Monica, Brian and Stephen. Oakland, CA
In observance of World Prematurity Day, I have the honor of sharing the story of Monica Parran. Monica was born and raised in Washington, DC, and is the youngest of four children. Her parents were married for over 50 years before her father passed away seven years ago. She graduated from law school a year later after promising her father that she would (finally) finish school, and started working in local government soon after. Monica has worked for a few local government agencies so far and although it can be extremely trying at times, she loves being able to see her work directly impacting people in her community. She moved across country last year when her husband Brian accepted a job in San Francisco. Brian and Monica have been married since May 2009 and currently live in Oakland with their son Stephen and cat, Fishbone. Monica shares her personal journey after having a premature birth.
Can you talk a bit about having a premature birth?
The entire experience has been a bit surreal. Of all the things that I worried/obsessed about after finding out that I was pregnant, that honestly never crossed my mind. Things seemed to be progressing fairly normally. We had been trying for over a year to conceive. We had attempted IUI and were contemplating IVF. We had taken the required class for IVF when Brian found out that he had been selected for a job in San Francisco. We decided to take a month off, do one more cycle of IUI before moving to IVF, but we never even had to do that second IUI cycle.
I remember being in DC, Brian was in California, and all of a sudden I’m dealing with the fact that I have to pack up the rest of our belongings while carrying this little human inside me. Despite the fact that we had been trying for this I felt uneasy and unsure. Two things I do NOT enjoy.
Stephen didn’t make it easy on me either. He hated just about everything that I ate. I didn’t have morning sickness. I just lost my appetite. If I thought I wanted something, my mind changed by the time I cooked or ordered it. It was extremely frustrating and a constant reminder that I was no longer in control of my body. That’s how Stephen got the nickname “the Dictator”; he was in complete control.
I lost about 15 pounds while I was pregnant. I forced myself to eat and tried to get as many calories and nutrients in at once, but eating when you have no appetite is a chore. Nevertheless the doctors weren’t worried. Since I was 38 at the time, I was being monitored very closely for complications associated with the increased risk, but things seemed to be progressing normally.
I decided that I didn’t want to know the sex of the baby, but completely messed that up when the doctor called with the results of my amniocentesis. The doctor said everything looked fine and asked if I wanted to know the sex of the baby, which to me is a different question than “do you want me to tell you the sex of the baby.” Needless to say, I said yes without realizing that she was going to tell me right away. I don’t regret finding out, but I didn’t tell anyone other that Brian.
Stephen was born at 24 weeks and two days. It was a Wednesday. I suppose I went into labor on Tuesday, but I had no idea. My stomach was hurting and I had no idea why. It wasn’t like all the definitions of preterm labor that I found online and my doctor didn’t seem concerned about my symptoms. I tried to take it easy and just went home and went to sleep. The next day I thankfully made an emergency appointment for that morning and went to see what I could do to make the pain stop. After a pelvic exam and a second opinion, the doctors firmly told me to walk across the street to be admitted to the hospital. In the 5 minutes that it took me to get there they had called ahead to tell them I was coming. I was placed in a bed immediately with my feet elevated and given steroids to help develop Stephen’s lungs and drugs to stop or slow the labor.
I stayed that way for about seven hours with the doctors trying their best to stop the labor if only for a couple of days to let the steroids have their effect on his lungs. I spoke with a doctor about all the things that could be wrong with Stephen. I was asked to decide whether I wanted to deliver by cesarean section if he was in distress and how much effort I wanted them to make to save his life when he was born. It was the worst conversation I’ve ever had.
