Talking Down

When The Boy was in the NICU, the room he was in had 6 babies in it. (They didn’t have private rooms, just areas they could screen off around each incubator. This meant that you got to know the other families, which was great–some of them are still his friends today.) The first couple of weeks, all the kids in his room were boys, and then one day, a girl moved in. I don’t remember her name, but the nurses all joked that The Boy had a girlfriend now. Except, the girl wasn’t like the other kids in The Boy’s room–she screamed a lot.

Preemies don’t scream a ton–if they’re on a ventilator, it’s not physically possible, and if they’re not, they just sleep so much because they’re really busy doing all the growing they would have done in utero, which is a LOT of growing. And it’s much harder work to do it in an incubator than in the womb, so they just need a ton of rest.

But there are lots of reasons why a baby might end up in the NICU besides prematurity. For example, I have a friend whose son was born full-term but with situs inversus, like The Boy has, and they kept him in the NICU for several days after he was born to try to make sure his abdominal organs worked properly and he wasn’t going to need surgery. Babies with birth defects often end up in the NICU. And I know tons of people whose full-term babies had jaundice that required a hospitalization.

And then there’s the drug-addicted kids. The Boy’s Girlfriend was one of those kids, and that’s why she screamed so much. I mean, I’m not an addiction specialist, but I’ve read enough about it to know that detoxing feels pretty shitty. And when babies feel shitty, they scream. Which is why The Boy’s Girlfriend was screaming. How do I know that’s what was going on and it wasn’t some other medical condition that made her feel shitty? Because her mom was clearly, obviously, visibly high when she visited the baby in the NICU. And because the grandma openly discussed it in the family waiting room. After a few days of screaming, The Boy’s Girlfriend stopped screaming, and then she went home with her grandma.

I noticed during our time in the NICU that the staff spoke to the drug-addicted parents differently than they spoke to us. The spoke to us more collegially, more as team mates or peers. Whereas, parents that they didn’t see as stable, the staff tended to speak to in a more didactic style. For example, the doctors and nurses tended to go into more detail when explaining what was going on with The Boy, and they dug deeper into how he was progressing and how it compared to an average 27-weeker.

I get why a NICU team might not throw all the details at a parent who’s clearly high as a kite. I mean, I’ve never used drugs, but I’m betting that a woman who just gave birth and is high is probably not going to be capable of processing all the information that’s available in a NICU. It’s hard enough to understand it all when you aren’t high. But also, I think they felt protective of the kids under their care, and were worried what would happen to them when they left, which has to make it hard connect to parents who were so clearly unstable and might not even be the one raising that child after discharge. With us, who they could tell were going to take good care of The Boy when he went home, they were more open about why they were doing a procedure a certain way, or why the doctor had chosen a certain respiratory intervention, or whatever. They embraced us as partners in his care, and we became friends. And they were very supportive of us–they asked us how we were feeling and just did the things that friends do when they know you’re hurting. I would imagine it’s hard to build that kind of relationship with someone who’s high, and who you know might not even be the one who ends up being the care-giver for that baby after discharge.

I’ve noticed the same didactic style when dealing with some other medical professionals, particularly with specialists who don’t see us as often and don’t have the chance to build a rapport with us. And actually, so have some other preemie moms I’ve spoken to. One of my preemie mom friends told me recently that she had a particularly stressful appointment with a specialist for her son. She left the appointment feeling awful, and threatened–that if her son didn’t improve in a certain area, then the doctor would punish them with a more serious medical intervention. I’m sure the doctor didn’t mean for it to come across that way, but I’ve actually had the same feeling with some doctors myself. It’s as though they blame the parents for the child’s medical conditions, rather than seeing the parents as teammates in trying to help the child thrive.

That “threat” of bigger interventions is actually one of my pet peeves from my time on bed rest before The Boy was born. When one of the NICU docs (the only one without great people skills, as it happened) came to talk to me about what the NICU was like and the statistics on outcomes for preemies, it felt like she was saying “You better keep that baby cooking in there, or else.” But, that presumes I have any control over when  my body goes into labor. Like if I just want it bad enough, I can choose when my baby is born? Uh, no, I can’t. And of course, I wasn’t on hospital bed rest for long before I DID go into labor. And then I got to feel guilty about that too, as though it was somehow my fault that I couldn’t stay on bed rest longer. And we wonder why preemie moms need therapy to get past their feelings of guilt over their child’s birth? It would have helped if that doctor had said “I hope your body cooperates, but we know it might not, and that’s not your fault.”

