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Born Too Soon

An Interview with Elizabeth Mehren, author of Born Too Soon

By Allison Martin

Elizabeth Mehren is an experienced reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Her daughter was born prematurely in the late 1980's. Born Too Soon is the touching story of her daughter's short but eventful life in the NICU.

What were your goals when you started to write "Born Too Soon"?

Elizabeth Mehren: Like most parents of premature infants, my husband and I were thrust unawares into this strange, parallel universe. We had no preparation. One minute I was pregnant: measuring for curtains in the room I thought would be our daughter's nursery -- but not for at least three months. The next day I was in a hospital, madly hoping to prolong this child's gestation, even by any matter of days. I bargained with God, I prayed, I worried, I cried. You know the story. Emily was born two days after the amniotic sac ruptured.

For us, entering the NICU was like landing on another planet. It was strange. It was foreign. Nothing in my life's experience prepared me for what I confronted there.

So, to answer your question: I didn't want another parent ever to have to go through that feeling of strange uncertainty, that sense of being an alien. I wanted parents to have some kind of emotional guidebook. There were plenty of books out there to talk about the physical aspects of prematurity -- although that is mind-boggling as well. But I couldn't find a book at the time that addressed the emotional issues facing parents as they try to navigate this strange, high-tech universe. My goal was to help parents through this experience by offering up our own story as one example. That's why I wrote it warts-and-all, right down to the fact that my husband and I fought bitterly at times during this difficult period -- and right down to the fact that the dignity of our daughter kept us humble and reminded us how stupid our bickering was at a time like that. I wanted parents to know that tension is normal in this situation. I wanted parents to feel validated, to know that the emotional roller-coaster of prematurity is in fact entirely normal.

How did you create "Born Too Soon"? Did you keep a journal at the time?

Elizabeth Mehren: Yes. While Emily was alive I kept a journal. I wrote in it every night. Every child always wants to know "what was I like as a baby?" -- and since Emily's beginnings were dramatic, I wanted to be able to share the experience with her in detail. I thought I would give her the journal when she grew up. Instead, it became the spine of the book.

The journal was detailed, because at night I wrote and wrote. That's how I was able to summon up some obscure but important details for the book, such as the peculiar frequency of the telephone ring in the NICU. To this day, when I hear a ring with that pitch, it goes right up my backbone and sends me back to the NICU.

What advice would you offer to parents of preemies who are in the NICU?

Elizabeth Mehren: First, and this is easier said than done, I would say: Be kind to yourself. If you are lucky, if your child has a long stay in the NICU, you will find it to be an all-encompassing experience.  It drains you, even on good days. So it is very important to conserve energy. This means taking some time to do something JUST FOR YOU, and understanding that this is not a selfish decision. I used to jog from our apartment on one side of New York to Emily's hospital on the other. The run gave me some distance, and helped work off (temporarily) some of the stress and anxiety. It's impossible to have an entirely normal life when your baby is in an NICU. But some shred of normalcy is critical. Go to a movie -- take a beeper or a cell phone. Those two hours will help distract you, even briefly. I recommend a comedy. (My husband says I cried through the only movie we went to at that time, so I guess I didn't practice what I am preaching!)

Another piece of advice: Don't waste your time trying to explain your baby's medical condition to people who can't understand it. Prematurity is way too scary for people who haven't been near it. They think they understand. But they don't. You will be frustrated, maybe even insulted and certainly disappointed if you try to give outsiders a crash course in Prematurity IA. I kept having well-meaning people ask me if I had sought second medical opinions. For what? To find out if her weight was really 760 grams??? It was strange. These people meant well, but they just couldn't "get it."

I also advocate getting as much information as possible. Reach out to whatever sources you can find. Inform yourself! Though you can't master or control this situation, you can learn about it. The information helps a parent to feel some semblance of control over an otherwise uncontrollable situation. More advice: Be cognizant at all times of just how stressful this experience is.

Prematurity can wreak havoc on marriages. Ideally, it will bring you closer together. But in the short term, it puts everyone on edge. You have no idea how many women have told me that their marriages suffered the same tension that my husband and I went through. I wish we had known at that time that this was predictable. Luckily, we survived. If we had known what to expect, we might have been able to look at each other and understand what was going on a little better.

Have you had any involvement with preemies or in the field of prematurity since this book was published?

Elizabeth Mehren: Yes. I have spoken at a number of conferences -- most recently, a section of the American Academy of Pediatrics. I am determined to use Emily's experience to help educate others, and that includes the medical profession. So I have talked to nursing groups, medical schools, parents' organizations, a therapists' conference, and so forth. I also worked on a "prematurity summit" conference at the University of Vermont that brought together parents, doctors, nurses, social workers and others involved in this field. We became an ad hoc organization and drafted a "patient's bill of rights" for the NICU that was published in a major medical journal. We also helped to produce a documentary film depicting life in an NICU that is now used in some medical schools and elsewhere.

I've written about prematurity for a number of publications, including the Journal of Neonatology. I've served on panels at several medical schools, among them, Harvard and UCLA.

Could you give us an update on your work? And of your family?

Elizabeth Mehren: To my surprise, "Born Too Soon" generated a kind of sequel. I received so much correspondence from parents who had lost babies that I felt compelled to pursue the story. So I wrote "After the Darkest Hour," a parent's guide to coping with the loss of a child. The book is told in the voices of the real experts: parents who have lost children of all ages to many causes. It includes quotations from famous people, such as Mark Twain, John F. Kennedy and W.E.B. DuBois. Mostly it tells the story of people like all of us who have their lives turned upside down by the epxerience of losing a child.

I continue to work as a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, a job I adore! I think of myself as one lucky journalist.

My husband, Fox Butterfield, still works for the New York Times and also writes books. My oldest stepchild, Ethan Butterfield, is a sports journalist. My stepdaughter, Sarah Butterfield, will be a college senior in the fall. Emily's "little" brother, Sam Butterfield, just turned 11. He is a left-handed pitcher whose career goal is to save the Red Sox. He has all the tenacity of his late sister, and the same bright smile.

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