This Postpartum Body

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I often joke about my uterus deserving a participation trophy: it tried, bless it, but it really wasn’t totally up to the task. My first child, though term, was so small that he was barely on the growth chart (he was, and is, developmentally fine – he was just small for gestational age). My second pregnancy lasted eleven weeks and one day. My third time, I made it to 31 weeksbefore delivering two babies, by dramatic emergency c section, whose combined weight was less than my first child.

I have stretch marks, but because all my children were so small, I don’t have the dramatic diastasis recti or saggy skin on my stomach that is the aftermath of a healthier twin pregnancy. I’ve mostly lost the weight I gained and am at the same weight now as when I first got pregnant. I don’t really have much to complain about, really.

Of course that’s not stopping me. I have recently stopped breastfeeding so the last hope I had of blaming the babies is over and I am coming to final, depressing terms with my body. This is what I’ve got. It works. I can run and jump and swim and dance, and I so grateful for that. But when I do any of those things, I shake and jiggle and flop, and that’s a little harder to appreciate.

I went to get fitted for a bra recently, because my shape has changed in my post-breastfeeding life. The woman assigned to do my fitting told me, with a sour face, that my breast tissue was wide, wrapping around my rib cage more than most women’s. And I wanted to snap ‘yes, I know, they’re pancakes. Now get me a damn bra that fits anyway!’

She brought me a few options, including a hilariously awful old-lady bra in hot pink (so bad I sent a pic to my sister with the caption ‘fml.’) In the end, though, I bought a sports/yoga bra and ran out of the shop; a different woman at the checkout said ‘oh these are brilliant – though of course you can’t wear them during the day’

And I wanted to weep with frustration. Even worse, I have worn it exclusively since – I don’t have a *better* option.

I had thought in the past that I might like to get plastic surgery. Thirty-four is too young to be done feeling happy with your body, and all the cardio in the world isn’t going to change the fact that I breastfed three kids. When I think about it now, I tell myself that as a mother of daughters I need to set an example, but really I’m just too cheap and pain-averse to do it, not to mention too lazy. And my husband thinks I’m being ridiculous, which is…good, I guess? He says ‘You don’t have teenager breasts. You’re not a teenager!’

In the last few days, my son has taken to saying ‘silly old mummy!’ – a phrase he learned from Winnie the Pooh. When I told him I didn’t feel old, he said that I was objectively old and I should get used to it (I paraphrase). Maybe my discomfort with my body is an outgrowth of the fact that I may not be objectively old but I am objectively middle-aged and that, well, sucks. I don’t want to be a teenager, but I don’t love watching my body deteriorate either.

I spent a lot of time wishing that I could have carried my girls longer: every extra day, we clawed back the chance of infant mortality or cognitive impairment. Extra baby weight or diastasis recti was a small price to pay for a diminishing chance of major developmental delays. My medical team was thrilled that we got to 31 weeks, but I still wish I could have done better, even a year later, when everything seems to have turned out fine. It doesn’t keep me up at night anymore, but if I could trade my physical presentation for my daughter’s health, obviously there’d be no choice. Since that is a given, I feel guilty that I have spent so much time in the last few months being frustrated with something I can’t change and wouldn’t want to anyway. If given the opportunity, I’d want exactly the kids I have and I’d want to breastfeed them again, and if pancake breasts are the price, well. That’s that, isn’t it?

BUT SERIOUSLY I wish I could have it both ways. Surely that’s not too much to ask.

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Thank you, NHS

I live in the UK and have for seven years. In the last two  years, I have used the National Health Service about as intensively as anyone I know: first I had a high-risk pregnancy that involved in-patient stays and a large amount of facetime with senior doctors; then, I had two very fragile babies who spent ten weeks in the NICU followed by months (and years) of follow-up from various teams who monitor the girls’ development. I have nothing but gratitude for the way that I am my daughters were cared for; I’m getting emotional thinking about it as I type.

The consensus among Brits is, I think, that when you have a life-threatening condition (as my daughters and I did), the care you receive from the NHS is first-rate. If it is something less pressing, you will be seen…eventually. And if it is an elective procedure, well, it is very hit-and-miss.

