Like many women pregnant for the first time, I had a pretty clear idea in my head about how I wanted my birth experience to go. It seemed so important that we got it right — my twins’ entrance into the world — and I wanted so badly for it to be a calm, happy, under control kind of day. In my birth fantasy, my husband and I would hold our healthy, crying newborns and fall in love instantly. And every year on their birthday, I’d tell them the story of the day they were born and the day we met for the first time, just like my own mother has done for me for the past 29 years. I didn't even know what a traumatic birth experience was, let alone the fact that women had them.
But I didn’t get the kind of birth experience I wanted at all — not even close, actually. Instead, I gave birth suddenly at 25 weeks gestation, after a complicated and scary pregnancy. Each of my babies weighed less than 2 pounds, and they were unable to breathe unassisted.
The birth itself felt like a blur. I was rushed to the OR, quickly delivering my baby girl after only a couple of small pushes. Twenty minutes later, my son arrived by emergency c-section. After they were delivered, I laid numb and crying on the operating table while a team of doctors and nurses resuscitated my babies and attached them to heavy-duty ventilators that would keep them alive, at least for a little while. While I was being stitched back up, my husband came over to me, iPhone in hand.
“I took photos,” he said, nervously. “I didn’t really think I should, but the nurse asked me if I wanted to and I didn’t want her to think I was a jerk.” Later, once I saw the photos myself, I understood his hesitation. Each baby was impossibly tiny, with shiny red skin, eyes still fused shut, wrapped in plastic to conserve precious body heat. They didn’t at all resemble the newborns I’d imagined in my head. They hardly even looked alive.
The twins remained in the NICU for almost four months after they were born, and we experienced many ups and downs. Our daughter had a pretty severe brain hemorrhage (pretty common in babies born as early as she was), and needed two surgeries before she even reached her due date. But, somehow, they made it home relatively unscathed, and when we were finally all together, just the four of us, we felt incredibly grateful. We’d beaten the odds, dodged all the bullets. We thought the worst was behind us.
After we settled into our new life at home, I assumed that I’d be able to forget about all of the pain I’d been holding on to, that there would no longer be any need for it in my life. After all, our children were fine. Things were OK now. I figured that I’d go back to functioning normally, that everything would be happy and shiny again — and I was really caught off guard when I didn’t.
So much had happened to us emotionally in the NICU. We waited on pins and needles each day, wondering what kinds of problems would arise. We got bad news, and then hopeful news, and then more bad news. I spent hours crying at my babies’ bedsides, heartbroken over their suffering, apologizing to them from the bottom of my heart that my body wasn’t able to keep them safe in the ways they deserved. But there were also many, many things I didn’t even let myself feel, like the reality that they could die at any point, that we’d never really be out of the woods until they made it home, like how each night, I’d have to leave them at the hospital while I went home, pretending that leaving your fragile babies alone with nurses and doctors until you could make it back the next day wasn’t the worst thing in the entire world. I didn’t let myself think about surgeons operating on my tiny daughter’s head — twice. I just couldn’t.
The weight of all of those memories didn’t hit me right away, but when they did, they hit hard. Memories of things like the sound of the machines monitoring their vitals, which barely bothered me at the time would now suddenly make me cry. Appointments with our pediatrician — a doctor who hadn’t met the twins until they were home and doing well — made my stomach turn: he just didn’t understand what we’d been through and I needed him to act like it had been a big deal.
To me, it seemed like every woman in the world was healthily and happily pregnant around me. Everyone except for me.
I always thought of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as an issue that only affected returning war veterans, or people who’d been raped or assaulted or kidnapped (or something equally as horrifying). But I realize now that the experience of giving birth to such small, sick little babies and then having them live in hospital for months not knowing if they would make it is also traumatic. I realize now how common it is for other preemie parents to suffer from the same struggles that I do, like flashbacks and nightmares and anger and anxiety attacks. There is so much you just cannot possibly deal with emotionally when you’re trying to be there for your child, and when time passes and the threat of danger is no longer looming over your head, the reality of what you’ve gone through hits you like a punch in the face — often when you’re least expecting it.
Madeleine and Reid are almost 3 now, and they are happy, healthy, energetic, hilarious tiny people. We are so lucky that there aren’t many lingering issues stemming from their prematurity, and hopefully when they grow up, the story of their birth won’t mean a whole lot to them. But me? Even though it’s been a few years since I gave birth, I still have moments where I swear it could have happened yesterday. These days, being in hospitals turns my stomach. Hearing beeping patient monitors on Grey’s Anatomy episodes makes me gasp for breath, and then turn the channel. Even run-of-the-mills tests and appointments with the twins’ specialists make me cry (even when the news is good!). And most of the time, when even hopeful, miraculous stories about other little preemies pop up on my Facebook newsfeed, I have to click the little ‘x’ to make them go away.
I think about the early days of my pregnancy, about my optimistic, happy pregnant self whose biggest concern was whether or not to get an epidural, and I miss her a little. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll even feel like that again, or if I’m forever scarred by what happened to me and my little family. But I also know that I got something many parents do not end up with: two beautiful, thriving children. And every year on their birthday, I still tell them the story of the day we met. The best and worst day I’ve ever had.