S. each year — about 9.6 percent of births. More than 15 million are born too early globally.

Most preemies will spend time in the NICU, the specially-staffed and outfitted intensive care unit for infants requiring support after birth. Our son was in two NICUs for almost a month combined before he was ready to come home.

Since April, I’ve received messages seeking advice on helping other new preemie parents — and no matter what I’m doing when they come in, I drop everything to respond.

Being just six months into our parenthood journey, my memories of our preemie’s delivery and the NICU experience are fresh . . . and if I can lend support to a family faced with a premature birth, I absolutely will. I need to.

I can only speak to my own experience, of course, and do not speak for all preemie parents. What helped me may hinder someone else, and it’s always best to take your cue from the parents themselves. We all have different ways of coping with stressful experiences, and there is no right or wrong way to do so.

But in honor of Prematurity Awareness Month, I compiled my thoughts on helping the moms and dads you know who welcome their children much earlier than expected — and what you can do now to be the support that helps see them through.

Congratulate them

After a friend or loved one welcomes a premature baby, your first step is easy: send your good wishes. They just had a baby! That’s amazing!

Because many premature infants will face immediate medical issues and be admitted to the NICU, there may be a gut instinct to “tread carefully” when discussing their newborn. But don’t do that. The parents want to receive your congratulations and positivity.

Though he was, of course, fragile and different, I didn’t want our 32-weeker to be treated that way. Desperately did I want to feel normal: just a normal mother who had welcomed a normal baby. Sensing others’ sympathy absolutely broke me in half. There is definitely a time for soothing words and compassion — but for me, immediately after birth was not it.

In the beginning? Try to be upbeat. Hopeful. Enthusiastic. They need it.

Make them a meal

Our son was delivered at an urban hospital almost two hours from our home. After I was discharged, we began the arduous task of commuting — in D.C.-area traffic — to see him each day.

The most frustrating part of daily life involved having to feed ourselves. I got angry — actually angry — at having to constantly stop to eat. I didn’t want to eat; I didn’t want to do anything but sit next to Ollie’s isolette, watching his chest rise and fall, and pump what little breast milk I could at his bedside. That was it.

My husband was amazing, taking care of all logistics . . . but we couldn’t bring ourselves to go grocery shopping until right before Oliver actually came home. There was something too “normal” about going for groceries — something that threatened to break my heart. How could I do anything “normal” after what we’d been through?

I couldn’t. So we didn’t.

We needed to eat, though. Eating became a daily chore — and we spent a small fortune on take-out and hospital meals in the month Oliver was in Baltimore. I would have loved a home-cooked meal, but we were barely home to eat one.

If you want to help a preemie parent, offer to bring them food. Make a casserole, lasagna, a Crock Pot full of soup — something they can eat and reheat, if needed, to feed themselves again.

When babies are born, friends and family often gather to form a “meal chain” for the exhausted new parents. Even if their baby isn’t home, they still need that love and support . . . trust me.

Food is about more than nourishment. For a preemie parent, it tastes of comfort and compassion and warmth. Make muffins they can eat on the drive to the hospital, or protein-rich cookies to tuck into bags for snacks.

If you’re not a cook, offer to meet them at the hospital for a meal or to take them to a local restaurant. As time wore on, Spencer and I craved companionship and support at the hospital. We needed a distraction. Company provided that.

Reach out, but give them grace

If your texts, calls and emails go unanswered, understand the maelstrom of highs and lows they are experiencing. Don’t take offense if you don’t hear back quickly . . . and don’t take that as a sign that you should stay away, either.

Though I didn’t always have the emotional energy to respond to messages, I read every single one (and usually cried — but that’s not a bad thing). Knowing people were thinking about and praying for us was a great source of comfort. It helped us feel less alone at the hardest time in our lives.

If your preemie parent friend is anything like me, they might be uncomfortable asking for help. Though I eventually accepted — and welcomed — any and all assistance, it can be hard to reach out.

Statements like “I’m here if you need anything” are well-meaning, but they’re not always helpful. Be specific. Say, “I’m thinking about you and want to help. Can I give you a ride to the hospital this week? What night can I bring you dinner? Do you need help with laundry or dishes?” If they have other children, offer to come spend time with them, help with homework, etc.

Don’t let “not knowing what to say” keep you from saying anything. Just say something, even if it’s “I’m thinking of you” and “I’m here.”

Ask for a delegate

My sister became a point-of-contact immediately after Oliver’s birth. She contacted my friends, work, etc., and became the go-between for family and friends seeking updates.

Understand that preemie parents might not always have the energy to give updates about their baby, especially if they’ve already issued many that day. If you know another family member or friend who might have news, reach out to them instead.

It’s still totally OK (and very welcome!) to send a “thinking of you” text to the parent, but that will save them from having to go into the nitty-gritty — especially if they’ve had a tough day.

Make them a care package

One of the kindest things done for us after Ollie’s birth came in the form of a care package — one from a virtual stranger. Jessie, a friend of my sister’s, had a premature child years earlier. After learning of Oliver’s birth, she arrived at our house one morning with a bag of presents.

I cry just thinking about this woman’s kindness. I actually can’t think about it much, because it almost hurts — in a good way. Preemie parents are truly a tribe.

