Editor’s note: At Storyline, we’re harnessing the power of stories to help you understand complex policy topics. This is one in a series of introductory posts from our team members, about how stories have helped us see things more clearly in our own lives.
My mom lost her battle with ovarian cancer when I was 6. So, Dad shaped my early views of the world. He taught me what’s important – our holy trinity: love, courage, Indiana basketball – and winged the, uh, womanly stuff: “Should we talk about… birth control?”
To spare him embarrassment, I collected Stand-In Moms. At school, at friends’ houses, in documentaries, in books. Story by story, they’ve helped me understand, beyond any flimsy cultural trope, what it means to be a Grown Woman. One is Kelley Benham French, previously an editor at the Tampa Bay Times and now a journalism professor at Indiana University. She’s tough, blunt and happy to dole out F’s. (Both kinds: Sloppy writing prompts, “What the f— is this?”) She’s also fair, warm and game to listen to relationship woes as you cry into a Starbucks latte.
Kelley writes the way she lives: Gently, without sugarcoating. About two years ago, she finished Never Let Go, a 20,000-word, Pulitzer-finalist series, while raising her now three-year-old daughter, Juniper. She’d feed her sweet potato fries, lace up her Hello Kitty sneakers, bounce her to Bruce Springsteen songs – and, for hours each day, recreate what it felt like to almost lose her.
When it comes to premature babies, doctors consider 24 weeks the edge of viability. Juniper was born at 23 weeks and six days. No one could definitively say then if she would live, or how. One in 750 babies is born this way; many don’t make it.
Kelley brought the odds to vivid life. She pulled readers into her pregnancy, the hospital room, her anguished quest for answers. She went viral. She illustrated for me, and thousands of readers, another dimension of motherhood:
“When the doctors stalled my labor, they gave us a slim measure of hope, but no assurances. Our baby could die quickly, could die slowly, could suffer needlessly, could live vegetatively. She could be broken in any pocket of her body or mind.
She would come squawking into the world unfinished and vulnerable. Conceived artificially, she would have to grow in an artificial womb. She would reveal to us the wonders of medicine and science, and the limits of those things. She would show us the ferocity of our most primal instincts.
A sci-fi baby in an engineered world, she’d teach me, against all possible odds, what it means to be a mom.”
Growing up with Dad, I never felt incomplete. He cheered at my volleyball games, made me cheesy scrambled eggs with jalapenos he grew and read my angsty poetry. I always assumed technical moms did the same stuff. Kelley’s series, however, revealed to me to an inherently feminine kind of parenthood – carrying and delivering a little girl – and, in that, an inherently feminine kind of strength:
“The odds said she would die. I wondered how much time we had. I couldn’t hold her or feed her. She couldn’t see me. I didn’t know if she was aware of me at all. I could do nothing to tip the odds, or even to assert myself as her mother, except deliver this milk.
My insides screamed. Vicodin had been prescribed, but I had skipped the dose because I wanted to keep drugs out of the milk. I came to the long window of what I thought of as the Fat Baby Nursery. This was the place for healthy newborns — goliaths who wailed petty complaints with robust lungs. “What’s your problem, fatty?” I said to one. No 9-pounder had any right to complain.
I took a staff elevator up three floors. At a pair of locked double doors I picked up a phone. “I’m here to visit my daughter,” I said. Daughter. The word was so unfamiliar it caught in my throat.”
Read the whole thing. I know you want to. Then join us for a conversation:
STORYLINE: Why do you think sharing an experience is more effective than sliding someone a fact sheet?
Kelley Benham French: I think stories are what people invented to bring meaning to otherwise disconnected events or information. It’s one thing, for example, to put a bunch of numbers into a neonatal odds calculator. You plug in birth weight, weeks of gestation, whether you have a boy or girl … and this thing spits out a percentage of whether or not your baby is going to be screwed up or dead. But it’s another thing to read 20,000 words that walks you through what its like to have one of these babies. What it’s like to come out on the other side with a crazy, happy, pig-tailed little girl.
SL: You’ve been a journalist for years. What was it like to write your own story?
KBF: I didn’t know I was going to write anything until Juniper came home from the hospital. My husband Tom French and I talk about stories endlessly and we see stories everywhere. We can’t even watch a movie without someone bringing up the structure or the opacity of motive.
So, at some point very early on, one or the other of us said out loud that this was probably the best story either of us would ever be part of. But it wasn’t a story to us — it was survival. So, the subject didn’t come back up for months. We needed to get through it as humans and as parents, not as journalists. And we needed to know that she would be okay. A story like this has to have a happy ending, or at least a kernel of meaning, and all of that seemed very remote for a very long time
SL: How did you feel about sharing those intimate details of Juniper’s birth?
