Spinning the Story

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The first time I wrote about the NICU (other than in emails to family and friends), it was for the NICU Testimonial binder in the Alta Bates Family Lounge. I knew I was writing for other preemie parents and so I squeezed every silver lining out of our three-month NICU stay. The way I spun the story, you’d think we had spent that time in a hotel, not a hospital.

I emphasized the friendships we’d made with the nurses, doctors, social workers, security guards and parking attendants. When I talked about the birth of my micro-preemie twins, I gave just the facts: born at 25 weeks and four days, weighing just over a pound and a half apiece. I didn’t talk about how I tried to find strength through stoicism and its polar opposite, bad jokes.

The NICU staff had offered a lifeline of support to my husband and me, much more support than I’d received thee years earlier when my full-term daughter had been born, I insisted.

The more I wrote, the more I shared my words with others. I submitted my essays to online magazines and writing conferences. At my first writing workshop, I proudly presented an essay outlining how I coped with micro-preemie twins who needed around-the-clock care for their first months of life.

“We want to see you be emotionally vulnerable,” chorused the writers in my group. To them, my words were an essay that needed to be shaped and sculpted to fit and hit certain storytelling marks.

But for me, it was my life. I couldn’t admit that I was emotionally vulnerable. That would mean acknowledging how small and fragile my babies had been. It would mean facing the long list of ailments and disabilities that my babies could have had—or might still have. At a year-and-a-half old, my twins still had developmental delays. Just thinking about it felt like a pitch-black fist grabbing at my gut.

Listening to the comments of my colleagues brought me back to the NICU, the way I’d been 18 months earlier, standing over my twins’ isolettes, watching the numbers flicker on the monitors. Wondering if the boys would stabilize by themselves or if they’d trigger the alarm. Never sure what the long-term impact of their prematurity would be. Before I knew it, I was sobbing in front of twelve people, who, just a week earlier, had been total strangers.

“I’m sorry,” I sobbed, chewing on my lip. “I just realized that the NICU was really scary.”

“Of course it was,” said the workshop leader, a novelist who herself had had a baby in the NICU.

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around in a daze. From time to time I would remember a certain detail—the cinnamon smell of the soap in the family lounge, the teddy bear magnets with all the babies’ names on them, the hum of the breast pump—and it would take me right back to the NICU.

And then a curious thing happened. I began to notice sounds around me. Birds chirping, crisp footsteps, the whistle of wind. It was as if to block out the gravity of the NICU, my brain had stopped listening to the world around me.

From then on, when I wrote about the NICU, I added what I saw to how I felt. Now, in addition to describing the nurses who had carefully arranged tubes and wires so I could hold my babies skin-to-skin, I also recalled my nervousness and my doubts. When I found just the right words to describe my memories, the fist in my gut would loosen. Being honest with my feeling and being authentic in my writing was actually a comfort, like those pastel blue scent dolls I used to put in the boys’ isolettes.

Seven years later I still bite my lip when I think about those early days. My stomach still flips to think about the texture of their skin, so thin and papery or their squawky cries when I had to put them back in their beds. But I also think about the moments before the cries—the warmth of their tummies, the smell of baby boy in the whorls of their hair, their tiny fingers clasping mine—and the images dance together to complete a picture of hope, fear, uncertainty, and love.

Forgotten Anniversaries

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These last two weeks I’ve had the nagging feeling that I’ve forgotten someone’s birthday, someone close to me. In other words, a date that should be committed to memory forever and always.

But when I go through the list: husband, children, parents, in-laws, nieces, nephews, siblings, and good friends, I come up with nothing. Nothing but the tug that I have missed celebrating a milestone.

Yesterday it dawned on me. Seven years ago, on March 30, 2010, after three months in the NICU, Wagner came home. Two days later, on April 1st, Michael followed.

Chiara was only three years old at the time, and we made a banner to hang in the dining room: “WELCOME HOME MICHAEL AND WAGNER!” We made thank-you cards for the doctors and nurses and everyone else who’d stood by our side during those three long months.

We took pictures to commemorate the day. Pictures of Michael’s nurse with her finger on the “off” button of Michael’s monitor. Pictures of Chiara’s artwork that we’d hung over the boys’ isolettes. Pictures of our locker in the family room. We brought home souvenirs: bottles, preemie diapers, thermometers, and even oxygen-saturation cuffs.

