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.

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Rest, rattles and baby babble: Oliver at 5 months old

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Sleeping (mostly?) through the night. Smiling and laughing at all of our ridiculous antics. Growing like a weed, and surpassing medical expectations of where he “should” be — as a preemie — at this point in his journey.

My friends, we’ve reached a golden time. Oliver is 5 months old!

We moved him into his own crib about a month ago, a milestone we did not take lightly. From the time he came home from the hospital, Ollie “slept” (that’s a generous term for the all-night grunting, kicking, squirming and snoring, honestly) in a co-sleeper bassinet next to our bed.

Given his premature arrival and issues with apnea in the NICU (he would forget to breathe, basically, and require stimulation by nursing staff, who monitored his breathing constantly), this arrangement worked well. It was necessary. I was already a nervous wreck; having him in a different room would have been . . . well. Not good.

But by mid-August, just as he passed the four month mark, we started seeing signs that he was ready. Ollie was almost too big for the bassinet, for one; at 17 pounds with long limbs, he was constantly bumping into the sides. This kid loves to stretch, so he was constantly waking himself up. And he just seemed . . . uncomfortable. Fidgety.

We started putting him the “big” crib in his nursery for naps on the weekends, watching to see how he responded and whether that helped with the fussiness. It did. And so, on a random Friday evening, our babe was placed in his very own room for the first time.

His nursery became a haven while he was hospitalized. Because he was two months early and I’d been feeling ill for a while, we’d done nothing before he was born but paint the walls. As we waited for him to come home, we poured our energy into getting this space ready for him. But for the first four months of his life? He was really only in there for diaper changes and occasional reading in the comfy chair in the corner.

It’s a totally different experience, having Ollie in his own room. Spencer and I can actually put him down for the night around 9 p.m. and go to sleep together, as opposed to the weird hybrid evenings we endured for months. (Spence took the “midnight” shift, which would really mean he was up until 2 a.m., and I would take over starting around 3 a.m. each day.)

It hasn’t been perfect. After sleeping for eight- or nine-hour stretches for weeks in his crib, Ollie is back to a nightly feeding around 1:30 a.m. each day. But his dad and I take turns, dutifully rising in the dark to tend to him, and it’s not nearly as soul-crushing as it was back in June.


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We have no teeth yet, but Oliver has started showing signs of teething. A friend with a 4-year-old and a 4-month-old recently told me that her doctor said all mothers of 4-month-olds think their children are teething (and they’re not), but that remains to be seen. We have many telltale signs: excessive drooling; screaming/crying for no apparent reason; biting on absolutely everything, including Mom and Dad’s fingers; inability to be soothed.

But that could be . . . infant stuff? I don’t know. Either way, we’re working through it. It’s not constant, thankfully, so it’s all right.

Oliver has always been a joy, our sweet baby man, but more and more of his personality is starting to come through . . . and I find myself giggling at all the silly stuff he does, especially now that he has taken to holding a conversation with his hand in his mouth.

I joked about that with Spencer, his little baby “language” with fingers stuffed against his gums, and my husband immediately laughed. He knew exactly what I was talking about.

Goy goy goy,” Spence mimicked.

“That’s it!” I shouted, never piecing together that Ollie says exactly that all day long. “Goy goy goy.”


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He hasn’t been weighed since his four month appointment, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say he’s close to 19 or 20 pounds at this point. It definitely feels like it when you’re hauling that kid upstairs! He can still wear 6-9 month clothing, but the stretch of a few of those onesies is being put to the test. Ollie also wears size 3 diapers, and our chunky man is holding his head up very well.

We’ve started thinking about the fall, my favorite time of year, and all the places we want to take Ollie! They’re just for us, I know, as Mr. Man will never remember pumpkin patches or hay rides or corn mazes later on. But I want those photo ops — bright blue sky; smiling and red-cheeked baby — for our memory books. We’re headed to the county fair tomorrow, where I will unabashedly nosh on funnel cake and remind a jealous Oliver that he can try some next year.

