Differences of Premature and Full Term Birthdays

Parents of full term babies can't understand why parents of children born premature seem to need to grieve the small details of birth.

By Mary Searcy

I have noticed there are differences between my feelings and memories of my preemie's and full term daughter's births and birthdays. My full term daughters birthday always seems to sneak up on me (to be truthfully, I have a hard time remembering what the right date is); and how with my son David's birthday, I relive the 5 weeks before his birth to some degree each year. I remember each event of those five weeks, and the dates seem to be forever etched into my brain. The strange thing is that with my daughter, Katherine, I started restricted activity at 26 weeks, and even spent three weeks on bed-rest. So I wondered what the difference was, and I think my answer sort of sums up why we seem to be more traumatized over our premature births (even those of us with relatively "healthy" preemies) than the average person would expect.

With my son, it was my first pregnancy, I was full of hopes and dreams, and at 6 months, I still hadn't taken any pictures of me and my belly, the holidays were coming up and I figured I'd have plenty of opportunity then, since I'd be gloriously and roundly pregnant on our first Christmas as a married couple. So going into pre-term labor the week before Thanksgiving was certainly not what I was expecting. The five weeks of bed-rest, hospitalization, mag sulfate, etc. certainly weren't fun, but in the scheme of things, they really weren't so horrible. Then I was induced because I was leaking amniotic fluid, and I didn't have any support or answers; two days before Christmas, the young Labor and Delivery nurses just didn't want to have to stay in the room with me, what a downer to have to sit with someone in terrible pain (physical and emotional) with a less than perfect outcome, when there were goodies as the desk. At full term David's birth, I felt dazed, empty, it was all unreal. David cried on his own a few seconds a full tamer birth (the longest seconds of my life), and DH and I join him, and I don't think any of us will ever be able to stop. Then David was handed to the neonatologist, evaluated and briefly handed to me, before he's taken away. Slowly, I call relatives to tell them of his birth. I go to see him a full term I'm cleaned up, then I'm sent back to the room on the special care floor that I've spent the past week in; the next morning the only reminder of what happened is the Polaroid taped to my bedrail.

The only thing worse than David spending 29 days in the hospital was the first year he was home; no one warned me that he might over-stimulate, the the "mild" reflux he had could make him scream for hours on end (even though the pediatrician just looked at me and said he wasn't really crying that much, it was just colic, OK?). The time in my life when I was most vulnerable to feeling like a failure and my baby cried nonstop, I was literally surviving on a few 20 minute naps a da y. (Plus working part time - is it any wonder I was totally stressed out at work. Especially with a boss who believed that women with children were unreliable, which I seemed to prove with my "inconvenient for the office" month plus of bedrest.) At times I really believed that my mom and her friend were planning behind my back to have David taken away from me because I was an unfit mother (in reality, my mom was telling this friend what a good job I was doing).

I'll always wonder if perhaps everything wouldn't have been so traumatic if that first year had been easier, if David had just been like a "normal" baby when he came home.

Fast forward 2.5 years, and once again I'm pregnant, this time taking every precaution to make it to term, or at least catch the pre-term labor earlier and hold it off longer. I'm on bed rest for three weeks with my source of support cut off. But this time I make it to term. A full term 18 hours of labor that isn't progressing, (and sciatic pain that the epidural won't even dent), we decide to start the dreaded pit. Just before midnight, my full term daughter is born, looking enormous at 7 pounds. A few seconds pass before she cries, but the silence is broken by my laughter as a full term the midwife declares it's a girl. When David was born, I just quietly said "hi, baby", unable to speak his name out of fear that he might not make it. This time I greet my daughter by name, laughing all the more when her cord is too short for her to be placed on my stomach before the cord is cut, waiting with greedy arms until she's handed to me. Immediately, I start calling relatives; I'm on top of the world. It takes a few hours before the room is cleaned up, Katherine is given her first bath (this time I get to watch!), and I finally get some food (which I didn't eat, too much excitement).

Katherine is fussy that night, and unbelievably, I send her to the nursery for a few hours so I can get some sleep. In the morning, I sing and hum while I get both of us ready for a day of visitors. Yes I hurt, yes it was a difficult, stressful pregnancy, but this ceased to matter when my healthy baby was placed in my arms. That night, I realize that I've held my daughter more in the first 20 hours of her life than I held my son in the first two weeks of his.

The birth of my full term daughter was a major turning point in dealing with my feelings about David's prematurity. Up until that point, I suspected that I missed out on a lot, that there were losses I suffered, but I didn't know for sure. Katherine's birth confirmed this. There had been so many losses; I really had missed out on a lot. I started laughing when she was born, and deep in my heart, there's a part of me that hasn't stopped yet. This allowed me to start grieving for what I really did lose when David was born, and start to move on.

Sure, nobody gets the Gerber baby, but when you hold your beautiful, healthy baby, it really doesn't matter; it's easy to let go of anything that isn't absolutely perfect. When your baby is perhaps just as beautiful, perhaps not, and not healthy, and not placed in your arms, but taken away, all that you have is the imperfections filling the room. Even though events may be insignificant and easily forgotten given a "normal" healthy birth, for us they are only more reminders of what didn't go right, only more things that we lost. So, I don't think that parents of full term babies can understand why we seem to need to grieve the small details; what to them is just a footnote is the body of the text for us.