When I got pregnant, I honestly didn’t know much about premature babies. I knew some of my friends were preemies, I knew they had special wings in the hospital, and I knew some moms wore their NICU experience on their sleeve for the rest of their kids’ lives. That’s honestly all I ever expected to need to know. It’s not like many people walk into pregnancy just expecting their babies to be born early.

I’d had a weird pregnancy. I say “weird” instead of “eventful” because “eventful” makes it sound like there was cake and presents and maybe a carnival involved. Instead I’d had issues with extreme morning sickness, massive heartburn, migraines, cramping, and bleeding in the first trimester; and a second trimester filled with being overworked, getting kicked in the stomach at work, a car accident, the flu, moving into a new apartment, and a time or two where my little Dumpling (as I affectionately called her) decided moving was overrated. But I reached week 28! I’d officially made it into the third trimester, the final stretch, the big hoorah. I could relax. I could nest! We could think about planning a baby shower, get the nursery assembled, and get everything ready to go.

Let’s go back a week to week 27. I was…moody. Okay, moody is an understatement. I’d become a virulent bitch who would snap at you for looking at me at just the wrong angle. The heartburn was back with full force. I’d swollen like a beach ball, so none of my jewelry fit. I figured this was just the third trimester being, well, the third trimester. No big, right? Until I woke up one morning still swollen from the night before.

My mother-in-law was thankfully in town and met me at the hospital. The words “preeclampsia” were tossed around, but no one seemed too concerned. They’d already seen me at Labor and Delivery countless times at that point, so they knew me pretty well. Thankfully, my mother-in-law was still concerned. She quietly called my mom and told her to get into town as soon as humanly possible—she was worried, and thought there might be a chance the baby would come early.

One week later, my mother, my husband and I were all moving things out of the old apartment. Well, they were. I was restricted to only lifting things less than 15 pounds, and was technically on pelvic rest and partial bed rest. I had gotten to my puffy beach ball point, the point where I couldn’t bend my knees enough to walk up the stairs, or really walk much at all. My mom got “The Look” on her face—you know the look your mom has when she knows something’s wrong and it hasn’t clicked with you yet, but you’re about to be super sick or super injured? Yeah. That look. I told her to stop it, that I was fine, but then my husband watched me try to sit down on the ground.

“Honey,” he said, “I think you need to call the doctor.”

“John, I was just there last week. They’ll run a few tests and send me home, it’s not worth it.”

“Honey…I really, REALLY think you need to call the hospital. Like, now.”

John was as white as a sheet, and when I looked down I could see why—my flip-flops were about to break from my swollen feet. I hobbled to my mom’s car and called the on-call OB, who suggested I take my blood pressure and if it was higher than normal, go in. My blood pressure’s always been great, if a little low. The whole pregnancy it’d been a stellar 120/80. This time it was 144/99. I took it again – 145/99. A third time? Error. I gave in and went to the hospital, expecting to come home that night.

I hobbled in to the hospital and my mom immediately planted me in a wheelchair. We rolled into L&D, and the nurses stared, wide-eyed, at the grey puffball humanoid in front of them. They helped strip me down and immediately asked for a urine sample. I very confidently (and very stupidly) thought, “Oh, this will be fine!” The viscous, dark brown liquid in the urine sample cup proved otherwise. If you swirled it in the cup, you heard little pings – crystals. “This is fine,” very quickly turned into “Oh, shit.” Trying to get blood out of me was nearly impossible in my edema-filled body. A scale showed I’d gained 20 pounds in a week. Something was really wrong.

My obstetrician walked in and said, “Girl, what the hell, man?” She had her hands on her hips, looking exhausted after an emergency c-section. (This laid-back but to-the-point manner (along with her SERIOUS attention to detail) is a huge part of why I love her.)

“I’ve got no idea, doc,” I said, “But this is crazy. DID YOU SEE MY PEE?!” I pointed, amazed, at the container.

“That’s…that’s your PEE?!” She took off her glasses for another look.

“Swirl it around, it jingles!” I said.

“No, you gotta be—HOLY CRAP IT DOES!” she replied. “Girl, that’s…that’s foul. That’s rank. And based on that, and seeing you, and the two tests they’ve run I can pretty much tell you what you’ve got. You’ve got severe, sudden-onset preeclampsia. And it’s turning into a condition called HELLP syndrome, if it hasn’t already. Now both of those are bad, Charlotte, they’re pretty friggin’ bad. So rather than it being weeks or months before you have your baby? It’s gonna be days. A week tops. And you aren’t leaving the hospital until you have the baby. And it’ll be a c-section to make sure you, y’know, stay alive.”

