Over the weekend, my family and I went to a brewery. We noticed it while leaving a children’s gym. There were all kinds of people there, from bachelor parties and birthday parties to families with kids and dogs. It was the perfect afternoon vibe for us.
While sipping on beer and hanging out with friends, my husband and I traded off chasing the baby who just wanted to explore. In the midst of the exploring, I spotted another child around my son’s age, and as what typically happens with humans who find similarities in others, my son was somehow drawn to her presence. They didn’t necessarily play together, but there was a comfort in being close to someone the same size as him.
So I did what parents do. I talked to the father, compared notes. “How old?” Is always the first question, and it remains a little complicated for preemie parents even almost 2 years later, but I answer honestly and confidently without hesitation or explanation — something that has taken a lot of practice.
Then I hear the familiar hesitation come from this man, the familiar excuses for shortcomings just moments away. I sense it, and offer up my truth to make him more comfortable, “he’s a preemie,” to which the man jumped with excitement, “her, too!” Followed by the regular questions: “how early?” “What NICU?” And “how is he?”
We wrap up the conversation as our little ones run in different directions, but shortly thereafter the man’s wife finds me, like a celebrity that she just had to meet, to again compare notes.
This isn’t uncommon among parents, but there is another layer to it when you are talking about preemies, the scars of the early birth experience still fresh. There is ongoing concern for any shortcomings premature birth can lead to. There is this need to explain away these shortcomings as though these babies are somehow imperfect because we didn’t have a traditional birth experience. We didn’t hold our babies immediately after giving birth. These babies lived in plastic boxes with all kinds of tubes in them, their parents unable to comfort them when they cried for the first months of their lives. These babies that are carefully monitored by important government interventions to ensure they develop properly, that they “catch up” to the developmental milestones of the peers that weren’t meant to be their peers. These babies are automatically eligible for services because of their low birth weight. They take physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, all before they can walk or talk. And they take it all in stride as they often develop as they should, as little explorers of the world, wandering around breweries petting dogs and enjoying their blessed and miraculously perfect lives.
But the parents of these preemies haven’t forgotten, so when we find each other there’s this automatic connection and understanding of a shared experience, shared hopes, shared fears. It’s the preemie pact. It’s part of our identity now. And it’s here to stay.