Motherhood & Words

Last night I was watching the evening news—something I try never to do—and there was a story about the sextuplets just born in Minneapolis, at the same hospital where Stella was born. They are now on warming tables in the same children’s hospital where I sat for weeks, staring at my daughter.

The coverage of the story went like this: the couple decided on fertility treatment when they hadn’t become pregnant in a year. They were surprised to find they were carrying six fetuses, but they refused to reduce. Now they have six babies, born at less than 23 weeks. The smallest weighs less than 11 ounces. The reporter said, “The babies came a little early.” Call me crazy, but 4 months premature is not “a little early.”

Why, please tell me why, the media continues to cover high order multiple births this way. The pregnancy and births were referred to as a “miracle.” This is not a miracle. It’s a tragedy. This couple is living through hell, certainly, but there was no mention of the dangers of prematurity. No mention of the reality.

A preemie is not just a small baby. A preemie is not “cute.” Micro-preemies (born at less than 26-weeks) often do not “catch up.” That all preemies “catch up” by age 2 is a myth.

A 23-weeker’s eyes are still fused shut. A 23-weeker is still covered in lanugo. A 23-weeker’s lungs are underdeveloped. S/he will potentially spend months on a ventilator. Being on a ventilator that long puts a him/her at high risk for an intraventricular brain hemorrhage and for chronic lung disease.

The rate of premature birth increased 31% between 1981 and 2003. According to the March of Dimes, 25% of the youngest and smallest babies who graduate from the NICU live with long-term health problems, including cerebral palsy, blindness and other chronic conditions. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002 found that children born prematurely were at greater risk for lower cognitive test scores and for behavioral problems when compared to full-term children.

For babies born at less than 500 grams (1 lb, 1 ounce), the mortality rate is 863 deaths per 1000 live births.

Between 1980 and 1998 the triplet/+ birth rate (the number of triplets, quadruplets, and quintuplets and other higher order multiples per 100,000 live births) increased by more than 500 percent, rising from 37.0 to 193.5. The number of triplet/+ born in 2003 was the highest ever reported: 7,663. (CDC’s National Vital Statistics Report Vol. 54, No. 2)

Write that. Cover that.

In my frustration over the coverage of stories like this one, I turn, as I always do, to literature. Suzanne Kamata has written one of the most honest, moving essays about IVF and selective reduction that I’ve read. Originally appearing in Brain, Child, her essay “Multiple Choices” was reprinted in the Utne Reader in 2000.

After a D&C at age 20 and an infection in her late 20s, Kamata and her husband used IVF to get pregnant. Three embryos took root.

“When I visit the doctor at eight weeks,” she writes, “all three are still there, growing and squirming in my womb. I love them all equally. I cannot bear the thought of giving one up. Of having one killed.”

But the thing is, she weighs the risks. She and her husband make the decision, the difficult decision, to reduce. And it’s a decision that may have saved her other babies. At 26-weeks, Jio and Lilia were born. How early would they have been without selective reduction? Would any of them have survived?

Technology helps many couples conceive. Technology can keep the smallest babies alive. But there are dangers associated with this technology, and I want to know why these dangers are not being discussed honestly (or at all). It’s not a black and white issue. Selective reduction would not be an easy choice. But isn’t it necessary to weighs the risks?

Kamata’s essay ends like this: “Yoshi and I heap adoration on our surviving twins, while the spirit of the third hovers, a reminder. And so I carry my guilt. In quiet moments, I pray for forgiveness, while out of love for my newborn children, I find it impossible to repent.”

Thank you, Suzanne, for this essay. Thank you for your honesty and grace. Thank you for talking openly about hard choices. I wish everyone were so brave.


I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. moonlight ambulette on June 14, 2007 at 12:18 pm

    wow, kate — thoughtful, provocative, and fascinating. thanks for this.

  2. Will Elliott on June 15, 2007 at 1:40 am

    I’ve wondered why there is so much excitement around mega-multi-baby births, and my hunch is that somewhere in the recesses of our genes, human beings believe that More + Babies = Fulfillment.

    But I work as a chaplain in a hospital, and I’ve had to bless and baptize and sweat over many premature babies. The technology exists to keep all kinds of children alive, but in the case you’ve mentioned, suffering may be kept alive as well.

    I was wondering as I read however, how your experience as a mom has influenced your reaction against the press coverage? Was it just the principle and reality of suffering premies? Or is there more from you personally that might have made this piece even MORE powerful to read?

    Anyway, I love you writing. Thanks

  3. Will Elliott on June 15, 2007 at 1:43 am

    Ok, I just read your About Me section, and so now I have a little more of a context to under how this latest news story would be meaningful/challenging for you.

    All the best with your book, and may it touch a lot of hearts.

  4. Gaijin Mama on June 15, 2007 at 6:59 pm

    Thanks, Kate.

  5. Mardougrrl on June 18, 2007 at 11:10 pm

    Thanks for putting into words exactly what was bothering me about this story, and about the coverage…it’s been heartrending to read as one by one, three of the babies have already passed away.