Hand to Hold's Official Blog: Written by Parents for Parents

Let Her Eat Cake: First Birthdays for Preemies

J with his first cupcake

J with his first cupcake

We just celebrated another preemie first birthday. And it was almost as difficult as the first.

With my son, who was a surprise 26-weeker out of an otherwise uneventful pregnancy, I was blindsided by his first birthday. I was completely unprepared for it. Aren’t first birthdays supposed to be joyous, a celebration of life? I didn’t feel joyous at all.

Overwhelmed. Distracted. Depressed. All the darkness surrounding his traumatic birth completely overtook what I’d thought would be a happy day.

At his birthday party, I embarrassed myself by blubbering about how special the day was when we could have lost him. I guess the guests understood, but I was disappointed in myself. Who comes to a first birthday party to the see the honoree’s mother cry?

I was sad about all the things I thought we’d be doing on J’s first birthday. We weren’t doing any of them. Learning to walk? He’d just started rolling over. Starting to talk? I didn’t know it then, but it would be another year before he was saying much of anything. Even seemingly small things were disappointments. Opening presents? He wasn’t at all interested in tearing paper. Eating cake? He’d barely begun to eat solids. So, cake was totally out of the question. For some reason, that one really bothered me. Don’t all children have a picture of their first birthday with their cake?

After J’s birthday passed, the cloud lifted. Things became easier and easier as we traveled through his second year.

M’s first birthday was eight days after Christmas, and for the two weeks prior to it, I was mired in thoughts about where we were a year ago. The surprise preeclampsia. The hospitals. The crazy New Year’s Day car ride across three states, trying to get home before I’d have to deliver M.

Again, I couldn’t even focus on how special a birthday is supposed to be. At least this time I was prepared.

With M, I finally realized what is so difficult about a preemie first birthday. It’s not just a celebration of life; it’s also the annual marker of the beginning of a very difficult time. It’s a reliving of all the challenges of an early birth. It’s being awash in the memories of a baby born too soon. I couldn’t look at M and see a noisy, army-crawling baby; I kept looking at M and seeing that tiny, starved body. As parents, we want only the best for our children, and being born early is full of complications and pain for our babies.

At least in the dark days before M’s first birthday, I knew that the sadness would lift, and it did. Her actual birthday was a sweet, quiet day spent at home, just the kids and me.

I’ve decided that while I’ll ensure my kids’ birthdays are celebrations for them, they will probably always have a sad side for me. But, a day that is full of happy memories is Homecoming Day, an annual reminder that the NICU phase did end and our lives as a family began. J was hospitalized for 91 days and M for 59. Bringing them home was so thrilling that I can’t even begin to put words to it. So, the kids didn’t get to eat cake on their first birthdays. We didn’t even have a real party for M. But, I can give them something special: Homecoming Day, a second day of the year that is all their own. It’s a day to celebrate all that was good about their beginnings and all that makes them special.

And at M’s Homecoming Day party in March, you can be sure she will have a cake.

Do you celebrate Homecoming Day with your preemie? If so, I’d love for you to share your ideas!

Summer Hill-Vinson About Summer Hill-Vinson

Summer (MS) delivered her son 14 weeks early in July 2010 as a result of preterm labor, and he was in the NICU for 3 months. She unexpectedly developed severe preeclampsia with her daughter, almost had her in another state while on vacation, and delivered her 11 weeks premature in January 2013. Both babies weighed 2.5 pounds, and they were in the same NICU for a combined 150 days. Summer, a journalism instructor, is writing a book about her family's NICU years.

Comments

  1. Kristen B. says:

    This was one of the best preemie articles I’ve read! I surely thought I was the only one who went through this…as I approach my little guys second birthday I am a bit less tearful although the thoughts of two years ago still go through my mind more and more as we approach his big day….he is the love of my life and yes we celebrate his homecoming day it’s also his daddy’s birthday!!! 🙂 This year’s birthday theme….Toy Story, Infinity and beyond so fiting for my miracle baby 🙂

  2. Beth PuskasBeth Puskas says:

    Thanks for such a great post, Summer! Having just celebrated my preemie’s first 1st birthday last week, I feel so much better now about all of the mixed emotions that came with it. The cake, in particular, caused me more stress than I should have let it. I almost snapped when his aunt wanted to have one professionally made. She was trying to do something thoughtful and all I was thinking about was he has yet to be introduced to all of the ingredients that go into a cake. So, I went to all this trouble to make a “safe” cake that no one enjoyed, not even the birthday boy. Anyway, the homecoming party this spring cannot come soon enough (nor can spring!) Thanks, again!

  3. Wow! This is exactly what I needed. R’s birthday is a week away and I’ve had this article for a month now. It took me that long to read it because I wasn’t ready for the emotions I knew it’d bring. It all rang true for me. It’s really a reminder of a very scary time and hard to explain to others that haven’t been there how much it still weighs on you despite how far your little one has come.