KBF: It was super awkward. I’m not a sharer. I’m an introvert. A lot of my own family didn’t know Juniper was an IVF baby or a donor egg baby until they read it in the newspaper. So to have to write about all that was a pretty big stretch for me.
For one thing, I was announcing it to a lot of my friends and relatives. For another, I was putting into words an experience that as a mom I’d be very careful about explaining to Juniper later on, but as a journalist I had to be completely honest and forthcoming. I had to tell the story exactly as it actually happened, and not a smoothed-over version where I am the mom and the person I wished I could have been at every moment. Yeah, I was very aware of the Internet trolls and the special interest groups and the potential backlash.
SL: What pushed you to do it?
KBF: There are lots of stories of “miracle” babies, but most of the babies in those stories were born later in gestation than Juniper. So, a baby can be one pound but 28 weeks, and that’s much better than one pound at 23 weeks. I also found deeply depressing statistics and stories from Europe, but the statistics there are not applicable here, because treatments and approaches are different.
The stories didn’t tell you how the kids turned out. Just because a baby leaves the hospital doesn’t mean they are okay. And what does okay mean anyway? Blindness? Is that okay? It’s better than death. How about cerebral palsy? Is that acceptable? Would you let a baby die in your arms to prevent it? What about life on a ventilator?
Google was useless in the hospital. I didn’t find a lot online, and I think it’s partly because it would be almost impossible for a serious journalist seeking to do anything of depth to gain access to a NICU for the time required, and it would be even harder to find the right baby, who was born early enough to be considered at the brink of viability, who turned out okay, and who had parents willing to share their story and who were articulate enough to guide people through it. It’s not that nothing useful has been written, but I didn’t find the depth or complexity I was looking for.
SL: How did you keep yourself honest? You’ve talked about how memories distort with time.
KBF: Well, first of all, I have a terrible memory. So I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to pull this off. It turned out to be a blessing, because it forced me to report my own story like I would report a story about a stranger. I couldn’t rely on my memory for anything but a guide. I took notes only a couple of times, and they were essentially journal entries.
Those entries really describe my internal state and what I was thinking about and feeling, as opposed to any specifics about her care or condition or treatment.
So I started like I start any reporting assignment, looking at what has been written before, then looking for primary documents. I read everything I could, and then I asked the hospital for a copy of her medical chart. It was 7,000 pages. Normally they charge $1 a page. So thanks, All Children’s, for waiving that fee.
SL: You wrote about finding ways to laugh in the hospital. You and your husband Tom French invented silly stories about the hospital staff. You read Harry Potter. Why did you include those details?
KBF: Because that’s how life really works. It’s true. And because if I hadn’t the story would be so unrelentingly depressing, no one would finish it. Life sucks, but it doesn’t suck that bad.
It’s just that I think our brains somehow protect us by constantly re-calibrating. You can’t be utterly miserable every second of the day for months.
SL: What was the reader response like?
KBF: I got hundreds of calls and e-mails. Mostly from women who either had been in a similar situation or who were just moms of preemies. But also what was really cool was I got a lot of e-mails from kids who were born preemies. They’d say: “Look, I want you to know I turned out great. I was the shortest kid in my class, but I was the top of the cheerleading pyramid. I’ve got a scar on my belly just like Juniper.”
One girl has her birth weight tattooed to her arm. She wanted me to know: I’m a fighter, and I’ve always been a fighter.
I got a ton of e-mails from people in the medical community. They said you got it exactly right. And I worked really hard to get it exactly right. That was extremely gratifying.
SL: You led us into a lesser known realm of motherhood. Did anyone tell you how your story personally impacted them?
KBF: Everyone decides for themselves what it means to be a mom. I heard from a lot of people who were trying to conceive and now considering egg donors. I heard from people who were considering donating eggs and did it because they read the story. It goes to show that your stories have impact that you may never hear about.
I still get several e-mails a week. People will go into premature labor and Google 23 weeks just like I did. They ask: What should I do? I never want to answer that question for anybody. But I can help them understand the stats in a more realistic way. I can tell them about the power that parents have. It’s really easy to feel like you have no power at all or are completely helpless.
SL: How’s Juniper now?
KBF: Well, right now, she’s upset her kitty shoes just got rained on.
She’s amazing. She loves preschool. She bounces out of bed every morning and says, “Mommy take me to see those kids. I wanna see those kids!” God forbid you make a suggestion. She loves picking out her her own clothes. She swims. She rides horses. She goes right to the top of the highest slide at the playground.