I’ve been swept up in so many memories lately. Last September, I was anxiously waiting to take a pregnancy test, wondering and hoping but also fearful and unsure. We couldn’t quite picture our lives as parents, though we were excited to see. To find out.

I rode the Ferris wheel with my sister, looking out at a sea of people while the excited calls of children from the Scrambler carried on the first cool breeze of fall. Spencer and I were just one week away from getting the news that would change our lives forever.

September will hold those memories now, too — a beautiful conglomeration of change, what fall has also symbolized for me. Fresh pencils and homeroom schedules; crisp back-to-school clothes, making new friends. My sister’s wedding on a beautiful day in early fall, and planning for our own November wedding — now almost two years ago.

I’ll also savor those weeks of knowing without quite knowing: the time I had a hunch, a glowing premonition, but had to wait (im)patiently to be sure. And by late September, learning that Baby J — later, sweet baby Oliver — was on his way.

The path has not been easy, and the year that followed the night I clutched a pregnancy test with shaky hands has been as frenetic and stomach-dropping as a carnival ride.

But it’s been thrilling, too. The biggest, craziest thrill of our lives.

So many milestones will be coming for us soon: starting solid foods in October; getting better at rolling over, hopefully, then crawling; starting to “talk” in some fashion, even if it’s just more sophisticated and hilarious Ollie Talk.

We’re so excited.

And hanging on.


Stopping for the sunsets

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It’s hard, getting caught up in the day-to-day.

I look up sometimes to find it’s 9 p.m. and I’ve done nothing but divide mail into piles, clean up dinner dishes and refill bottles for the next day. Spencer and I talk, catching up on this and that, and settle the overnight schedule with our baby boy: Spence takes the first shift, usually around 1 a.m.; I take the second, typically up for the day by 5 a.m.

Oliver is at the center of our world, our adorably plump little counterpart who dictates when we rise and when we rest. I live for the weekends now, when we don’t have to lay out clothes the night before or rush off to day care with the harried commuters. When I can sip my coffee from an actual mug, not down the dregs before I disappear with his heavy car seat in one hand and my half-zipped lunch bag in the other.

Rush, rush, rush. Hurry. These words are woven into the fabric of my mornings — and many of my evenings, too. I’m always fighting the clock. I want to laugh (or cry?) thinking of how “busy” I once thought I was, back when I could read or crochet or watch the news in the quiet with no one to worry about but myself.

At Oliver’s very first pediatrician’s appointment, his doctor — parent to a preemie herself — told us to be gentle on ourselves as we worked tirelessly for a baby who wouldn’t acknowledge our efforts . . . for a while. All newborns are needy, sure, but preemies are a special group. No grins, no giggles, no interaction beyond occasional eye contact for much longer than feels reasonable. Longer than seems normal.

Oliver surprised us by offering his first smile on July 2, much earlier than we’d expected — about two months after we first brought him home. I was singing him one of the ridiculous songs I like to make up, inserting his name into popular lyrics and swaying with him around the living room. That flash of delight split me clean in half.

In the last few weeks, I’ve seen a light bulb flash in my son’s dark eyes: recognition. Appreciation. Enjoyment. At almost 4 months old, Ollie now offers us his gummy grins and seeks our faces in a crowd. He hasn’t shown much interest in toys, but he loves to sit up on the couch “like big people” and clutch my finger while he takes his bottle.

He smiles. He giggles. He knows when we are there. As Ollie gave me a funny side-eye that suddenly broke into a brilliant smile on Sunday, I got teary-eyed (not that, you know, that’s hard these days). “I think we made it,” I said to Spence. “I think we made it through the early part.”

There are days I feel so happy, realizing how big my baby boy has gotten and how he continues to grow. All parents wish for health and strength for their little ones, but preemie parents send up especially ardent prayers. Nothing makes me happier than seeing Ollie tip the scales and grow and change . . . but it makes me sad, too, realizing he will never again be this little. That our newborn is an infant, and he’ll never be a newborn again.