This was the experience I had when went to my GP with an elevated heart rate and various other symptoms that were eventually diagnosed as Graves’ Disease (an overactive thyroid). Although I had lost dramatic amounts of weight and had various unpleasant symptoms, like anxiety, tingling in my feet, and CONSTANT hunger, I was not in any immediate danger. It took months for me to get an appointment with a consultant, complicated by the fact that, when I started seeking treatment I was pregnant, then lost the pregnancy, and then went to one fertility/endocrinology clinic where the doctor (later my doctor, with the girls) apologised profusely for bringing me into a ward full of pregnant ladies a few weeks after a miscarriage. When I finally saw the right person, I was given medication and sent on my way in a matter of minutes – because that was all I needed, not because anyone was being flippant about my health.

During the months that I waited for treatment, and waited for the green light to start trying for another baby, I was so frustrated and fed up: I needed five minutes with someone who could give me a prescription, and it took me five months (from the first GP visit) to get it. If I hadn’t had to wait, maybe I wouldn’t have lost the pregnancy in the first place. Maybe I would already be pregnant again. Maybe things would have been different.

Recently a friend mentioned that she was having suspicious, potentially thyroid-related symptoms, and that she was not optimistic that the response from the NHS would be speedy. And that’s when I realised that I was completely at peace with my thyroid experience: if I hadn’t manifested Graves Disease the way that I did, I wouldn’t have the girls, and they are exactly the babies I want to have. I spent so much energy wishing they’d just get it sorted only to end up grateful, in the end, that they took their time.

I mean, I learned after the disease reappeared at the end of 2017 that I will likely be facing surgical removal of my thyroid in the relatively short term (a couple years) and until then I will be on medication to regulate my hormones. It meant the girls were carefully monitored, as they had a higher risk of thyroid complication, and its a genetic disease so they might have it later in life – all of which is not great. I’m not thrilled to be ill, or to have passed my wonky genes to my kids.

But. The only way I was ever having three kids is if I had twins, and it turns out I love it. So thank you, NHS. Your peculiar brand of efficiency and ineptitude brought me these children, and I can no longer imagine my family any other way.

This shit is hard.

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Before I had kids, I read a blog post about a woman who had three kids (singletons, its worth noting) and she talked about how intimidated she was by the prospect of taking all three out by herself. And I thought, in my infinite childfree wisdom, ‘why would you have three kids if you couldn’t cope with it?’

And then in the midst of the UK version of Snowmageddon last week (it snowed, like, a quarter of an inch. Everybody freak out), nursery was closed, I was home with three kids, and I just…couldn’t. In the end, a very kind friend brought her kids over because their nursery was closed too, and I had to admit that I couldn’t handle the prospect of hauling three kids out for a playdate at 4 pm. Or maybe, more broadly, I was kind of at my threshold, in terms of my ability to successfully parent three children at the same time.

Lately I’ve been making a real effort to parent more intensively, especially with the littles (I’m less worried about Theo. He had three years as an only kid). I’m trying to stay off my phone, verbalise more, focus on each girl individually, be a more present parent in general. And I’ve been proud of myself, because I’m succeeding. Bu I saw something on Facebook a couple months ago that really resonated with me. It was a meme that said ‘I’ve been dieting ALL DAY, am I skinny yet?!’

That’s how I feel about parenting babies. I can do a bang-up job for about thirty minutes at a time, and then what I want most in the world is to dick around on my phone. Or drink coffee in silence. Or fold laundry. I want to do anything but sing ‘zoom zoom we’re going to the moon’ for the 37th time that morning.

I also vividly remember watching ‘Master of None’ when I first brought the girls home (pre-Aziz Ansari sexual harassment drams). At one point in the show, the central character is feeling lovelorn and confused and he goes for a walk around New York. I saw him do that and thought ‘Efffffffff YOU! You just leave the house whenever you want. What’s that like?’

There is a reason that babies generally come in ones and parents usually come in twos (at least to start). The reason is: babies are a crap-ton of work, and multiple babies are more than double that. It is relentless and hard, and man oh man do I love my kids, but I would also love to see a little less of them.

So, to the mum of three on the internet whom I judged when I was pregnant, I apologise. I still think having three on purpose is kind of nuts, but I understand how great they are once they’re here, and I also understand how, some days, leaving the house just isn’t happening.