There was a bit of “down time” as the contractions got stronger and the nurse stepped out for a break with specific instructions to use the call button if I felt any pressure. Not three minutes after she walked out that door I felt Stephen drop (I don’t know how else to describe it) and the pressure was there. I pressed that button a hundred times. The nurse was back in the room in seconds with the doctor behind her. The team from the NICU arrived within 30 seconds. In the brief time that it took everyone to get into place, the nurse looked me in the eyes and I remember what she said almost verbatim. She said, “It’s about to get very chaotic in here. I want you to focus on my voice and Brian’s voice. That’s it.” I think I nodded in agreement. Two pushes later and Stephen was born. I remember someone said, “The time is 21:05.” The NICU team was adamant about letting me touch his hand. Brian asked if I wanted him to stay with me but I told him to please go with the baby to the NICU.
Five minutes later I had my appetite back and I was starving.
Stephen was one pound, six ounces and a little less than a foot long. He stayed in the NICU from September 17, 2014, until his due date, January 5, 2015. When he came home he weighed six pounds, nine ounces and was 13.5 inches long.
What were the pressures you felt?
I’m a natural planner. I need to be in control of my environment at all times. From the moment I realized that I was pregnant, I have been out of control. For the longest time I was indifferent about having children. By the time I realized that it was something that I wanted, I realized just how difficult it is to even get pregnant. It’s a miracle that the world is as populated as it is honestly. After Stephen was born I felt cheated. I didn’t get to have the big belly. I didn’t get to pig out and “eat for two”. I didn’t get to have a baby shower. I didn’t get to have that moment where my water broke and Brian and I comically rushed to the hospital.
But most importantly I didn’t have any answers. No one could tell me why it happened. No one could tell me Stephen would be ok. I had to educate myself on what it meant to have a preemie. I had to become an expert on everything that he was going through or might go through to ensure that I was an effective advocate for him while he was in the hospital. I had to transform myself from someone who was usually fairly trusting of doctors to someone who wrote down and researched everything I was told. I had to drag myself to the hospital every single day when I had sworn them off when my father died.
I felt a lot of pressure to reassure everyone else that everything would be ok, when I had no clue whether or not that was true. I acknowledge that it was a self-imposed pressure, but we’re constantly told how strong mothers are. How you suddenly just become this superwoman. I felt none of that strength, but still felt an obligation to uphold that image for all the other mothers out there.
Somehow we’re taught to believe that women are amazing and superhuman because they’re able to hold these lives inside them, nurture them, and then give birth to these amazing beings. There’s less talk about the mothers who don’t fit that mold. Who aren’t able to hold those lives inside them long enough… who give birth to frail beings who have to fight with all their might just to take a breath or digest an ounce of food.
The pressures that I felt came from being outside of the “norm”. From having an experience that was vastly different from anyone I knew. While most new moms deal with sleepless nights and crying babies. I was dealing with the sleeplessness that comes from knowing that your baby is 15 minutes away fighting for his life as you try your best to maintain a sense of normalcy.
I had to be reminded to eat constantly. The nurses sent me home when I was sick. I tried to keep working. My rheumatoid arthritis that went into remission while I was pregnant, flared to levels I had never experienced after Stephen was born. In between going back to work part time and multiple trips to the NICU each day, I tried to ignore the chronic pain and fatigue, and pump milk eight or more times a day in hopes of establishing my own supply for a baby who wouldn’t even be ready to attempt to breast feed for about 14 more weeks. It was a miserable time. The medicine that I would need to take to stop the pain would end any hopes of breastfeeding. I felt pressured to ignore my own needs for the time being to do what I could to provide as much milk for Stephen as I could. I tried to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. To celebrate his progress and achievements but mostly I felt defeated and scared and confused.
How has it shaped your personal beliefs?
I have always insisted that I wanted to maintain my personal identity after having a child. I had interests before Stephen was born and I wanted to be sure that I maintain that because to me that’s extremely important. I didn’t want to lose sight of my own goals and dreams because I had a child. Instead I wanted to find ways to weave his existence into ours.