This is the world I have always lived in, one that has come to define me but has no special name: where there is always a bitter to the sweet, and a sweet to the bitter. Like most mothers, I’m sure, I exist in two planes: I want nothing more than for my babe to grow, but cry thinking of how quickly this is all going to pass.

It’s the second one that makes me stop for sunsets. That forces me to remember life is not a blur of to-do lists, Costco runs and hasty dinners. That we don’t exist to simply wash bottles and catch up on “The Bachelor.” That is important — imperative, even — to know that there is more. Soaking up the quieter moments, finding a way to capture something that feels so beautiful and fleeting: that’s life.

And I want to be a woman — a mother, wife, daughter — who doesn’t let life’s uncertainties cloud its brilliant colors.

I will try.


This mom stays in the picture

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Many moons ago, I stumbled upon a piece by Allison Tate: “The Mom Stays in the Picture.”

I was newly engaged, blissfully planning my wedding, not yet close to being a mother. I was also in the best shape of my life. In 2013, I lost 35 pounds and was the happiest, prettiest and most confident version of myself to date. I felt young and beautiful. I was powerful: Meg 2.0.

I read Tate’s post because it spread through my social networks like wildfire, discussed and “liked” by many high school friends and coworkers toting toddlers of their own. Many noted the piece was a tear-jerker, so I clicked over.

It’s a beautiful piece. Solid and honest and real. It resonated with me, the importance of mothers taking pictures with their children, but I read it from a distance — and as a photographer myself. But I just wasn’t there; I didn’t feel it. I’d grown up in a household with parents who photographed everything, and my mom is still our family historian. I’ve lived my entire life in front of the lens.

Why wouldn’t I want my picture taken?

Though never weight-obsessed, exactly, I’ve struggled with my size for the better part of adulthood. Getting down to a healthy weight in 2013-14 was a major accomplishment for me, and I had hoped to continue my solid habits after getting pregnant. I was afraid of slipping back into old habits, you know? Ones I worked so hard to break.

But I did, of course.

There are many reasons why. I was pregnant, for goodness’ sake; if I wanted a milkshake, I got one. My pregnancy and subsequent release from the confines of tracking every Weight Watchers Point was refreshing. Though I love WW and plan to return to the program, letting myself stop obsessing about every pat of butter, jelly bean and French fry felt . . . good.

And there were complications. My weight ballooned rapidly with the onset of severe preeclampsia. Close to my delivery date at 32 weeks, I was swollen beyond measure and in physical pain, my face and feet and hands all puffy and foreign to me. I felt bloated and uncomfortable, though I’d chalked it up to “third trimester woes.” Learning that my illness was causing most of those symptoms was surprising but, later, a relief.

In the three months since Oliver was born, I have shed 30 of the 60 pounds I gained in pregnancy. Most of it was water weight that fell off within a week. My post-childbirth body was unrecognizable; I barely looked in a mirror for weeks. Having a baby in the NICU meant every shred of my energy, care and concern went to him, and weight was not on my mind. Not even a little.

Once Oliver was home, gaining weight himself and getting stronger, I began to consider stepping out of my maternity jeans. I was tired of feeling lumpy, frumpy and weird, though I had no idea what size I now wore and knew that stepping on the scale would be a rude awakening.

When I finally did, I was shocked by the number I saw: almost exactly where I’d started when I joined Weight Watchers in January 2013. To the pound.

It seemed a cruel joke: after all that discipline and hard work, adopting new habits and changing how I think about food, I was right back where I started? On top of the trauma of Ollie’s premature birth and my lingering blood pressure concerns, I felt overwhelmed. Depressed, even.

Still, since April, my attention has been on nurturing our 3 pound, 9 ounce baby boy to more than 13 pounds of pure chunk and love. My husband and I adore this baby to the tips of our toes, and I could spend hours just looking at his little face.

But I’ve had to look in a mirror, too.

The early photos of Oliver are of . . . Oliver. Because I’m our little family’s photographer, I documented countless tender moments between Spencer and Ollie in the NICU and beyond. There are a handful with me in them, too, but I didn’t press the issue. I rarely handed Spencer the camera.