International Women’s Day!

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No gender normative toys here!

When my first kid was born, a friend sent me a message that said ‘hurray for feminist boys!’

And that was the first time I’d thought about my feminist responsibility in really specific terms. I had birthed five pounds of feminist baby. This was happening.

As the big kid gets bigger, it is becoming more clear-cut, if not exactly easier. I have age-appropriate conversations with him about consent almost….constantly. When he says ‘don’t kiss me, mummy!’ I do my best to listen, and respond. And then, when he treats me like a climbing frame, I can remind him that I respect his body, and he needs to respect mine. I am confident this strategy will pay off eventually. Dear lord I hope it does.

There have been a few occasions where I have had to re-examine bits of my childhood I had been excited to share with my children. For example: Green Eggs and Ham: he said no! No means no! The lesson about trying new things seems less pertinent to the current #metoo moment than, ffs, leave the poor guy alone. Who wants to eat green ham? Can you blame him?

Or The Little Mermaid….have you ever thought about the lyrics to ‘Kiss the Girl’? In case you are less steeped in Disney than I am, here is a sample lyric:

Yes, you want her
Look at her, you know you do
It’s possible she wants you too
There’s one way to ask her

So. That’s gross.

With the babies, it is harder. About a year ago, a friend told me about some friends of hers who had avoided using gendered pronouns with their child, a boy with a gender-neutral name. Everyone at the table scoffed a bit. One woman said ‘I mean. My child is a boy, so I’m not going to stop calling him one. If he decides at some point that he isn’t, well, I will deal with it then.’

I thought that seemed like a fair perspective. But then. For the next couple of days, I noted all the occasions I referred to my children by gender, and I was shocked. Spoiler alert: it was constant. Phrases like ‘clever boy,’ ‘brave boy,’ and ‘strong boy’ had permeated my vocabulary. I have since read that, as innocuous as that might seem, it reinforces gender boundaries for children, who figure their boyhood/girlhood must be essential, since adults refer to it all the time.

In the last few weeks I have made a real attempt to stop gendering my infant children. It is hard. I’m not 100% successful – Daphne is wearing a pink floral romper this morning. I chose it, I love it, I think she looks beautiful. My convictions only extend so far (Fiona is wearing gender neutral clothing, though, and she’s no less cute for it). I am not sure how sustainable it is, not least because they will self-identify as girls soon enough. It’s just – I try not to call them ‘the twins,’ though that’s a separate thing – and now I try not to call them ‘the girls.’ Calling them by their names is a six-syllable mouthful and calling them ‘Fi and D’ is twee and grating. It’s a work in progress.

None of this is the end of the world, of course. But I do think it’s important to begin as I mean to go on. So I want to set a tone, for myself as well as for my children. I want them to know that their parents are are feminists and I want them to be feminists too: I want a desire for gender equality completely baked into their psyche.

It has been a humbling experience. It has given me new respect for my mother, who seemed to do it effortlessly. Even more, it’s given me appreciation for the extent to which raising feminist kids is a two-parent endeavour, much as I hate to e reminded I don’t have a monopoly on the Feminist Perspective in our household. On one memorable occasion last year, my partner completely schooled me in the art of feminist parenting. Theo asked me about penises, and I told him that he and Daddy both had one; that men have penises and women had vaginas. Just as I was feeling a bit smug, my husband chimed in: ‘most men have penises and most women have vaginas,’ he said.

Mic drop, husband.

I don’t want to end my Women’s Day post with a fawning anecdote about my husband, so I will end here instead: I want to explain sexism to my children the same way I explained landline phones to my son last week. It is something that still exists, but is indisputably on its way out.

So this blog has an Instagram account now.

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I love Instagram. It is my social media drug of choice. But I try to be judicious about how much I post because, you know, everyone has That One Person who is always clogging up your feed with pictures of their baby in every conceivable holiday getup. We don’t need to see your baby in a four-leaf clover onesie, alright? I got the gist after New Years, MLK Day, Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day. Just be cool, ffs.

I don’t want to be that person.

But I do kind of want to be internet famous.