And just like that, our plans and possibilities and “we can do that tomorrow, we have time” excuses zapped out the window. I hadn’t even written a birth plan yet! My eyes watered for half a second because damn it, this wasn’t how it was supposed to go. I was supposed to become a massive whale and play stupid baby shower games and happily nest in my new apartment and get my husband to rub my feet when he got home from work because I’ve been busy growing our baby. I was supposed to have my husband in the middle of an anxiety attack as he drove us to the hospital when my water broke. I was supposed to use him to steel myself against when they put in the epidural. I was supposed to have my baby shoot into the OB’s arms and hear them say “Aww, she has your eyes” and we both say thanks (all three of us have the same big blue eyes). It wasn’t supposed to be “surprise, your body’s trying to kill you and your baby and we gotta make it stop!” But it was, and nothing was changing that, so I looked at the OB and asked “What’s next?’

“What’s next” was asked every hour, on the hour. For a day and a half we pumped me full of magnesium to keep my brain from swelling, to give every hour we could to my little girl without killing us both. We monitored my urine output, my liver enzyme levels, my kidney function, trying to do everything we could to keep me and my daughter alive. Magnesium basically makes you drunk, so I was loopy beyond measure. My face felt like it was burning off—a common side effect, but miserable nonetheless—and I kept swelling. I gained another ten pounds, 30 total from my visit the week before.

Sunday morning at 8:37 am, via c-section, my daughter was born. And I was singing – evidently, I’m still the only person my OB has done a c-section on who sang through the whole thing. What else was I going to do while loopy off my mind? I told the anesthetist to play whatever music he wanted to listen to, and when my husband followed our 1 pound 13 ounce baby to the NICU, I looked at him and said, “Might as well get one last nap in while y’all stitch me up.”

Our daughter was born so early that she was placed under a Golden Hour protocol—she had minimal contact and stimulation to help get her acquainted to being outside the womb. That meant I couldn’t hold her for 72 hours. Imagine giving birth to your kid, and then immediately having them placed in a big plastic box and having doctors say “You can’t touch them for the next 72 hours.” One of the things you learn very quickly is that existing is stimulation, and it’s very easy for preemies to get overstimulated. Even holding them against you for skin-to-skin can only be done for about 15-20 minutes a day at the start—any more is just too much on their fragile little systems. Back into their easy bake ovens they go, with their feeding tubes and cannulas and monitors that they love to rip off.

My life revolved around my daughter’s schedule at the NICU. She was fed every 3 hours, the nurses switched shifts at 7, rounds happened at 11 and you could get back in by 12 or 1. Walk in, wash, sanitize, sanitize again, get a status update, prepare for skin to skin, get wrapped up with my tiny daughter curled up on my chest for as long as her little body could handle it, then back in her easy bake oven. Read her a story, tell her I love her, go home. If she was only going to be there a short time, I would have stayed at the hospital. But we knew this was going to be long, so every night I came home and would call in to check on her before I went to bed. Sometimes I really felt helpless, but I knew the best thing for her was to give her time and space to rest and grow. After sixty-three days, she came home on a breathing monitor and on prescription formula, weighing a whopping 4 pounds.

A lot of people think that’s where being a preemie ends, but it’s not. It’s evaluations for multiple therapies, it’s visiting specialists you didn’t even know existed, it’s checking for blindness from being on oxygen so early, it’s saving one of the tiny nano-preemie diapers that used to be too big and crying when you see your now toddler hold it for the first time. (I still have her blood pressure cuff that she absolutely despised, because even after those two months it still stuns me just how tiny she was.) It’s crippling postpartum anxiety and depression because this wasn’t how it was supposed to be, your baby deserved better, and no matter what anyone says you can’t shake off the feeling that you failed her. It’s constantly watching for the next sickness that could put her under, being terrified to leave the house because what if someone’s sick, and before you know it you’ve been in the same pajamas for three days and haven’t slept because you’re terrified that something will go wrong and all the hard work your kid has put into surviving will be for naught. It does, eventually, calm down. Mine hasn’t completely, but it’s gotten better. I get sleep, most nights. I don’t blame myself anymore for what happened. I do still wipe everything down in public, because germs are gross.

My daughter’s still tiny for her age. She’s a year and a half and can fit in 12 month (sometimes 9 month) clothing. She’s on a weight gain diet now where she gets a chocolate milkshake for breakfast. She has physical, speech, and occupational therapies to help her catch up to her peers. But my kid? She’s fearless. She’ll toddle right in the face of danger, giggle, and poke it. She loves dogs, especially fluffy ones, and likes to pat them on the back before walking away. She REALLY likes food, especially steamed dumplings (the first thing I craved when I was pregnant with her and thus how she earned the nickname Dumpling). Yes, there’s always going to be a voice in the back of my head that screams, “Be careful, she’s a preemie!” I think that’s just a mom thing. More often than not, though, it gets drowned out by another voice that says, “Look at my tiny little badass.”

Charlotte Smith is an esthetician licensed in Tennessee and Georgia. She’s married to a lumberjack version of Deadpool, is obsessed with huskies, is straight up in quarter-life crisis mode, and loves pretty much anything that could be considered creepy.

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