Because I looked — and felt — exhausted.
Because my hair was always crazy.
Because I rarely summoned the energy for makeup.
Because my face was still bloated.
Because my clothes didn’t fit well.

I had dozens of excuses, you know. So many excuses for not taking pictures with my baby. I cut myself some slack because Ollie was hospitalized for a month . . . and I was lucky to remember to bring snacks and my cell phone on our long drives to Baltimore, let alone stage a photo shoot once we got there. I was more concerned with locating a breast pump than my camera. That was how it had to be.

Our Oliver grew stronger. He learned to take his feeds by bottle, to regulate his body temperature outside the isolette, to widen his little eyes and gaze out at the world. On May 7, Spencer and I finally got The Call: bring the car seat, baby – he’s coming home!

As exhausted as we were in those early weeks (er, months), I knew documenting that time was important. I tried to take as many pictures as possible, sneaking in time to upload them when Ollie snoozed. Many were with my iPhone, because that’s what I had handy. By the time my maternity leave ran out in mid-June, I wanted to have all the photos I’d taken so far organized and ready for an album.

And I would look through them, this collection of precious images, watching Oliver’s cheeks begin to plump and his little eyes widening. I saw the rolls appear around his sweet baby wrists, and the pudgy thighs that have now started supporting his weight as he “stands” on my lap.

But I’m not in many of them.

My own mom has taken thousands of photos of me over the years — and many with Oliver in my arms. Lately, I haven’t focused on his cheeky grin or adorable ears. With laser-sharp precision, I see my double chin and flyaway hair — and I cringe. And puff out my cheeks. And want to untag myself on Facebook, though I don’t.


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The truth? I’m self-conscious. I’m uncomfortable. After publicly embracing Weight Watchers and documenting my weight loss journey in my newspaper column, on Facebook, through this blog . . . well, it’s a little embarrassing. There is such pressure surrounding “post-baby bodies,” and it doesn’t help that two other new moms in my life have already seemed to return to their svelte pre-pregnancy selves. Others complimenting them is not an insult to me, but I can feel my cheeks burn when others praise how great they look. So I look away.

I know no one faults me for not slipping back into my skinny jeans — that it’s not about the skinny jeans, really. I know I’m being too hard on myself, and that no one notices the “flaws” we point out in ourselves.

And more importantly? And I know that, above everything else, I am not a body. We are so much more than our looks. A number on a scale does not determine my self-worth.

But I still don’t feel great. I feel slow and unhealthy and . . . like I did before. When I was a me I’d never planned to be again.


When I look through the home photo shoots I’ve staged with Oliver, my husband is in many pictures. One of my favorite shots is of Ollie peeking up at his dad, one fat fist extended, as Spence looks on and smiles.

Spencer is wearing an old gray T-shirt. He hasn’t shaved. To be honest with you, I’m not even sure he’d showered that day (sorry, babe).

And you know what? No one cares. It doesn’t matter. You can’t even tell.

So why did I beg off when Spence offered to get me in the frame?

Since he came home, I’ve taken pictures of Ollie every two weeks. I like to do them on Sundays, before the chaos of another work week, and try to edit them before Monday morning. Oliver was born late on a Sunday night . . . so that feels reverent to me, too. A reflective time.

Spence helped with Ollie’s 14-week shoot, as he always does. I took the classic photos of father and son I’ve come to know so well. But when I lifted the baby to reposition him, Spencer lifted my camera off the bed and turned it on me.

My first instinct was to refuse, as usual. To make up excuses. To push my son back into the spotlight. To scramble back into the shadows.

But I thought of Allison Tate. I thought of the collection of pictures on my laptop, all of a precious baby boy but not his mother. Of a woman pushed into motherhood two months earlier than planned, and how much I longed for and planned and endured to bring this baby into the world. Of how much I’ve changed, and how much stronger I’ve become.

And I stepped in.

I’m stiff in the first few. You can sense my awkwardness as I stand in my plain, new-ish shirt that already looks old, stained with spit-up and soft from many washes. My hair has grown long since the spring, and I’ve taken to pulling it into a messy, unkempt knot at night. I’m wearing makeup, but it’s smudged and minimal. Reminders of teenage acne dot my cheeks. I look tired.

