I motioned to my husband to take a video as I gently bounced my son in my arms in the glow of our kitchen lights. Anyone else witnessing this wouldn’t understand what excited me, but this was the first time my son opened his eyes and looked around. As a two-week old, he had opened his eyes before, of course, but this was the first time he seemed to really see me. For a few moments he was more awake and alert than he had ever been. We knew that other parents reached this milestone almost immediately after birth, but with a preemie, after the initial rush to be born, everything moved slowly. We were operating on a five and a half week delay.
I love watching the video that we took that day. Not only is it sweet to see my son opening his eyes and moving his wrinkled head around on my chest, but seeing my sleep-deprived new mom self marvel at my newborn’s milestone makes me smile. His first two weeks of life were full of milestones that I never expected to marvel at, like his first time out of the isolette and first time without IVs. We had celebrations for things I never imagined would be a part of our newborn experience.
Whereas the newborn stage lasts a few weeks for most, the parents of premature babies experience it for additional weeks, or even months. Those weeks where a child mostly eats and sleeps, giving little back without smiles or laughs yet in their repertoire, drag on and on with a preemie. While other parents complain that their child barely wore his/her newborn onesies before outgrowing them, we waited for him to grow into his, and instead dressed him in preemie clothes donated to us by other NICU graduates. My son was about two months old when he reached his full term sister’s birth weight.
While our family lived in the newborn period for twice as long as we had anticipated, the rest of the world operated on the usual schedule. I returned to work in six weeks, as planned before I knew I would have a preemie, even though his corrected gestational age was only four days. Although he had been with me for six weeks, he still spent most of his day asleep, fed every two hours, and did not smile at me. He was basically a newborn and yet I was supposed to return to my usual lifestyle.
A recent blog post in the New York Times describes this period as “extended newbornhood.” In it, Joel Keller talks about some of the challenges of returning to work with a preemie at home. In my experience, there were more challenges than benefits, but I would never tell my son that. We have started talking about his birth story and I always tell him that he was born early because “we couldn’t wait to meet each other.” Instead of focusing on the burden of six extra weeks of newbornhood, I think about it as six extra weeks with my son and there is no greater gift than that.