To some that sounds selfish, but I believe that children benefit from having parents who are people outside of their existence. While I will always do whatever is best for him, I don’t think any of us will benefit from our lives revolving around him. I hope that doesn’t sound harsh, and I get nervous about saying stuff like that in public sometimes. I see a lot of people who drop everything to cater to their kids, and if that’s your thing then that’s great, but I don’t think that’s how the world works. I want Stephen to understand that he is important and loved, but that our sole purpose on this earth is not to give into his every whim.
Having Stephen so early reminded me how fragile life really is and the importance of living in the moment. Although it was always important for me to remember the light at the end of the tunnel, there was no telling what each day would bring. I woke up not knowing if it was a good day or a bad day. There were days that my husband and I were reduced to tears because there was absolutely nothing else that we could do. I was reminded that some things are really completely out of my hands and I just have to accept it and let things happen in their own time.
What have you learned about yourself as a result of enduring that trying period?
I think the main thing that I learned is that I have an almost dangerous ability to ignore my own needs for the sake of others. I was so singularly focused on “holding it together” and “being strong” that I was losing myself. I ignored me in an attempt to be a me that I thought I needed to be. One of my good friends and NICU nurse constantly reminded me that at some point the weight of all that had happened was going to hit me and that I needed to be sure to take care of myself during that process. I acknowledged what she was saying but I don’t think that I really believed her until it happened.
Do you think it had an overall affect on you today?
Absolutely. I’ve had to accept that I am working through postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve sought counseling because I realize that it affects the way I interact with Stephen and I don’t want to continue to carry that baggage. The slightest cough or cry sends me mentally and emotionally back to the NICU. I obsess over his growth and his weight and his development. I’ve been told that this is “normal” for new moms and that everyone worries about those things. I know people mean well, but it downplays just how debilitating the thoughts and feelings can be.
How did you deal with the emotional weight?
I’ve started going to counseling and focusing on my own healing. Stephen is 14 months now. He’s doing fairly well. He’s bright and funny and curious, and all the things that he should be, but I’m working to fix myself. After about six months of unsuccessfully maintaining my milk supply I made the decision to stop attempting to breastfeed him. I began taking medication that essentially made my breast milk toxic, and once again felt like a failure. Counseling is helping me to work through those feelings of guilt and regret and failure and helping me to enjoy the amazing little kid that I was blessed with.
Do you feel extra protective of him because of his start?
I feel extremely protective of Stephen. Because his lungs took so long to develop he was at serious risk of infection. To put it bluntly, what would be like a minor cold to other children could have killed him. I was unapologetic about asking people to use hand sanitizer. I endured the “new mom” jokes from people who thought I was overreacting, but at the end of the day, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I let teasing stand in the way of a simple process that could mean life or death to my child.
Now that he’s learning to stand and trying to walk I’m trying to let go of those extra protective tendencies. Stephen has no idea that he was born 16 weeks early. He has no idea that he should weigh closer to 20 or 25 pounds instead of his slender 15 pound frame, and honestly I don’t want him to know. But that means that I have to stand back and let him learn, and explore… and fall.
That being said, I monitor milestones religiously. He gets visits from a developmental specialist, a nutritionist, and a physical therapist. In addition to his pediatrician he sees a nephrologist, a urologist, a pulmonologist, and an ophthalmologist. As he gets older he will need a little additional scrutiny to make sure that there are no lasting effects and that, if there are any developmental delays, they’re detected early and acted upon.
Who had the greatest influence on you during your childhood?
I don’t know who had the single greatest influence but overall it was my parents. My father’s dedication to his family and ensuring that we were a tight unit was always apparent to me even from a young age. He was the one to make sure that we ate together as a family and that we always got together to celebrate birthdays. My mother is the true embodiment of selflessness and strength. She gave everything to take care of all of us and would do it again today if she could. The values that my parents instilled in us, and the sacrifices that they made for us guide me and the decisions that I make for Stephen today.
What was your best and worst piece of advice given as a new mother?