But beautiful, too.

I think I look beautiful.


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I didn’t expect that. Didn’t dare even hope for it. When Spence wanted to take pictures of Ollie and me, indulged him because he’s my husband and I love him and, deep down, I would like photographic evidence that I was here during this time in my son’s life.

I mean, I’m obviously here. I’m catching tossed pacifiers, making bottles, changing the diaper trash in his nursery, washing onesies. I’m avoiding his splashes during baths in the sink and laughing with his dad over his hilarious expressions, doing anything and everything I can to make him grin.

I’m rocking him at 2 a.m., and 3 a.m., and sometimes 4 a.m. His dad and I are making major and minor medical decisions for him, looking for symptoms and calling doctors. I’m dealing with insurance, grappling with post-NICU anxiety, folding his blankets. I’m sending long missives to friends about he’s doing and uploading his sweet, chunky face to Instagram.

But he won’t know that. He won’t remember.

“I’m everywhere in their young lives, and yet I have very few pictures of me with them,” Tate writes. “Someday I won’t be here — and I don’t know if that someday is tomorrow or thirty or forty or fifty years from now — but I want them to have pictures of me. I want them to see the way I looked at them, see how much I loved them. I am not perfect to look at and I am not perfect to love, but I am perfectly their mother.”


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I look through these photos from a sunny afternoon and feel joy, and hope, and love. I sense all the dreams I have for Oliver pouring from my arms into his little body. I see the recognition in his own face — This is my mother — and feel my own: This is my son.

My body hasn’t “bounced back” from baby. That double-chin is prominent. I look exhausted and greasy, a little threadbare and worn thin at the edges.

But I’m in the picture. I want to always be there, holding and loving him.

And thirty years from now? My 30-year-old son might turn to me and smile.

“Wow, Mom,” he’ll say. “You’re so pretty. So young.”


The tired life: Oliver at 3 months

Week 12 (5)

Looking over a doctor’s office summary from Oliver’s recent check-up, one line under the “Family Life” section stood out to me: “Mother reports that house is returning to normal.”

I actually laughed out loud when I read that — a loud guffaw, incredulous and surprised — because, honestly, I didn’t remember saying that (though I certainly could have), and also because I’m not sure what “normal” is anymore.

Well, with a 3-month-old baby . . . I guess it looks a lot like bottles, babbles and long, sleepy nights. Day care drop-offs and little feet kicking in bath water. Spit-up and diaper disasters, the constant tumble of laundry and tiny fingers wrapping around yours.

I’m writing this after “rising” around 3 a.m. with a fussy man who repeatedly wanted his pacifier, the one he can’t actually keep in his mouth, so perhaps this isn’t the best time to reflect lovingly upon my babe . . . but you know what? I’m completely ready for work almost two hours before I need to be there, and seem to be too dead to the world to even contemplate writing after I get home from writing at work.

So.

Here we are.

And here he is.

Week 12 (7)

Okay . . . that face makes me feel better.

Much better, honestly.

Three months into motherhood, I do feel like we’re settling in and getting adjusted to the newest member of our family — even if Spencer and I are chronically exhausted and zombie-like by Fridays. I went back to work on June 15, and developing that “new normal” around our dual work schedules has been challenging — but doable. We’re making it work.

It feels good to be back in a groove at the job I’ve had since college, though much has been changing around our office. It’s comforting to return to my normal workload and face familiar challenges, however, and getting back to writing my column has been a good way to process what I’m experiencing as a new mom. Reader feedback has been encouraging, and I’m grateful to know I’m not alone.

In many ways, it’s just a relief to feel like a “regular mom” instead of a “preemie mom” or, even harder, a “NICU mom.” I’ve never worn a title so anxiously in my life. Having Oliver home, healthy and growing has soothed my worried soul. Even in my most exhausted moments (and there are many), I can’t help but remember how lucky we are . . . and how grateful. Things could have gone differently, but they didn’t. We are blessed.

