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I was in the NICU when a nurse told me my child was different.

“You have to keep reminding yourself: preemie babies aren’t like term babies.”

I don’t know why that comment stung. Hadn’t my pregnancy already been different? The sudden week of bedrest, a cervix that wouldn’t stop dilating, a baby’s hard skull easily felt by the gloved hands of hospital staff.  My birth had been different. I was denied delayed clamping, was threaded with IVs and wires. They nearly begged me to take the epidural, but through clenched teeth I refused. I had to have something normal, something I had promised myself.

Now, the nurse was telling me nothing would be normal. This was my abnormal baby, sleeping under bulbs meant to act as artificial sunlight. My abnormal baby in a glass box. My abnormal baby—whom I couldn't even hold without permission, and had to slather my hands and arms with antibacterial soap just to touch. During our entire three week stay in the sterile nursery, I was reminded: she isn’t like the other babies.

At home, we were to be secluded. Outside germs could be deadly for preemie babies. Tobacco residue on clothing or hair, too. I lived in a cycle of pumping and struggling for her to latch. My phone scrolling Google for other moms and babies like us. We stayed in that chair, covered in milky spit-up and fat building around my thighs and middle until she grasped the plastic nipple shield with her gums—and eventually, we released the shield and she nursed. I almost told myself she was a normal baby.

But still, she wasn’t. Other moms went back to work. I tried, but my baby refused to eat. Her weight gain slowed; doctors worried, and strangers couldn't believe she wasn’t just a newborn.

“She’s a preemie,” I explained. Their sympathy created a paradox within myself—I appreciated it, but I hated it too. I lessened my shifts, changed my job status. Bought a scale and weighed her everyday, silently begging for her to be on the “normal” chart.

It worsened when we entered the age of milestones. Other babies flipping like fish. Other babies standing. Other babies walking. I returned to Google to find my sparse preemie camaraderie, but couldn't find any like us. Tallulah wasn’t a micro-preemie beating all the odds, and she wasn’t a “normal” term baby. She was somewhere in an unoccupied middle—just a little early, just enough to be different. I had to accept it; the nurse had already tried to prepare me.

We continued. Met some milestones late, some closer to time. I excused her weight and size to strangers.

“She’s a preemie.”

They nodded. They understood.

But recently, something shifted, at a random stop for vegan pizza. Tallulah raised her cut up chunks in the air and dunked them in her open mouth with an audible gusto. A man a few tables over chuckled and we turned.

“I’ve never seen anyone so happy to eat pizza,” he laughed, before telling me about his own children—adults now?

“What is she? About two?” he asked. I almost dropped my own slice to the floor. She was twenty-one months. He somehow knew that.

“Yup. In three months,” I responded, a happy, “normal” mother who didn't have to overcompensate her accomplishments. In fact, I forgot to gloat about her learning seven new words in a single week. I was too busy being a normal mom with a normal baby.