Anna Faris and Raise founder Jessica Butler talk preemies, co-parenting, and of course, mom guilt.
Anna is an actress and author, creator and host of the podcast “Anna Faris is Unqualified,” and mom to 6-year-old Jack, who was born 10 weeks premature and spent one month in the NICU. Anna is also a supporter of the incredible organization GAPPS — Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth. GAPPS is a collaboration of global health organizations, foundations, hospitals and universities, and U.S. and international government agencies who work together to further research, education and prevention of prematurity and stillbirths around the world.
On her podcast, Anna offers her callers advice she’s admittedly unqualified to give. But during our call, we stuck to topics on which she is an expert.
ON THE CHAOS OF PREMATURE BIRTH
Anna Faris: I was 35 when I got pregnant, but I was having what felt like a very normal, healthy pregnancy. I felt really good, and Jack was developing right on time. I was kind of cavalier, maybe because it was my first time being pregnant. I hadn’t taken the hospital tour. An infant CPR class was all I had done at that point. I was planning on taking a labor class, but I was also like, “Eh…”
My water broke in the middle of the night and I woke up Chris and said, “I don’t think this is pee.” We called the doctor and he calmly said, “You need to go to the hospital right now.”
“I remember thinking, ‘Maybe they’ll like, stitch me up or something, and we’ll come back home.’”
Jessica Butler: How far along were you?
AF: 30 weeks.
It was so surreal. I remember Chris frantically packing up a couple things, and I remember thinking, “Maybe they’ll like, stitch me up or something, and we’ll come back home.” None of it was setting in. We got to the hospital late at night and they immediately rushed me into the room and started pumping me full of meds, and then it started to hit home a little bit. The nurses kept saying, “You’re not leaving here until you have this baby. And we’re going to try to prevent you from going into full-blown labor. The goal is for you to be here on bedrest for four weeks.” And I was like, “Okay, okay, okay,” just trying to digest it. They put a catheter in me, and I was on bedrest for a week. Chris was so great. He would come by and decorate my room because we were thinking I’d be there for four weeks.
A week later, Jack was born. It was chaotic.
JB: Levon was born at 30 weeks, too. We got a call on a Tuesday morning that a birth mother picked us. It was October 21st, and she was due January 15th. We were supposed to have a phone call with her that Saturday to “meet,” but on Friday night, I was in Target and got a voicemail from a social worker who said, “She’s in labor. She’s being life flighted to a level three NICU. I don’t have any other information, but I will call you when I know something.” I happened to have our birth mother’s cell since I was supposed to call her the next morning, so I called it and her mother picked up. She said, “Her water broke and she’s in pre term labor and they’re trying to stop it.” And then there was this pause, and I heard the doctor say “the baby’s coming.” And Levon was born a few minutes later.
ON THE NICU EXPERIENCE
AF: The NICU is such a scary place. But it’s interesting, because it’s such a common denominator. People from all socio economic backgrounds. It became a community for me, and it was unbelievably humbling.
“It’s like the earthquake in your life.”
JB: The first time I went into the NICU to hold my son, I cried. And a nurse grabbed me and said, “You can’t cry. Tears and snot are full of germs. You can’t touch anything until you calm down and wash your hands and use Purell, and you can’t cry.” And that was the last time I cried in the NICU. People always ask if I had moments where I broke down, and I say no–
AF: Because you couldn’t.
AF: Jack was there for a month, and you get to the place where you think, “These nurses are not compassionate.” We would spend hours and hours there. I would pump, we would hold him. And they were handling Jack so aggressively. But I appreciate that now because if they had been fragile with him. . . their routine gave me a lot of strength.
JB: I knew nothing about the NICU before Levon was born, and I think my ignorance saved my sanity. The doctor walked in one day and said, “We’re going to do a brain scan.” And I said, “Oh, okay. What’s that for?” He said, “It’s routine for babies born this early. It will tell us if he had a brain bleed. And if he did, it’s possible he had a stroke in utero and will have a higher probability of Cerebral Palsy and developmental delays, but we really won’t know how it will affect him until he’s at least a year old.” I hadn’t been worried about those things because I didn’t even know they were possibilities. I knew nothing. I was the least prepared person in the world for a preemie.
AF: I think I could compete with you on that.
AF: I remember leaving the hospital after Jack had his brain scan, on day 6, and we were told we wouldn’t know anything until he was at least a year old, but that there had been trauma [to his brain]. Chris and I left the hospital and went out for sushi. We just looked at each other and said, “Okay, we are going to be raising a child that’s different from what we had expected.” But we felt incredibly fortunate to have the resource and love and a loving family. But yes, there was that jarring moment.
JB: Before having Levon, I would have told you that if I had a baby in the NICU, I would never leave his side. I would hold vigil by his incubator. But we did the exact same thing you did. We left the hospital and went to dinner. Our waiter came the table and said, “Hi, how are you?” And we just stared at him. We needed a moment to come to terms with what was happening and ask ourselves, “Are we capable of doing this?” I don’t know if anyone who hasn’t experienced it can understand, because it sounds like such a bizarre reaction, but I just needed to get out of the NICU and think. And I can’t tell you how much better I feel knowing I’m not the only one who did that.
