I dedicate this piece to my husband, for without him I may not have survived this last year. We’ve struggled together and independently, but for me this piece was a tough and necessary one to write. I know others who have been through similar and feel alone. You are not. You are never alone. So to my rock, to my Miter, to the man I love, and to the best Big Poppa an Abba could ask for: I love you.
In just eight days our twins will be one years old. It’s hard to believe that it’s been exactly one year since we first met them. It’s hard to believe that we’ve been parents for this last year. It’s hard to believe how much has happened this last year. But most of all, and something that I wasn’t expecting, it’s hard to believe just how traumatic our experience was prior to, and leading up to our stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). It’s taken me a while to truly unpack. A lot of tears. A lot of talking. And a lot of networking with parents whom have had similar experiences.
Many of you who follow my blog know that we wrote letters. We wrote them every single night while we ate dinner prior to returning for nighttime cares in our assigned NICU pod. Sometimes I wrote them myself, crying, and others I asked Brian to write because I was empty. Some of them we wrote together, or at least outlined what we wanted to share, but one thing was certain: we wrote them as a means to digest exactly what was happening, a way to communicate to those back home what was going on and a way to take care of our joint mental health. I cannot begin to describe what it was like to experience being away from our friends and family for so long. It was grueling. But we continued these letters for major milestones throughout their first year – and it’s been great for both of us and will turn into an even greater memory for our children.
When we got the call early on February 17th that our surrogate had gone into labor – like legit labor – we went into action mode despite being scared shitless. Brian got on the phone and booked flights, I secured us a ride to the airport, and our surrogate’s husband was as stellar as could be in keeping us up-to-date with literally everything that was going on. In fact, if it wasn’t for him and his wife (clearly) it would have been so much worse. They were truly a foundation for us, but little did we know just the firmament they would provide. We secured our animal’s wellbeing for the time (indefinitely) that we would be in Texas and packed for the trip.
While we were being driven down to the airport we got the call and text that Ashly would have to have an emergency c-section. As emotionally charged as I was it was the worst (and best) news ever. We were going to miss the birth of our children. This was something for which I was not emotionally ready. Given all the variables we had we planned to be there at the beginning of 35 weeks gestation, but alas, biology had other plans. This is the first time I am writing about it, but I was shattered. So. Utterly. Shattered. For the nearly 21 months leading up to their birth I fantasized about that day. Arriving at the hospital. Getting gowned up and cleaned. Cutting the cord. Holding our children for the first time. And just like that – gone. Like a band aid ripped from the most sensitive area of my body it was gone. I would never experience their birth. And that fact left a pit inside…But, what did happen, and we’re forever thankful, is that our surrogate’s husband Mac FaceTimed us in the airport during the procedure. It was the next best thing to being there. And not only did he FaceTime, he had an extra device that he used to video their birth so that we would have that memory forever. I have watched this video over and over imagining what it would be like for us to have been present. I am thankful for this. In fact more thankful than he’ll ever know because the shear emptiness I felt when I knew we wouldn’t be there was an emptiness I’ll never forget.
And then we got to the hospital. So much of it is a blur – but we got there. We were registered. The intake staff was so nice. SO nice. And then…they brought us up to meet our children. It was still February 17th so we got to meet them the day they were born. It was nothing short of miraculous. Seeing our son, our daughter, holding their hands. Stroking their forearms. Hearing them cry. Smelling them. Staring at them. Observing their every move. And then we were given the opportunity to hold them, skin to skin, for the very first time. My body experienced something that day that it had truly never experienced before. I don’t even have a word to describe what it was like to see Brian holding Alexander that first time…and then the feeling of holding all 3lbs 13oz of Phoebe…it was surreal like something out of a fairy tale. But there we were, holding our children for the first time. But there was something different about it. They were attached to wires. Breathing apparatuses strapped to their faces. Feeding tubes taped to their mouths. Soon the realization that we were in the NICU sank in.
The doctor doing rounds came to us to speak. It was crazy – she wanted to talk to us about our children. OUR children. And we did. We learned a lot about their health status and what we should expect: to be in Texas until their gestational due date in early April. The pit that hit both of us was akin to the worst sucker punch in the gut. It didn’t sink in. We pretended that it did. But it didn’t. We stayed in the hospital until late that night – we had a really hard time leaving. In fact we left somewhere around 2am to drive to our surrogate’s home to unpack, try to sleep and then wake up the next day and go to the hospital. And that’s exactly what we did.
