On Jumping Off A Cliff With The Hopes That A Tiny Branch Might Save You [Pregnancy After Preemie].

IMG_6904.jpg

My full term daughter was born on December 23, 2018 on a full moon. A cold moon. The cold full moon, and the first day of capricorn: the goat. She burst out with her robust cry weighing 8 pounds, and they put her on my chest so she could feel me and smell me. We laid there together for almost 30 minutes before I cut her umbilical cord.

Her name is Greta. She is very strong.

Her brother Elliott, a surviving twin who was born at 26 weeks, is now seven years old.

The surreal nature of my daughter’s birth was stunning— I laid there with this gigantic sweet baby whom I could touch and who was in the same room with me, and I couldn’t believe the sheer grace of the entire thing. That I could protect her eyes from the lights with my hands, that she could sense me, that she wasn’t immediately swifted away in an avalanche of terror, that there was no loss. I couldn’t stop crying. All emotions came overwhelmingly to the surface, and as someone who’s been called “stoic”, it was like being in a whirlpool.

IMG_0523.JPEG

Everything about her strength brought me back to the precariousness of her brothers’, William and Elliott’s, birth.

From the minute of the positive pregnancy test my body awakened to the dread of what could happen-- what could finally come again— what would probably do me in for once and for all— the loss of another baby. And each moment of the pregnancy felt like a conscious decision that I could be putting another baby into a dangerous situation for the fact that they were living inside of my body.

IMG_2728.JPG

My body: the one that I still, deep down, blame/d for the death of my son William and for the prolonged hospitalization of Elliott. My angry and disorganized body. The body that could go haywire at 26 weeks and people could die from— that body. My friend Erika said she would make birth announcements that mentioned that nobody died; she got it. I just hoped I got that far.

So that’s the background.

There was this other half of me that had always longed for more babies despite my massive fears.

I found a doctor I trusted. We talked about the medical history. I pulled from my ancient knowledges to describe each medical intervention they used with my boys and tried to keep myself from describing my sons’ suffering as a result of the preterm labor. She said the Makena shot was a miracle. She said she’s seen a lot of success.

At 18 weeks, as we approached the danger zone, my high risk doctor joked that due to my advanced maternal age, previous preterm labor, and my (new and fun thing [kidding]) low-lying placenta, that we had our work cut out for us. I bit my lip trying not to worry, but spent the rest of the afternoon that day googling each condition, the likelihood of preterm labor associated with it, and crying.

I realized throughout the pregnancy that there was power in my body’s memory, and that I had pushed that part out of me— out of my conscious thought. I realized that my body remembered everything despite my desperate and elaborate attempts to eradicate it over the course of 7 years. And with the help of my partner and my doula, I tried to walk through the steps of acceptance that this was not the same, that it would not be the same, even if the darkest of fears felt as if it was omnipresent. When the labor hit and it was real, the emotions rushed to the surface again, even despite my knowing we were in the “safe zone” of being past 37 weeks. And by some grace, I was lucky enough to be able to experience giving birth to a healthy daughter. Through the entire pregnancy and the birth, I was able to start forgiving myself (maybe for the first time) for the things that were not my fault, possibly for the fact that historically I had only experienced trauma associated with childbirth and motherhood.

IMG_2723.JPG

The night before she was born I saw two falling stars.

Greta and Elliott <3

Greta and Elliott <3

There is something to be said for getting the chance to sleep in the same room with your baby the night they were born and to KNOW exactly what it feels like to not have that for 88 days, or ever. For being able to put her in a carseat and take her away from the hospital a couple of days after her birth, and remembering the carseat tests that kept your son from leaving for days. For feeling her suckle within the first hour of her birth—something I had never experienced. To put her in clothes you picked out (the nurses had dressed Elliott the first time, when I wasn’t there). To listen to her breathe unassisted, no wires or tubes: to hear her full cry even in those very first moments, a LOUD cry. Even in staying up all night with her for months on end— just you and your family— and no one to tell you some dire reason that she couldn’t sleep. For being able to make the first decisions for her, and not having to weigh what medical intervention would be the least likely to have long term consequences.

Pregnancy after preemies, for me, was like being repatriated with the things I never thought I’d experience having, and to have every moment of it be a godsend, but a godsend of which I was hyperaware. I sometimes think that only the parents who’ve experienced trauma have this “gift”: the gift of being able to recognize and feel gratitude for the very precious thing you have in front of you, to have your hopes realized in the form of a baby, to not have the capability of taking the fragility of that for granted. To be reminded of the strength of your babies that were forced to fight. To realize the absolute gift that babies are. I am filled with a gratitude that is just as wordless and powerful as the grief (and gratitude) that came with loss almost 8 years ago, and once again, I am speechless.

