Navigating the first year of motherhood has been a wild ride. To say nothing has gone to plan is an understatement.
I’m very organized, but I’m also laid back and try not to worry about ifs and buts. During my first pregnancy I’d been doing a lot of research–listening to podcasts, reading books, and checking my ‘The Bump’ app religiously to see what fruit my baby was now the size of. I knew the odds of having complications at each stage, so after everything looked perfect at the 20-week scan, I buckled in for a textbook pregnancy.
By the 29th week, with almost three months left to go, I’d put together a spreadsheet of all of the essential items we would need. I’d also booked onto various birthing and baby care classes and scheduled a hospital tour, patting myself on the back that I’d been organized enough to book them in for September even though the baby wasn’t due until November.
Then the unthinkable happened. Out of the blue I went into labor at 29 weeks and there was nothing my OB could do to stop it.
My tiny boy arrived weighing just three pounds.
Since then we’ve been on a roller coaster ride. Having a very premature baby (those born before 32 weeks) means a long NICU stay is required. A whole range of challenges are presented that babies of full-term parents don’t ever have to deal with. I threw myself into absorbing all of the information I’d need to be part of my son’s care team, reading endless pamphlets and consulting with lactation consultants, physical therapists, and even a music therapist.
By the time we finally went home from hospital after two exhausting months, I’d become somewhat of an expert on my premature baby, but I didn’t have a clue how to care for a normal newborn. All of the research I’d planned to do when I went off work four weeks prior to my due date never got done.
I know almost all new parents feel like they are winging it, but for the last 11 months I’ve constantly felt like I’m on the back foot. As soon as I feel like I’ve got a handle on the stage my baby is in, he’s onto the next one. I always feel 10 steps behind and the mom guilt is ever present.
As my baby boy’s first birthday approaches, I’m finally starting to feel like I’ve found my footing. Memories of his dramatic arrival and traumatic NICU stay are beginning to fade as we make thousands of happier ones.
Reflecting on the advice I was given as the mom of a preemie, the following has been most valuable to me in the first year:
Don’t Compare Him to Other Babies
We all know we shouldn’t do this anyway, but with a preemie it’s a really terrible idea.
Take All of the Support Available to You, Whether It’s From Family, Friends, or Medical Professionals
With friends and family, make specific asks. Often people want to help but don’t know how. Asking friends to make extra food if they were cooking a meal helped us enormously while we were in hospital. After we graduated from the NICU, both me and my son had hit the maximum deductible on our insurance policies, so I used this to my advantage by attending private lactation appointments and getting some non-urgent healthcare issues taken care of for myself. Some insurance companies will even pay for a doula if you have premature twins.
Relax Into a Normal Schedule and Routine
The NICU operates like a well-oiled machine. A precise three-hour cycle is religiously adhered to, and when we first came home we found it difficult to get off that track. But we didn’t need to be on it, and when we learned to relax and go at our own pace, things became easier. My baby told me when he was hungry and I’d know about it if his diaper needed changing.
Accept That Things Are Different
Amidst a global pandemic this is true for all new moms. Dreams we had of family visiting, mama meetups, and a glorious maternity leave have been shelved. Due to my son’s prematurity, I decided to leave my job (there is no additional leave available in California beyond the standard 12 weeks). That’s been tough, but I’ve tried to look on the bright side that I have had all this extra time with him.
Now, as he turns one, our pediatrician says he has officially ‘caught up’ and I no longer have to factor in his adjusted age or explain to people why he’s so small. He’s going to be a toddler before I know it, so I’d better start doing my research on the next stage!