It turns out I don’t really have the stamina – I started this blog in 2011, dropped it in in 2013, started again in 2017 and this is my first post in 2018 – but that also there is some sort of magic ingredient in monetizing your social media presence that I haven’t figured out. There’s one blog I read, which was part of my inspiration for returning to blogging, and its just her talking about her boring suburban life. Seriously. Kids, pets, house on a cul de sac and not much else. And yet I read it – along with thousands of other people. She’s wrangled free holidays out of it!

Anyway, I’m at it again. I started an Instagram account – @snacksandadventure – to match my mummy blog. This evening I’ve been going back through my photo archives and posting my favourites from the girls’ first year, which was kind of cathartic. I carried so much anxiety home with me from the hospital, and through that summer. I can’t remember if I’ve written about it before, but when Daphne was five weeks and six days old, she smiled. The entire week before that, I was a wreck. At one point I had her in my arms while I sobbed into her peach fuzz, whispering ‘I just want you to be ok!’

Going through the pictures and posting them on the internet was much more fun than actually living through it, for the most part. And since this Instagram feed is specifically public-facing, for people who want to see pictures of twins, I can post every day if I want to and I won’t piss anyone off.

But I also feel a little…well.  Greasy, maybe? I don’t know exactly what my goals are for this project, but I certainly wouldn’t hate it if I ended up with thousands of followers. Its not purely catharsis, or an online cache of the best pics I took in the last year.

So I’m grappling with the question of what is appropriate. The internet is full of mummy blogs, full of stories of NICU survivors and full of people peddling twinhood in one fashion or another (for example: @trendy_twincess is an actual Instagram account with 5,219 followers. The kids are gorgeous but I can’t even.) It wasn’t gross when I did a #thisgirlcan photo shoot while I was pregnant; I had no compunction about that, though you could argue I was monetizing my pregnancy. And it certainly doesn’t feel gross to suggest that being a parent has given me new skills that are applicable to the job market (just because our society doesn’t value caregiving doesn’t mean it hasn’t taught me a whole bunch of shit), or that I would take a job offered to me through a parent network. Buuuuut…I know there is something a little yucky about actually pursuing notoriety. Its gross if you do it on your own and its worse if you do it with your kids. I know because I follow celebrities and I judge them for their own ambition and judge them worse when they use their babies to bolster their own fame.

SO with all of that said, if you want to see a bunch of cute baby pics, check out @snacksandadventure on Instagram.

Identical Vs Fraternal Twins

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The thing that struck me about having twins – particularly high-risk twins, since that comes with so many more scans and doctors appointments – is that the whole thing is very, well, mammalian. There are different types of twins, characterised by different placentas and amniotic sacs, and there is a surprising amount of confusion among the non-twin-bearing public about how they work.

So I’ve written a quick guide, and include the usual disclaimer about how I’m not a medical professional, just someone who is surprised by the degree to which people are confused about the biology of twins who’s done a lot of googling.

First, there are fraternal twins. Fraternal twins occur once in about every 80 pregnancies, although the number is going up as maternal age rises and fertility treatments increase the incidence of multiples. Vanishing twin syndrome, in which one pregnancy isn’t viable and just sort of…fizzles….only happens with fraternals.

In fraternal pregnancies, there are two separate placentas with two separate amniotic sacs. They are concurrent pregnancies, but there are no links between the babies in utero; they just happen to be two babies born on the same day. Fraternal twins can be girl-girl, boy-girl or boy-boy, and while many pairs of siblings may look alike, they are no more genetically similar than any other pairs of siblings. There is a genetic component, however: a woman’s likelihood of becoming pregnant with fraternal twins is passed down the maternal line (i.e. mother to daughter), because it relies on a woman’s likelihood of releasing two eggs in any given cycle (though, as mentioned above, there are a number of other relevant factors as well).

The natural world is full of fraternal twins. Every animal that has a litter is, in essence, having fraternal twins.

