This past July, Matt and I celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary. Our lovely friend Heather had very generously given us a gift card to a swanky restaurant when the twins were born, and we decided our anniversary would be the perfect time to use it. Add in a night in an also-swanky hotel, and it was pretty much a new-parents’-first-night-out dream.
We left the twins with my mom for the night, which marked the first time we’d been away from the babies overnight since they came home in April. I’d heard a few mom friends say that they were so worried to leave their babies for a night out, that they called home multiple times, that the dinner conversation always came back to the baby. And I’d probably have been that way too if I’d been with Madeleine and Reid since the moment they were born. But the strange and sad reality is that when your children spend the first three months of their lives in the hospital, you get used to not having them around all the time. You get used to leaving them behind.
I often think that having an early preemie means that you start out learning to be a mother in the most artificial, unnatural way possible. It’s nobody’s fault, of course – it’s what needs to happen for your child to survive – but it’s a tough adjustment. You don’t hold your baby right away. You may not even hold your baby for days or weeks after her or she is born (we didn’t get to hold Reid for almost two weeks after his birth). Instead of breastfeeding immediately, you attach yourself to an awkward, gurgling machine for months on end. You don’t dress up your newborn in her going-home outfit and drive off. She doesn’t even wear clothes. And when she finally does, all those weeks later, you stand in her room and cry at the strangeness of it all.
But the hardest, most abnormal part is the leaving. The routine you have to follow, where your days consist of visiting your children and then going home at night. Dropping off frozen breast milk. Putting on a hospital gown and sitting with your baby against your naked chest for hours until your arms and legs have gone numb. Falling asleep from the whirring sound of the CPAP machine and the warmth of your little one, and being woken up again by the monitor alarming when his oxygen saturation drops. Watching the nurses updating each other as the shifts change, and hoping the night nurse will be someone you like, someone who is kind and calm and who you hope will be a good motherly stand-in once you’ve left for the day. And then packing up your things and saying goodbye, blocking it out of your mind as you leave that your babies are there alone when they should be going with you.
I found that when it came time to leave the babies for our anniversary – this time on our own terms – I was just as able to block it out as I’d been in the hospital. It had, for better or worse, become a familiar habit, a well-worn path in my brain. In fact, our night out, a night that resembled so many wonderful nights out during our pre-baby days, mostly saw us stopping to remind ourselves that yes, we are parents, and yes, all of that really did happen to us. “Can you believe we have kids?” “No seriously, we have two kids.” “Our kids are at home right now. The kids that are ours that we had.”
It always astounds me how well our minds can compartmentalize when they need to. I look back on our experience and think, how on earth did we manage that? How did we go through that every day for so long? But the answer is just that we had to. And seeing how easy we found it to adjust to leaving the babies again, all these months later when our lives look so normal, I realize that no matter how much time passes from those days, no matter how well the babies develop, those early experiences will always be a part of us. Maybe all we can hope for is that we think about it a little less.