There are times I feel like I have everything together and have mastered this mama thing, and other times I feel frazzled and overwhelmed by absolutely everything. I cried last Monday for the first time since he came home, just feeling so worn out by life in general that something inside me cracked and splintered. I was so tired. I sobbed for a half hour, actually — tears I didn’t see coming, which meant they really needed to get out.

But then I took a deep breath, mopped my face with endless tissues, hugged my husband . . . and got up to help put the dinner leftovers away.

So it goes.

It’s not Ollie’s fault. Ollie is a sweet, innocent, hilarious little baby — and a very sweet one at that. Spence and I got our first “real” smiles on July 2 — much sooner than I expected with his prematurity! — and enjoy frequent giggles and grins these days. Oh, how they warm my heart . . . especially after one of those dark nights of the soul. You just can’t stay frustrated with that little guy.

As of last Thursday, Oliver weighs 12 pounds — and has officially tripled his birth weight of 3 pounds, 9 ounces! That number made me giddy with relief. Ollie has gotten so big so fast that his doctor took him off his special preemie formula: the one we were told he’d be on until his first birthday. He went from needing it for a year to “catch up” to being off in less than two months! I’m not going to lie: that was really exciting. He’s our chunky monkey, no doubt, and his 0-3 month clothing fits . . . for now.

In the last few weeks, Ollie has really “woken up” to the world around him. He has seemed to recognize our voices since birth, but now actively turns to listen to us and seeks me out. Eye contact and staring at our faces is a regular pastime, and he frequently kicks his arms and legs when I sing him silly little songs. (Which I do — all the time.) Bright lights — from the TV, the iPad — always intrigue him, too.

He takes about 4 ounces at a feed, give or take, and eats at times that have become increasingly erratic! This little man likes to chow down. His NICU nurses had him on an every-three-hours schedule, which is when Spence and I could come help with his cares, and we were able to maintain that . . . for a while. Now? Well, he’s basically fed on demand. And demand is frequent. His doctor seems to think this is okay, but we’ll revisit that with her in a few weeks.

Things Ollie likes, in no particular order . . .

— Still staring at ceiling fans
— Cuddling with Mama
— Chin tickles from Daddy
— His ever-present pacifier
— Cruising in his swing
— The music of Muse, apparently

We had our first dip in the pool yesterday — and though Ollie loves baths, the chillier pool water was definitely not a hit. He looked super cute in his little swimmer outfit, though!

Ollie swims

In the month to come? Well, I’ll be turning 30 this Saturday (! more to come on that), and we’ll be celebrating many family birthdays over the next few weeks. Grandma and Grandpa Johnson will be coming for a visit, and we’re hoping to squeeze in some fun summer activities before the season vanishes like smoke.

All in all, I guess the doc was right: we are settling in, and the house is returning to “normal.”

It’s a new one . . . but a beautiful one, too.

And since 12 pounds is the magical “sleep through the night” number, let’s hope that magical moment isn’t far behind!


Quiet baby stories

“Are you telling me a story?” I whisper, watching Oliver’s tiny mouth open into a perfect O after he utters a string of sounds, his own little “words.”

Everyone said we would learn his language, his father and me; that, in time, we would begin to know what the whimpers and grunts and dolphin-like calls all mean. For nervous parents-to-be, this seemed impossible. “He won’t speak English,” I remember joking with Spencer. And we won’t know the Language of Oliver.

Despite assurances from seasoned parents, I pictured myself as this sleep-deprived, wild-haired monster pacing the halls with a howling infant in her arms. In these anxious daydreams, it was always dark, maybe even raining, and I was always exhausted. I imagined being frustrated, so frustrated, that I’m singing every lullaby-esque song I can think of . . . nonsense words to old tunes that rise up out of nowhere; often songs my parents sang to me. Yet Ollie stays stuck in his own frustration, ignoring my tunes and pleas. He bucks and howls louder in my arms.

