“I was born twelve weeks early.”
That’s what I used to tell other kids when they asked about the scars on my neck. If they asked, “why do you have scars,” I’d explain that “they” – the doctors and nurses, of course, “put tubes in me so that I could get food, because I was too small to eat the normal way.”
Adults don’t usually ask me above the scars. Either they don’t notice them–they look like a smattering of bumps and ridges just above my collar bones, wrapping back around on either side of my neck–or more likely, they’re too polite to ask, of course.
But I don’t mind answering the questions. The scars are part of me, as is my premature birth.
After explaining about the tubes, most kids usually stopped asking. But adults, if they make it past the awkwardness of deciding to ask at all, add the follow-up questions:
“How long were you in the hospital?”
— “Ten weeks,” I’ll tell them.
“How much did you weigh?”
— “One pound, fifteen ounces,” I respond. I know now that doctors weigh newborns in grams, and my weight was about 858 grams. Your average 7-pound baby weighs well over 3,000 grams. I know now that my birth weight puts me in what’s still thought of as “extremely low birth weight,” meaning any baby born weighing less than 1,000 grams (or 2 lbs, 3 oz.), among the rarest and smallest of birth weights.
At that point in the conversation, the adult’s eyes boggle, as they compare what they know of adorable newborns with their idea of a baby born that small, of what a baby weighing less than two pounds must look like.
She’s covered in tubes and gauze and machines that dwarf her tiny reality. I won’t show you pictures now, but I will one day. When I get the courage. I was scared of those pictures as a child, of the size of my head compared to the size of my body. In the pictures that my parents dared show me of my earliest days, I looked like E.T. the Extra-terrestrial, from Steven Spielberg’s movie that came out during my childhood. I only saw the scarier pictures, the ones that look similar to the micro-preemies, babies born before 26 weeks at what’s today’s “limit of viability,” the earliest point at which a preemie can be saved.
After the adult’s eyes boggle, another realization hits them:
–“You’re really lucky; you turned out pretty well!” they exclaim. I can’t tell if they want to be reassured, or of they are trying to be encouraging. I know they think they’re looking at a lucky woman who grew up remarkably unaffected by such an early birth.
They’re not wrong. I am lucky, but that’s not the whole story. Usually at this point,
I nod and the conversation moves to other topics. Sometimes we talk, instead, about other preemies, like my daughters, born moderately preterm at 34 weeks, 6 days (35 weeks, for short), and 33 weeks, 5 days (34 weeks, for short), and what it was like to be a NICU mom as a former NICU survivor. (The NICU is the neonatal intensive care unit).
But in my mind I’m still thinking about the questions it might not occur to anyone to ask, and the answers I haven’t given. I don’t go into detail about how my parents thought prematurity affected my personality (as we now know that it almost certainly did), or about the chronic anxiety that’s nudged me since I was a child (a preschooler afraid to fall asleep in case I forgot how to breathe while my mind was dreaming), or the slight hearing loss diagnosed in first grade. I don’t go into detail about what I’ve learned as I’ve approached the age of forty, like how my challenges with visual-spatial skills, with what’s usually called “inattention,” and how what I always thought of as shyness, introversion, and being a quiet person can seem sometimes remarkably similar to traits found in autism in women and girls.
In other words, I don’t usually talk about how prematurity has given me a certain not-easily-categorized neurodivergence, a type of neurodiversity that I’ve taken to calling the “preemietype,” or characteristics of individuals born very preterm. The acorn of prematurity, it seems, remains present in the oak, the child as she grows.
I’m ready to have the conversations that usually get ignored, and I hope you’ll join me, whether you are a former preemie yourself, a parent of a preemie, or a neurodivergent or neurotypical individual. I look forward to talking about the acorn in the oak.