Identical twins occur once in about every 400 pregnancies, but are (I suspect) less prevalent in the general population because there are some common complications that make fewer identical-twin pregnancies viable. Within the umbrella of ‘identical twin’ there are three separate types of pregnancies:

  1. Dichorionic-dizygotic: two placentas, two amniotic sacs. On an ultrasound, this pregnancy will look exactly like a fraternal pregnancy; in fact, some people do not know until they have genetic testing whether they have identical or fraternal twins even after birth (not all identical twins look alike. Mine don’t!)
  2. Monochorionic,-dizygotic: one placenta, two amniotic sacs. The placenta is divided into two sections, serving each twin individually, but the line can only be distinguished post-partum. This is the most common type of twin pregnancy and occurs in roughly 92% of identical twin pregnancies (though I have also seen reputable websites that claim its more like 60%. Since not all di-di twins will be confirmed as identical there is probably some wiggle room here).
    There are also blood vessels connecting the twins across the sacs; despite the roughly hojillion ultrasounds we had, I was never 100% clear on how that works. In twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome (TTTS), one of the more common and serious complications, the babies’ blood vessels are connected, and one twin receives more blood than the other (donor) twin. Selective intrauterine growth restriction, which is what my girls had, is a similar condition in which one twin has a larger allotment of placenta than the other. Most identical twins are different sizes at birth; sIUGR is diagnosed when one of the fetuses is below a certain percentile (I believe its 10th percentile but I couldn’t confirm that with a quick Google so I’m just going to go with it)
    TTTS affects about 15% of identical twin pregnancies and sIUGR about 10%. If you’re really unlucky, you can have both simultaneously; one does not preclude the other, though the differences between the two disorders are only subtle. Both are not possible in pregnancies without a shared placenta, so do not affect fraternal or di-di pregnancies.
  3. Monochorionic-monozygotic: there is a single placenta and a single sac. This occurs in about 2% of twin pregnancies and is super high-risk. Best practice as of 2017 calls for women with mo-mo pregnancies to be put on bed rest at 25 weeks and deliver at 32. The reason is that there is a risk of the umbilical blood vessels getting tangled within the single sac, which can have really awful, tragic outcomes. Mo-mo pregnancies are also at an even higher risk for TTTS and sIUGR, although I’m not sure why.

The type of twin pregnancy is determined by when the egg splits: if it happens early, you get a di-di pregnancy; if it happens late, mo-mo. Everything in between is mono-di. What surprised me is the definition of ‘early’ vs ‘late’: any egg that splits more than 13 days after conception will result in conjoined twins. Eight-13 days = mono-mono and a split between five and eight days results in mono-di.

One note about identicals: in very rare cases, they can be different sexes if one of the babies has Turner Syndrome and the other does not. Turner Syndrome occurs in 1 in every 2,500 births, but its incidence in twins is extremely small – like, five documented cases ever. Still, I was floored to find out there is any instance in which identical twins can have different sexes.

You may think you don’t know enough identical twins for the 1/400 number to sound right; this is because (I think) there have been dramatic advances in maternal/fetal care for twins in the last decade or so, as well as major improvements in neonatology, which is a fast-moving field. In most cases, the treatment for complications is premature delivery, which on average has much better outcomes now than it did thirty years ago (which is not to say there aren’t lots of healthy humans who were born prematurely out in the world, though there is not great data about how they fare in old age).

When we told my parents we were having identical twins, they said ‘but how do you know?’ and the answer is, there was only one placenta, so it was definitely identical. There is no way to increase your chance of having identicals; it just happens sometimes.

 

 

 

Christmas frickin’ Magic

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The last two Christmases have not been fantastic.

Last year, I finished work on Friday, 23 December, and sat at the kitchen table ready for the holidays. I remember saying ‘I am so excited!’ about an hour before I went to the bathroom and saw blood in my underwear.

For most women, that’s called a menstrual cycle. But I was 23 weeks, 6 days pregnant. I had had an ultrasound earlier that day and it had been positive – it was a high-risk pregnancy but things were generally stable and I left feeling lighter than I had in the past. I was on the cusp of viability! This was HAPPENING!

I was at the hospital less than half an hour later.

The same doctor who had scanned me earlier that day came in, and confirmed that I’d had a bleed but that both girls were still moving. It looked like it might just be a one-off, and then it happened again. And again. And faster and faster.

