My daughter, Iris, didn’t grow—well, at least not in the way she was “supposed” to. After her March birth date, she didn’t bloom in summer, like her name suggested. I took photos of her on a white shag blanket every month like any Instagram mom, but I never shared them because she looked like the same baby, frozen in time from one month to the next.
Babies don’t come with a manual, but they do come with a formula—a data set for success. It’s a path marked by numbers—milestone weeks, pounds and ounces of milk—that measure the way to a healthy childhood. It’s the parents’ job to make sure that there aren’t any obstacles on this path to a successful future. When my infant was diagnosed with “failure to thrive,” I felt like the failure was mine alone. I hadn’t done enough to get my baby, who was unable to fend for herself, along the healthy path of success. And this is when I began to see numbers as a reflection of my failure.
I’ve never been sure about my decisions as a mother. I’m envious of those mama bears who growl with such confidence on behalf of their children. I’m more of a waffler, hoping that I’m doing the right thing and acutely aware that so much is out of my control.
When Iris was born, she breastfed easily and we were able to take her home. But after seven days, she hadn’t reached her birth weight like she was supposed to. She hadn’t gained half an ounce a day by her one-month wellness check-up. The paediatrician told me to stop eating salads because the fresh veggies might be altering my breastmilk and instructed me to breastfeed more often. Pump-feed-pump-feed-pump-feed was the cadence I lived by. Still, she stayed the same.
At four months old, she had only gained two pounds of an expected four to eight pounds and was officially diagnosed with “failure to thrive.” A new paediatrician listened to my concerns and to her heart. “I know exactly why Iris isn’t gaining weight,” she said. “It’s not your breastmilk; it’s her heart.”
She let me listen to her heart, less a beat than the thrum of a washing machine, and referred us to a cardiologist. A few hours later, I stood with my husband in the cardiologist’s examination room while he explained that our daughter’s heart was massively enlarged. A hole allowed blood to flow back into the chamber and cause swelling. She needed an operation to plug the hole, which they scheduled for the next morning.
When I handed Iris to the operating doctor, I was plagued with questions: Wasn’t I supposed to have this supermom sixth sense that should have caught this sooner? Was something wrong with me?
After the operation, I thought that, if I followed the rules the doctors gave us, Iris would finally bloom into who she was always supposed to be. I measured out her medicine and spent all of my downtime pumping milk, supplementing each one with a scoop of formula. I weighed her in the morning and at night, after every meal and poop.
The more I obsessed over the numbers, the more I devalued myself as a mother. I had to hit those marks, knowing my instinct had failed me, and the person who suffered most was Iris. I hoped my calculations would make up for what I lacked. She did not improve.
At six months, no crawling. At 12 months, no walking. At 18 months, no talking. Even her teeth grew in late. And precious days were wasted stressing over those numbers.
Fast-forward to today and, now, Iris is a happy two-year-old. She reached those milestones in her own time. Eventually, I put the scale away because knowing that a poop is three ounces doesn’t improve anything. I still measure her heart medication dutifully and make sure that she eats and drinks enough. I focus on just being her mom, in any and every state, under any and all measurements.
I’ve learned that data doesn’t measure how loud she squeals when she kicks a ball, how she gets lost in laughter at the mouse in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie or how she spends half an hour making funny faces in the mirror. By the numbers, she is still failing to thrive, but my job is to make sure that failure is as fun as possible and remind her how ferocious she is to keep laughing, even though the tallied count is in the negative. If failure is where we’re at, then we’re in it together and it will be fantastic while we live here. We will thrive in failure.