Medical Examiner

A New Book Combats the Loneliness of Parenting a Premature Baby

After Melody Schreiber’s son was born at 29 weeks, the new mom realized what she needed most was companionship for her new reality.

A cover of the book "What We Didn't Expect."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Penguin Random House.

Melody Schreiber thought she’d have so much more time to read up on raising a newborn. She was barely to her third trimester when her water broke. Her son was born at 29 weeks. She describes leaving her son in the neonatal intensive care unit, driving home, and feeling like she forgot the baby. She cracked open What to Expect the First Year—and then promptly returned it to the shelf. The problems it described—“trouble with tummy time” or “waking up for nighttime feeds” —felt like the very, very least of her worries. “His heart was failing,” Schreiber writes in What We Didn’t Expect: Personal Stories About Premature Birth, an anthology she also edited. “Breast feeding exerted him too much, instead he was fed through a tube threaded through his nose.”

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As a journalist, Schreiber had reported articles on maternal and child health. But in those first difficult months of having a preemie, what she realized she needed wasn’t more expert advice or information, it was company. The 17 essays in What We Didn’t Expect are each labeled by week into the pregnancy that the baby was born, along with the key health issues and topics they address, from “bicornate uterus” to “fatherhood.” But that’s about as textbook-y as the book gets—one of the major themes is about learning to trust yourself as the expert on your body and your baby.

I talked to Schreiber about what helped her get through the early days of motherhood, what to say to someone who has delivered a preemie, and why the pandemic might be the perfect time to read her anthology. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Shannon Palus: You talk about learning terms like “tubie baby.” I Googled “tubie baby” and was really delighted to see all this Etsy stuff come up, like T-shirts saying, “I’m a tubie baby.” But what does that term mean, and why did it feel important to learn it?

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Melody Schreiber: So a tubie baby is a baby who has a feeding tube, to help them with feeding issues, if they’re not able to take a bottle all the time or to nurse. When I first brought my son home from the hospital, we came home with a feeding tube in his nose. We take him on a walk around the block, you know, for one of the first time he’d ever been outside, in the stroller. We’re so proud of him. And this little kid in the neighborhood runs up and sees him and was like, that’s not a real baby, that’s a doll. And looked at the feeding tube and said, What’s that?

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The feeding tube, we got a lot of questions about it. A lot of people were freaked out by it. They were worried they would pull it out. So for me, terms like tubie baby, to sort of reclaim that and make it a matter of pride—to say this is just one aspect of our baby, and it’s great because it’s how we’re helping him grow, that was really important for me. People can be very self-conscious about visible things with babies. To say, no, here’s a name for it, he’s a tubie baby and there are plenty of tubie babies out there, was big for me.

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After your son was born, what were things that your friends and family said that were helpful to you? What are things that people in your life said to you that were really nice or comforting?

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First, [it was important to me that they say] “congratulations,” because that made me focus on the good things. This is a happy event. When I first announced that I’d had a baby but he was premature, some people would sometimes message me and say, I’m so sorry. Why are you saying you’re sorry? I just had a baby. This is the happiest day of my life.

The next is, “What can I do to help? You don’t have to answer right now, but anytime you need me, just send me a message. I’ll send you dinner or lunch.” A friend sent a dozen cupcakes, which I still remember.

When I was reading your introduction I was surprised to learn that 1 in 10 babies in the U.S. are preemies. Why isn’t that something that we talk about more? Do you have any theories on that?

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I think that we don’t like to talk about any outcome that’s not happy, when it comes to pregnancy. It’s the same with miscarriage. It’s really common. It’s not talked about nearly enough. I think people like Chrissy Teigen and John Legend being really open about loss has really sparked an incredible conversation. I have had people who say, congratulations on your book, I’m pregnant so I don’t think I’ll be reading it because I don’t want to get depressed or scared. And I understand that, but for me it’s like, this wasn’t an unhappy outcome. It was just a different outcome. And so, here’s how to deal with it. But I think there is this fear that talking about it will remind people that even now, even with a lot of medical advances, things can go wrong.

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I also think that racism plays a really big role. That if you look at the statistics for people of color, they tend to have higher premature birth rates. Black parents give birth prematurely 50 percent more than white parents in the United States; each year, 14 percent of African American births happen early, compared with 9 percent of white births. Hispanic and Indigenous parents give birth early at higher rates as well—12 and 13 percent of the time, respectively.

Is there anything that you would be thinking about making sure to include if you were selecting essays for the collection now, in the middle of a pandemic?

I would love [to have included] the perspectives of families who are going through this right now. I’m hearing these really difficult stories of babies put in isolation, or only one or two parents being able to visit for months at a time, or not being able to visit at all if the whole nursery goes under lockdown. For me, that’s just unimaginable and I would love to know how parents are getting through that. And especially because there’s some evidence that COVID-19 can cause some complications, including premature birth. Especially if you haven’t had equitable access to health care. We’re seeing rates of that increasing.

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I had the sense when I was reading the essays, that it’s nice to see people go through really hard things and come out the other side. It was very comforting in that way.

I feel like even if you have like the most perfect full-term birth in the world, or if you don’t have birth at all, everyone is familiar with challenges and health crises. I think especially right now. These are the stories I want to hear, to know even when shit hits the fan, we’ll be OK.

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