On the 18th of November, I officially become the mother of a teenager.
Which seems weird because I’m only 25.
And it’s doubly weird because in some bizarre harmonic convergence, the 17th of November is officially “World Prematurity Day,” a day devoted to heightening awareness about premature birth and to help support the various institutions that work with the families and babies dealing with the difficulties that arise when a baby comes too soon.
In another odd harmonic convergence, the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding Liam’s birth mapped onto the American “hanging chad” debacle that will live in infamy. I missed most of the details of that process because I was busy being put on bedrest, then hospitalized, and then delivered of a child who came almost two months early and weighed less than two pounds. Being delivered of a baby slightly smaller than a loaf of bread will make a gal forget about politics for a while.
Those were scary days, those early days in November, when my blissfully uncomplicated pregnancy, which had been filled with compliments about how thin I was despite being pregnant (note to lady movie stars who never really look pregnant and then regain their bodies two minutes after giving birth: you’re killing us out here in real-people land) suddenly became something that didn’t look like my life at all. Turns out that when you’re six months pregnant, you’re not supposed to be thin.
Here’s what happens when the ob-gyn does an ultrasound and announces at the end of it, “you have a crappy placenta” and puts you on bedrest:
You will be terrified; you will think to yourself that you did everything right: you ate right and you exercised right and you didn’t have coffee and you didn’t have booze except omigod that night before you knew you were pregnant you had three martinis was it the martinis omigod it was the martinis. You will make bargains with whatever god might be listening and when people say they’re going to pray for you, you say thank you please pray, and you hope that people are slaughtering goats and chickens on your behalf because any magic, you’ll take any magic anyone wants to send your way if only everything will be okay.
You will go to bed for ten days while the country tries to figure out who will be the next President and then, when you’re admitted to the hospital after what was supposed to be a routine check on what was supposed to be all the weight gained by this little shrimp in your belly, you will lie in the hospital bed and cry.
And you will cry and cry, but because you are mostly flat on your back, the tears will pool down the sides of your face, drip into your ears and your hair. You won’t even mind the steroids they’re shooting into you, with needles that look like they were borrowed from an elephant hospital because anything, anything to make the baby be okay. The steroids, some well-meaning but socially awkward medical resident will tell you, are for the baby’s lungs, which are “just little smears of pink jelly right now so if he was born he would probably not be able to breathe.” And then you will cry some more because holy crap pink smears of jelly?
My tiny ferocious child, the entire 1lb, 10oz bundle, came into the world by emergency c-section, just after dawn on 18 November. The United States still didn’t have a president but I didn’t much care because the bundle was crying—weakly, it’s true, but crying. Which meant that the smears of jelly were functioning like lungs were supposed to function.
Preemies—preemies as small as Liam was—don’t really look like babies. They don’t look particularly cute or jolly or huggable. They look fragile and terrifyingly old: wizened, their skin hanging in folds around flesh that has yet to appear.
Instead of being wrapped in soft blankets, they are wrapped in wires and tubes, surrounded by monitors; they are whisked away from you and tucked into an isolette (the plastic shoebox, we called it) that’s basically a small warming tank that keeps the bundle the exact temperature it would be if it were still the proverbial bun in the proverbial oven.
I don’t know how we functioned, really, in the days and weeks and months of Liam being in the hospital: we lived downtown on West 4th street, and “Babies Hospital,” as it was called, is on 168th street. Sometimes it took us more than an hour each way on the subway — not that much fun, especially with sore lady bits. But we trekked back and forth every day for our sessions of “kangaroo care:” holding our bundle against our skin so he could feel our hearts beating. I hoped always that the steady sounds of our hearts would drown out the noisy pinging and whirring and beeping that defined life in the NICU.
The bundle became Liam, became a “feeder and grower” rather than anything more dire, although the NICU was filled with other babies who weren’t so lucky. I never knew what to say on those days when I would come in and one or another isolette would be empty. Having a preemie, I realized, is a bit like having a miscarriage: initially you think you’re the only one ever to suffer such a loss and then you realize, sadly, how many people share a version of your feelings.
And now the bundle will be thirteen. I’ve wondered if his formidable character – confident, tenacious, focused – was shaped by spending his earliest months in such inhospitable circumstances. Or maybe character is a fluke, just like what happened to him was a fluke. No doctor could ever explain why Liam was IUGR (intra-uterine growth restriction, which I think is medical-speak for “the baby didn’t grow”) or why none of the dire predictions came true (no oxygen tanks, no developmental delays, no blindness, no physical impediments…the list went on and on).
Who really can say: maybe all the prayers and burning sage and chanting and whatever else people were doing on Liam’s behalf while he was in the hospital worked; I have no way of knowing.
What I do know? I know that my son is creative and athletic; he loves math and he loves writing; he is funny and beautiful and aggravating, all in equal measure. Liam’s preemie story ends happily; we were lucky in our doctors, our hospital, and in the baby who came into the world so tiny and so strong.
Happy birthday, teenager. The last thirteen years have been amazing; I can’t wait to see what happens next.