More Than Michael

As we leave church today, Baby Daddy (more commonly and less interestingly known as Husband) and I let Michael waddle around outside, like always. We slowly make our way over to a playground, where lots of bigger kids are running around. BD holds Michael up to the fence so he can watch the big kids, and next thing I know, he puts Michael down on the other side of the fence.

Suddenly, there are not a bunch of kids on this playground. There are wild, hulking beasts who, at any moment will run over my sweet baby boy.

“Go get him!” I yell at Baby Daddy. While BD saunters slowly around the fence towards the gate, I watch Michael walking slowly across the woodchips. He is completely oblivious to the dangers that surround him, and I concentrate on looking mean and protective so that maybe the wild animals (I mean, other children) will see me, across the fence, and then notice Michael and not eat him (I mean, knock into him).

Baby Daddy makes it onto the playground and to Michael’s side with no major mishaps (okay, no mishaps whatsoever), and when I no longer feel my frown of fury is needed, I walk over to the gate too.

“I know you feel all protective of Michael,” Baby Daddy tells me, as my blood pressure slowly returns to normal. “But what happens with Jaxon when Michael is one of those big kids?”

“Michael will protect him!” I say. He’ll say, ‘Hey, guys, watch out for my little brother!’”

Let me pause the story here for a moment. Michael is not a big brother, not even to a fetus or an embryo or a blastocyst. (I’m sure.) Jaxon is not a real person, not even a fetus or an embryo or a blastocyst. (Admission: I really just like saying “blastocyst” in my head.)

Jaxon is the nom de jour of Michael’s future, hypothetical, and currently imaginary, younger sibling. Jaxon goes by many names; most fondly and most often, by Henry. Naming our future children, we’ve found, makes parenting hypotheticals more interesting. Anyway.

Baby Daddy stops walking and looks at me. “Really, Kellan? Have you ever HAD a big brother?”

Nope, I haven’t. Baby Daddy both HAS and IS a big brother so I guess he knows.

But it gets me thinking about siblings. See, I was so excited to be a big sister. I remember begging to change diapers, give baths, or babysit. Of course I want another child (cute baby clothes!, tiny little diapers!, etc. etc.), but even more than that, I want to give Michael the gift of having a sibling. I want him to have that relationship with someone: who does an only child roll his eyes to when his mom sings off key on the way to the grocery store?

My sister visited for a long weekend recently. It felt so nice to have her stay with us; there is something familiar about a sibling, someone who grew up with you and with whom you lived overlapping childhoods. I worked with her to revise a paper for one of her last college classes, and I was struck by how grown up she’d become. And I was struck by how I missed little things about her, like how she would wake me up early when I was home from college on breaks so I could do her hair before she went to high school. We were not close enough in age to be very close, but we always got along well enough. In a way, I was in awe of her: this girl, five years younger than me, had a certain poise and confidence that I always admired.

Anyway.

This turned out a little sappier than it should have. Let’s just say, my sister is awesome, and I’m a better person because she’s in my life.

I want Michael to be a big brother someday so he has someone to beat up on and pull harmless (you hear that, Michael? HARMLESS) pranks on. Someone to wrestle with and get sent outside with. Someone to stay up at night giggling with when I just want to have a glass of wine and a bubble bath and maybe some time alone with Baby Daddy.

So Jaxon, here’s a little message for you: maybe, just maybe, we’re ready for you. So tell your big brother that Mommy and Daddy need some alone time.

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Housekeeping with a Toddler Tip #1

While toddler (who is finally steady enough for you not to have to hover over him during bathtime) splashes in the tub, wipe down the bathroom fixtures. You’ll save time cleaning and make use of all the time you’re spending supervising sudsing!

Note: Doesn’t this make it sound like I clean my house sometimes?

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On Not Breastfeeding

I’ve started dreaming about breastfeeding.  In these dreams, we are out of formula, and there are no bottles.  I put my son to my breast, and he drinks.  My milk flows, and it dribbles down his chin.  When I wake from these dreams, my breasts feel empty and useless.

In the first few weeks after Michael was born, I made milk; I was proud of the milk that I made.  After spending 30 minutes in a cold, sterile little room at the hospital, I’d emerge with one or two or four little bottles in my hands.  Walking to the freezer, I’d hold them up near my chest, proud of my output.  I asked the lactation consultant about getting bigger bottles, since I filled up so many of the small ones.  I had the nurses label an extra drawer for me in the freezer. 

