Author Melissa Harris joins Zibby to talk about her award-winning memoir, One Pound, Twelve Ounces, which was actually her premature son’s weight at birth. The two discuss how the book grew from a blog Melissa wrote to keep family members around the world updated about her son’s progress, when she realized she had PTSD from the ninety-five days she spent in the NICU, and what her life with her children looks like now.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Melissa. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss One Pound, Twelve Ounces: A Preemie Mother’s Story of Loss, Hope, and Triumph.

Melissa Harris: Thank you. I’m really excited to be here.

Zibby: By the way, I was surprised in the book when the doctor found out that your baby was one pound, twelve ounces and he was like, “Wow, that’s great.” I thought that it would be sad, that that was so small. Instead, he’s like, “What a triumph. What a victory that you got to one pound, twelve ounces,” which is amazing.

Melissa: As a person who was not in the best mental shape at that point, I kept going, what are you talking about? I’m going, oh, god, one pound, twelve ounces. He’s like, “Wow, that’s fantastic.” I’m like, okay, dude. I thought he was a little crazy, but I wasn’t going to say it since he was sewing me up and such.

Zibby: Wow. You have had quite a journey, to say the least. I’m so sorry for all that you’ve been through and yet so in admiration of your determination and everything that a mother will do to bring children into the world. It’s just inspiring, your strength to get through all of this stuff.

Melissa: Thank you. It tested me a lot throughout. Just even getting to the second child — I had never heard of such a thing as secondary infertility. With my first, I was like, I want a baby. I was pregnant. I’m going to give birth. I gave birth. Other than the fact that she was stuck on one side, we figured out, and I had to have a c-section, my pregnancy the first time was textbook. Nothing to write home about. Then the second one was like, holy cow, nine surgeries, two or three miscarriages depending on how you classify a twin miscarriage, and then almost losing this one and having to sit in a hospital — well, lie at a thirty-degree angle in a hospital bed for six days to try to get him to the point where he would survive. It was a lot.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. There was one line when you had your whole mama bear thing up. It says, “When Peter came back, I told him my goals. ‘I know we will get to the twenty-four-week mark, but I’ve decided I’m not going to have this baby until I am thirty weeks pregnant.’ ‘Um, Melissa, you know you don’t know that. No, you don’t know that,’ Peter responded. ‘Like hell I don’t. I will not have this baby yet,’ I angry-cried at Peter. He decided the safest thing was to let me believe that I had total control over things.” Wise man.

Melissa: Very wise man. Obviously, I was wrong. I did not make it to that thirty weeks, but I had my goal. I had to get to twenty-four. I made it two days past that, so I achieved at least one of the goals. My body was not going to handle it. You can’t lie in what’s called Trendelenburg for that long. They’d upgraded me to mattresses they put for people in long-term comas to try and make me comfortable. I wasn’t allowed to move without help. I had to eat lying in this position, when I was allowed to eat. One of my favorite things is the vision of me lying there licking oatmeal off the pillow.

Zibby: I was going to say that. Licking food, that was crazy, oh, my gosh.

Melissa: It worked better than the spoon. It was my fault for ordering things like oatmeal and soup, but hospital food, those are usually the safest. It was quite the experience.

Zibby: Not only were you going through all this, but of course, you had your daughter. You were already having to parent and deal with her setbacks during your first miscarriage. I’m so sorry for all of those losses. Part of your sadness when you left the screening was thinking you were about to tell her about her baby sibling and then having to actually leave and be like, well, now I’m disappointing — it’s like the narrative you had written to make her happy, that was also robbed from you.

Melissa: She is a remarkable kid. She’s sixteen now. The things that she has experienced in her short life and the maturity that she’s brought to it, she’s a pretty remarkable kid. I think the experiences have made her extremely empathetic and caring. Unfortunately, she had to age up faster than she probably should have. We’ve always joked she was an old soul from birth, so I think she was well-attuned to doing it.

Zibby: Interesting. Then since this, you’ve also gone through a divorce. When did that happen?

Melissa: Sam, who is my second child, who is now eleven and doing wonderful — I always like to remind people of that.

Zibby: Okay, great.

Melissa: Sam was three, so it’s been a while. We were having troubles all throughout. When Sam was three, it was when we finally decided that divorce was the best thing for the kids and us.

Zibby: Sorry, I don’t mean to pry. I’ll go a different direction.

Melissa: You’ll see, by the way, that in — I’m not one to filter. I’ll answer any question. Once you have a preemie and you’re in a hospital nursing for ninety-five days and all these things, your sense of what is prying and what isn’t goes way out the window.

Zibby: When did you decide this was going to be a book? Did you know all along? Were you keeping notes the whole time? How did this happen?

