My boys were 7, 5, and 3 when my daughter was born a micro preemie in 2012.
Joy weighed just 1 pound, 4 ounces and was not even the length of a ruler. While I knew that her birth would change our lives forever, I couldn’t have predicted all the ways she would teach my sons to be better men.
My boys were slightly aware that things were stressful during my pregnancy, as I was in and out of the hospital from my 17th week until my daughter was born at a hair over 23 weeks. I was diagnosed with 100 percent placenta previa (which later turned into placenta accreta) and had four life-threatening hemorrhages. Ultimately I was confined to bed rest for 7 weeks before I delivered my daughter. Though the boys were taken care of by my husband and both sets of grandparents, things were certainly rough for a while.
Of course, we were overjoyed when Joy was born – but we were also filled with uncertainty and fear about her survival. Would the medical interventions be enough to get her through? Would she develop NEC (necrotizing enterocolitis), an intestinal infection many preemies get due to the immaturity of their internal organs? Would she be blind or have cerebral palsy?
We had so many fears and no answers and no way to explain any of it to our boys.
After 121 days in the NICU and as much turbulence as an airplane flying through a hurricane, Joy came home with only a few signs of her extremely premature birth.
Once we settled in, I started to realize how much the experience had affected my sons. The journey we went through together as a family shaped us all in different ways and truly impacted the men my sons would become. Here are some of the things they learned:
1. Marriage is about supporting each other through the tough stuff
My sons watched my husband and I grapple with difficult decisions – and it wasn’t all roses and sunshine. While we didn’t scream and curse at each other, we certainly argued and it was easy for our children to see the toll that it took on our marriage. The flip side is that it was also easy for them to see that we stuck through it and always forgave each other. I’m glad my children know that we aren’t perfect – no one is. Everyone has moments of weakness, especially when under stress. But it’s equally important for children to see that a strong partnership can overcome any situation, no matter how difficult.
2. Sometimes it takes a village
The science department at the school where I’ve taught for the past 16 years organized a dinner schedule, and dropped off a meal for my family once a week. Our church did the same. My cousins and friends would babysit the kids and cook and clean my house, so that my husband could visit us in the hospital. Both sets of grandparents shuttled the boys to and from school and their various sports and activities so they could still have some semblance of their “normal” life. I know my kids learned the value of service and the benefits of giving selflessly to others, through watching others help us. They will always remember the people who donated their time and resources to our family when we needed it the most.
3. Life is too precious to be taken for granted
After Joy’s birth, our family had to discuss the possibility that she might not come home with us. This was incredibly difficult – up to this point in their lives, no one close to our sons had passed away. We had to explain to our sons that Joy was born too early and that she was very small. We took the boys to see her when she was about 2 weeks old, and seeing her in a web of tubes, intravenous lines, and alarms helped them comprehend the severity of Joy’s situation. Through our friendship with other NICU parents, they also became aware of other preemies who didn’t survive. In the end, my sons came out of the experience with a greater understanding that every day we have on this earth is a blessing.
4. Sometimes all you can do is pray
While we always said prayers before bed and holiday meals, we did not really pray as a family on a regular basis. When Joy was in the NICU, I prayed frequently, and both my husband and I encouraged the boys to pray for her health. In the future, I firmly believe that they will pray for anyone whom they hear is sick or in trouble. I’m grateful that they will take that practice forward and doubly glad it was their little sister who inspired the habit.
5. There are times you have to put the people you love ahead of yourself
While Joy was in the NICU, my sons had to miss some sporting events and other activities. They didn’t blame their new sister for this, but they were aware that she had something to do with it. This is something that has not changed in the two years since our little girl has been home. Joy’s lungs are very weak. She has BPD (Bronchopulmonary dysplasia) and her lungs have lots of scar tissue due to the fact that she was ventilated for a few months after birth. This makes it difficult to fight respiratory illnesses and she has spent weeks in the hospital with pneumonia on a few different occasions. Our boys have learned to be extra-mindful of transmitting germs to their sister and as a result, have had to miss many different public activities that are indoors. Since preemies are particularly susceptible to all respiratory viruses, our family has declined birthday parties, holiday gatherings, and other similar crowded events. While this might sound extreme, for us, it’s simply the reality of our situation.
But what fills my heart is that our sons do not resent her, instead they appreciate how blessed we are to have her in our lives. They will do whatever it takes to keep her safe.
Ours may not have been the easiest road, but I am proud to watch my sons grow into patient and understanding young men. They are lucky to have their sister and we are all lucky to have each other.
Jennifer Degl is the mother of a 23 week micro preemie and author of From Hope to Joy: A Memoir of a Mother’s Determination and Her Micro Preemie’s Struggle to Beat the Odds.