When my daughter was a year old, she looked like a funny 4 month old baby. Her eyes were oversized for her face and crossed. She had no hair on her head and her scalp was full of nasty scars and marks. Did I say she looked like 8 months less her age? Yes. Okay, her all round development was also that of a four month old. The only thing she had going for her at 1 was her weight. She was of the appropriate weight.
After we left NICU back home, the ‘task’ of caring for Miss R was enormous. Having to wake up every two hours to feed her breast milk wasn’t funny (with time I increased it to every three hours). In addition to ensuring strict compliance with the doctor’s instructions on hygiene. Sanitizing this and that and everything and everywhere around her was the definition of tough! Add to this the fact that from Children Affairs to Exclusive to Sahad to Wuse and Garki markets we couldn’t find appropriate clothing for our girl. Perhaps no one thought Nigerians had tiny babies? Dunno. We just didn’t find. That meant being extra cautious and sensitive to the improvisation I could come up with. All this meant the only time I had for myself was none. Don’t forget i still had to cook and do other things. So as not to break down, whatever wasn’t absolutely necessary, I didn’t do. My whole life revolved round the tiny little girl I was nurturing and whose addition of 100 grams called for serious celebration. Ha! Taking care of a preemie no be beans. Still looking for how to put this expertise in my CV o jare. It wasn’t easy.
Slowly, steadily, she started growing big. Big enough for us to spend a fortune on her wears. Wow. I went into stores and the only thing which stopped me from spending wasn’t commonsense. But the amount of money I had. It was as if I wanted her to wear clothes in arrears. My Ruby wore tush clothes and beautiful shoes. There were times we changed clothing three times in a day oh. We needed to wear the ones we couldn’t in the early days.
So, how does one spend so much on tiny clothes and stay indoors always? We were passed the critical stage. Our list of don’t had grown really short. And we just needed to leave home, to just go out.
Let’s go back to the beginning of this piece. If at one she looked as described above, you can guess what she looked like at say, three months. Some preemies grow very rapidly once they stabilise, but the period of stabilizing varies from child to child. And so long as her doctors were cool, her parents were satisfied. Every other worry I had was nothing to her dad who is never ruffled by Life.
Decked in our fine clothing, we would go out. Grocery shopping. Wednesdays Breakthrough Hour at RCCG Wuse 2, a walk through Porto Novo Street back to Lingu Crescent, anywhere which took our fancy.
Oh, and ironically, while my daughter’s growth could match that of a baby far younger, her face matured quite faster. Hence, she had a maturing face in a tiny body. Irreconcilable, the age her look carried and her body. So naturally, we got those stares. Stares that shot pins through our hearts. Stares enough to keep us indoors. You know, some people can look! And some expressions tell better stories than thousands of words. But we were undeterred. There were days my euphoria at the realisation that my daughter was here to stay after all made me float on air. Those stares, those expressions, those harsh admonitions telling me to “go hide that thing” without uttering a word became gravity that pulled me back to ground. There were the many “oh she’s so cute” cooed by random folks we met. Some I knew were genuine, most were obviously not meant. But all of which I was grateful for. They encouraged me.
There were the flippant folks whose whispers of “see that child” and the unforgettable “which kind if a child is this?” someone asked in the nurses’ room of the Paediatric Outpatient Department of the National Hospital where babies were weighed and vitals taken. You know the babies had to be stripped naked. I leave the details which prompted the woman’s reactions to your imagination.
Oh! I got advises too. In their tonnes! Just not medical ones. From “why don’t you wait till she’s beautiful before you guys go out?” to “why not always cover her face with shawl so no one sees?” To be sincere, those who advised me thus did out of concern. I think they thought those same things most thought when they saw us and wanted my psyche shielded from the stares and maybe words.
But I was stubborn. Stubborn as a mule. My daughter is my daughter. Whether I carried her to term or not, I had my own pregnancy experiences. Like every other woman who had been pregnant and who went ahead to flaunt their beautiful babies. I had the right to flaunt my own baby just as well. After all, beauty is always in the eyes of the beholder. A beholder like Pauline Onyinoyi who never wasted an opportunity to flaunt Ruby or even talk about her in glowing terms. We have met many people who already knew Ruby from Pauline way before we met.
Now that she is grown, a few think Ruby is Ruby from whenever they think she began to look good. But as always, I disagree. Every part of a human’s story is fundamental to their history. The good, the bad, the ugly; they all sum up to tell a beautiful story. Because she is wonderfully and fearfully made, she is just beautiful. She was beautiful with the bulgy crossed eyes and head full of scars years ago as she is beautiful with her glasses and silky long hair today.
Do you have a similar story? Is there something which makes your child different and not fit into the popular image of what a baby should look like? Please, do not hide the child to escape society’s disapproval. No one has earned that right to be flaunted more than the different one who has surmounted obstacles and challenges to be with us.
Petra Onyegbule is the founder and executive director of Tiny Beating Hearts Initiative.