[Note: I’ve debated for months whether or not to write this blog with the understanding that this isn’t what always happens with a pregnancy after preemie. The intention of this is not to say that this is what typically happens nor that this was simple. I chose not to discuss the various issues that came up over the course of my pregnancy that were scary (in this particular blog). This is not intended to imply that only healthy babies are worthy. My hope was to convey the wonder and love that came back to me with my daughter, and existed wholly with my sons, albeit under different circumstances.]

"The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"?

A documentary discussing an interesting issue was recently brought to my attention. It's about the plasticity of the brain, and talks about the potential for scientists to either place false memories or remove traumatic memories from individual's minds as a way to "heal" from trauma. Pretty science fictiony right? 

It got me to thinking about traumatic memories, particularly those of NICU parents. NICU parents have a unique situation: one in which the trauma that they've been exposed to had to do with witnessing their baby or babies fight for their lives in the hospital-- horrific-- but not necessarily in the same way that witnessing a car accident or physical abuse might be, as our trauma is intertwined with our babies' entrance into the world.  On this topic I was quick to realize that there's no way I would prefer to forget my traumatic memories; not only do they contain critically important details of my sweet boys' lives (and William's passing), but at the same time, the experiences gave me a completely different sense of the world around me. It wasn't necessarily a positive sense, but it felt powerful and important. It most definitely changed the way I perceived things; the way I think. 

Trauma is essentially the experience of something terrible-- it can be either through our own experience of crisis or through watching someone we care about struggle with something extraordinary. Our brains work hard to make a discrete memory of traumatic circumstances for the evolutionary purpose of being prepared if something along the same lines should happen again. For example, one of my earliest memories is that of grabbing a metal railing to pull myself out of the pool at a swimming lesson-- it was burning hot-- I let go and sunk back into the pool. My mind stored that memory as an extremely important thing as my fear of drowning and the reality of it took over at that moment-- I believe I was only two years old.

Our experience of trauma becomes "disordered" (I hate that descriptor) when elements of our reaction to it continue to affect our lives in a negative way long after the trauma has ended. Many NICU parents have experienced this in ways like hearing a beeping noise that brings you back to the constant alarm of the apnea and other monitors in the NICU and becoming anxious, perhaps even sweating or developing insomnia in response to it. Many times it is our bodies that respond to these triggers; I remember once smelling hand sanitizer that had a similar fragrance to the one at our NICU and becoming physically ill. In fact, many newer theories about the experience of trauma posit that we hold much of these experiences in our physical bodies. It makes sense, as traumatic memories are often stored in a different part of the brain than our autobiographical memories; it is nonverbal, and has much to do with the sensory perception associated with specific memories: the limbic system. 

The neuroscientist Dan Siegel writes much about the notion that the attachment a parent has with their child can be gauged by that parent's own narrative memory and whether it is coherent or not. Additionally most trauma literature within the field of psychology puts forth the notion that in the treatment of trauma, the goal is for the client to develop a cohesive memory that incorporates the traumatic event within it. Siegel talks about how when a parent has gone through a traumatic circumstance, it's essential for them to integrate the memory into their own personal narrative in order to have an optimal attachment with their baby (Siegel, 2001). It reminds me of a conversation I had with a good friend when she was pregnant with her son. I told her that I hoped he would "always be happy". Her response surprised me at the time; she said that "I think it's also important for him to learn about sadness too". The conversation shifted the way that I perceived parenting significantly, and in actually becoming a parent, I realized that her words held even more power and honesty than I had previously thought. To imagine human beings as ideally being two-dimensional super-happy people leaves out a huge piece of the human experience. Without sadness or pain, what would happiness look like? 

So, what of it when we are confronted with the idea that we could forget the NICU and everything that happened there? Everything that at once deconstructed our lives but at the same time brought our children into the world? What would it mean for our attachment with our children that we wouldn't have any information about our most painful experiences, that were innately intertwined with their lives, to share with them? What of the gaps in our narratives? What if instead of "removing" traumatic memories from our conscious/unconscious mind, we instead worked to figure out how to perceive them differently-- perhaps in ways that serve us, our children, our families and friends in moving forward?

What if, instead of holding on to the end goal of "forgetting" trauma, we chose to carry it with us, perhaps in the hope that in communicating what we have been through, we could help others to understand it? 

Siegel, D. (2001). Toward an interpersonal neurobiology of the developing mind: attachment relationships, "mindsight," and neural integration. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22(1-2), 67-94.

If your interest is piqued by this subject, the documentary I referenced here is called "Breakthrough: Decoding the Brain" and on Sunday, November 15, at 9 pm ET it will air on the National Geographic Channel.