All in a Year. Reflections on My Son's First Birthday.
By Whitney Swance Starczewski
I imagine that every child’s first birthday is a time of nostalgia for parents, an opportunity to revisit the day when your life changed forever while celebrating all the exciting memories and milestones of your child’s first year. For me, as a preemie mom, reflections on my son’s first year of life are tinged bittersweet. As I look back over the past 12 months, I find that I’m drawn to the hard, to the pain, the sadness, the bitter. Noah is healthy and happy now (most of the time), and it’s difficult to express in words how truly thankful I am for that. Yet my mind still saunters unsuspectingly toward memories of anxiety, stress, and uncertainty, casting all that I can recall in a depressingly sinister light.
I remember the exhaustion and defeat of pumping only scant amounts of breastmilk during those first two months. I recall not seeing Noah’s face without tubes for over a month after he was born, and the tears when one evening I asked his nurse to leave them off for a short time so that I could finally take in his bare, sweet little face. I recall the relief I felt after being told he could come home from the NICU only to find out that he would have to remain on oxygen support for months afterwards. I remember my mom’s sobs when it set in that we were moving far away, and that she wouldn’t be able to bond with Noah like my grandparents had bonded with me. I recall the isolation, the frustration, the trapped feeling of being a stay-at-home mom in a small town where I knew no one, missing my friends, but especially missing my mom and my grandma. I remember the feeling of regret, and thinking that I had somehow messed up, that the challenges we were facing were somehow my fault and thus a punishment for my not having made “better” life choices.
Focusing on the positive, on the present moment, practicing gratitude, deep breathing – I’m sure these techniques help some. And I know it’s all the rage right now to “focus on the present moment” and to maintain a “gratitude journal”, or to meditate for a short while and to go on regular, leisurely walks - as if these exercises will somehow evaporate all our woes. But I’ve tried those things and I’m still mad. I’m still sad, angry, bitter, I’m still all of it.
I get anxious in hospitals, I tear up when I revisit NICU photos, I am frightened when I envision becoming pregnant again. I’m still mad at my body, for betraying us, for not letting me carry Noah to term, for making us both gravely ill, for not producing the breast milk he so desperately needed. I seethe with envy when TV commercials show new moms holding their babies just moments after birth, when I see photos of baby showers, the soon-to-be-very-pregnant mom bubbling with joy, her friends and family all around, when I read birth announcements ending in the classic “baby and mom are both doing well.” And, I loathe my sense of entitlement - Noah’s still-fragile lungs and labored breathing, his lagging gross motor skills, his flat head and helmet, the countless doctor and therapy appointments, the medical bills – although deep-down I know we are no different than anyone else, and that many premature babies face uphill battles much more arduous than Noah’s, I continue to wonder why it was us, why we had to endure pre-eclampsia, prematurity and all its wearisome aftermath.
Grieving. That’s how I spent Noah’s first year of life. Grieving the destruction of my expectations about new motherhood, feeling sorry for myself and for him all the while agonizing over the struggles he’s already had to overcome. But I’m sick of it. I’m so sick of it. I want to be done dwelling on what went wrong and what otherwise “should” have been. I want to close the chapter on the sorrow, overpower it, or at least harness it, accept it as one, and only one, emotion I can and have experienced following Noah’s birth. I have to. I need to move forward. Not just for my sake, but for his.
For Noah’s second year, I will reorient the story I tell myself about his first. I will accept his journey and challenges wholly, validate my grief as such while acknowledging that what was and what is is exactly what is meant to be. I’ll connect more with others, let the emotions of sadness and anger play a supporting role, really feel and express the joy of being a mom to an amazingly strong, vibrant son. I’m determined.
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