By Margaret "MMT" McIntyre, CD(DONA)
My son was born early, at just 33 weeks and 6 days in my womb, a whopping five pounds, thirteen ounces. Most first time mothers carry their babies past 40 weeks; I was expecting to give birth in the already-high temperatures that creep into Georgia in late April. I was expecting a home birth. I was expecting a baby with a diamond birthstone.
I was expecting.
And then, I wasn’t.
I gave birth to my son in a hospital—without complication, but with the NICU team looming and stretching their eager fingers out to his wailing, pink body to examine and triage him. It was not the birth that I envisioned, but as a doula I know that often birth is not at all how moms envision, and I was able to move past the majority of that angst quickly. We announced the birth on Facebook as is the new custom, we gathered our friends and family, we sent photos and were positively cavalier about our son’s condition. He would be required to spend 48 hours in the hospital’s NICU, but barring any complications—and it didn’t look like there would be any—our preemie son would be released along a similar timeline to a normal, term newborn’s birth.
It was almost that easy. I almost took my son home subconsciously presuming that prematurity just wasn’t that big of a deal. Rationally, of course, I knew that wasn’t the case; my mother had partnered with the March of Dimes for service projects when I was a child, I knew that 1 in 8 babies is born prematurely and that premature birth can affect innumerable aspects of a baby’s life as he grows. But my baby wasn’t one of the babies who had been affected, so I walked out of the hospital with my son possessing a type of privilege I didn’t even yet know existed.
On the second night after we brought him home from the hospital, our son stopped breathing.
I stimulated him to start, willing the blue out of his face, my own heartbeat suspended in that moment, contingent upon his breath. We rushed him to Children’s Hospital of Atlanta, clamored into the emergency room, and begged them to help us. The minutes after we arrived are a blur of monitors and scurrying and ER staff calling out loudly to each other, Let’s go, let’s go, let’s GO.
After about an hour, our sweet baby was finally stable and the staff came to address us about his condition. We were told we were being admitted, and that we should go home and gather our things. When we asked when we could expect to be leaving, the answer was a shocking blow: sometime next month, they said. Next month. The idea made us reel; I was expecting to be home at that moment, watching TV. I was expecting next month to be the month my baby would be born. I was expecting next month to be the time I would be cared for as a postpartum mother, at home, in my bed.
I was expecting.
And then I wasn’t.
We went home and gathered our belongings for many days and nights in the hospital. My husband told his mother, who happened to be staying with us at the time, what was happening and quietly asked for her help. She agreed to stay with Adam’s elder son while we spent time in the hospital. I remember hoping she would use discretion when telling people about the situation. I didn’t want anyone to know.
My husband, again, reached out to the social media. He posted in search of support from his community. It made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t say anything to him about it. Keeping the information so close to my chest made it seem controllable. And deep down, I felt terrified everyone we knew would somehow blame me for not bothering to gestate my son longer. After a few days passed and only a very, very small handful of my friends knew about what was happening, my husband urged me to reach out. “I just feel very lonely. I feel like I need more support,” he told me.
At our wedding nine months earlier, my husband and I made a very conscious decision to include a vow from the congregation. We wanted to impart that we feel the compact of marriage is not an entirely private thing, that community has a responsibility to help married people stay married, and we wanted the people who were there to vow to us that they would help us do just that. If we believed that it took a village to get married, why would it not take a village to raise a child? The fact of the matter is, that raising starts the moment a child is born—with absolutely zero regard to when that moment happens in a pregnancy.
Three and a half days after we were admitted to the hospital, I released a big statement to my friends and family. I told everyone what was happening, what our diagnosis was, what the prognosis was, how long we were expected to be in the hospital, and then—most importantly—I answered the question we had been asked dozens of times by the people who knew what was going on. I told everyone how they could help.
Within moments after telling the people we loved and who loved us back what was going on, there was a surge of love, reassurance, and offers for assistance. Because of my choice to let people from our microcosm in on this difficult time, we were able to get through the near month-long NICU stay. People brought my family food, they prayed for us, they gave us rides to and from the hospital, they brought us magazines, they played with our dogs, they made us art. As my husband had to move back home and care for the home, his elder son and the dogs, I stayed behind at the hospital, living there at least eighteen hours of every day. When that happened, the help didn’t stop: if I wanted visitors, there was a steady stream. If I needed space it was given with grace. Everyone who reached out helped immensely by simply telling us they were with us, that they were thinking of us.
On World Prematurity Day, let us realize and fully recognize that, with one in eight babies being born prematurely, premature birth affects the entire world. It doesn’t only affect preemie babies and their parents. It affects grandparents, friends, siblings’ schoolteachers. If you experience the premature birth of a child, speak up and say that you will accept the help that your community so badly wants to provide for you. If someone in your community experiences this, reach out to them, provide what help you are able. The milestones in our lives—marriage, birth, death—these are all community affairs. If the going gets tough, don’t try to get going. Stay put, take five deep breaths, and when someone asks you, How can I help?, be brave enough to answer honestly.
Banner photo: facebook.com/WorldPrematurityDay
Margaret "MMT" McIntyre is a wife, mother, and owner of Intown Doula in Atlanta, Georgia. MMT earned a BFA in Creative Writing from St. Andrews College in Laurinburg, North Carolina prior to beginning birth work. In her spare time, she enjoys running road races for charity, baking, attending concerts, and being with her family.