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When Everyone Kept Telling Me My Premature Baby Was Perfect

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“He is behind,” the pediatrician said, gently placing my 11-month-old in my arms. “It is concerning.”

He immediately launched into a string of compliments about my son Rory’s bright eyes and happy demeanor. I think he was maybe attempting to curb the fear he assumed was welling up inside of me. But all I felt in that moment was overwhelming relief.

Rory was a 35-week preemie who weighed less than 5 pounds at birth. Because of the circumstances surrounding his emergency birth, I wasn’t allowed out of bed to see him until 24 hours later. When I did, I turned to my husband and asked, “What is wrong with the baby?”

My husband smiled and rubbed my back. After six years of marriage and two previous children, he has grown accustomed to my postpartum anxiety. “Nothing is wrong,” he assured me. “He is perfect.”

I wasn’t convinced. I spent that night lying awake in my hospital bed, unable to sleep in between trips to feed the baby. When Rory was placed in my lap to nurse, I carefully examined his crumpled ears, counted his fingers and toes and gently felt for the soft spot on his head. I found no evidence anything was wrong, but I still felt uneasy.

When I was discharged, I would sit in the baby’s peaceful hospital room and pour over his chart as he slept. I asked his nurses and doctors if they really thought he was OK. Everyone agreed: He was perfect.

After an uneventful 10 days in the NICU, we brought our boy home. Over the next few weeks, we all fell madly in love with his laid-back personality and killer eyelashes.

Life went on, but at every checkup, I found myself voicing concerns over his growth and development. It was never anything significant enough to warrant more than a note in his chart. Over and over again, I was told he was early and he would catch up. I mentioned my concerns to friends and family, but they all said he was perfect. Maybe a little small and a little bit behind, but perfect nonetheless. I felt guilty for being the only one who thought something wasn’t “perfect.”

One afternoon, my husband and I sat reminiscing about the first time our 6-year-old, Liam, crawled. As we talked, I realized he was younger than Rory is presently when he first crawled. And Liam was a 29-week preemie, while Rory was a 35-week preemie. I’m aware that comparing children is a mommy faux pas, but suddenly this knowledge made it urgent that someone look at my baby immediately. I made an appointment with our pediatrician the next day.

At almost a year, Rory isn’t crawling. He’s not sitting up. He’s not really babbling. He’s not rolling or scooting. The pediatrician purses his lips as my baby struggles to hold his head up while on his belly. He frowns at the tightness of the muscles in Rory’s hips and at his still-clenched fists. I’m nervous he will try to blow off my concern, and I plan to insist on a second opinion or a therapy evaluation. I’m kicking myself for not being more forceful sooner. But I don’t have to insist. He gives us referrals to a developmental pediatrician and to a plethora of therapists. He tells me as gently as possible that something may be wrong with my baby’s brain.

I press my lips together to keep from shouting, “Finally!” I want to hug him.

The thing is, everyone wanted to say everything was fine because they were genuinely trying to make me feel better. What I wish people could understand is that, as a mother, I never needed to feel better. I needed someone to acknowledge my child was facing challenges and to tell me what I could do to help him.

A few days after our doctor’s appointment, I tickle Rory’s round belly as I change his diaper. He kicks his feet and laughs his sweet, raspy laugh. I laugh with him. Our first therapy appointment is next week, and for the first time since my son’s birth, I feel completely at peace. We don’t have the answers yet, but I’m no longer the only one asking the question. We don’t know what we’re facing, but I’m not alone and, right now, that’s enough for me.

As I pick him up, my sweet baby is staring up at me and grinning wide. What do I finally see as I stare into his beautiful hazel eyes? Everyone was right. He is perfect.

Michelle's baby son Rory

Originally published: September 23, 2015
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