With each photo I knew I was committing our NICU stay to memory, finally allowing myself to exhale. We’d made it this far. Taking our three-month old babies (who were really newborns for all practical purposes) home.

It was a day I vowed I would never forget.

But then I did. This year March 30th and April 1st came and went without acknowledgement. When I did remember, the boys were swimming in Grandma’s Florida pool, splashing and shrieking, playing some kind of intricate game of tag with the pool noodles. You can still see the scar from their PDA surgery that traces the edge of their shoulder blade, but if you know what to look for. Other than that, you’d never guess.

You’d never guess that they were born three and a half months early. Or that they weighed about a pound and a half apiece. You’d never guess we had to do special exercises for their joints or that Michael didn’t breathe on his own until the week before he was discharged.

If you looked at them now, you’d see very little evidence that they had any challenges at all. No traces of what impacted their first two years of life. None of it has any bearing on their lives today.

But I don’t think that’s why I forgot our homecoming anniversary. I think I forgot because I’m not the same person I was seven years ago. I’m not the person who was so terrified to be vulnerable.

The irony is when I vowed forever and always to remember our NICU stay, I began writing about it. And writing. And writing. I was writing to remember but I was also writing to convince myself that I wasn’t affected by our experience, not negatively anyway.

The more I wrote, the deeper I had to dig. (I should point out that this was not by choice—the deep diggers were my writing partners, critique groups at writing conferences, and later, my developmental editors.) As I revised and dug and polished and repeated the cycle, truths emerged. Such as, yeah, that NICU stay was pretty awful. And, yeah, I’m not cut out to be a family advocate for parents of preemies.

As a ballet dancer, I spent a lifetime evading truth. You have to. If you acknowledged what you look like in a white leotard and tights, you might never have the nerve to get on stage. Embracing the truth as a writer meant that I had to get on stage anyway. Little by little, I changed. Until the one thing I vowed to remember became an event that I didn’t need to commemorate.

G is for Gut Feelings

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GWhen my micro-preemie twins were in the NICU, I spent that time by cracking jokes.

“Why should I be worried about the blood transfusions?” I recall telling our primary nurse. “It’s not like I’m the one giving them. That would be something to worry about!”

In the two years that followed—which included two flu seasons’ worth of Synagis shots, monthly visits with infant development specialists and quarterly visits to the pediatric dentist—I kept up my mask. It wasn’t that bad, I told myself. Especially now that everything was fine.

When we were in the NICU, I was so afraid that if I let a wisp of fear, anxiety, worry or helplessness float to the surface, that I would crack and then I wouldn’t have the strength to take care of my little babies. And then when we were out of the NICU, I figured that since my boys had escaped infant death and disability, that I had escaped, too. I didn’t need to go back and feel all those scary emotions. Even in my writing, I muted my feelings.

I was scared that if I admitted to myself what the boys really looked like in those early days it might mean that I didn’t love them unconditionally. And I worried that if I admitted to myself that they might die, it also meant that I wasn’t optimistic.

And Now For Something Cheery

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I’m lying. This isn’t cheery at all. It’s a thought I had (I’ve been having a lot of them lately) about babies and mothers. Particularly this time of year when every day provokes me to reach back four years ago. What was happening four years ago this day? Four years ago this day (January 8th) we got a call from  Wagner’s doctor. He was eight days old. His weight hovered around the one-pound mark. He’d had a pulmonary hemorrhage. He had blood in his lungs.

There’s a tribe of Native Americans whose custom was for the mother to carry her stillborn baby until his soul was safely transferred to the other side. The vital organs were removed and replaced with sawdust and she’d carry the tiny corpse in a sling that she wore with her everywhere. I know why this is so.

We always talk about the soul as if it is something that resides on the inside of a person’s skin. But really one’s soul is the radiance that is emitted, like rays of sun. And so a mother carries a child for nine months and his rays roll together with his mother’s, like fog and sea air. When he is born, he takes some of her radiance with him. And if he dies before he grows into his spirit, his mother needs to hold the body until she can reabsorb his soul back into her skin.

There are parts of the corporal body that are not matter.

This is what pulls her shoulders to the ground, why she slouches. Why there is no color in her face, her jaw is weighted and drags the corners of her mouth down. They buried part of her soul when they put that little body in the coffin. They trapped it in that little pine box. On Sundays she goes to visit that bucolic place, the green hills and the large oak tree. Wisps of hemlock green waft into the air, like smoke escaping from a smoldering church. They find their way back into her body—through her ears, her nostrils, the pores on cheeks, the hair on her arms. She drinks in this lost life—not his, but hers.