Have I actually had nights like that? I have. I have. Our 10-week-old has wailed and begged for something I cannot see, cannot parcel out, and I have felt helpless and lonely and sad. We have tried fresh diapers and extra milk and swaddling with arms in, swaddling with arms out, and nothing pleases him. Nothing can quiet that wail from that perfect O mouth.

That is not every night — or even most of them. But on the rough nights, the hard nights, we rock and twirl as I hold tight to him, this warm little body somehow created out of nothing, trying not to trip on the too-long legs of my pajamas. We stand in the nursery prepared during the weeks Oliver was in a hospital far from us, Spencer and I worrying obsessively about his care and well being and when — when — we would finally bring him home.

And we sway, Oliver and me, two people watching another sunrise catch summer dew on grass I once danced through myself. The day slides in, already waiting for us. He finally quiets, a drowsy and reassuring weight in my arms, so I watch alone. And it’s hard to imagine feeling lonely ever again.


Sleepless in Maryland

Sunrise

If you’re looking for me, I’m probably watching the sun come up.

At this point in his young life, I know we can’t expect our newborn to sleep through the night . . . or even for a few solid hours. Especially my 10-week-old preemie, who is actually two weeks old when adjusted for his early arrival.

But is the idea of five hours of unbroken sleep a beautiful fantasy?

Absolutely.

Oliver’s schedule can be somewhat flexible, now that he’s getting bigger, but he generally eats every three hours. Spencer and I took turns with the feedings at midnight, 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. when I was home, but I’m strictly on the 3 a.m. shift on our work days.

Sometimes Ollie falls back asleep after that feeding . . . and sometimes he doesn’t.

Sometimes I fall back asleep after that feeding . . . but often? I don’t.

I think it’s a combination of middle-of-the-night overthinking and listening to every whine, gurgle and hiccup our infant is making. Oliver sleeps in a bassinet in the corner of our room, recently moved from right beside the bed. When he first came home, I was up constantly to check his breathing — like every anxious parent — and have since released some of those nerves, but am still on alert for anything that seems amiss.

I’m okay if I fall asleep before Spencer and Ollie. In a quiet, dark room, it doesn’t take long for exhaustion to pull me under. But when I’m roused by his cries for the 3 a.m. feeding and get up for the half hour or more it takes him to finish his milk, I’m finding it harder and harder to go back to bed myself.

How can I be so tired . . . yet unable to rest? It’s torturous. After Ollie finished his bottle around 4 a.m., I should have collapsed immediately. But even with my little guy actually settling himself down, I was staring at the ceiling feeling the minutes tick by.

I’ve quickly realized I can’t do the math. Initially, I became obsessed with the mathematics of sleep: as in, “Well, if I go to bed right now and Ollie sleeps for a few hours, I’ll get three hours now and maybe an hour later, possibly two . . .”

And when that didn’t happen, I would calculate how much I actually got while waiting for the Keurig to spring to life. And the answer was just really depressing.

Spencer is so wonderful, and we really take turns with these nighttime misadventures. Parenting is a shared contact sport at our house. But at the end of the day, if it comes down to Spence or me, I try to let him sneak in some extra shut-eye. I know he’s just as worn out as I am . . . and has to go to work even earlier.

So at 5 a.m. this morning, rather than spend another few restless hours in bed before I had to get up, I decided to try and make the most of that time.

Oliver was fast asleep, of course. Because why wouldn’t he be — then? So I dragged my laptop upstairs with a fresh cup of coffee and settled in.

I wrote this blog post. Answered emails. Placed a Thirty-One order before the party closed. Uploaded some photos, replied to Facebook messages, perused some books on Goodreads.

And away from the digital world? Well, I eventually squeezed another few ounces of milk into Oliver’s reluctant, fussy tummy. Got myself showered, dressed and makeup-ed. Packed my lunch and his bottles. And then, my crowning achievement: I got dinner — this tomato basil chicken stew — in the Crock Pot.

It feels like I’ve lived a full day before I even left for the office.

Better than tossing and turning for hours? Definitely.

But let’s hope for a better night tonight.

Even coffee fanatics have their limits.