Melissa: It started with a blog. After I had Sam and I was lying in the hospital, it was the first time I was kind of alone. My brother, at the time, was living in Africa. I needed to find a way to tell him what was happening because of the time difference. I started it as a letter to him, which went on for about six pages. I sent it. He said, “You know, there’s a lot of people in the family around the world.” We have family sort of spread out. He was like, “You should post this on a blog or something so everyone can get updated.” I did. I started a blog that night. Then every day in the NICU, you are just bombarded with information. You don’t have time to process it, and so I started writing as my therapy. I would come home from being in the NICU all day, the neonatal intensive care unit, for those that don’t know, and I would write what had happened that day. I would just pour out the trauma and the experiences and put it down on the page. It would release a lot of pain because it wasn’t just sitting in me. Every day, I wrote while Sam was in the hospital. Then I continued writing for a while. A friend of mine who is a bookseller here in Oakland — lovely little bookstore, Great Good Place for Books, for anyone interested — pulled me aside and said, “Melissa, your story is important. People need to hear this.” A lot of it was, miscarriage and infertility and prematurity is more common than people know, but it’s suffered kind of in silence. People don’t talk about it. She was like, “You’re a very good writer. You’re very personable. I want you to write a book.” She encouraged me and pushed me. I’m very grateful to her because I’m really proud of this, but I’m also proud of the hope that I have that this will help others come out of the shadows and talk about their experiences so it’s less stigmatized going forward for others.

Zibby: I feel many people know someone who’s had kids in the NICU. I had twins myself and was sure they would end up in the NICU. They just ended up not. I’ve been with girlfriends as they’ve been with their kids. It’s an environment that you don’t soon forget. It is intense. Every moment feels so fraught. Every breath seems such a gift. The miracle workers who are nurses there and everybody taking care of these tiny, little — it makes you think about life in a new way. What is life? It’s hard to just breeze in and out.

Melissa: Exactly. We joke about the short-termers, but even the short-termers that are there under ten days are affected deeply by this experience. It’s something like, one in eight babies in the United States are born premature. That’s a staggering number. That doesn’t even talk about the number of women that go through infertility or the number of women that suffer miscarriage. This is so common and so not talked about. I made one really, really good friend in the NICU. She and I always joke that we’re foxhole buddies. It’s like we went through a war together. We came out. We are the bestest of friends because we have seen each other at our worst and at our best and experienced this wonderful, horrible place.

Zibby: Like war, you’ve gone through your own PTSD as a result of all this.

Melissa: Yes, I have.

Zibby: Tell me more about that.

Melissa: I didn’t really realize it was actually PTSD until later. When you go to the NICU, you have to wash your hands. As all of us in COVID know, handwashing is very important. In the NICU, it’s a ritual. If you leave the room that your baby’s in, you have to wash again. It’s the COVID wash, but a little more. You have to dig under your fingernails and around the nail bed. It’s a big ritual. That hospital soap smell — my mother was having surgery. I was in the hospital to go visit her in the ICU. She was having triple bypass. I had to wash my hands. The smell of the soap, I started having tremors and trouble breathing. Then I went into her room. She had all the monitors like my son had, and the beeping. I had to go to a corner and settle down. I talked to a therapist about it. She’s like, “Melissa, how could you not have PTSD? Think about everything you’ve been through leading up to Sam, the six days before you had him, the ninety-five days in the hospital. How could you not?” I know what my triggers are now. I’m very careful. I’m just kind to myself about it.

Zibby: What is it like in your family having this story sort of sitting on top of you? Is it just regular mom life? How often does it come up? How often does Sam — what is his understanding? How does all that work?

Melissa: Up until I wrote the book, his understanding was minimal. When I got my ARCs, I was up with my dad. My dad left a copy of the book on the coffee table and went to the bathroom and came back, and the book was missing. An hour and a half later, we finally found Sam hiding in a closet reading it. He has now read the book probably nine times. He knows it backwards and forwards. I think it’s been good for him to understand what went into having him and how much we wanted him and how lucky he is to be alive. He feels very proud. He likes to talk about how he’s the star. The book’s about me. I’m the star. I think for Irene, it’s been a little hard. I wrote a book about her brother and not about her. I’m like, “Yeah, but you come off really good in the book, kid.” My mother passed in 2018. I’d been working on the book. She read quite a few iterations of it. I think for all of us, it was a good release. It was a chance for all of us to contribute. She was an editor at first. She would put, “Oh, you should talk about this. You totally didn’t talk about this.” I think for all of us, a little bit of us are represented in the book. Now we’re just proud that we went through it. We survived it. We’re stronger.

Zibby: Wow, that’s beautiful. How is your relationship to writing now? Do you still journal all the time? Are you kind of over it? What’s going on?

