Reflections of a preemie mum: three years on

Today is National Prematurity Awareness Day.

Three years ago I had no idea that this day even existed. Fast forward six weeks later, and my daughter was born, just under 12 weeks early – and the words ‘prem’, ‘preemie’, and ‘premature’ became my world.

When BC was born, I ended up reading so, so much – I had a gazillion questions that I needed answering and as I was sat next to an incubator for 12 hours a day, I had plenty of time on my hands! I needed to understand how this could happen; I needed to know what the implications were from being born so early; I needed to understand what had happened to other babies born at 28 weeks.

At the time, if I’m honest, I didn’t really care when I heard about parents whose prem babies were now 10 years old – I couldn’t even get my head around looking that far ahead.

And if I’m really, really honest I did think a little to myself “so what, get over it – they’re clearly fine if they’re 10”. What it never occurred to me was that the child may be completely fine, but maybe the parent wasn’t – something which has now hit more painfully close to home.

In the weeks and months after a prem birth you go on auto pilot.

She became my new job. My vigil by her bedside kept me sane and gave me something to do in a situation where there was barely anything that I could be useful for. I made it my mission to live each day by little wins; how many desats, oxygen volume levels, heart rates, weight gained – any of these numbers could make or break a day and I monitored them all as intensely as any of the nurses or doctors on the ward did – yep, I was THAT pain in the arse. I wasn’t allowed to hold her for the first week, and for the next 3-4 weeks after that we could only hold her maybe twice a day tops, and then for only 20 minutes at most, so this really did become all-consuming. Hence, all the reading, I guess.

You feel very aware that you constantly have to keep friends and family updated on what’s going on – even if you don’t know yourself. And, really, no one wants to hear bad news – obviously – and so you spend your time either trying to make someone understand that a day with no change is just as much of a win as a day when the oxygen volume can come down, or else working out whether you should say that BC was having a blood transfusion later that afternoon or not. You become the comforter for people who are as bemused as you are by what has happened.

And you have to deal with A LOT of stupid things being said to you. Things like ‘well she was so tiny she must have just popped out’ or ‘at least you didn’t get fat – you’re lucky’ – both things that were actually said to me, word for word. I am truly at a loss for words to describe what I think of these comments – and not even the C-word is strong enough (plus my mum reads these and I would get so told off for using it!) – suffice to say, for the record, NEVER EVER EVER say these things to a mum that has just given birth prematurely. Never. Ever.

All of these things keep your head and your body busy whilst you’re in the hospital and then when you come home, you’re just desperate to experience ‘normal’.

You push aside the last few weeks. It feels too dramatic – and also very selfish – to think about how traumatic what you have just gone through has been on you. After all, you’re one of the very, very lucky ones because you were able to walk out of that hospital – however many weeks later – carrying a baby, and not everyone is so fortunate.

I read so much literature about the grieving process when you give birth early – and it’s so, so true. It’s the weirdest feeling – if you’re lucky enough that your baby is crazy strong and survives being born so early, how dare you grieve? But you do.

You miss the kicks that used to come at the same time every day – I was sent home the day after giving birth and I remember lying there in bed with my hand on my tummy, and I had forgotten that I had given birth – true story – and I genuinely expected to feel her kick. Incidentally, I kept forgetting that I had given birth the whole day that BC was born – this may sound beyond ridiculous, but I had had a very straightforward birth except for the fact that she was so early. We arrived at the hospital and 26 minutes later she was here, and then I was wheeled into a room and we just had to wait – we weren’t allowed to see her for about 6 hours – so we’d get chatting and then all of a sudden it would hit me that I had a baby. And then we’d get chatting. And then it would hit me again.

You miss the classes that you never got around to taking. I remember meeting the group of parents who had babies all due the same day that I was; I saw them on the day when I was supposed to be with them, all of us being shown the ward and whatnot. They were being shown the special care baby unit ‘doors’ as I was going inside – they weren’t allowed actually in there, you see. BC was 6 weeks old at this point and it blew my mind that I knew exactly what their babies looked like the other side of their tummy, because mine was on the other side of that door.

You miss the stupid things – what it would feel like to be so huge that you just wanted to get this baby out. Getting a nursery ready. Having people tell you you’re getting big.

What I read a little about, but didn’t pay too much attention to, was PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder. I didn’t understand this – I’d given birth, not gone to war. I hadn’t been in a horrendous accident. I hadn’t witnessed anything horrific. And actually I was doing just fine – I think I cried twice the 9 weeks that BC was in hospital, and I don’t remember crying at all when she came home.

