5 Pieces of Advice from the Mother of a Preemie
You have to take everything one day at a time; you never know what's coming.
When Kate Hopper was pregnant she did everything right. She ate the right foods. Read all the books. Took all the classes. But at 32 weeks, her doctor told her she was “leaking a little protein” in her urine. As it turned out, Hopper had preeclampsia and delivered her baby two months early. Born at just over three pounds, Stella, spent the first days of her life in the neonatal intensive care unit. Despite early set backs—respiratory distress, jaundice, anemia, sepsis, apnea and a hemorrhage in her brain—Stella made it out of the hospital at four weeks old.
In her memoir Ready for Air, Hopper describes those harrowing early days of her daughter’s life, which were plagued with uncertainty and self-doubt. According to the March of Dimes, more than 450,000 babies in the U.S. are born too soon each year. Hopper notes that she wrote her memoir to raise awareness of what it’s like to have a premature baby, to connect with other mothers of preemies, and share strength through stories.
In the book, Hopper recalls some advice that another mother of a premature baby passed along to her. The advice comes from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet : “Live the questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into the answers.”
That idea of living the questions and dwelling in the daily unknown with her daughter in the NICU struggling for her life, became Hopper’s daily mantra. I spoke with Hopper to talk to her about her memoir and ask her for her advice to mothers in similar circumstances.
“Nothing can prepare you for having a preemie,” she said. “You have to take everything one day at a time; you never know what’s coming.”
But if she could go back to herself on the day she was rushed into the hospital, Hopper would tell herself this:
1. You will survive.
“I would tell myself, ‘This is going to suck, but you will survive. You will make it.’ Of course, I don’t know if I would have listened, but it’s what I needed to hear.”
2. Stand up
Hopper notes that there were many times when she should have stood up for herself and demanded better care, a different nurse or more information, but she was so plagued with self-doubt and worry that she stayed silent.
“It’s hard because your child is in the care of experts and you want to trust them, you need to. But ultimately, you are the mom and this is your baby, if something feels uncomfortable, speak up.”
3. Mourn your loss
Hopper noted that one of the things she needed to do for herself was to give herself time to grieve for the loss of the things she didn’t get to experience—a “normal” labor, time to hold her daughter in those early days, and the myriad of hopes and dreams she had for the birth of her daughter. Giving herself the space to do that, she said, allowed her to find strength to ultimately be there for her daughter. And she also advised women not to discount their own experience.
“Just because someone else suffered more doesn’t mean that you didn’t feel pain.”
4. You will find your way
In the memoir, Hopper recalled how hard it was for her to feel like a mother because she was so separated from the care of her child for so long.
“People talk about this instant bond they have with their children,” said Hopper. “But I didn’t feel that right away. I was so disconnected and filled with fear.” But eventually that connection came. “It’s important to know that you will get there,” she advised. “It will happen. It just takes time.”
“I don’t know how I would have gotten through this experience if I couldn’t talk to my husband about everything,” Hopper said. Open communication was the key for them to stay strong as a couple and be there for their daughter.
And if you know someone who has a preemie, Hopper said that the best thing you can do for them is to just drop off food.
“Don’t ask. Don’t make them coordinate. Just drop it off on their front step in a cooler.”
She recalled that her friends and family who were there for her with food and support and free babysitting were her life line through those difficult days.
“It’s even enough to just call and say that you are thinking of them and love them and that they don’t have to call you back. Support without strings, that’s the best way you can help.”
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