‘How old is your baby?’ This time 15 and a half months ago I never realised that such a simple question could be so loaded. But now, as a mum to a baby born prematurely, I now know that this is in fact quite a complex question that can often lead to very mixed reactions ranging from amazement to awkward silences.
This is because for the first couple of years of their lives, premature babies have in effect two ages; the first is based on the date they arrived and the second is the date they were supposed to arrive (also known as their ‘corrected age’). Sometimes the deviance isn’t all that great but in our case, with a baby born 15 weeks early, it can be quite material, and the baby doesn’t look or act anything like their actual age. And so when greeted by adoring strangers in public with: ‘Aww isn’t your baby lovely, how old is she?’, you can often find yourself stumbling and unsure of what to say. Over the past few months I’ve figured out three possible responses to the question, depending on my mood and the time I have available:
- Reveal baby’s actual age, with explanation: Here you hope that emotions don’t get the better of you and that you can keep it together, without your eyes welling up in front of a complete strange. This however can often be greeted with a counter response like: ‘Ah yes she looks like a preemie alright.’ This one still gets me…..what does a preemie ‘look like’ anyway?
- Reveal the actual age, without explanation: Sometimes if you’re feeling a bit mischievous it can be fun to throw the actual age out there (without the big story) and wait for the reaction. This is an even better option when your baby is still attached to their apnoea monitor. Watch the face and the response that follows: ‘Oh I see…….!.’ End of conversation.
- Give the baby’s corrected age; This is probably the preferred option but even with that can often come with a reaction such as: ‘Oh my god isn’t she just soo tiny?’ Tiny?!! You’ve no idea what tiny is, Missus!
But reflecting on this matter of age, there is something quite bittersweet about it and in particular when it came to celebrating my baby girl’s first birthday. While the day had to be marked, the word celebration didn’t really feel 100% right. Firstly, your baby is so far from a one year old in the developmental sense. And furthermore, that day marks the anniversary of a really traumatic life event. The memories of those early and scary days in NICU come flooding back. For weeks after the birthday, you can’t help but play the ‘this time last year’ game.
And so while we celebrated our preemie’s first birthday almost four months ago, the birthday banners and birthday cards have remained up as we waited for this day – her first corrected birthday. And so today, we will light yet another first birthday candle. I think she deserves two celebrations.
And better still, from now on when people ask that question ‘How old is your baby?’, the answer is simply: ‘One. My baby girl is one.’