Other people's sorrows and joys have a way of reminding us of our own: we partly empathize with them because we ask ourselves: What about me? What does that say about my life, my pains, my anguish?
-- Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran
Very apt. I came home from the West Coast, went right to Tertia's blog and read not only that her babies had arrived but that Adam had suffered a torn lung, and that Tertia didn't see him for several days after his birth. Naturally, my first instinct was to write about my own brush with that particular kind of pain. Gemma was quite sick after birth, herself, and I didn't see her right away, either. Indeed, practically the first words any neonatalogist said to me were, "You can't see Gemma right now, she might have a torn lung so we're doing another x-ray." I can't swear that my memory of my reaction to his words is accurate (for one thing, I was flat on my back, still coming off the meds for my c-section), but I don't remember any sense of panic. I don't think I was willing to allow myself any panic. I was trying very hard, I think, to be clear-headed, rational, and in control. Not to launch into a long digression, but I had just spent 6 weeks in the hospital convincing myself that the only way to get good care was to be a good patient, and I had an idea that the good thing to do when confronted by one's newborn daughter's possible impending death was to appear calm and support the medical staff. I can't see my baby because you're doing an x-ray and I'm lying flat on my back on a surgical bed with a catheter and various IVs hanging from my body? Alrighty then, keep me posted, old chap.
Granted, because I had spent so many weeks preparing myself to be good, and rational, and in control, I had also been reading and re-reading the Preemie book Julie just recommended. And I instantly recalled, as the words of that neonatologist hung in the air around us, that one of Dana Wechsler Linden's twin daughters had died, even though she (Elena) was originally the healthier baby, because of complications from a torn lung. So I'm not prepared to say that my public pose was my inner reality, just that all I remember is the public pose. All I was prepared to admit to myself was the public pose, in fact. And it is the memory of those days that has convinced me that divorcing yourself from your feelings, or dragging yourself kicking and screaming into the socially appropriate set of feelings, is probably less than productive. That's my fancy way of saying it's a surpassingly stupid idea. Obviously I had to accept my separation from Gemma in those hours after her birth, I had to let the doctors do their job, but I would have been wise not to pretend so convincingly to myself that it was alright that I be separated.
Several thoughts: it's very hard not to want to share this story with Tertia, to show some degree of solidarity, but it's probably not a Good Thing To Do. For one thing, Gemma didn't have a torn lung and she came home in three short weeks. Also, it looks too much like stealing thunder, using someone else's bad luck to talk about one's own, no matter how natural it might be. Finally, telling anyone that their pain or rage will someday no longer be at issue--because I can write this story and feel not a moment's twinge of emotion, it's an entirely past event to me as I type--while strictly speaking possibly accurate, might be precisely the sort of advice that, if taken to mean "stop feeling pain and rage," would only prolong the effects of pain and rage in the emotion-denying person's life. The upshot being, now is not the time to share with Tertia (or with Julie, whose account of a Connecticut NICU has been eerily familiar to me) my discovery, four years on, that all the anguish I felt while my babies were in the NICU--rage that I was missing their infancy, that they would never know I was their mother, that I had lost something I could never regain--faded into insignificance as time passed.
Also, I'm wondering: which is the more truthful set of feelings about that time? The feelings I suffered at the time, some of which were clearly absurd? Elba came home after five weeks, and Wilder and Gemma came home two weeks before her, and believe me, there were plenty of months of infancy left. Or the feelings of acceptance about the NICU, and even impatience with my former self, I now feel? I'm an historian, so I tend to privilege the feelings reported closest to the event. But those feelings of rage and regret turn out to have had an apparently transitory effect on my life. So this is the question I'm asking myself tonight: who truly understands and appreciates what it meant for me to pass through the NICU? The self of four years ago, or the self today?
I have a confession to make: I don't think having four-year old triplets is all that unique in the annals of motherhood. In fact, just right now, having four-year old triplets strikes me as considerably easier than having, as one dear friend does, children ages four, two, and newborn. So my anxiety about whether this blog is worth reading may not be quite so obnoxiously a move for reassurance (although it sure as heck looks that way now, and I wish I hadn't been so juvenile) but may just be another way of saying, what do I bring to the discussion of motherhood from the life I'm living today? I think the only answer to that has to emerge from the writing, but I warn you: I seriously doubt that much of it will strike anyone as especially triplet-esque. I reserve my right to change my tune when I have to fight with the principal someday about class assignments, but for now, the people writing about triplet babyhood probably have something more unique to report than I do. And my desire to write about selective reduction, or the NICU, or my incapacitating self-pity in the first year (don't worry, I'll get back to that) might unfortunately have as much to do with a longing for the days when I was "special" as it does with a desire to get some of the issues that used to matter taken care of, psychologically I mean. Take that for what it's worth.
It might be worth something to those women about to reduce an HOM pregnancy because the life of mothers with high-order multiples seems just too bizarre and weird and impossble. That might make writing about the normal, typical, quiet days of our lives entirely worthwhile.