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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. . . And he’s home

ollie and me

Just in time for Mother’s Day weekend, our little Oliver was able to come home last Thursday . . . and I’ve barely slept since.

I’m exaggerating — but only slightly.

It’s just that he’s so little . . . and he makes so many sounds. There’s the dirty diaper cry, the “Lady, how’s about that bottle?” cry, the belly pressure cry. Our first night home, I was truly a mess. Everything startled him, and everything startled me. He just seems so vulnerable.

After almost a month in the NICU, where Ollie was cared for by an attentive staff, he was turned loose to Spencer and me. I’d gotten so used to the monitors, wires and nurses hovering nearby that I had a panic attack before discharge. Though Ollie requires no special medical attention, I still couldn’t imagine how we were supposed to care for our preemie without professional help.

Don’t you have to, like, prove your qualifications to be handed a helpless child? Isn’t there a form to fill out, a test to take, some sort of ground to cover?

For as much as we often wanted to sprint out of the hospital with him, there was still comfort — reassurance — there. Those folks know what they’re doing, after all — and we do not. Not like that. But his nurses taught us about his little quirks and budding personality. Since we were only able to be there for a few hours each day, they were his caretakers. We were frequent visitors.

For two novice parents, the knowledge shared in the NICU has been invaluable. I’ve made no bones about how little I know about babies, how nervous I am around newborns. I usually avoid them out of terror and apprehension. I usually politely refuse offers to hold them, worrying about their cute squirms and floppy necks . . . so it seemed a crazy (cruel?) twist of fate that Spencer and I would, in fact, get a tiny baby even more fragile than most.

“You’re really not going to break him,” his nurses would assure me, sensing my hesitation at his bedside. Nervous and still recovering from childbirth, I often differed to Spencer for his care at the hospital. I usually flopped in a nearby chair, content to take photos and just breathe.


Ollie waves


But the time came to get myself together. My mama instincts finally came in.

We spent hours learning to change diapers, give baths, offer bottles, give comfort . . . and I wanted desperately to bring him home, especially late at night and early in the morning. When I was pregnant, those were his “active” times — the times I could feel him kicking, grabbing my husband’s hand as we talked about this mystery baby and dreamed little dreams for him.

When we came home without Oliver, ravaged and shocked by his early arrival, I couldn’t bear to see night come. I felt so empty — physically and emotionally — that I just prayed to fall asleep and not think about anything, anything at all. I often wrote in a wild fury, words strung together that I never shared; I’ll probably never read them again. In the first week, especially, I was just sad and angry and wrung out.

Though the NICU nurses were wonderful, it was hard not to feel angry at times. That’s my baby, I’d think, feeling jealous and weird when one of his caretakers fussed over him. I had to remind myself constantly that I am his mom. I just felt displaced and in the way, toting my tiny containers of pumped breast milk and trying not to cry at his isolette.

I felt robbed, honestly. Robbed of the last two months of my pregnancy, which we’d planned and anticipated; robbed of a more peaceful birth experience without the anxiety, fear and guilt of preeclampsia and early labor. I was mad that our families, eagerly anticipating their first grandchild and nephew, had to experience all that worry with us.

But I’m working on letting that go. It doesn’t serve me to think of what might have, could have or “should” have been; there is nothing I could have done differently to change what happened in April. And he’s here now, and he is perfect.

“We get bonus Ollie time,” I say.



I’m sure that, in the months to come, the chaos of it will fade. To some extent, it already has. I can look over now and see our son in his bassinet, kicking his feet in baby dreams. Though I gave birth a month ago, I feel like we actually had a baby on May 7. Bundling him up for the car ride home and waving goodbye to our favorite nurse is a moment I won’t forget.

As any parent of a newborn can kindly tell me, these early days have been tough. But I cherish them because they are, in fact, “normal” — and normalcy is something I crave. Ollie’s early arrival, my own illness and his month in the hospital complicated what is already a challenging time, and we’re processing.

Though he is a sweet, easygoing baby, Ollie doesn’t sleep when anyone else prefers to sleep. Which is to say: at night. I knew this would be hard, but the exhaustion is something else entirely. And after seven months of living a caffeine-free existence, I am hitting the coffee hard. Spence had a pot brewed on Mother’s Day morning, and the pair of us wandered the kitchen like zombies throughout the day.

