When we talk about premature birth, we think first of risks and dangers, not of hope and promise. As I’ve delved into the possible neurodevelopmental outcomes for babies born preterm, my parents keep reminding me, what about the good stuff? What do you like best about your own outcome as a former 12-weeker?
To kick off November, Prematurity Awareness Month, I want to offer with the ten best things about being a former preemie, in my experience:
- 1. I went home from the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) to a family thrilled to have me, and this quite likely made up for a great lot of neonatal adversity. One of my favorite pictures – it’s up on the family photos wall on my staircase – is a classic one of my mom smiling down at me, a bubbly, healthy, happy infant, and I’m grinning back up at her. Whatever neurological differences may have emerged from being born 12 weeks early, they were certainly smoothed over by coming home to a stable, loving family environment. Not all preemies are so lucky, of course, and many preemies come from low-income families, or families with a history of drug use, because both of these are risk factors for premature birth. Prematurity awareness is as important for these reasons as any other!
- 2. I get to tell interesting stories about my earliest years. Not that an birth stories should be a contest, but it helps if you can make yours interesting, and things like “born 12 weeks early,” “NICU,” and “don’t need makeup scars if I ever want to be a vampire for Halloween” makes for an interesting tale.
- 3. Preemies gain automatic membership into a 1 out of 10 people-in-the-world club. Did you know that this is roughly the same ratio as people who are left-handed, has a learning disability, or — in the United States — who don’t believe in God?
- 4. Being a NICU grad prepared me for unusual and adverse outcomes when I became a parent. The NICU, and some of its reality, is already part of your vocabulary. Having my own daughters born preterm, as I wrote about for Graham’s Foundation, was not nearly the scary experience it is for those thrown into the neonatal intensive care unit without any idea of what a place of hope and drama that hospital unit for the youngest and smallest patients can be.
- 5. If you have to be born premature, it’s a good excuse when you’re not so good at sports later on. I never felt particularly bad about being terrible at softball or baseball, and being bonked on the head by a volleyball was so unpleasant as to be a hilarious memory 30 years later, but … somewhere along the line I got the message that just being alive at all was gift enough.
- 6. Along the same lines, I didn’t grow up thinking being quiet, introverted, or shy was a character flaw. It was simply part of my personality, and my parents understood, without thinking too much about it, that prematurity played a role in this. With studies showing that preemies have a greater tendency towards introversion, it seems my parents’ approach was on the right track!
- 7. As an introvert, I don’t have a wide circle of friends, but I tend to be intensely loyal to those I keep within my circle. On my better days, I’d like to think this is like another one-in-ten club, but I realize that’s a dubious distinction! This falls under the general heading of being an introvert as related to being a preemie.
- 8. I tend to be a don’t-rock-the-boat, peacemaker kind of person. That’s not necessarily a good thing if carried to extremes, but I like to think that my approach – being generally a nice, inoffensive person – beats out being an aggressive and angry person, any day. (This, too, falls under the general heading of prematurity being related to quietness and introversion).
- 9. I like to learn to do things myself. It’s easier for me to study something, watch it being done or read about it being done, and figure it out myself, than for me to have someone else show me. (Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, but on the whole, I’ll Do It Myself, thank you very much, ever since I preferred to walk by myself rather than hold my parents’ hands as a toddler). I’m not sure what this has to do with prematurity, other than another gut sense that this preference for self-sufficiency may have something to do with spending 10 weeks in the hospital. I’ll do it myself rather than have others do it their way, now, thanks.
- 10. I feel things deeply and use words so that I can think deeply about those feelings. I want nothing more than to understand the mysteries about life and being human. One might say that words give me a sense of direction when I’d otherwise be lost. I’m not sure what this has to do with being a preemie, but if I had to guess for at least my own case, I’d point again to that same tendency to introversion that leads, too, to an intensity of inner experience. I’ll have more to say about that in a few days, in my next post.
Prematurity is a tough subject, and can stir up difficult memories of babies born too soon and taken from life too soon, but as we enter Prematurity Awareness Month, let’s take a moment to think about the positive: what’s good about prematurity? What unexpected gifts might a surprising early arrival bring?
PS, I realize that maybe not all of the things I describe are directly related to my being a preemie, and may have as much to do with genetics, family situation, or other factors than personality, but… my gut tells me that at least in my case, there’s a connection, and I’ll run with it, at least a little bit.