I chugged water from paper cups in the triage area, running laps between the bathroom and our curtained-off area. A couple hours later, I was transferred to Labour & Delivery – not a positive sign – where I thankfully had a private room with ensuite bath (not all rooms do) and could schlep between the bed and the toilet. I noticed a tiny new stretch mark, running north from my bellybutton, and stared at the blue screensaver on the computer kiosk in a corner of the room, only realising the next morning that I could have turned off the monitor. But by midnight, the bleeding had just…trailed off. The same doctor – bless you, Catherine Aiken – came in to discuss delivery and steroid shots (I got one) and the NICU team came to prep me for the worst. Daphne was 400 grams at that point, and would not have been expected to survive; Fiona, at about 540, stood a fighting chance. Ian went home at about one in the morning and I spent the rest of the night the same way – staring numbly into space, trying to sleep, punctuated with trips to the toilet that confirmed I was mostly not bleeding anymore.

The next morning, a midwife’s assistant brought me tea and toast. I sat on the inclined bed with a Styrofoam cup of tea in my lap and sobbed and sobbed, while my daughters – now an even 24 weeks, and officially Viable as far as the medical establishment was concerned – wiggled and thumped inside me.

I was retrospectively diagnosed with a partial placenta previa, a complication that can be fatal to mum and baby – or can be so minor as to barely register as a complication at all. I left the hospital on Boxing Day, and we had family Christmas two days late. A week later, I had another bleed – a much more minor one – and spent New Year’s in the hospital. And that was last year’s holiday season. Yippee!

That would be enough to feel like I had to bring the Christmas Magic this year, but it turns out there is a theme. Two years ago, I had a miscarriage at 11 weeks pregnant (later diagnosed as having been caused by Graves’ Disease – basically an overactive thyroid), on the 17th of December. It had been an easy, breezy pregnancy to that point – things had gone 100% according to plan with minimal morning sickness, and once we crossed the 9 week mark I thought, ‘well this is fantastic; my chances of miscarriage now are like 2%’

Well, someone has to be in that 2%.

My memories of the miscarriage mostly involve crying: at the ultrasound, when they confirmed there was no heartbeat; in the shower, on the toilet, in my mother’s arms when I found the ‘big brother’ shirt I’d ordered to my parents’ house. Eventually I found a grief anthem: I would sing a chorus from a Ben Folds song and allow myself to feel All the Feels – sometimes I sang it twice – and then I’d pull myself together. All the same, it was a rough few weeks that stretched into months, when we learned that I had to wait until my thyroid was managed to try again.

This year – and every year from now on – I am free from reproductive stress. Our family is complete; this uterus has closed up shop. But as the 23rd of December approached, and I realised that last year would cast a longer shadow than I had anticipated, I felt a lot of self-inflicted pressure to make this holiday special. To start new traditions that would drown out the stress and disappointment of previous Decembers. To celebrate that we had come out of a difficult couple of years with three healthy children. Basically, to create Christmas memories that would drown out the crumminess of the last two years.

Here is the problem: my baby daughters don’t care; my husband doesn’t care (at least not nearly as much as I do); and my son just wants to eat treats and open presents, and will have only the haziest memories of this year if he has any at all. All five of us have colds, except for Theo, who is stuck at home because nursery is closed for the week and is going stir crazy. Holiday perfection has taken a backseat to sleeping and trying not to succumb to our desire to just plop our three year old in front of Paw Patrol and call it a damn day.

Where there has been magic, it has been incidental, which I guess is a good lesson to take from the festive season. Daphne waved at her grandparents and aunts during a Skype call on Christmas, a development that is way ahead of schedule and for which there were many witnesses. In the last four days, Fiona has become an indisputably mobile baby. She doesn’t go fast or far, but she doesn’t stay where you put her, either. Theo’s math skills have taken a step forward – when counting pound coins he received with a piggybank, he got to 8 and said ‘I think I have ten!’ And all three children started playing together for the first time when their new toy, Wobble Bear, was placed between the three of them, which felt like a freaking Christmas Miracle. Some of this stuff was facilitated by Christmas, but its mostly every day stuff that we noticed because we’re all sitting around driving each other a little nuts.

It will take more than one week of bad weather and sick children to erase the scary sadness of the last two Christmases, and an insistence on a CHRISTMAS FAMILY BRUNCH, DAMMIT are probably not going to help. But that’s a lesson in and of itself, and I will take it.