This grieving process would have healed much more quickly had they just let her carry a corpse with a ribcage full of straw.

The funny thing about memory is that it gets folded. I didn’t hear about this anecdote until a few years ago. And yet, the story is fused with the memory of standing over Wagner that night on January 8th, 2010. Back when reaching for hope was like trying to find the light switch in a dark room. Because there’s a physical aching after your children are born. Like an amputee. If I could have just held Wagner. Close to my heart. Or better yet, inside my skin. It could have healed us both.

Empathy for the Mompetitor!

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In the most ideal of worlds, I would be able to completely rise above the mompetitions and still feel sisterly toward their participants without any hint of derision or condescension. 

But let’s be honest. They still irk me. However, this post does help.

The competitor of all competitors, the “Mompetitor” is that mother who engages you through a series of questions about your child. And then she one-ups you with the stories of her child’s precocious development. If your baby said his first word at eleven months, hers spoke at nine months. If your daughter was potty-trained by twenty months, hers trained herself at fifteen. If your kid performed at Lincoln Center at age twelve, her kid played Carnegie Hall at age ten.

I’ve met Mompetitors at the park and at the grocery store, but I didn’t expect to meet one in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit during the twins’ hospital stay. However, rather than brag about how her baby was bigger, better, and stronger than mine, this Mompetitor made it a point to emphasize how her baby was sicker and weaker. How many days were we in the hospital? (Ninety.) Her baby was in the hospital longer. How many surgeries did my babies have? (One each.) Hers had more. How many infections? How many blood transfusions? And so on. As if her situation were more serious than mine and therefore warranted more attention.

I found the Mompetitor to be irritating and annoying. Worst of all, I couldn’t shake the notion that really my babies were sicker and weaker. All of a sudden I was sucked into the “mompetition” and the only way I knew how to handle the situation was to walk the other way when I saw her. I could label and validate my feelings of irritation and annoyance, but it didn’t make them go away. And labeling and validating the Mompetitor’s feelings of superiority just made me more irritated and annoyed.

So here’s what I did about it.

Gratitude

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I’m a huge fan of gratitude. So much so that I edited an online gratitude journal for the Greater Good Science Center for the better part of two years. (The journal has now morphed into this cool research project.)

Here’s the original NICU gratitude post:

The nurses at the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley knew who I was before I’d even stepped onto the floor. Not because my boys were born at just 25 weeks’ gestation and were the youngest in the NICU. Not because, at 1 pound 12 ounces and 1 pound 9 ounces, my twins were the smallest in the NICU. The nurses in the NICU knew me because of our Aunt Rita.

“Tell your Aunt Rita ‘thank you’ from us,” nurses said to me, over and over as they stopped me in the hall or came by the twins’ hospital room. “What a wonderful person!”

Aunt Rita remembers birthdays and sends thoughtful gifts for no particular reason. She and her husband host a family reunion every summer at their home in the Midwest. know that she’s wonderful and fabulous but I couldn’t figure out how these Berkeley nurses knew that, too.

For the first month of the twins’ lives, they were in such critical condition, that each boy had a nurse standing at his bed side around the clock. The nurses showed me how to take my sons’ temperature (which had to be done every four hours), change their diapers (which were smaller than an iPhone) and touch them without over-stimulating their tiny underdeveloped nervous systems (with one hand resting firmly on the top of the head and the other hand firmly on the soles of their feet—no pats, no strokes, no light brushes).

These were the kind of details I posted in our private blog for family and friends. The day the boys were born I’d recounted brief details of the birth. When Aunt Rita saw the post, she sent a huge edible bouquet to the staff at the NICU. There were stems made of carrot and celery sticks and flower blossoms carved out of pineapples.

“Thank you to the doctors and nurses who are taking care of my nephews,” the card read.

“That bouquet was eaten in about twenty minutes,” one of nurses told me. “Even the kale.”

