6 Years Later, I Still Feel Guilty About My Child's Premature Birth

by Gill Hill
A two-part collage featuring a woman holding a premature-born baby on her chest, and a boy riding a ...
Gillian Hill

My oldest son’s birthday falls right between Halloween and Thanksgiving, so November is always a fun, crazy month for us. It’s a strong start to the descent into holiday activities that don’t let up until the beginning of January.

The thing is, his birthday should be a month after the whirlwind holiday period. And so November is a mixed bag of emotions. Spending the first 15 days in and out of hospital, desperately trying and failing to stop labor, was not part of the game plan. Neither was spending the next 69 days in the NICU.

All of a sudden, so many baby firsts, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year, were foisted on us early. And other milestones I never knew existed made the list too: first time breathing without a tube, first successful brain scan, first time holding my child (while both of us were attached to a mass of wires and tubes, nurses ready to whisk him away at the first sign of any danger).

My son was born at 29 weeks and 1 day, weighing 2 pounds 9 ounces. For the first few blurry days (when I couldn’t touch him), I thought he was born somewhere just over the 3-pound mark. “He made it to 3 pounds, at least” was the mantra I tripped out without realizing he hadn’t even succeeded in that. When I finally found out, I collapsed into another round of tears. It’s a wonder my breast milk came in at all. I was surely dehydrated from all the crying alone.

For the first year, I was terrified of what I did wrong, and even more terrified of what effect it might have on him. I watched and it broke my heart as he suffered through two different surgeries and a bout of RSV. I remember collapsing in tears when he didn’t smile at me exactly six weeks after his due date (he was over 4 months old at this point) as I was certain this was the sign that an autism diagnosis was in his future. He did smile at me just days later, but I was vigilant his entire first year for signs that autism might still be in the cards.

On his 1st birthday, I was an emotional wreck. I had spent a year looking forward to being “through” the struggle of a preemie baby, and we had extended family staying. I remember waking, my face wet with the tears that had already started to fall and would continue for the rest of the day.

My husband had taken the early shift with our son, and I lay there alone, desperately sad, my memory plunging through all the things that had happened on that day the year before. Well, crap, this was not how I thought the day would turn out. I finally worked up the courage to run the gauntlet of house guests and arrived next to my son to give him a morning hug. My face was a giant, puffy mess, the words “happy birthday” stuck in my throat.

After that, it got easier as he became less of a baby each year and more of a pain-in-the-ass toddler. I’ve got this, I thought. He’s got this. My amazing, strong, courageous child had survived despite whatever it was I had done to result in his prematurity. And that was when the guilt set in again —because he was doing fine despite me. And wasn’t it supposed to be my job to protect him, to do everything I could to give him the best start in life?

Memories of the numerous failed miscarriages reminded me that we often know very little about why these things happen, but also almost all of the language around these events is couched in a way that blames the mother. I lost the pregnancies. I failed to abort spontaneously and required a D&C. And when I finally did get pregnant and stay that way, I had an incompetent cervix. (Note to doctors: Next time you need to invent new terminology surrounding pregnancy or infant loss, try not to be such dicks about it, will you?)

I not only feel guilty for doing this to him, I also feel guilty for feeling guilty. He’s fine, isn’t he? My boy turns 6 this month, he is strong and healthy, right on the 50th percentile for height, and thriving in kindergarten. I don’t often talk about him being a preemie anymore, and when I do, people are surprised to find out he was born so early.

There are so many preemies who don’t fare so well. There are so many term kids with medical problems that far outweigh anything my son has had to deal with. So mostly I keep these feelings to myself. But it’s November, and I can already feel them bubbling up around the edges, the tears spring to my eyes a little faster this month at the slightest opportunity. As with every other year, I’ll shed some tears on his birthday as well as delight in him and celebrate with him.