But there’s a beauty in that, too. The bleary-eyed new parents, clinging to each other like buoys as their newborn howls nearby; the piles of laundry and stacks of fresh diapers, the spilled baby powder and mounds of bottles. It’s a familiar scene — and ours now, too.

Like all things in life, I know this is only temporary. That floods me with relief and sadness — joy and pain both. I think about when Ollie will be big enough to stand in his crib and reach his arms up to us, and the nights he’ll turn the pages of his picture books himself. When he’ll stop trailing me through the house, running out to meet friends instead. The bittersweet flavor of those moments dissolves on my tongue.

So I focus. I relish. I try to stay in these moments, difficult and fuzzy and milk-soaked though they may be.

Last night, my husband held him gently and brushed his nose over his downy-soft hair. Oliver was swallowed up in Spencer’s arms, his little hands flexing as though in a wave.

“Can you believe that, someday, he could be taller than us?” I whispered.


Spence and Ollie


We are already developing new routines, schedules. Ollie gets bigger each day, pushing us closer to the blessed time we’ll all get a few unbroken hours of sleep. And then I’ll be crying at his high school graduation and helping him pack for college and deciding none of his floozy girlfriends are anywhere close to good enough, so.

In the meantime, we’re trying to rest. Clean. Work on our new normal. Though I’m still sorting through those Feelings I have about Oliver’s birth, our weeks visiting him in the hospital, my crazy entrance into motherhood and how we’re adjusting as a family, I’m focused more on the day-to-day at home while I can. Four of my six weeks off work were used — poof — before Ollie even came home, so we have logistics to sort out as well.

And we will. I know we will. Every major life change I’ve experienced — many in the last two years — has seemed overwhelming and a little scary at first . . . and motherhood, though thrilling, is no different. I’m proud that I’ve made it this far without major meltdowns and so impressed with my patient, loving husband, who has already proven himself to be the best dad to Ollie.

In the meantime, I savor the quiet moments we share these days: rocking in the nursery with his wide eyes searching mine; our 3 a.m. bottles in the quiet, dark house; the drowsy, sleepy smiles he offers like clockwork after mealtime. Sometimes I look at him and think, How did this happen? How is he mine? and I laugh, because life so often feels like beautiful happenstance.

And I’m grateful.


Oliver William: A Birth (and Love) Story

I first met my son at three in the morning.

I was sweaty, and tired, and shaky. My hair was matted and, with my old glasses, my vision blurred at the edges. Oliver William had been in the world for 29 hours, and he’d spent all of them in an isolette in a neonatal intensive care unit a floor below the curtained-off room where I was coming off a magnesium sulfate drip.

He was the most beautiful, surreal thing I’d ever seen.


Our story begins weeks before the balmy spring Sunday he entered the world. I had a fairly normal pregnancy until I began to swell in March, my limbs getting puffy and painful around the time I reached the third trimester.

My blood pressure was on my doctors’ radar from my first OB appointment in October, but it wasn’t under constant surveillance . . . at first. When my readings began to trend high, I underwent frequent tests at my appointments to check for protein and other issues. I’d heard the term “preeclampsia” before, but had little concept of what it was — or how it would come to apply to us.

In the week before Oliver’s birth, my husband and I had made in-and-out hospital visits twice — including late on Easter Sunday. We have a blood pressure cuff at home and had taken to checking my readings . . . only to find the numbers were consistently scary. On Easter, my reading at 10 p.m. was 170/120.

On each of those early visits, I was monitored for a few hours with regular blood pressure checks and hooked up to a fetal monitor. The baby was active, strong and happy, so there was little sense of urgency in the beginning. My readings would always drop to a more manageable level — 142/90, say — at the hospital, so we would stay for a few hours and head home under orders to rest and check in with my OB again the next day.

On April 8, I used my lunch break for a blood pressure check at my regular OB. I left in a hurry — not even bothering to turn off my computer or grab my leftovers from the fridge. My coworkers and boss were aware I’d been having some difficulties, but I wasn’t yet aware of the seriousness myself. I said goodbye to my friends without realizing I wouldn’t be back for months.

