I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating the past three and a half years and how being premature could potentially affect my daughter long term. It’s occupied a good portion of every day, worrying about her growth, her eating patterns, her lungs, her cognitive abilities; waiting for the final shoe to drop and the normal preemie challenges to take hold. So far they haven’t, but that possibility is always at the back of my mind. Will she develop asthma, and if she does will her first attack be more severe? What do her lungs look like now? Given preemies are eight times more likely be diagnosed with autism, what does today’s tantrum mean?
Being a parent to a preemie opens one up to a new level of vulnerability, and sometimes it feels as though a giant invisible hand reaches in and takes hold of your most inner fears for your child. At times, my mind resembles an unplanned circus.
Of course, I have reassurance that she is fine from dozens of specialists, so a lot of my fears stem from the paranoia of someone that has been caught off guard and is looking for a way to protect themselves from a repeat of the shock and fear of almost losing a child.
But the nagging feeling at the back of my mind that I deliberately won’t acknowledge is not about Lucy, but her brother. The toddler who looked at me through huge innocent blue eyes as I waved goodbye on that morning as I headed off to my scan. The child that was full of spark and energy and charisma who is now a very serious five year old with the world on his shoulders. I took a second look as I drove away and kept a mental snap shot in my mind. I knew, instinctively, that something momentous was happening. Not just to me and my unborn child, but to my family.
It happens all the time – women on bed rest leave their older children behind at home against their deepest instincts. Sometimes it’s what needs to be done to protect an unborn child. I have no doubt in my soul that what I did for Lucy was the right thing. The only thing. She miraculously survived despite every medical opinion on offer.
And yet there’s that little tiny nag in my head reminding me of what I missed. Not just the last trimester of pregnancy, the anticipation that leads to the endorphin fuelled event of birth. And not just those first precious month of gazing with wonder at your perfect newborn, imagining the promise and incredible joy that will come. I missed something much more than that.
I was in hospital away from my son for one month and spent another four and a half as an absent parent, shuttling from hospital to home seven days a week. At an age where toddlers are soaking up their environments and exploding with new found personality, I barely saw my son.
And more importantly, I will never know or understand what he missed out on or how he felt as I waved goodbye, or what went through his mind when I didn’t come back. I will never know if he feels abandoned, or if he feels as though I chose his sister over him. I will never know how much he remembers or the depths to which this experience has changed him; how it has changed the course of his growing personality.
A few months after Lucy was born my mum noticed I needed a break. She organised for me to have morning tea with my Aunty and Grandma. She brought Lachie along so I could actually see him during the daylight hours. As my Grandma showed up, (someone he has always been particularly fond of), he got this expression on his face. It was pure joy, excitement, and everything an eighteen month old should be feeling. He was so visibly happy in that fleeting moment that he actually squealed with delight. My Aunty turned to me and said “He’s got his sparkle back.”
At the time that comment gave me hope, but since then it has sat pushed right up against the back of my mind with the other fears I cannot yet verbalise.
It was confirmation his sparkle had deserted him enough for someone else to notice, even if it was temporary. And with that knowledge comes the realisation that he is different because of his experience, and I’ll never know how my early labour affected him.
To preemie mums who have sick or struggling children, or worse who have lost a child, this may seem inconsequential, and maybe it should be. As there is no point in lamenting what might have been, all I can do is recognise it and look forward to the spectacular person he is becoming after being a toddler interrupted. And appreciate how incredibly lucky we all are to be happy and healthy.