I don’t know what else to call it, but NICU bragging. It’s an odd thing, something Kate and I became aware of while London was in the NICU, but something that really reared its ugly head once we were out and could take London to public places.
As emails went out to notify friends and family of London’s emergency birth and her condition, we started to hear back from all sorts of people. Those who had had preemies themselves did share some of the most useful information, but every once in a while there would be a line dropped in an email or spoken in conversation that, while perhaps not ill intentioned, would sound a little like bragging. Typically, these lines would be in response to us sharing London’s gestational age at birth (26 weeks, 4 days, but rounded down in the NICU to 26 weeks) or her birth weight (2 lbs, 6 oz).
In response to the gestational age, people were eager to share if their son or daughter (or relative) was born earlier. In response to the weight, people were eager to share if their son or daughter (or relative) was born weighing less than London. Initially, it was a little bit comforting to know that there are preemies born quite a bit earlier and lighter than London who can turn out fine, but not too long after London was born I had a hard time interpreting these comments as anything but diminishing our particular situation. In some cases, I knew people were trying to comfort us, but with others I said little in response to them about our preemie and NICU experience, hoping they would sort of get the hint and walk away.
I found that the comments in response to London’s birth weight were the most bothersome and they nearly always contained a detested title, micro preemie. If you’re wondering, a micro preemie’s birth weight is less than 800 grams (1 lb, 12 oz) or with a gestational age of less than 26 weeks. More often than not, I felt like micro preemie was shared in conversation with us as if it was the highest commendation a preemie could receive and it was delivered with a tone that implied one thing, our preemie has had it harder than your preemie. Nothing irked me more than someone referring to their preemie as a micro preemie merely because it was born weighing less than London but its gestational age older, like 28 or 29 weeks, or even later. From what I was told in the NICU, from nearly everything I have read, gestational age is more important than weight. Of course, being bigger than average at 26 weeks, like London was, is a huge benefit, but staying in the womb even for just one more week would have been vastly more beneficial for London. So, if someone told me they had a micro preemie, but it was born at 29 weeks, the only thing I cared about was ending our conversation.
Before London left the NICU, we had to attend a discharge class with other parents whose baby or babies were going to get out soon. Naturally, we all sit there and talk a little bit about our circumstances before the nurse shows up to teach the class. Most of the conversation centers around birth weight, gestational age, and length of NICU stay, i.e., the premature baby’s big three. By the time Kate and I sat in on this class, London was the veteran of the NICU, with over 100 days under her belt, and we were very much aware of NICU bragging. Thus, we were sensitive to parents, for example, who spoke about their three-week NICU stay stretching out to what seemed like three months. In our NICU class we did not share one of the big three stats because we did not want to give the impression to anyone that we were diminishing their own private and frightening experience.
Parents of preemies always find one another in public. It’s rather easy for us, we see a baby out and about with oxygen or an NG tube, and we know part of the story even before we talk to the parents. We have been approached by parents of preemies nearly every time we take London out to the mall. The parents approaching us to ask about London are eager to hear a little bit about her story, but mostly they are very eager to share their own. Some of these folks just unload a life history on us even though we met them thirty seconds ago inside a Nordstrom. For Kate and I, with our somewhat introverted personalities, this can be uncomfortable, to say the least.
As you can imagine, such encounters are even harder to avoid when going to a special care clinic at a children’s hospital. Last week, I overheard a conversation that must have started when one parent spotted another baby on oxygen.
“Oh, was he a preemie?”
“Oh yeah, 28 weeks.”
“What’s that, 3 months early?”
“Two and a half.”
“Ours was 3 months early.”
End of conversation. I felt like the parent whose baby was born three months early was just looking for the quickest route through the conversation so he could say, “Ours was 3 months early,” and then walk away. That’s precisely what happened. I’ve seen this a lot. It’s NICU bragging.
It is important for parents of preemies to talk with one another, to share their unique stories, but to share the big three stats and walk away, well, that does no one any good. As Kate and I have grown into being parents of a preemie, we have become increasingly conscious of this truth when talking with other parents of preemies. We would love to share with you London’s gestational age, weight, and number of days in the NICU, but only if you ask. We know there are preemies who were born earlier or later than London, born heavier or lighter than London, and stayed in the NICU longer or shorter than London, but that does not necessarily mean their time in the NICU was automatically easier or harder than London’s. A preemie’s care and progress can be influenced by many factors and is vastly complicated. This truth is never fully borne out by sharing the big three stats. We will do our best to never start a conversation with them.