If there is one thing that neonatalogists can’t agree on, it’s “kangaroo care.” A few studies show that premature babies who are held skin-to-skin by their parents tend to gain weight and get discharged earlier than babies who aren’t held. We’ve been getting dramatically conflicting advice from all of the nurses and doctors, though. Some tell us that we should hold Percy as much as possible, and some say that we should just leave her alone and let her grow. I want definitive answers; I want to be told that holding her for four-and-a-half hours per day will make her 33 percent healthier. But babies are as unique as adults, and we’re learning to read her own cues to find out what she wants. At one point Percy went through a wild stage and the nurses wanted to give her more morphine. But as soon as Shona held her she fell immediately to sleep and we spared her the drugs. On the other hand, when her infection was at its peak she stopped breathing every time I touched her.
I can’t say for sure what good kangaroo care does for Percy, but as far as our mental health is concerned, it’s absolutely amazing. Shona’s a crier, but I’ve never seen her more emotional than that first time she laid Percy on her chest. With all of the tubes and wires it’s easy to think of Percy as a medical obstacle to overcome rather than a tiny little human being that we love. Holding her cements the bond, makes it clear that our lives are interwoven. My skin keeps her warm, the rise of my chest reminds her to breathe and the sound of my voice stimulates her to interact. They have lots of children’s books around, but I can’t imagine that it’s the content that matters. So, yesterday I read her an article about Hezbollah, and when that was over the only thing within reach was a book about preemies, so she got to learn about necrotizing enterocolitis and bronchopulmonary dysplasia.
Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like the most unfortunate people in the NICU. Percy’s so small and helpless, our story’s been so long and tragic. When new parents come in looking frantic and dazed, wondering how their babies will do after only 35 weeks gestation, I think to myself: 35 weeks … any kid could grow up to win the Nobel Prize if he got to gestate for a whole 35 weeks. But yesterday I spoke with a friend of a friend whose baby was born at 25 weeks compared to Percy’s 27.5, 1 pound, 5 ounces to Percy’s 1 and 15. They also had a bunch of miscarriages and had a rougher go of it in the NICU than I hope we’re going to have. The 25-weeker parents are jealous of the 27s. We 27s are jealous of the 32-week kids. And everybody is jealous of all those homeless 16-year-old girls who seem to have no trouble whatsoever popping out beautiful healthy babies.
We missed out on so many of the normal aspects of pregnancy. There was no miracle of life here, just a grinding march of technology and money from beginning to end. But now we’ve got something most people don’t have: an extra three months to spend with our baby. We’re able to watch the last trimester of pregnancy unfold in front of us, watch as Percy lays on fat, learns to use her muscles, and discovers the joys of sucking her thumb. And even though our surrogate was a fantastic woman, she wasn’t us. Now Percy gets to spend one third of her womb time with us, people who are going to be next to her for the rest of our lives.
I’m getting to the point where being in the hospital doesn’t seem strange anymore. This is just my life; she’s just my baby. With each day that passes, with each little bit of strength that she gains I start to feel more and more like a real parent instead of a medical combatant. Her infection is gone now and she’s back to her feisty self. Of course I’m still worried about all of the complications of prematurity, the potential for blindness, cerebral palsy, and a host of other nasties. But I need to make sure that I’m not constantly watching Percy for signs of deficit. I can’t spend her whole life wondering—is what’s happening today because she was premature? Being a parent of even the healthiest child has got to be terrifying. By letting yourself love somebody, you set yourself up for sadness. But I know that the everyday highs are so much higher than the imagined lows are low.
For so long I’ve felt like if I could just get a baby, everything would be fine, that life would be perfect. But really we’re just getting started on all of the worries that normal parents face. When we take Percy home she’ll only be a newborn, and a small one at that. But it feels like such liberation to worry about normal things, like whether my daughter will grow up to do ghastly things like date rock musicians or manage an insurance company. In fact, there’s a giant 4-pound boy in the next incubator over who’s been giving Percy the old sly wink. I think I’d better have a talk with him about respecting my baby girl.