That appointment didn’t go well, of course. I was sent back to the local hospital. Spencer met me there, thinking it was another routine monitoring, but this time felt different. I’d been taking medication to lower my blood pressure for a few days without any change, and I knew a third hospitalization in less than a week was serious.

I laid in a hospital bed down the hall from a woman in labor, listening to her wail and scream. I remember thinking how scary it sounded, but felt oddly jealous of the relief she must feel to have it over with. I’ve been nervous about childbirth since learning about childbirth, but there was no part of me that thought I’d be having a baby that weekend. I assumed I was heading for bed rest — possibly hospital bed rest — and had a long month ahead of me.

I was right . . . in some ways. Totally wrong in others.


The woman down the hall had her baby at 8:30 p.m. I watched the clock — about the only thing I had to do — while Spencer ran home to pack a bag with phone chargers, snacks, a change of clothes, toiletries. For months my sister had been asking me if I was “prepared” with those sorts of things, and I’d been indignant about the fact that we had months until we’d be hurrying to a hospital. What was the rush?

When Spence returned, we didn’t have any answers — but I was moved down the hall so the baby and I could be monitored overnight. More tests were conducted, and my mom and sister were with us on Thursday. I was swollen, tired and cranky, plus feeling guilty about my poor husband sleeping upright in the world’s most uncomfortable chair. I kept waking up to look at him, wishing desperately we were in our own house. That none of this was happening.

To compound the chaos, my mother-in-law was flying in while I was hospitalized. Our baby shower was Saturday, April 11 (at our house.), and all the final preparations were underway. I was agonizing over potentially missing this event — something my mom, sister and I had been discussing for months. We’d spent hours getting excited about and working on the details, and I knew how stressful this was getting . . . for everyone.

My dad picked up my mother-in-law at the airport that Thursday — the same night I thought I’d be returning home to rest. Though there was talk of my release in the evening, everything changed quickly around 8 p.m. With my blood pressure still high and the results of my tests in hand, my doctor arrived to talk about preeclampsia.

Transfer.
Ambulances.
Getting to a hospital with a NICU.
Taking steroid shots to help the baby’s lungs before delivery.

Delivery.

The word echoed like a gunshot.

I got my first steroid shot, was hooked up to a magnesium drip, felt like my skin and arms and life were on fire and laid mute and desolate in a side room as another woman down the hall had an emergency C-section. Spencer never left my side for more than a few moments.

At 1 a.m., I took my first ambulance ride. The crew arrived to transfer us to a large Baltimore hospital with a NICU, something our local facilities lacked; we were admitted in the middle of the night. I arrived in the same room where, two days later, our baby would enter the world, but all I knew then was that I was scared and thirsty and wanted to be anywhere, anywhere but there.

Spencer and I held hands and talked and pressed our heads together. When I think back on that week, all I see is his face close to mine reminding me to breathe, that everything would be all right — even if we weren’t always sure that would be true. When you marry someone, their qualifications as a partner and parent haven’t necessarily been challenged.

Spence and I had our love and our commitment — and we’re the very best of friends. But we’d never been tested. Not like this.

In every way it’s possible to pass, my Spencer did. I can’t imagine how I would have survived without him. He wore so many hats: taking care of me, contacting our worried families, becoming the chief communicator manning both of our cell phones . . . needless to say, I quickly learned that Oliver was going to have a hell of a dad. And even in the haze, that made me so happy and proud.

Saturday, April 11 — the day of the shower — was hard. We were moved to a corner room on the seventh floor with a beautiful view of Baltimore, but the sunshine and blossoming trees and well-intentioned text messages from family and friends seemed to cause physical pain. Though there was a brief ray of hope that we’d be discharged, that things weren’t that serious, I knew in my heart that we were in it for the long haul.

Our doctor came in around 7 a.m. to tell me, quite sympathetically, that I wasn’t leaving. They were still monitoring my blood pressure (high) and urine protein (also high). Though they believed it could be gestational hypertension, preeclampsia was still the beast lurking around every corner. Each time a nurse came in to check my pressure, my heart began to pound. Everything seemed to be resting on a number — those two numbers — and the stress was making me crazy.