The Tiny Baby Blues

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I met a family last week who had an extremely premature baby. I had two extremely premature babies, but this baby was so premature that I was reduced to saying, essentially, ‘oh, shit, that’s an early baby.’

I have been thinking about that family a lot since. They arrived at the NICU – our NICU – a couple months after we left and stayed for a long time, though they are home now. But I keep feeling regret for them – not that they spent four months with a baby in the hospital, though that sure sucks a lot – but that they left the hospital without the resources that they would have had if things had gone more smoothly. Its hard to make friends with other parents when your experience diverged so sharply from everyone else’s so early, and its hard to settle into a rhythm as a new parent when you feel alienated from everyone else and their robust, healthy, oxygen-free newborns.

When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband and I did a birth-prep class. We had been warned that the content was not especially useful (it wasn’t), but that there was a lot of value in meeting your classmates – classes are organised by neighbourhood, and we live in an extremely fertile area, so our classmates lived around the corner, down the road, up the street – we were extremely geographically concentrated. When one of the babies was born early, the father sent an email to all of us saying how nice it was to meet everyone and he hoped to see us again soon sometime.

We had a good laugh about that at our fourth annual birth-prep group holiday in October. We saw each other almost every day all summer, and are still in regular contact with virtually everyone in the group, which has swelled (with second and, in our case, third children) to 32 people.

My group are outliers; most people don’t end up taking regular vacations with their parenting classmates. But most people do leave the hospital with a roughly shared experience of birth and new parenthood. Plus a baby. Most people leave the hospital and take their child with them.

For NICU families, it isn’t like that. I found it relatively easy to leave my daughters behind, not because I’m a callous witch, but because they were clearly…not finished. They were in incubators and they clearly needed to be. I found it harder at the end, when we were in sight of a finish line that never seemed to get any closer, and the girls looked and acted like babies instead of fetuses.

Still, from the moment they were born, I thought they were perfect. I wanted to tell people about my gorgeous twin daughters as much as any other new parent. When I was two weeks postpartum, I took my son to a birthday party and people asked how I was. It was only as I watched their eyes widen that I realised I had to adjust my rhetoric a little. ‘I just gave birth to tiny, perfect, extremely premature babies!’ isn’t exactly cocktail fodder. No one knew what to say. I skipped the next preschool party.

Of course there are families in the NICU who are going through something similar to what you’re experiencing. When people ask if I made friends in the NICU, I say ‘well – Facebook friends.’ I did meet people whose acquaintance I value, but none of them live within a twenty mile radius. Catchment areas for Category III (most intensive) NICUs can be huge; there are only a few in the UK. There are always families coming and going, and there is a hierarchy. One woman took weeks to warm up to me, presumably because her kid was having a rough go and she didn’t want to deal with another baby having an easier time than hers.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about this family I met recently, who had four crummy months in the hospital only to find themselves starting from a different place than everyone else who has a baby the same age (actual or adjusted) after they got discharged. I’ve wondered what could be done to make it easier for them, and I’ve wondered what I could do without coming across as an overzealous weirdo. I haven’t come up with much so far.

 

 

I Hate Santa.

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My paternal grandmother invented the Elf on the Shelf about sixty years before you ever heard of it. She didn’t profit from it – but she created a household elf, McGiffiny, who would come to Shorewood, Wisconsin around Thanksgiving, spy on my dad and aunt and uncle, and have little tete-a-tetes with my grandmother about her children’s behaviour. To say she cultivated a belief in Santa would be an understatement. When my dad found out the whole thing was an adult fabrication – from a friend of his older brother’s – he felt duped and betrayed. And while he’s not exactly losing sleep over it at age 67, it was sufficiently unpleasant that he and my mother went out of their way never to endorse Santa mythology to me or to my sister.

When I was in first grade, I asked my mother where presents came from if Santa didn’t bring them. And she told me. I have been grateful since then that my parents never tried to bullshit me about Santa or about various other imaginary creatures – the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, etc.

Now that my son is old enough to understand the narrative about Santa, I appreciate more than ever the way my parents never endorsed the myth. Because it is a difficult fricking line to walk. This year, Santa has made appearances at nursery and my husband’s office do, and my son is a firm believer despite the fact that my husband and I have gone out of our way to avoid encouraging him.

