When Charlie was born, everyone in my family said, "Congratulations!"
No one said, "You must have been really sick," or "What a scary time for you," or "Is he going to be okay?" No one acknowledged the seriousness of the situation. Now, it is a thoroughly documented fact that in my family we don't talk about unpleasant things, so it wasn't a surprise, but it added to the unreality of the experience to be warmly congratulated on the dramatically early arrival of a baby who might not make it.
A few weeks after Charlie's birth, I told my friend T. with some indignation that a well loved relative on Paul's side "didn't even call to say congratulations." T. said, "You know, it's funny when Paul called to tell me about it, it didn't even occur to me to congratulate you. I thought to say, 'What can I do to help?' and 'Is Julie okay?' but 'Congratulations!' was the farthest thing from my mind."
No one said the right thing because there is no one right thing to say. If I was confused about my own feelings and I was, and still am and if even I didn't know what I needed to hear, I couldn't hold it against the people who care for me when they were unable to voice precisely the right combination of validation and optimism. You can't really expect people to blurt, "I'm worried about you. I'm worried about your baby. I'm shocked and sad at how it came about. I'm apprehensive about what the future might hold. But amid all this I feel a thrill of joy to think you have a baby at last. Hang in. I'm here for you."
Kind of a mouthful, really.
It's this same complexity of emotion that sometimes makes it hard for infertile women to accept congratulations when they're pregnant at last. The knowledge that that positive pregnancy test could eventually bring anything from joy to desolation is tough to reconcile. It's what makes us say, "Well, we're cautiously optimistic" when we're twenty weeks along, or tack on, "...if everything goes okay, fingers crossed," when strangers wish us well.
Charlie's twelve weeks old. I've reached my goal of pumping until we'd reached that milestone. Coincidentally, today we are using the very last of the frozen milk I'd stockpiled while he was in the hospital. I'm tremendously ambivalent about both the prospect of stopping and the possibility of continuing. I've done right by him so far, and I'm proud of that. Now as I enter uncharted territory the place where I have no concrete goal and assume a "one day at a time" approach I don't know what I need to hear. I don't know if I need encouragement to continue or reassurance that I can stop. I'm not sure what would make me feel good. I don't think there's any one right thing to say, when my feelings are so complex and often contradictory.
But I think "congratulations" would be a good start.