From talking to our doctor on Saturday, I knew I wasn’t going home until after I had our baby. Whether that was after a month of hospital bed rest or much (much) sooner, my body was struggling. Little Oliver was still safe in there, but an ultrasound revealed a few potential issues with my placenta and how the high blood pressure was affecting my uterus.

Nothing sounded good. Everything sounded terrifying, in fact.

We used FaceTime to participate in the baby shower from afar, which helped dull the pain a little, but I was abjectly miserable. A cousin and aunt surprised us at the hospital, bringing balloons and cupcakes and gifts, and it was wonderful to see them . . . but I was so scared and sad, it took all my energy not to cry the entire time.

Somehow, the day passed. Spencer and I laid in our room facing a historic tower, watching the sun sink lower and cast the skyline in golden light. We didn’t talk much, just held hands and got lost in our own thoughts. It felt like the room was holding its breath with us, waiting. After the shower ended, we rarely saw or spoke to anyone.

Around 4 a.m., I woke up with terrible heartburn — especially strange given I’d barely eaten anything the day before. Food and drink are off-limits with a magnesium drip, so I felt sick and low. Ever alert, Spence woke up and got a nurse for me. A dose of heartburn medication did nothing, and I developed a pounding headache.

Our doctor appeared again in the pale light of early morning. I was awake, staring out the window, watching colors appear and lights blink off; Spencer was, too, just stroking my needle-studded hand. Waiting.

I don’t remember what the doctor said. I remember his calm face telling us that I was going into severe preeclampsia — just as they’d feared — and that, with my high blood pressure, I was in danger of having seizures or a stroke. Bed rest and medication would not cure this; I was too far gone. Nothing would cure it but having our baby. The safest thing to do — for both of us — was to deliver.

I was 32 weeks, 2 days pregnant. He was due June 5, a date I’d recited countless times in seven months. A date I’d circled, starred, color-coded on my Google calendar.

But April 12 would be his birthday.


I was induced around 10 a.m., then spent 12 hours in and out of sleep. I took any medication I was offered, floating freely through childhood memories after a powerful dose of Stadol. I apparently told Spencer I was back at my grandparents’ home, the place where my sister and I spent hours after school and every summer; we were playing with dolls and Barbies, lost in our games.

I was high as a kite, honestly — “tasting purple,” as a nurse joked. I barely remember the afternoon, but it’s probably better that way.

Our families arrived in Baltimore. My parents, Spencer’s parents, my sister and brother-in-law all camped out to wait for news. Spencer waited until I was sleeping to disappear and update them.

The day wore on. I was oblivious to most of it. I woke occasionally in pain as the contractions revved up, clutching my husband’s hand and waiting to hear how dilated I’d become. By mid- to late afternoon, I was at 4 centimeters and given an epidural. Spencer had to leave the room while it was administered and, for the first time, I became my own coach.

If you’ve had a baby, you know the rest. If you haven’t, you probably don’t want to.

At 9:57 p.m., we welcomed our Oliver into the world. His cry was mighty and immediate; a nurse lifted him high enough for me to see and called out, “Happy birthday!” I began to cry as Spencer cut the cord.

I saw him bundled for just a moment, kissed his cheek shakily, and he was off.


The days after are a blur. Safely ensconced in the NICU, Oliver was breathing on his own and doing better than we could have hoped from the beginning. It was a day and a half before I was well enough to be wheeled down to see him, and I’ll never forget peeking into the isolette to see my tiny son bundled in the semi-darkness.

Everything felt like a dream. Even after he was placed on my chest — this sweet, sleepy, whimpering little guy — and nuzzled beneath my chin, I kept thinking, This is my son. This is my son? and trying to sort out the ten thousand conflicting thoughts in my head.

It just happened so fast. None of it was in “the plan.” For starters, I couldn’t rationalize that I was no longer pregnant. I could not comprehend that this was my baby. I couldn’t process that I’d actually given birth, something I’d been simultaneously anticipating and dreading, and survived. It was over. He is here.

He is here.

Our darling, darling son.


Ollie smiles


So everything has been . . . surreal.

Oliver is now two and a half weeks old, is eating completely by bottle (no feeding tube!), has had his IV removed and generally gets cuter and stronger every day. He rarely fusses and mostly naps; we go up to visit as much as we can, which is much easier now that he is closer to us at a new hospital outside of Baltimore.