Melissa: No. I do, I still journal because what I learned through all of this is journaling is a great form of therapy. Some things I write that are just for me. Others, I write, and I post. It’s just such a great way to process everything. Anything you’re thinking, anything you’re feeling, if you’re unsure what to do with it, write it. You don’t have to send it to anyone. It doesn’t have to be published. Just putting it on paper is very liberating. I guest-post for people. I feel very galvanized with this book, especially with all of the attacks that are going on on women’s reproductive rights right now, to really champion this message of truth-telling and why getting miscarriage and infertility and prematurity and women’s — it’s all so important. I feel very mission-oriented, to use a horrible marketing term. I just feel galvanized. I feel emboldened to use this voice that I have to try and help.

Zibby: I love that. Sam has no health lingering stuff, or what?

Melissa: He had a little bit of gastrointestinal issues because his body didn’t develop as well, but that’s self-resolved. He had what’s known as ROP. Great trivia question. Stevie Wonder is blind because he was premature and had ROP, retinopathy of prematurity, and lost his eyesight. Sam was lucky enough to be born in this era and had laser surgery on his eyes which saved his eyesight, but he’s nearsighted. Who isn’t? Sam is autistic. When he was born at twenty-four weeks — everyone’s seen a picture of what a brain looks like. His was one organ, and it was smooth. It hadn’t divided into chambers. All the curvy things that we’re all used to hadn’t developed yet. All of that was developed in an unnatural environment, which is what I attribute to him being autistic. He’s great. He’s funny. He’s healthy. He has no lung issues. He had no brain bleeds. He had heart surgery in the NICU and has been fine ever since. If you lined him up and said, okay, pick out the preemie, people would be like, not that kid. He’s a remarkable eleven-year-old.

Zibby: Amazing. That’s such a blessing. By the way, the time, also, when your ex-husband —

Melissa: — Dropped him?

Zibby: Yeah.

Melissa: You know, it’s funny, in that moment, it could’ve been me. He fell asleep holding the baby. It was horrifying. He ended up with three skull fractures. If you’re going to get skull fractures as a baby, do it before your skull plates have fused. They were the right kind of fractures. They weren’t depressed. They were displaced. It was terrifying, absolutely terrifying.

Zibby: Man, Melissa, you’ve been through so much. This is so harrowing, just to have life with children, if you will.

Melissa: Life with children is exhausting and rewarding and exhausting all at the same time.

Zibby: I am sorry for everything you’ve gone through. Again, as I said at first, I find your story so inspiring and hopeful and such a good lesson for everybody who is struggling with any part of this process. Like you said, there are so many parts that can be roadblocks, from fertility to miscarriage to prematurity to so many other things. I just really appreciate your sharing your story and helping people get through the time that they’re having with your words.

Melissa: I appreciate that. That was my hope and goal in writing it. Part of it is, when I had Sam, I looked for books because I knew nothing. Every book I found was either written by a medical professional who had had a preemie and so was writing it kind of like, “I’m a doctor, so I can explain this,” or “This is God’s will. It’s in God’s hands. Trust in God.” I was like, I just want someone to tell me straight, this is going to suck. Then it’s going to be good. Then it’s going to suck. It’s going to be okay. There was nothing out there like that. That was a driver for me as well.

Zibby: I remember when my twins weren’t sleeping — not that they sleep great now. One of them does, I guess. Anyway, they’re almost fifteen. When they were little and I went to jury duty once, I remember going to Barnes & Noble on my way and picking up like twelve books on how to get your kid to sleep better. I guess nobody was sleeping. Now that I’m at this point and I still have bad sleepers and everything, I’m like, I should just write a book that’s like, only bribery will work. Just give up now. It’s just going to be bad. Put the book down. Listen to music because it’s just going to be bad for a while. Then you’re going to get through it.

Melissa: It’s true. It’s very true. I’ve given up. My sixteen-year-old’s a terrible sleeper. I’m just like, that’s going to be on you. I’m still going to wake you up on time. Either sleep or don’t. I can’t control it anymore.

Zibby: Pretty much. Having written the book, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Melissa: My main advice is, write. Just write. Write for you first. Then go from there. I sent out a hundred query letters. I got ninety-nine rejections. It doesn’t matter how many rejections you get if you get one yes. Even if you don’t, there are other avenues for you. There’s hybrid publishing. There’s independent. There’s self-publish. There’s no shame in any of that. Write what you want to write. Get it published whatever way you can because someone out there needs your book, needs your words, needs to hear from you.

Zibby: I love it. Love it. One percent, there you go. Amazing. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on.

Melissa: I really appreciate it.

Zibby: All the best, really, truly.

Melissa: Thank you very much.

Zibby: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Melissa: Bye.



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