Ha! The worst happened shortly before I became a mom. I was told to walk around and drink water to stop the contractions. I don’t think anyone really gave me advice. I think I made it clear that I wasn’t really interested in unsolicited advice. I think that on one or two occasions, someone offered their opinion on something or another and I politely reminded them that these were my decisions to make. I admittedly don’t know it all, but nothing pisses me off more than someone who has 8 months more experience than me acting like an expert. The reality is, none of us really know anything about how this works. We read a little, listen a little, and then go with our gut when the time calls for it. I kind of like it that way. I ask for help when I need it, but mostly I work really hard to ignore unsolicited advice.
How do you feel as a mother? Is it what you imagined? Is it something you wanted?
Being a mother is strange. I often find myself looking at Stephen like “holy crap… we created a human.” I think I’ve even said that to Brian more than once. Add to that really having to understand all the things that have to come together just to conceive a child, and then have that child grow, and then give birth or, in our case, finish growing a baby on the outside. The whole process is mind-blowing. That being said, I feel very strange about being a part of that entire process. Not really in a bad way, more like just in awe. I take it seriously. I want to raise a kind, caring, giving individual, and I will work hard to do that, but it’s also a lot of fun. It’s not at all what I imagined. It’s finally getting there, but what a rough start.
Is this something I wanted? I mean yes, I think so. Like I said we were trying pretty hard to get to this point, but I was also coming to terms with the idea that it might not be a possibility. It was a really weird place to be hoping and praying for one result, while holding on to the idea that it might not ever happen. Even while things were so uncertain for Stephen at the beginning I couldn’t really imagine that it was something I’d ever try to do again.
What is one good thing and one bad thing you’ve inherited from your parents?
I have my mom’s strength and my dad’s temper. Not the best mix, but it’s who I am.
Did you feel different as a child?
Like most kids, I didn’t think my parents were too cool growing up. My siblings are significantly older than me (my closest sister is 16 years older than me) so they had been out of the game for a while before I showed up. They were stricter than most of my friend’s parents and I hated it. I would often choose not to go somewhere rather than have to deal with the “my parents have to talk to your parents first” stuff. In hindsight, I hope that we figure out how to be that involved and aware of who Stephen is friends with, but at the time it was the end of the world every single time. That being said, I realized the sacrifices my parents made. I understood that they were doing what they thought was best, even if I didn’t agree with it or like it. If I had the chance I don’t think I’d change any of it though.
What have you learned about friendships since becoming a mother? Has your own interaction with others changed?
I’ve learned that people believe that motherhood will change you, and then they treat you the way they think that it has changed you. To be fair, there is no way that parenthood can leave you unchanged. Motherhood has absolutely changed me. I’m now 50% responsible for someone’s entire existence. I can only go to my favorite bars during brunch, unless I find a baby sitter. I ask to get up with friends at restaurants instead of bars. I don’t go to really quiet restaurants if I’m bringing Stephen along. I hang out at beer gardens that welcome babies (this is sounding like I drink and eat out a lot). I guess what I’m saying is that of course you have to do things differently when you have a baby. But that doesn’t mean that you have to stop being who you are. We still go to concerts. We still hang out with friends. We travel. We have fun, but I have definitely had people tell me that I have changed in ways I know I haven’t. Of course I post a hundred pics of my son on social media but before that I posted everything I ate and drank. Our “feeds” tend to represent what we do on a day-to-day basis and most of what I do is hang out with that kid. I acknowledge that there are some limitations and I’m definitely not as spontaneous as I was, but I’m still the same person with the same interests. My friends love and accept this new aspect of our lives and we’ve managed to get by with minimal weirdness, unless someone offers that unsolicited advice. Fortunately there’s not too much of that, and certainly not from those we’re closest to.
What have you learned from the women in your life that directly impacts you today in raising your son?