Our routine for the next month was the following:
- Wake up
- Pack up expressed breastmilk for the day
- Drive to the hospital
- Walk to the NICU
- Scrub our hands for 3 minutes
- Sanitize our cell phones
- Sit in the NICU pod until care time (feed, diaper change and temperature check at 8am, 11 am, 2pm, 5pm, 8pm and 11pm)
- Drive home to our surrogates without our children
- Repeat the next day
Each time we left the NICU walls and returned (which was only for lunch and dinner breaks and to sleep at night) we would repeat steps 4 – 8. It was like living a real-life groundhog’s day except it wasn’t funny. It wasn’t entertaining. It was grueling. It was tedious. It was torturous. And to this day I cannot stand the smell of antibacterial soap or products like hand sanitizer – in fact it was around month 3 after their birth I put it together – the smell of these products made me nauseous. Of course, I wash my hands with soap and water like everyone else and will use sanitizer when needed, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t trigger these memories and bring this pit back into my soul.
We watched our children struggle each day to perform simple tasks like drinking, breathing and regulating their body temperatures. We watched as their internal organs were still maturing, vying for the time missed in the womb. We watched them from their birth weight as they lost weight, then cheered every night at their 11pm weight check to see how many grams they’d gained. We did this every day for a month – hoping – praying for the moment that we would be told that they could be discharged. Eventually that day did come and it was one of the most joyous days…we could finally drive back to our surrogate’s home to rest and we would no longer be empty handed, we would finally be heading to her home as our family. All of us. The way it was meant to be.
All in all we spent one month in the NICU. And in that time our surrogate and her family became something much greater to us. While we had spent the last year and a half getting to know them, bonding with them what we didn’t do is live with them. But this time, we did. They opened up their home. They opened up their lives. They treated us like the family they already had. And in that month they transformed into extensions of our own family. When we needed to cry or talk they were there. When we needed a human touch, a hug, compassion – whatever, they were there. They may someday read this piece of mine, but I hope they already know just how good they are. I hope they know just how pure and human they are. I hope that they know that the humanity and love they extended to Brian and I will never be forgotten. Ever. And if it wasn’t for them, that first month of our children’s lives would have barely been bearable and we’re forever grateful for that love.
But prematurity left its mark on our children – even to this day. I’ve covered topics like corrected age and aspects of prematurity many don’t have to consider, so I won’t re-hash that here, but what I will say is that it’s constantly thrown in our face. No, not by the average person, but by the ways in which our children grow and develop. Our children were and are constantly compared to other babies born at full term. Comments like, “But my baby is the same age and doing this and doing that…” to the medical questionnaires given to us at their wellness visits and having to answer “no, my baby cannot do that yet…” or, “oh, other 6 month old babies do that?!” It’s been an uphill and sometimes downright trudging through the mud. Thankfully we’re lucky in that our pediatrician is well versed in prematurity and standardizes our kids based on corrected age. The best note we’ve gotten from her was at 11 months we retook out 9 month (chronological) CDC survey. Remember, being born at 33 weeks means that their corrected age is always 2 months behind their chronological age. Her response? “Your children are perfect!”
But premature digestion lead to severe reflux. Premature immunity lead to lots of colds and illness once they went into public daycare. Premature lungs lead to breathing treatments for both children for nearly every single cold. Prematurity has delayed almost all aspects of their gross motor skills, cognitive and emotional development. And it’s OK. They are making amazing strides, and, as the doctor said, “Perfect!” But it doesn’t make the sting of comparison any less easy. But as all parents do we cope. We survive. We grow. And we are stronger for all of this experience than we were had we not been through this. And while I wouldn’t wish this on anyone I am grateful that this was our experience. Because it’s our experiences in life that mold us into the people that we are – and for that, I am grateful to know that our mutual strengths will continue to help our children thrive and grow.
That’s the long and short of unpacking the last year. To say that it’s been a “roller coaster ride” is kind of an understatement. It’s been more like a bungee cord adventure jumping from the highest peak, stumbling on the way down, recoiling back up only to be dropped back down…and repeat, repeat, repeat. Ultimately, we’ve landed on our feet and like all adventures we’ve survived. And we’ve learned that no matter what is thrown our way in this adventure of parenting one thing is for sure: we love our children more than humanly possible and every ounce of our being will go into making sure that they are cared for, protected, loved, nurtured and ready to face the world. We will impart our lessons and tools so that they can continue to navigate this world (ok, just our living room and play area for now) as we prepare and head into completing their first year of life and start their second. We are excited. We are ready (well, almost…). And we are and always will be: one family. Perfectly imperfect. Quirky. And above all filled with love.