And so we find ourselves hamstrung: when Theo met Santa last week, he looked completely star-struck. There is no doubt in his mind, despite the fact that he met two different Santas on two consecutive days, that the whole shebang is real. If, come the 25th, there aren’t presents from Santa under the tree, we will have to have a reckoning. But if there are, we are playing into this weird fantasy about a fat man who breaks into people’s houses every year that is perpetuated by adults for their own amusement. I know some people argue that its fun to believe, but I don’t think anyone enjoys learning that they have been lied to. Stop deceiving your children because you think its cute!

And McGiffiny notwithstanding, don’t even get me started on that damn elf on the shelf. Creepy AF.

World Prematurity Day 2017: Reflections

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Last week was World Prematurity Day, and I took the girls back to the Rosie Hospital & Addenbrookes NICU – the hospital where they were born and the ward where they spent the first two months of their lives – for a reunion with the staff and some of their old roommates.

The event was 100% totally sweet. We paraded through the halls of the hospital with little tea lights, wearing purple (the colour of prematurity and also, I recently learned, of pancreatic cancer), and then convened in a hospital seminar room with a table of cakes and tea and coffee for a reception that lasted about 45 minutes. And then we left. It was perfect.

Many of the NICU staff had provided baked goods and there was a great turnout from consulting doctors and a few of the nurses (many, of course, were working and not able to come). Seeing the staff, the people who literally saved our children’s lives, was fantastic, and while I appreciate it wasn’t at the top of their list of things to do, I wish I’d been able to see more of them. Sarah and Sophie from room 7 or Denise and Ben from room 12…I get a little emotional thinking about it, even now. The NICU staff made it possible for me to go home and sleep every night even when Fiona’s oxygen needs were going up or when Daphne had green goo coming out of her stomach. They took care of my daughters when I couldn’t, and I will never be able to say thank you enough. I hope they know that.

None of the midwives or maternal consultants were there, which is a shame – because as critical as the NICU nurses were, the only people I wanted to see more were Kasha and Catherine, the doctors who watched over my uterus week after week and then ultimately delivered the girls by emergency C-section. Catherine came to debrief me before she left the hospital, as I was coming down off the heroin derivatives you get when you have a c-section, too, which was awfully kind,

There were probably about fifteen families, mostly with children under a year old, including at least two women casually slinging oxygen for their baby and a six-month-old three-month-old who looked like the tiniest old man you’ve ever seen.

A number of our girls’ NICU contemporaries were there. In December of last year, there was a family of quads born at 27 weeks at the Rosie, and the smallest of them ultimately spent over five months there. They were all there and were, naturally, like visiting celebrities. There was another family of twins born two weeks after mine who were our roommates for a couple of weeks and two other single babies whom I hadn’t actually ever seen in person – I’d just seen their mums in the pumping room.

It was a funny thing. I know these women (it was mostly women, because the milk kitchen was where the bonding happened) from one of the most difficult phases of  our lives. Our children spent months occupying the same rooms and our breastmilk sat side-by-side in little purple trays and we passed each other in the halls wearing pyjamas, or swallowing tears en route to the toilets. We chatted through the beige curtains to  background music provided by Medela breast pumps and then swore at the bizarrely hot tap water we used to wash our pump parts, exchanging small talk as we each microwaved our steriliser bags for three minutes.

I liked a lot of the people I met in the NICU. The super-religious family; the family with a silent husband and a wife with more than enough personality for two; the couple with a dad who was always dressed in expensive loungewear; the French woman who showed up two days postpartum with perfect hair and makeup; the ones who always ate tinfoil-wrapped sandwiches in the parents’ room and the American military man who thought my excitement over Teddy Grahams was hilarious (I mean, it was). But when people ask if I made friends, I say ‘well…I made Facebook friends.’

It was so good to see these families again – with parents looking less wan, mums looking slimmer, and babies looking chunky and normal. I’m so pleased I got to go, and to show off the girls a bit too. But it is also funny to think – given all the solidarity I got and gave with these people – that actually, half an hour of shmoozing turned out to be just about right. I walked back through the hospital and packed the girls into the bike, grateful to have seen everyone and even more grateful to be leaving the hospital behind for a while.