I’m fortunate that my inner circle of friends who happen to be mothers are really up front with the ups and downs of motherhood. I think that if I was surrounded by folks who insisted that this was going to be the best thing that ever happened to me I would feel lonely and miserable. I’m so grateful that I had people around me to say, “This will suck sometimes.” I’ve learned that it’s ok to not know what you’re doing and that it’s ok to ask for help. I’ve learned that it’s ok to snack in the shower if it’s the only time you have to yourself and you don’t want to share the good snacks. I’ve learned that sometimes you can plan and plan and things won’t go the way you want, and other times you can pull together an amazing day with minimal planning and effort. I know some really amazing, smart, funny, caring, loving women and they are a constant reminder of how important it is to me that Stephen learns to love and appreciate and respect women.
What other aspects of your life do you find being a mother has changed you?
I’m learning the true meaning of work/life balance. I was never a 60-hour work week person, but there were definitely times where work has followed me home. Whether it’s something that I actually needed to work on, or just the emotional baggage of work coming home and affecting my mood, I was all too familiar with letting work seep into my personal life and I knew I didn’t want that to continue. I work really hard now to leave work at work. In a lot of way, being in California makes that a little easier than being on the East coast. There seems to be a little more focus on taking care of yourself and unplugging at the end of the day, and that works well for me. I don’t want to be physically present, but unable to pay attention to Stephen because I’m focused on work emails or still upset about something that happened during that 10am meeting.
I’m also learning to deal with the feeling of not being in control. The hardest thing for a control freak is letting go of that need to be in constant control. The reality is, some things you just can’t control. That is especially true when there’s a new human being in your life. Stephen is a person with his own thoughts and feelings and opinions. I hear parents bragging about how their kids don’t throw tantrums and they don’t cry in public and they’re these little perfectly behaved humans. For the most part I don’t believe it, but then I feel sad. Somehow we’ve been made to believe that that’s a “good” thing. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve all seen the spoiled and entitled child throwing a tantrum and cringed. But that stubbornness and those tantrums, that’s a part of growth. That’s a child’s way of saying, “I have an opinion different from yours and I’m confident asserting it”. I think it’s kind of cool. Kids don’t really gain control of their impulses until they are like three or four, so expecting them to act like miniature adults is setting them up for failure. I’m all about setting limits and expectations, but I know that meltdowns will happen, and I’m learning to just roll with the punches.
I’ve also become more empathetic. I cringe when I think about being that person that looked down on other parents because their child had the nerve to cry at a restaurant or on a plane… I’m glad that I have had a chance to see that so much of that is just about the child’s temperament and not solely the result of a parents’ parenting style. Sometimes people (kids included) just freak out and you do what you can to help them get back to being their normal happy selves.
Did this impact your faith? How?
Yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t have gotten through this without my faith. If I didn’t believe in a power bigger than myself I would not have made it through this ordeal. I did a lot of praying and soul searching. I have a great support system that kept us in their thoughts and prayers and in my mind that made all the difference. The science side of it is obviously key to Stephen’s progress, but the emotional strength, the perseverance, for me that came from my faith.
How are you taking care of yourself mentally?
As I mentioned before I’m in counseling to deal with some of the lasting emotional effects. I’ve also become involved with a NICU advisory council. It’s a group of parents of children who were in the NICU who work with the hospital staff to improve the experience for current NICU families. We do fundraising events, but we also just spend time going back to the NICU to interact with the families and talk to them about the experience. Remaining active in that way helps me to continue to work through the healing process. Other than that, I do my best to remember the things that are important to me and the goals that I’ve set for myself. It’s just as important to me that I achieve those things as it is that I focus on Stephen’s growth and development. At the end of the day we all need to be satisfied with who we are.
What has your son taught you about yourself? About motherhood?
He’s reminded me that something as simple as laughing at nothing can turn your entire day around. He’s taught me the importance of holding onto who I am and being confident in my choices and decisions. He’s taught me everything I know about motherhood. Brian, Stephen and I are figuring this all out, together.