It felt like life had stopped, except for pumping.  I sat in the back room of my in-law’s house, where my husband and his friends had set up our couch and TV before he’d deployed to Afghanistan, watching TV and letting the pump slurp away.  At first, every three hours:  get a glass of water, get comfortable.  Assemble the pump, open the sterile bottles that I’d use to collect the milk.  Bare my breasts, attach the double pump.  Breathe deeply and zone out while my breasts emptied themselves into a clean, plastic vessel.  Oftentimes, I wept silently.  Weeping helped my milk flow.  After 30 minutes, my milk slowed, and I disassembled the pump.  The bottles, labeled, went into a lunchbox in the refrigerator to take to the hospital, and the pump pieces were cleaned. 

At the hospital, my pumping routine was very similar.  There, however, I had to pull myself away from beside my son’s isolette before pumping.  No matter how long I’d been there, it was both difficult to leave and a relief to be gone. 

Michael’s weight increased slowly over a week, then jumped all at once.  Extra calories, formula powder, was added to my milk to help him gain quicker.  He excelled at breathing; when another baby near his age still had a breathing tube shoved down his throat, Michael was almost ready to breathe on his own.  Michael excelled at digesting:  there was almost never any food left in his belly when a nurse used a syringe attached to the end of his feeding tube to pull out the contents of his belly.  He did not excel at gaining weight.

Eventually, he was ready to try a bottle.  I had made a nurse write a note on Michael’s file when he’d first arrived that I wanted to be the one who gave him his first bottle.  As he got closer to being ready, I agonized over it:  What if they fed him without me?  After I’d spent so much time expelling and packing the milk, it seemed only fair that I should be the one to help him learn to drink it.

His nurse that day warned me the day Michael tried a bottle that he would not drink it all, that he would choke, that his machines would beep because he would stop breathing.  But he did it:  he drank most of the bottle.  And six hours later, after he’d rested and received a feeding through his tube, he drank another.  It was beautiful.  He was almost a real baby.

Michael drank more bottles every day, but he still gained weight slowly.  Since I was spending more time at the hospital, I was pumping less and exhausted more.  As he got closer to coming home, I was almost in a panic.  For three nights, I barely slept.  The house was ready.

And then, suddenly, Michael was home.  My husband and I were real parents.  Every three hours, we woke Michael up and fed him.  Then I assembled the pump, pumped, disassembled the pump, cleaned the pump, stored the milk, and held Michael again.  At night, we put him in his cradle and left a lamp and the radio on.  It took a week to wean him from light and sound, seven nights before he didn’t cry when the room got dark and quiet.  We got used to sleeping in the light, and I appreciated how easy it was to jump out of bed and peek at Michael to be sure he was still breathing. 

After a few days, pumping no longer felt like an option.  It was agonizing to decide to quit, but I was only producing 4 or 5 ounces a whole day because I was exhausted.  It was less painful, however, than having to put Michael down while I pumped.  I had been offering my breast to Michael all along, but he did not seem to be interested.  I kicked myself for not giving him more time before I tried the bottle.  But if we’d waited, he would not have come home as early.  It’s one of those terrible circles that my mind gets stuck spinning around inside.

“But it’s for his own good,” my husband said, of letting Michael fuss while I pumped.  But I couldn’t do it.  I’d spent 11 weeks visiting my son in the hospital, asking permission to hold him, and only moving as far away from his isolette as the wires and tubes allowed.  Putting him down now was not an option.

With the knowledge that I had about five gallons of breastmilk stored in the freezer, I put the breast pump into storage.  My breasts were now filled with relief and guilt, not milk.  Within a day, we discovered blood in Michael’s poop.  His pediatrician thought Michael might have a milk intolerance, and she suggested a special formula, since I could not retroactively remove dairy from all the pumped milk.  Within a day of having the formula, Michael was a different baby.  I hadn’t realized that he fussed so much until he stopped, and he started sleeping more soundly.  His weight gain, that first week on formula, was four times the weight gain he’d had the previous week.  It seemed like the best option.

Before we moved a few months later, I’d tried to contact a milk bank to donate the milk I’d stored.  Unfortunately, I did not finish the application process in time.  I cried while my husband emptied the freezer, bottle by bottle, into a thick black garbage bag.  I know that he threw them away, but I can’t help but imagine that black bag buried in the backyard, filled with useless nourishment. 