AF: It’s like the earthquake in your life. But everyday, that NICU time goes further and further away in my memory. It’s only been in the last two years that I feel like I forget about it all the time, now that Jack is six. He’s in kindergarten. And he’s such a delight. He’s so smart and funny and charming. He’s just a kid who scrapes his knees and loves to tell poop jokes.
ON PREEMIE MOM GUILT
AF: I kept asking my doctor, “What caused this?” Because I felt so much guilt. I felt like I did something wrong. I carried that box. I was walking all over. I wasn’t highly stressed, but I was working. My doctor said, “We’ll never know. You just can’t circle around this. You can’t spend energy on this hamster wheel.” And I was grateful to her for saying that.
JB: I felt guilt every time I left Levon’s bedside. I would wonder, “Am I a terrible person if I go home at night to sleep in my bed and leave my baby with the nurses? Does that make me a terrible mother?
AF: Completely. But it felt so good — leaving the NICU at nine o’clock and getting dinner. I felt really guilty too, but it also felt really good.
JB: I would wonder, “Am I a terrible person for feeling jealous of the other people who get to take their babies home?”
AF: That was a big thing for me, too. I never really expressed it, but I was jealous. It sounds callous, but it was heartbreaking. I was also jealous of my friends who got pregnant really quickly.
ADVICE FOR PREEMIE MOMS
JB: What would you tell someone who is a new mom to a preemie?
AF: I had a good friend who had a preemie, and she said to me, “It’s important to trust your baby. Just trust your baby.” And I was like, “What does that mean?!” But I think I understand it now: Trust in yourself and trust in the healthcare system. Granted, I can say that now, feeling like I’m on the other side. But all parents are constantly terrified, whether your kid’s a preemie or not. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a pregnancy where everything was completely normal. At least not in my age group. There’s always something. An emergency C section or something. And maybe that’s not comforting to some people. But I think it’s kind of comforting that everyone’s story, whether they carry to full term or not, is different and more dramatic than they imagined.
“Everything is out of your control, everything is out of your hands. All parents realize that eventually, but with a premature baby, you realize it immediately.”
JB: There’s no guarantee with any pregnancy. Or any adoption. Or any child.
AF: That’s right! Everything is out of your control, everything is out of your hands. All parents realize that eventually, but with a premature baby, you realize it immediately. I had been in control of my career, going at Hollywood alone and feeling so independent and resourceful in my own self, and suddenly all that was totally taken away from me. Zero control. You realize all you can do is change diapers, feed, and attempt to raise a good person. Other than that, who knows what life is going to throw at you.
Right now, I’m struggling with what to tell Jack about his story. I want him to know, but I don’t want his identity to be wrapped up in the fear that I felt when he was born. I don’t want him to grow up to be a fearful kid. I want him to feel confident and to learn how to make good decisions and to let him fail when he needs to fail.
JB: I feel the same way. And I can’t imagine what kind of parent I would be if I hadn’t been surrounded by Levon’s team of therapists. They taught me how to mother. They made me such such a conscious parent.
AF: Yes! You are so right. Because I was at a very cocky place in my life. I feel like if Jack had been full term and everything had went as planned, the childish aspect in my personality that rebels against the LA stereotypical parent would have become the extreme opposite of a helicopter parent. I would have been like, “Whatever, go do whatever you want. I don’t care.” Now I like to think I’m somewhere in the middle.
ON BEING A WORKING MOM
AF: I went from being a semi-famous actress who had exciting shit going on to this unsexy identity of a mom. That was hard. When Jack was an infant, I would call my friends back in Seattle and talk to them for hours. And I kept thinking, “Am I ever going to work again?” I got “Mom” when Jack was 10 months old, and I did feel a lot of guilt about going back. At the same time, I felt giddy, which made me feel even more guilty.
JB: I get it. I feel guilty that I don’t work. I went from TV writer to stay at home mom, and I have a love/hate relationship with my housewife status. It’s a daily struggle to be the kind of mother I want to be and, at the same time, build something to go back to when Levon is grown.
AF: When I would express guilt about leaving Jack, a close friend of mind would say something really kind to me. She would say, it’s important for Jack to see a strong working mother. But I still struggle with varying degrees of guilt.
JB: My favorite headline about you was that you and Chris took Jack trick-or-treating with your significant others. Warren and I used to celebrate holidays with his ex-wife and no one wrote about us!
AF: We’re really just trying to make Jack feel super safe and secure.
“Chris is so happy, I am so happy, and Jack is so happy. We’re doing great.”
JB: We do it because we share children. We never want them to feel like they have to choose between us and their mother or to feel awkward when we’re all together.
AF: It’s so true! You can make that decision earlier or later, so why not make it earlier? It also feels like, when your [co-parenting] partner is happy, it makes things easier. Chris is so happy, I am so happy, and Jack is so happy. We’re doing great.
Jessica Butler is the co-founder of Raise, stepmother of two, and adoptive mother of one. Prior to Raise, she was a writer on USA’s "In Plain Sight" and TNT’s "The Last Ship." She and her husband, writer/producer Warren Bell, co-created the Nick at Nite series "Instant Mom," based on her life as a stepmother. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and six-year-old son, Levon.