Once, I went to a baby group for mums who had had prem babies and I couldn’t bring myself to go back again. It made me mad that two, five, seven years on they were STILL talking about it, and were visibly moved and damaged by what had happened. I was so angry at them – they were the lucky ones, they got to bring their baby home and their baby was now a full grown child. How on earth can they be so ungrateful that they cling on to the past – it’s not fair on their child, not fair on their families. These people, I thought to myself, are the people who claim that they suffer PTSD. Well, no thank you. I want to surround myself with positive people like me.

Fast forward 3 years and I’m there. I so get where they were coming from. And, although I never in a million years said what I thought out loud to them, I apologise from the bottom of my heart for being such a douche-bag.

You see, your body and mind have a way of dealing with things and getting the job done. When you’re looking after a little baby, you need to be present. You have a job to do. So, your body has a clever way of delaying all the shit that you need to deal with for a time when you can.

And for me, that was when BC became a toddler.

I think she’s bloody amazing – and please don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t look at her and think, ‘wow, you can do all this despite being born so early’.

In fact, this is one thing I have never done. I have never looked to justify how she measures up and what she can or can’t do as her actual age (ie being born on her birth date) versus her ‘corrected’ age (which means how old she would be if she was born on her due date). I’ve always been of the mindset that kids just do stuff at different ages – regardless of when they’re born. I just think that all toddlers are amazing in how independent they become, the things they are learning every day; it’s a true joy to watch.

But I think it is this independence that has released something inside me. Whereas before I would look at pictures of her when she was in hospital and just be full of awe and wonder at how something so small could do such great things; now I start to cry pretty much the moment I look at a picture of her. Jeez – selecting the image for this blog and I was virtually hyperventilating sobbing! It’s ridiculous. And it’s not just pictures of BC – any image of a baby in an incubator, or on oxygen, elicits the same response.

I can no longer bring myself to talk about her birth – I used to wax lyrical about it all the time. Now I just can’t take myself there.

I am ridiculously, insanely jealous of all the (what feels like) millions of mums I see in the parks sporting their baby bumps. I feel physical pain. My heart feels like a lump in my chest. I actually hate them a little bit. Hate their lovely maternity clothes. Hate the way they rest their hands on their bump. Hate how nice they are – the bastards! Funnily enough, I don’t feel this way if I actually know the person – I suppose the joy you feel for someone you love who is giving birth conquers all else, thank goodness. Bloody hell, I couldn’t imagine sitting next to a friend silently seething at them. Yet I do it to the poor, random lady who is sat next to me on the bench at the zoo.

I feel hulk-like rage at anybody who even dares mutter something about being ‘tired of being pregnant’. My sister and I had a very candid conversation after she gave birth to my niece – my niece was born 6 months after BC. And it was only after my niece was born, that I was able to tell my sister how much I wanted to punch her – hard – when, from about 32 weeks, she was moaning about how big she had become and how she was just ‘done with pregnancy’.

And I get irrationally mad when people slate the hospital BC was born in. I have  lost count of the amount of times that someone has said to me ‘Oh my experience there was terrible, we had to wait for ages to be seen and they could have sent me home before the next shift started and didn’t, so I had to wait for hours for the shift nurses to see me and sign me out’. Chances are, it was someone like me who had caused the delay. You see, when we were rushed in, every doctor and nurse on that shift were pulled in to help save my daughter’s life. We came in at the end of the shift – shift finishes at 8am and we came in at 7.40am – and therefore interrupted all of the end of shift checks; which means that everyone who was hoping to be sent home before the next shift started didn’t get seen. So, on behalf of me and BC, I apologise to anyone who had to wait a while to see a nurse or doctor.

And these are just some of the loony things that bother me now, long after the actual event. But you keep them under wraps, and you hope that at some point you stop feeling so goddamn emotional about it all. You look forward to the day when you can genuinely laugh when the heavily pregnant mum from the gym whose name you don’t know makes a comment about getting fat. And you can look at pictures of babies in SCBU wards, and once again cheer them on for being so freakishly strong.

But if you know anyone who has given birth prematurely and it’s several years after the fact, please don’t just assume that they’re over it. Instead, assume that deep inside, they probably have moments when they’re raging psychos.

And for your own safety NEVER EVER EVER tell them that they’re lucky they didn’t get fat, and that small babies just pop out.

So, every 17th November I give cheers to the little heroes, but do you know what? Here’s a bloody massive cheer for the prem parents who get through it… without killing anyone who makes stupid comments.

Peace and love x

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