by Jodi Klaristenfeld
Women in society are always feeling judged; by others and by ourselves. Judged because our drive to succeed might be viewed as obstinate, bossy or stubborn. Judged because we feel inadequate trying to be everything to everybody: our bosses, our partners and especially our children. Judged because we feel lonely even if we have many good friends and a supportive family. Personally, I also feel judged since my birth story did not go as planned.
No one really thinks about the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) unless there is a family history of time in the NICU; your pregnancy has been difficult for health reasons; or, if you know someone who has had such an experience. I was one of those who had never even thought about the NICU.
Regardless, one of the first things I remember thinking about a few days after I had given birth after a life-threatening emergency c-section, was, what did I do or not do to cause this? See, judgement. Did I exercise too much? Did I eat the wrong things? Were my clothes too fitted so as to constrict my belly? I blamed myself. Of course, my doctors tried to assure me that nothing I had done “caused” Jenna’s premature birth.
Sometimes premature births just happen. Sometimes moms get sick and there is no choice other than to take the baby out early. Through a series of fortunate events during a crazy 96-hour period, and a miraculous doctor, my story, fortunately, is a positive one – but the persistence of judgement follows me.
Despite having a gorgeous daughter who is strong, healthy, resilient and happy, I still cannot shake the feeling that I am being judged. Judged by other mothers, teachers, evaluators, therapists, and others, all of whom I logically know are not doing so. Perhaps what is worse of all, I am continually judging myself.
I walk down the street seeing babies in strollers thinking there is no way my daughter was that small. I’ve already forgotten that my daughter was in fact much smaller than almost all the babies on the street and then I feel bad that I don’t remember. I feel bad that I missed out on so many of those walks since my daughter was already almost three months old when she finally emerged from the hospital.
The one memory I do have from when I was finally able to walk Jenna was when a random woman stopped at the same street light as me and my baby nurse and remarked how beautiful and angelic my sleeping daughter looked. Obviously, I thanked her. She then proceeded to question how old Jenna was. When I replied, “almost 5 months”, she rudely questioned, and this I will never forget, “Are you sure? Are you feeding her?” It took every ounce of courage I had not to break down in tears. Our baby nurse touched my back as if to say, “I’ve got this covered” and she said to the stranger, “ma’am, the baby is as old as she is supposed to be.” With that we walked away and never looked back. Then I broke down in tears, and questioned my already fragile state of being even more than before. My nurse said “you do not owe anyone an explanation but yourself, your husband, your daughter and your family. And, more importantly, never let your child sense that you are worried.”
As I look back on it now, over two years later, while that was a turning point for me in respect to how I dealt with comments from others, I still am not able to let go of the immense guilt. I outwardly grew more accepting my birth story and more confident that I was doing everything I could to help my daughter succeed — inside I continue to let it eat away at me. We are fortunate that we are in a much better place with respect to Jenna’s growth and development, yet I am back in that same place of feeling judged. Jenna is thriving and doing well despite some expected delays (ever try Zoom therapy with a toddler – thank you COVID). I always feel when she isn’t doing something “as well” or isn’t hitting a milestone (both adjusted and non-adjusted), that it is somehow a reflection on me and my shortcomings as a mother.
When some evaluator who is trying to help us continue to receive services tells me “she’s doing well, but you really need to focus on…” and proceeds to list a thousand things Jenna still needs to improve, it makes me feel like a failure. That judgment, those words, and that tone of voice brings me back to all those emotions from when I was strolling Jenna down the street that day. I know how far we have come and how hard my daughter works each and every day. She tackles everything she does with the cutest smile and spunky resiliency. Not a day goes by where I don’t smother her in kisses and tell her how proud of her and how grateful I am for her. Perhaps I can learn from my daughter, and maybe preemie power isn’t just for preemie babies after all.
Jodi Klaristenfeld is a wife and mom to a beautiful 3 year old girl. She runs her family business, and as a result of her daughter’s early birth, she created Flrrish, a community centered around advocacy for preemie children and their parents. It will be launching in the coming months in 2022 and she cannot wait to share it with everyone. Jodi and her family live in NYC.