    • Ash, I’m just now seeing your message. I hope R’s birthday wasn’t too difficult for you, and I hope my article helped. We just had M’s Homecoming Day party last weekend, and it was wonderful. It was all of the fun of a birthday but with none of the bad memories.

  4. Wow! Great article! I am feeling that way right now. We are having our little guys birthday next week and the emotions are over the top. I too, think of what a horribly bittersweet day March 20th is for us. I really like the welcome home anniversary idea. That was what we were hoping for…the happiness that comes along with being able to be a “normal” family. Thank you!

    • Thank you, Natasha! Last weekend we had a wonderful Homecoming Day party for M. It was small, simple, and so sweet. M started dancing in her high chair after she ate her first bites of cake, and we managed to catch it on video. I’ll always remember it!

  5. Mary-Anne says:

    It is so reassuring to read others feel the same way! My twins turned 1 January 2, and their homecoming days were much more comforting to me than their birthday which was just a reminder of the most terrifying day of my life.

    My daughters homecoming day was February 25, she had a 54 day stay and is very behind physically. It’s hard to see her brother taking his first steps when she just started rolling back to belly and bearing weight on her legs. I just keep telling myself she has come so far from her 2 lb beginning.

  6. This is such a wonderful article. Our journey as a preemie mom is different. Everyone told me my journey ended at the NICU but that is far from it. I was terrified at my daughter’s first. The whole week leading up to her special day, I got a ton of flashbacks…Don’t get me wrong, I am so blessed how much progress my daughter made. But it was just like your story said. Its the marker and day of the most difficult journey of your life. I was hospitalized three weeks prior to that so it definitely was hard.

    I imagine it gets easier. I tend to not sanitize every single nook and cranny to the point of exhaustion. I enjoy moments more, I sit and see my daughter hit milestones, and at her OWN time. I use to worry so much more, I still do and it wasn’t until her first birthday, where I really enjoyed my role as a mom. I enjoyed being a mom at her birth, but it was always scary, guilt because of my supply. I am so much more grateful now as a mother!! My peanut has a different journey to share !

  7. Thank you! I needed this. My 26 weeker’s first birthday is coming up in two weeks and I’m having trouble explaining to friends why I haven’t planned anything. I’m more excited for July 31st, her homecoming day– one of the happiest days of my life. I will plan her celebration accordingly…

  8. Thanks for this, my little one was born at 26 weeks,in 2006, and the birthdays are still hard.

  9. I know this article was posted a while ago but I’m coming up on my twin girls first birthday in august and wanted them so badly to have that smash cake moment but after reading your article I feel better if that moment doesn’t happen and now will have that homecoming party for them. They came home on different days so they will be able to have a party that is there Own. Thank you.

  10. As Friends say,”you speak to my condition.” My daughter was born at 24w5d on 3/3/14. I don’t feel like I gave birth that night. It was more like she was taken than given. This March she wore a crown and got a Mylar balloon which she loved. We were snowed in. It was quiet and lovely. I got to have all my emotions in peace and surrounded with love and understanding. She was in the Nicu for 101 days and in two weeks we are having a bbq for her coming home day. There will be cake, music, family and laughter.

    • Maura, I love it! Your Homecoming Day party sounds like so much fun. And you’ve given me something to think about. I’ve never felt like I gave birth at all, but I never thought about the words used. You’re very right about a tiny baby being “taken” instead of “given.” Thank you for that.

  11. A very touching narration giving out the mixed feelings of the mother of premature babies!

  12. We do homecoming too! Something special to honor the day! ?

  13. We celebrated my twin boys (25 weekers) first birthday, and then we had another celebration with just my husband, myself and our boys on what would have been their due date. We called it their very merry unbirthday. They tore up a cupcake that day! It somehow meant more to me than their actually big birthday party we had months earlier. Two weeks later, we also celebrated their homecoming day by taking treats to the Nicu. Maybe that sounds like too many celebrations but for me, it felt just right. And I know we will always recognize those days for the rest of their lives.

  14. We are celebrating O’s 1st birthday this Saturday (she is a 34 weeker) I know first birthday’s are a huge event for my family but because we are choosing to do something small I feel like O will be missing out on a traditional 1st birthday. The whole cake idea is so overwhelming to me (she has an NG tube) and I don’t know what to do. I never thought about celebrating her homecoming day, we will definitely be doing that! Our lives have completely changed for the better with O in our lives

  15. Tahira Brundidge says:

    I Loved this article! I’m glad to know there are others that feel like me. My princess was born on 11/24/15 @28weeks. I like to plan things in advance but I’m not sure how to go about planning a bday party when she really won’t be able to enjoy it yet. I like the homecoming party idea much better!! I’m actually excited about planning that instead! Thank you for sharing mom’s!! Xoxo

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