Oh, my emotions. They tumble and fly and toss me about — a ragged sea of feeling all the feelings, usually in rapid succession. I’m filled with such overwhelming love for this little boy, it’s an ache. I’m so excited to see him each day, but paralyzed with anxiety when we have to leave.

Spencer and I have gone from total NICU novices to pros, meeting so many kind families in a similar boat and feeling supported by friends, family and strangers alike. I can’t believe the messages, emails and gifts we’ve received; we are so grateful for all of them.

We met a woman Monday who just delivered her third preterm baby and, standing in the parking lot after leaving the NICU, she told us that — before we know it — Oliver will be home, healthy and happy . . . and this will all be nothing but a memory. She was calm and collected as I stood before her, fragile and half-broken and teary.

Sometimes I think, I hope I don’t remember any of this. Other times, well — I hope I remember all of it. As Oliver continues to grow (and give us his happy little milk smiles!), we’ve been taking the advice of a new friend and trying to document everything we’re seeing, doing and feeling. I’ve taken hundreds of photos and sometimes pull them up side by side, already marveling at the difference between April 12 and today.

Each day is a new day.


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Entering the NICU is like stepping into a parallel world. I mostly curl up in a chair by his isolette to slip a finger into his little hand or, when we arrive at feeding times, hug him close with a bottle. Spence and I take turns; he is amazing with him. My own confidence increases with each hand-off, hug and diaper change, and I’m already far from the fragile, nervous woman I was just a month ago. Heck, a few weeks ago.

Because I’m a parent.

My goodness, I’m his mom.

It happened much faster than we would have ever wanted and the circumstances were less than ideal, but I get stronger every day — and so does Ollie. In my better moments, I feel capable and accepting. In the darker ones, well . . . less so.

But I cling tightly to the advice from other NICU parents: that once we get our little guy home, this chapter will close and life — beautiful, unpredictable, amazing life — will blossom. And we will be okay.

Better than okay, even.

Because we’re a family.


Family


More than anything, I’m grateful. Grateful Spencer forced me to take care of myself and Ollie when I was frightened and in denial. Grateful for the doctors who noticed the right signs at the right moment, and for the medical staff who cared for me during the scariest time of my life. So, so grateful for the NICU nurses who continue to care for our sweet baby and also soothe our own concerns each day.

I’m thankful for our amazing families, who rallied around to care for us physically and emotionally, and will love their nephew, grandchild and great-grandchild just as much as we do. The cards, emails, Instagram and Facebook comments from friends have buoyed our spirits, and we are so appreciative of the presents and offers to help.

At the firm encouragement of a social worker, I’m learning to say “yes.” It’s so hard for me to do. I hate to inconvenience anyone, to feel as if I’m burden; I thrive on self-sufficiency. But we say “yes, yes, thank you” to most everything now: rides, meals, help, prayers. Yes to everything. Yes to anything that can help us help our Ollie.

I’ll never forget the support we’ve received.

Also, I’m a hugger now.


Though we don’t yet know when Oliver will come home, he gets bigger and stronger every day. We’re definitely heading in a homeward direction — and that is a huge comfort — but he has a few tasks to accomplish before he’s ready.

I’m okay with that. I’ve made my peace with it. I trust that he is in the best place possible, where he is being looked after by caring professionals who know far more than his nervous parents do. While I can’t wait until he’s home with us, I’m also scared. The NICU isn’t anyone’s idea of paradise, but it’s become familiar. A known entity. With time, I suppose, anything will.

But we will learn. We can’t wait to learn! Spence and I have already absorbed so much about preemies, newborns and, most importantly, Ollie himself. So many of the things I was nervous about — child birth, breastfeeding — are either something I’ve now done or something I do every day. I figured it out. Trial by fire.

We’ve developed a new normal with Ollie in the NICU, but the real adventure begins when he gets home.

I’ve channeled much of my energy into washing his new clothes, organizing his toys, getting his nursery ready . . . and Spence has been putting together furniture, hanging curtains, painting. Our energy gets pooled nightly to tackle projects both big and small, and working on his room has given me a productive way to feel close to him when he’s far away.

Despite all that, we still have yet to finish.

But somehow, I think he understands.