The guilt goes away but it’s never really gone.
In thinking of what it has been like to be a preemie mom, this isn’t what I wanted to write, but it’s the thought that keeps coming right now. I had something entirely different written, something uplifting and encouraging. I wrote about my c-section scar and my emotional scars and how they all heal. And they do. But, in healing, they become a part of you that, though you often forget, will never leave. They make themselves known on rainy days or when tight jeans pucker and pull at your skin. A writing instructor once told me you can read what someone’s written and tell the story they’re avoiding. Uplifting and encouraging is true but, right now, it isn’t my truth. This is my truth in this moment. This is the story I’ve been avoiding.
To this day, my sister and I will still quote an episode of the old Woody Woodpecker cartoon we watched as kids. I don’t remember the entire context, but Woody gets involved in some quagmire for which he should have gone to the authorities. He doesn’t, and things get progressively worse. Throughout the episode, there is a man in a suit and hat who will appear, narrating the lesson. “If Woody had gone right to the police, this would never have happened.” Joining Woody in dangerous situation after dangerous situation, even walking a beam high above the ground, arms extended and tipping along ever so, he repeats his refrain. “If Woody had gone right to the police, this would never have happened.” That is often what being a preemie mom has been like for me. Most days are wonderful and I feel incredulous that we’ve been so abundantly blessed. But at any moment of trouble, there’s always that omniscient narrator who’ll arrive to tell me that this is happening because of my choices. To remind me that the problem is my fault. “If you had gone on bed rest, this would never have happened.”
Very early in the pregnancy, I started bleeding. Having done fertility treatments, and having suffered a miscarriage earlier that same year, I was already being monitored. I was told everything looked ok but to get some rest. I was to stay in bed for a while which was easy enough to do since I was on vacation for the holidays. When my vacation was up, I went back to work and continued as I always had. Time went on and things were ok. Until they weren’t. And once they weren’t, I’m not sure I ever let that fully sink in. I don’t know if that was my way of keeping a safe mental distance in case another loss was coming our way. Maybe it was that I couldn’t bear that idea of failing yet again at this thing we view as so intrinsic to womanhood. It could have been simple stubbornness and the need to feel control. Whatever it was, instead of taking to my bed as advised, I negotiated. I adjusted my work schedule to work from home more, or I’d travel in by car or during off hours where I’d be assured a seat on the subway. The pregnancy may not have been going well, but work was. Some part of me may have felt if I could continue to excel in my career, I’d still have something if I continued to fail at fertility.
Looking back, these possibilities seem obvious. But, in the moment, I never even consciously considered whether there were other choices to make. I got accustomed to the monitoring schedule and hearing that he was small but strong. There were concerns but we never really had a reason why things weren’t going well. With no answers forthcoming, I assumed I’d just go to the doctor every other day for the rest of the nine months. It never occurred to me that it wouldn’t be nine months. It certainly never occurred to me that we would be lucky that it would be seven.
I have it good for a preemie mom. We are blessed that he seems to clear each hurdle that came from his early arrival. Most days are tough but wonderful, like, I’d hazard a guess, they are for most moms. There is such pressure on all of us to be a superwoman, juggling all the different roles we hold — mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, manager, employee, neighbor — and holding ourselves to such high standards for each of them. The work of motherhood, surrounded by the work of life, can be so much, but the pay off is so great. We have a routine. Every day when I get home from work, there is a squeal at the sound of the door, and suddenly a toddling shadow rushes toward me, jumping into my arms. “MOMMY!!” he shouts in his nasal tones, his tongue curving to cradle the vowels. I pick him up and make him fly down the hall. In that moment, I am MOTHER. All capitals. Complete.
And most moments with him are like that. We often marvel at our luck. Despite his start, he came home from the NICU after only six weeks, though on a heart monitor. Now, at almost two and half years old, he is a vibrant and vital child, headstrong, beanstalk-tall and with a smile that rivals the sun. That frail newborn in the incubator seems almost a mistake of memory, a misunderstanding maybe. But there are the occasional reminders and, when they come, the voice is right there to remind me. “If you had gone on bed rest, this would never have happened.”
The latest reminder came from the Early Intervention evaluation in which the therapist couldn’t hide her surprise at his speech level. “He always talks like that?” It was a gut punch. Here is something wrong with your child. And in those moments, it all floods back. There is a calculus of preemie moms that can invade thoughts even in good times. If your child is sick with a cough, you think of the weak lungs that needed steroids and c-paps and b-paps. When your child walks, you wonder if they would have done it earlier were they a term baby. When your child is taking longer to speak, or is still babbling when other children are speaking in sentences – as you look toward milestone markers that aren’t reached when expected, you calculate. And, in my case, as I subtract the two months from his age to see if he fares better against the milestones, I can’t hold back the feeling these hurdles my son must clear are of my own making. “If you had gone on bed rest, this would never have happened.”
But I didn’t. And it has. So, while I feel the guilt very strongly in this moment – and which mom doesn’t at some point for myriad reasons – like the scar, eventually it will be forgotten until something tugs at it again. So I push it back until the day I can push it away and release it. I remind myself it’s too late at this point to change the past. Besides, there are hurdles to be cleared. I plan to make him fly over them.
Li Greene is a corporate type by day, a writer by night and a mother and wife at all times. A Harlemite and global citizen, she currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two year old son. She is on the board of Writing Walking Women, a newly inaugurated conference for diverse voices in literary travel writing.