As if that wasn’t enough to make you feel like crap, one of the worst parts about having a kid in the NICU is not being able to parent them the way other parents can. You can’t just pick up your baby and hold him or her when they’re hooked up to machines and in an incubator. So, a lot of NICU parents don’t feel like “real” parents. And that means that when a NICU staffer talks down to you, or otherwise limits your authority as a parent, it really hurts. My worst memories from the NICU involve the very few nurses who limited our involvement in The Boy’s care. On my darkest PTSD days, that’s the feeling that I re-live, and I find myself thinking of all the things I want to say to them, or rather, scream at them. And when a specialist talks to me that way now, I still feel that “you are not a real parent” feeling. It’s really painful.

If you’re a medical professional and you’re talking to a parent whose child is not well, I hope you’ll think a bit about whether you’re speaking to those parents as partners in that child’s care, the way most of the NICU nurses did with us. If you aren’t, I hope you’ll start. And if you are, I want to say thank you–medical staff like you make it possible for parents like me to get through the tough times with our kids.

One of Those Days

Once in a while, I have one of those days. You know, where the kids won’t do a thing I ask them to, then throw colossal crying screaming meltdowns. I had one of those this week—actually, it was only one of the kids, The Boy. The Girl, bless her heart, was all sunshine and roses and “I love you mama” and honest to god she was petting me. Which is super sweet, but less than helpful when her brother is literally having a screaming crying fit at that exact moment and I’m trying to get him to calm down. Yes, attention-seeking girl, I see what you’re doing there. You’re showing how you’re so good and thus so much more deserving of attention than your brother, and though I’d like to reward your positive behavior, I’m gonna need you to step back and go hang with your dad right now.

It’s funny, The Boy has always been a really laid-back, mellow kid. We made it to age 4, when I was ginormously pregnant with The Girl, before we had our first “I am carrying you out of this store kicking and screaming” moment with him. Now, before anyone says I am bragging, let me remind you of Monday’s post about sleeping. It is not because I’m a good mom that The Boy slept through the night so quickly, and it is not because I’m a bad mom that The Girl didn’t. The Boy has always been pretty chill, and people try to tell me it’s because I’m a good mom, but it’s not. It’s because he just IS chill. Know how I know? Because his sister, raised in the same damn environment, is not chill. She’s a bossy drama queen. She has to go cry in the corner when she doesn’t get what she wants and then when she’s calmed down she rejoins the group. DRAMA. That morning was a strange role-reversal for them.

What’s hard for me on days like that one, is, I’m good at the “don’t say it’s because I’m a good mom” part but I’m much worse at the “his drama is not because I’m a bad mom” part. That is one of the biggest barriers to escaping the Cult of Perfect Motherhood. Know why? Because our society is very very very good at making women deferential, but it’s very very very bad at teaching women to toot our own horns. We’re quick to find fault with ourselves (and each other—who hasn’t gotten a nasty stare from another woman at the mall when your kid is misbehaving?) when our kids are driving us nuts. It’s easy to say “If only I was more patient with him, he wouldn’t be having this tantrum” or “If only I was more firm with him, he wouldn’t be having this tantrum” or “If only I read the right book on parenting, he wouldn’t be having this tantrum.” When in reality, HE is having the tantrum, not me. He is his own human being, separate and independent from me. His behavior is not my behavior, it’s his. His choices are not my choices, they’re his.

It may sound like I feel like I’m not doing anything to parent my child, that anything I do is futile because he is going to be how he is going to be. I don’t feel that way at all, actually. Parents CAN influence their children in a variety of ways—we can teach them values and skills and all kinds of things. But we can’t make them have a certain temperament, and we can’t change how their bodies work, and we can’t prevent them from ever being sad. Having a kid who is upset does not make me a bad mother. And sometimes, I have to write it so that I will feel it, to help shut up that voice in my head that says “Maybe you aren’t cut out for this after all.”

Which brings me back to that morning. The Hubs, who is a genius, said that he thinks what’s going on with The Boy is that he’s super nervous about going back to school—he starts first grade in September—and that because he was at a party yesterday with school friends, it brought all his worries to the surface. And sure enough, that very afternoon after picking him up from daycare, The Boy asked if he and I could go have a “grown up talk” and during our talk, he told me he was scared about going back to school and worrying his friends wouldn’t like him anymore and that he would have trouble making new friends.

I can’t make The Boy not worry about school starting back up. But I can do my best to help him process his fears and move forward, and maybe we’ll have fewer tantrums in the mornings. But even if he’s still upset after that, and even if The Girl is a bossy drama queen, I’m a good mom. And I need to keep reminding myself of that.