Breastfeeding mothers make me feel guilty.  Feeding Michael a bottle in public makes me feel guilty.  I am not looking forward to stopping feeding him bottles, but I look forward to the moment when I know that I am not not breastfeeding.  He is still underweight, although now it is at least partially because he is always moving.  I try to sneak extra calories into his food:  olive oil on his vegetables, extra cheese on his black bean quesadillas.  He is a good eater, and he chooses nutritious foods when he gets a choice; also, he will not eat after he has had his fill, not matter how tantalizing his options might be.  Today, for the first time, he announced, “All done!” when he did not want to eat more.  And today, for the millionth time, I tightened my eyebrows together, wishing he’d have just a little more.

But I guess that’s just how it will always be:  a mother must always want more for her child.

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A Letter to Family and Friends Who Kept Michael Busy Last Week

Dear dear Family and Friends,

Thank you for entertaining, cuddling, loving, and tolerating my son last week while we were in town for the holidays.  He, too, thanks you.  To show you our gratitude, I will now let Michael tell you how you, too, can feel a little less down when the excitement of the holidays begins to wear off. 

One Year Old Antics:  A How-To; by Michael

  • Take books off bookshelf.  Use books to boost yourself onto bookshelf.  Laugh when Mom tells you sternly to stop.  Cry when she removes you from shelf and puts away the books you’ve painstakingly removed.  Repeat.
  • Empty recycling bin onto floor.  Cry when Mom removes the aluminum cans with sharp edges and glass jars because folded up cardboard boxes are no fun. 
  • Find half full glass of water.  Dump it out.  Cry when Mom doesn’t let you splash in your new puddle.
  • Find new teething toy.  Cry when Mom insists that her arm and/or hand cannot be your new teething toy.
  • Attempt to climb Christmas tree.  Cry when branches spring up and hit you in the face.  Wait until Mom is busy.  Repeat.
  • Try to climb into toilet and/or bathtub.  Cry when Mom shuts the bathroom door.  Next time you make it in, try to shut the door on her.
  • And lastly, don’t settle for sleeping in your own crib.  Better yet, don’t settle down for sleeping at all!

Best wishes for the holidays!  We can’t wait until all of you have children.

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And he said, “It is.”

“Marriage is hard,” I said.

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A List: The People You See When You Take Your Kid Back to the NICU For a Visit on His First Birthday

1.  The Elevator

The elevator is not a person, but he evokes a reaction.  It has been over nine months since you’ve seen Elevator; last time you saw him, he took you and your family (family, not just husband) down from the fourth floor to the first.  He safely delivered you and your three month old baby, finally 5 pounds 4 ounces (a preemie parent remembers all these numbers) to the parking circle.  Now, when you see Elevator, he brings you back up to the fourth floor, along with your husband and your 15 pound 11 ounce one year old.  You cry.  You stop to compose yourself.  You continue on.

2.  New Front Desk Lady

New Front Desk Lady confuses you.  You talked to the same people at this same front window on every single one of the 77 days your son was here.  You don’t know what to say to her, and you are overwhelmed by how familiar everything but her looks.  You cry again, and start babbling incoherently.  Finally, you manage to say, “I brought Michael back to visit.”

3.  Sylvia

Finally, a familiar face!  You were never quite sure what Sylvia’s job was; sometimes she was there at the window, sometimes she was helping out in one of the nurseries.  It was Sylvia who tested Michael’s hearing on Day 76 of his hospital stay, and it was Sylvia who told you, “Now don’t let him tell you he can’t hear you when he’s a teenager.  You tell him Sylvia tested his hearing and it was perfect, and now he has to do what you say.”  Now Sylvia comes over to the window, recognizes you.  She has seen your crying face many times.  She picks up a phone and says that if any nurses are available, your family is visiting.  You know from all the hours you spent back behind that window that her voice is travelling into each of the five nurseries.

4.  Nurse Whose Name You Can’t Remember

From a set of double doors near the window, a nurse you recognize emerges and makes small talk for a moment, and you feel guilty for not remembering her name.  You  feel awkward; now, visiting seems like a mistake.

5.  Lynn and Kim

Lynn and Kim, nurses that put up with you for many hours at the end, when Michael was in that very last nursery, come through the doors.  You are relieved to remember their names, and they remember Michael.  Lynn talks fondly about another preemie near Michael’s age, and you remember holding Michael up across the nursery to show him off to that other preemie’s mom.  You and Lynn talk about how nice and fat that other preemie looks in the pictures his mom has emailed.  The nurses smile at Michael and say how big he’s gotten.  You tear up, but hold it together.  Now that your memories of the time you spent here are so vivid, Michael seems  big to you too.  More nurses come to visit, and you smile at the few moms who go in and out of the doors, carrying bottles of breast milk and weary, hopeful expressions.

