Dear Pregnant Self,
I see you with the crazy hair, half-matted to your scalp in a curly triangle from lying in a hospital bed for days on end. You’re crying there in the dark, sniffling through reruns of “Roseanne” on the microscopic hospital TV perched in the corner of the room. An IV dangles from your wrist, pumping magnesium sulfate through your veins in slow, hot globs. Scratchy hospital towels cover the bedrails in case you begin to seize as a result of the brutal blood pressure readings your body continues to produce despite numerous types of medical intervention. 175/110. 190/100. 180/115. You hear a student nurse whisper, “Just like Sybil from ‘Downton Abbey?’” as she receives the morning report from your overnight nurse.
26 weeks pregnant on strict hospital bedrest with severe pre-eclampsia is not how you pictured this to go.
You’ve been busy Googling, of course, trying to calculate the survival rates of 26-week-old babies, silently willing your blood pressure to cooperate so you can protect your son for another one or two weeks in utero. You’ve read countless success stories of babies much younger and smaller than yours, triumphantly sailing through the NICU and going home around their estimated due dates with no lasting medical issues. Their pictures are plastered all over various Internet message boards, all chubby legs and toothy smiles, with captions like, “Look at my former 23-weeker!” and “First day of kindergarten!”
Your heart swells with hope. Your due date is November 11, three months from now. Three months in the NICU doesn’t seem so bad, you think.
You also read stories about 26-week-old babies never coming home. Stories about premature babies being born still. Pre-eclamptic mothers suffering strokes and dying on the operating table. You quickly close those browser tabs and pray in fervent, staggering breaths, “Please, please, please, God, no. No. No. Please not me. Not this baby.”
I’m sorry to break this news to you, Self, but you’re having your baby tomorrow morning. You will be 26 weeks, one day pregnant when your son is born.
And again, things aren’t going to go as you pictured them to go.
You’re going to hear him cry. All 1 pound, 8 ounces and 12 inches of him. You’re going to lock tear-filled eyes with your husband at that very moment in time, and the world will feel like it’s standing still. Soon after, you’ll live through a flurry of surreal moments that you’ll remember only in spurts. You’ll get to see your son a few hours later when he is wheeled to you in a plastic box. You’ll place your hand on his tiny chest and feel it move up and down as a ventilator breathes for him. You won’t know whether to feel overwhelming joy or heartbreak at the sight of him. Minutes later, he’ll be whisked away to the NICU, and you won’t see him for another few days until your blood pressure stabilizes.
The NICU. A place you never thought about much before this all happened. A magical, heart-wrenching, inspiring place. It will be your son’s home for the next eight months.
Yes, eight months. I’m sorry, Self, but of all those premature babies who go home around their due dates — your son isn’t one of them. But he will go home. You will question whether or not this will actually happen on an almost-daily basis for a very long time. Longer than you will care to admit later on. But he’s going home. I promise.
A few things are going to happen before he comes home, though. Doctors are going to throw out the term “chronic lung disease,” and you’re going to furiously Google it on a daily basis for months as his oxygen requirements stagnate and babies all around your NICU pod get discharged. You’ll join an online support group for moms of babies with tracheostomies and G-tubes long before the word “trach” is ever uttered by a doctor. You’ll have motherly instincts. You’ll just know.
Self, I know you hate medical stuff. You sucked at A.P. Biology in high school and you can’t even look when your blood is getting taken for labs. (I saw you this morning during that awful draw. Yeah, it’s going to leave an epic bruise.) But in order to bring your son home, you’re going to have to pass a crash course in respiratory therapy. You’re going to learn how to take a tiny plastic tracheostomy tube out of your son’s neck and put a new one in each month so that he can breathe. You’re going to learn how to give your son your breastmilk through a tube in his stomach. You’re going to learn infant CPR. And you’re going to watch your son turn various shades of gray when he can’t oxygenate properly. (Don’t worry, you’ll understand what the word “oxygenate” means soon enough.)
You’re going to learn how to troubleshoot a home ventilator. (Yes, you heard me right — home ventilator. Your son will be on a ventilator in your home for a while — but stay with me here.) Your car is eventually going to become littered with saline bullets and plastic syringes. (You’ll learn what those are used for soon.) You’re going to marvel at the way your husband morphs into Superman in times of emergency, calmly handling health crises as you panic and stifle tears.
This isn’t the motherhood you pictured, Self, I know. But listen. I’m here to tell you it’s going to be OK.
That tiny, red-skinned little human you’re going to meet tomorrow? He’s going to become the most incredible person you’ll ever know. Not to give away another spoiler, but he’s going to amaze you. He’s going to grow into a hulk of a toddler with bright green eyes, curly brown hair and a smile that can light up the solar system. He’s going to steamroll doctors’ predictions and rise to every challenge you present to him.
One day, two years from now, he’s going to run across your living room to you and sign “I love you” and “Mommy.” And your heart is going to burst as you remember lying in this very hospital bed, worrying and wondering about him.
He’s going to face some major surgeries later on, some that we haven’t yet endured. That fear you’re feeling right now is never going to completely go away.
But, may I offer another spoiler? I know, I know, you just want to watch “Roseanne” and eat ice chips, but here’s one more thing: The person you are right now? You’ll never really be her ever again. Your heart is going to be ripped out of your chest in a few hours and will never find its way back to the same spot again. Scars will form. New tissue will grow. But it will keep beating. Beating as you face a mother’s worst fears head-on, as you push yourself to advocate for your son’s health, as you form a stronger connection to your husband than you ever thought possible, as you ignore the stares and whispers in public as people struggle to comprehend the sight of so many tubes tethered to a baby. You’re not going to recognize the woman you’ll become. But I promise you that’s a good thing — no offense.
Anyway, I hope this letter reassures you. I heard you telling your mom yesterday, “I just wish I could see a few years into the future to know that he’s going to be OK.”
He’s OK, Self.
Two years from now, that tiny baby is going to be a wild toddler facing another set of health obstacles. And you’re going to say the exact same words out loud. How you wish you could just see into the future and know that he’s going to be OK. Again.
Until then, have faith. Right now, he’s OK, and that’s all that matters.
Now get some rest. You’re going to need it.
Your Future Self