The metaphors for gratitude belong to a family of “moral accounting” metaphors. We say

we have debt of gratitude or that we pay our thanks. We say, “I owe him a thank-you.” Appreciation is earned. (Incidentally, many of the same metaphors are used for forgiveness: “Iowe him an apology.”) Moral accounting metaphors are often subconsciously used in bribe and reward reasoning, and ideas about sacrifice, guilt, punishment, and judgment of others. Gratitude researcher Robert Emmons would have said that Rita’s thank-you was freely given (one of the kinds of gratitude that makes us feel the happiest, for both the “thanker” and those who are thanked).

Wait, there’s more! It’s all here.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

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The garden metaphor is one of my favorites. I don’t want to use it ad nauseam, but I kinda hafta, in the account that it’s so cool.

Reposted from Raising Happiness, which offers science-based parenting advice:

I was so sure we were going to beat the odds. Five months into our high-risk twin pregnancyand I was the picture of health. The twins were doing great. We’d found a doctors’ group that specialized in high-risk pregnancies and we were in good hands. Our increased effort to build our village meant lots of play dates with friends and mini-vacations to visit family. My husband and I even made time for regular date nights. This “positive thinking” thing was definitely paying off.

But then two weeks before the end of the second trimester and three days before Christmas, a routine ultrasound showed signs of premature labor. My doctor immediately admitted me to the hospital for mandatory bed rest and medication to help stop the contractions. One week later the contractions started again and the twins were born via emergency cesarean section. Matt held my hand during the surgery and then he followed the boys the Newborn Intensive Care Unit. Michael (Baby “A”) weighed 1 pound, 12 ounces at birth. His brother Wagner (Baby “B”) was born at 1 pound, 9 ounces. They were 12 inches long.

If I had looked at the goals I had set up for myself during this risky pregnancy (carry twins to 32 weeks, avoid extensive medical intervention, have fat, healthy babies), I had failed at all of them.

But then I used my fancy garden metaphor. Read the rest here.

Meet Janine Kovac, a Cognitive Scientist and Happy Mom of Three

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(reposted from christinecarter.com)

After completing my degree in cognitive science at UC Berkeley, I was pregnant with what my husband and I thought was our second child. Then, surprise! We were having twins. I had never given much thought to how a twin pregnancy could be different from what I’d already experienced. Then, halfway through our first ultrasound, the sonographer excused herself and returned a few minutes later with another sonographer to verify her findings. Usually babies (twins or not) develop in their own gestational sacs. However in my case, my boys were sharing both a placenta and an amniotic sac. It was a 1 in 25,000 kind of pregnancy.

Sharing the same space meant there was nothing to keep the umbilical cords from tangling, braiding, and knotting together. And if one twin died in utero, there would be no way to save the healthy twin—we would lose them both. A crimped cord that cuts circulation to point of asphyxiation was not inevitable, but it was unpredictable and unpreventable. The odds of survival without complications in this kind of pregnancy hover at about 50%.

After carefully outlining the risks and the protocols our doctor said to me, “There is nothing you can do to prevent the babies from dying. Don’t let it stress you out. You can’t do anything about it.” And then he sent me home.

That’s when I turned to Raising Happiness and the Greater Good Science Center.

Interesting, huh? You can read the rest of the post directly on Christine’s site.

Meet Christine Carter Who Wants You to Meet Me

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In 2008 I was up to my ears in parenting books and I couldn’t help but notice that many of these experts did not agree with each other. So I began to evaluate their works not on the basis of their words but rather on the abstract structures behind their words.

I know. It sounds boring. But it’s fascinating. So fascinating that it became the subject of my thesis A Linguistic Analysis of Parenting and the thesis won a fancy award (The Glushko Prize for Distinguished Undergraduate Research in Cognitive Science).

As I was compiling data for my research, I came across Christine Carter’s work. At the time she was the executive director for the Greater Good Science Center. It changed my life (and my thesis).

I’ll be the first to admit it. My thesis is rather dry. There are no pictures or exclamation marks anywhere. But I stand by the content. It’s pretty rad and gave me a way to navigate in the NICU when my husband and I were flanked by more experts who didn’t agree with each other. And Christine’s work (you can experience the Full Christine here) became the road map.

In 2012 I wrote a series of posts for Christine’s parenting site raisinghappiness.com, combining what I gleaned from her 10 Steps For Raising Happy Kids with stuffy abstract cognitive linguistics. I’m reposting them the essays for your enjoyment. Please check out raisinghappines.com and christinecarter.com if you have the chance. She offers a fantastic online class and all of her advice is science-based. Awesomeness. Exclamation point.