6.  Mom of Preemies

One mom in particular comes through the doors and grabs the key to the ladies’ room.  Those motions seem so familiar to you.  Lynn stops her, points to Michael, says, “He was born at 26 weeks too.”  The mom stops and smiles and chats.  Her twins are 36 weeks now, and they have names you can’t pronounce.  The mom watches Michael with a sort of amazed disbelief, and you do your best to tell her how amazing things are.  Your words are not eloquent, but you think she understands.  Lynn tells you after she’s gone back inside those double doors that she’s glad the mom saw Michael.  “She’s been starting to get down, you know?  After you hit 70, 75 days, it just seems like a long time.  It’s good she saw you and how he’s doing.  Give her hope, you know?”  You are glad too.

7.  Doctor

When you see the doctor who discharged your son from this hospital, you stop him.  You so rarely saw the doctors, that you are sure he doesn’t remember you.  You introduce him to yourself and your husband, and when you tell him your son’s name, he nods.  “He looks great,” the doctor says, pointing to Michael.  “And that PVL diagnosis, he looks great.”  You are impressed that he remembers, from all those months ago, that your son was diagnosed with a brain injury “consistent with” cerebral palsy.  You remember how anxious you were, as your son saw a physical therapist, even ten weeks before his due date, to try to catch symptoms early.  “But how are his motor skills?” you’d repeat, staring at your son, curled up and sleeping like the fetus he should have been at that age.  Now, with this doctor watching, you take Michael from your husband and let him walk, holding your fingers, across the hallway.  You thank the doctor again, and say goodbye.

8.  Jasmin

Finally, a tiny woman in blue scrubs explodes through those double doors, hands stretched out.  You hug her, she hugs your husband, she smiles and talks to Michael.  This is the woman who taught you how to take care of your son.  She walked you through changing your son’s diaper for the first time, when his ankles were thinner than the joints in your thumbs, and she was there filling out paperwork on his very last day.  You have sent her pictures and videos in the nine months since Michael left the hospital, but you are proud to show him off to her in person.  Of course, you let her hold him.  Before you say goodbye (Jasmin is in the process of discharging another patient, and you think vaguely about staying just to say congratulations to that other family), you hand Jasmin a package that contains a warm, tiny sleeper, size preemie.  You remember how big preemie clothes looks for so many weeks, and you love how little they look now.  The package also contains a book about a monkey named Mike and a short note to new parents.  You give Jasmin instructions to give this package to the parents of the next tiny Michael that comes into the NICU.  Eventually, you say goodbye.  You hope that the people you saw realize how much their work means to people like you.  And, for the second time, you walk down the hallway next to your husband, who holds your perfect, perfect baby boy. 

And this time, because you can, you take the stairs.

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Forgive Me

Readers, I have sinned. Here is a list of all the terrible things I did today:

1. Let the baby sleep until 7:30 a.m. In my bed. While I slept too.

2. Drank yesterday’s coffee from Dunkin Donuts.

3. Took baby to breakfast at Panera (which, unexplicably, is called “St. Louis Bread Company” here). Enjoyed the quiet while he slept. Chugged my coffee so I could fill up before I left. Out of negligence, spilled coffee on baby. Later, let baby dry and smell like coffee instead of changing his onesie.

3. Bought those processed puff things for baby just because he loves them.

4. Sent 47 text messages.

5. Let baby chew on receipts just because he loves them.

6. Indulged in 15 minutes of googling “early pregnancy symptoms” even though three previous pregnancies and all my previous googling have taught me exactly what they are.  And even though I am clearly not pregnant.

7. Ate two (!) squares of Ghiradelli 60% cocoa chocolate. Should have eaten two more. Salivating now.

8. Eating two more (!) squares of chocolate.

9. Attempted to make salmon for husband’s dinner, choosing to ignore that every other piece of fish I have ever cooked for him has been tough and overcooked.

10. Overcooked salmon.

11. Abandoned dirty dishes, husband, and baby after dinner

12. to take 27 minute shower

13. while drinking a beautiful concoction of kahlua, vanilla vodka, and Bailey’s Irish Cream.

14. And then drank one more.

15. Didn’t let myself feel guilty for any of this.

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