In this bag were goodies for our new baby, yes — but just as many for us. She was the first person we talked to who really understood we were going through something uniquely hard and painful . . . which made sense, of course. She’d been exactly where we were, and came out the other side with a beautiful child.

To put together a collection of support-related goodies for a preemie parent with a child in the NICU, you could include . . .

  • Portable snacks like trail mix, Rice Krispie bars and peanut butter crackers. We threw them into a diaper bag for our journey each day, and frequently snacked on those when we didn’t have the time or energy for a hospital meal.
  • Bottled water
  • Hand sanitizer and/or hand wipes
  • Unscented hand lotion. Your hands dry out quick from all that scrubbing in, trust me!
  • Magazines. Everyone needs a little mindless entertainment and distraction now and then.
  • Preemie clothing. As it’s unlikely your friend planned on having their baby early, they probably don’t have clothes for him or her. One or two onesies is enough; babies aren’t initially able to be dressed in the NICU and, with any luck, their child will be close to wearing newborn-sized clothing at discharge. Preemie clothes can be tough to find, but we had luck at Walmart and Target.
  • A blank journal or notepad. Mine came in handy for jotting down notes from doctors and random thoughts when I needed a private outlet.
  • Gift cards for gas, food or the movies/Netflix. Though your parent friends won’t initially want to take time for themselves, this may help remind them they’re allowed to get a real meal or decompress with a film.

These are just suggestions, of course. You know your friend best. If she loves to knit or crochet, include skeins of colorful yarn she can bring to the hospital. If he loves chocolate, bake homemade brownies and pack them in individual plastic bags.

And if you want to really surprise a new mom, bring her a new top. Chances are her pre-pregnancy clothing will not fit, and no preemie mom wants to even look at her maternity clothes . . . let alone wear them.

Six months after birth, maternity clothing is still a painful trigger for me — and one of the first things I had to do after getting out of the hospital was buy new shirts and pants.

I felt completely broken, inside and out, but a few tops that actually fit my swollen body — and weren’t maternity wear, reserved for the lucky women who were still pregnant — gave my spirits a boost.

Encourage them to find support

Though the initial weeks after birth were too chaotic and consumed with Oliver’s needs to worry about our own, there came a time when I was ready to reach out. And not only was I ready, but I was desperate for support.

A quick Google search for “preemie parents” yields half a million results — but I’ve found the most support on Facebook. If your preemie parent friend seems open to it, send them a note with links to Life After NICU and Parents of Preemies Day. Great resources are also available at March of Dimes, Preemie Babies 101 and Graham’s Foundation.

On Facebook, not only do other parents ask questions (many of which I’ve had myself!), get real responses and find camaraderie, but both groups frequently post stories of little ones who have gone on to do great things — and share photos of preemies hitting all sorts of milestones. The atmosphere is one of celebration, and I look for updates daily. Those “happy stories” were crucial to getting me through the early weeks of Oliver’s hospitalization.

Everyone is different, of course. Some parents want to talk about their prematurity experience (I do, clearly!), and others don’t. For some parents, it will be too soon to reach out in the aftermath of their early delivery and NICU experience . . . but don’t let that stop you from trying.

Continue to be there

Remember their journey doesn’t end when their child comes home. He or she may face continued health issues — apnea, oxygen support, etc. — and will likely be isolated at home, especially for the first few months. That means your friend may be isolated, too.

Being a parent to a newborn is incredibly hard. It is frequently overwhelming with moments of the purest joy, but can also be lonely. Being a parent to a preemie newborn? It’s all of those things wrapped into a package tied with a ribbon of anxiety, plus physical and emotional exhaustion. Your friend will need love and support.

Don’t take it personally if you’re not immediately invited to see the baby. At the hospital, NICU rules are strict and often family-only with no children permitted; only two people were ever allowed in Ollie’s NICU at a time, and one always had to be a parent.

When their baby is finally discharged, parents face dueling emotions: excitement and joy that their child is finally coming home, and fear at the thought of caring for them away from the calm guidance and experience of the NICU staff.

The risk of infection — especially during cold, flu and RSV season — is especially worrying for preemie parents. They will likely plan to sequester their child, letting him or her get acclimated to the outside world with limited exposure to others for weeks or even months.

If your friend is able to take a break from the needs at home (and oh, how they will need a break), offer to meet them out for a quick lunch, coffee or just to help run errands. Tell them you’re dropping off a meal (remember, food is important!), but emphasize that you know they’re concerned about the risk of infection and will stay outside.

If you don’t live nearby or can’t come in person, continue to send messages of support. After Ollie came home and my husband had to return to work, I was often overwhelmed by loneliness and worry. My early entrance into motherhood was a shock to my system, physically and emotionally, and I was unprepared. Each note of encouragement really bolstered my spirits.

More than anything . . .

Just be there, and let them know you’re there. Reach out as much as you can with the understanding that it could be hours, days or even weeks before you hear back — but your words still matter.

The fervent prayer of the preemie parent is that, with time, love and patience, their babies will grow from vulnerable infants we can hold in our hands to healthy, happy, curious and loving children.

Be a trusted friend to us on that journey. We need you.