Long scary medical words about my baby’s head

Metopic craniosynostosis.

The infant skull is made up of multiple pieces, allowing the head to be squashed a bit during birth and then accommodating rapid brain growth over the first few years.  As a child grows, the fontanelles (soft spots) close, and the suture joints between the skull pieces begin to harden.  The first suture to close is the metopic suture, running down the forehead between the frontal bones.

Sometimes one or more of the skull sutures fuse too early, before birth.  This is called craniosynostosis, and this is what happened to Younger Brother.

Looking back at his newborn pictures, we can see the bony ridge running down the center of his forehead, the sign of a prematurely fused metopic suture.  Nobody thought anything of it at the time; after all, newborn heads are often somewhat misshapen.  He also had a big—and completely normal—purple bruise at his hairline from a long time spent crowning in the posterior position.  The bruise faded within about a week.  The forehead ridge didn’t go away.

For a while, I figured it was just a funny quirk of his appearance.  With fine, patchy hair and a lingering birthmark on his eyelid, Younger Brother is adorably goofy-looking in the way that only babies can be.  His behavior and motor skills have progressed normally, and his head circumference at his two-month checkup was right on target.

Eventually, though, we started to get a bit concerned.  The ridge remained prominent, and his forehead took on a distinctly pointed appearance when viewed from above.  (Metopic craniosynostosis is also known as trigonocephaly, or “triangle head.”)  We decided to ask about it at his four-month appointment.

“Wow,” announced our pediatrician.  “I’ve never seen this before in 30 years of practice!”  Gee, thanks.

Fortunately, though, the doctor knew what it was.  He’d seen craniosynostosis of other sutures, just not the metopic, and he knew the plastic surgeon in town who could treat it.

Left untreated, Younger Brother’s condition could constrain future brain growth and lead to developmental problems.  In 10–15% of cases, the surgeon told me, untreated craniosynostosis produces measurably increased pressure on the brain, which is very bad.  So this isn’t a watch-and-wait kind of situation.  It won’t resolve on its own.

My baby needs surgery.  And not just any surgery—they literally have to remove his forehead, reshape the bones, and reattach them so as to allow his skull to grow properly in the future.  The rate of complications is very low, especially in children that are otherwise healthy, but it sure does sound scary.

Now that we’ve had his diagnosis confirmed, I’m of many different minds about it.  Part of me is optimistically stoic.  It’ll all be OK, just stay strong, get us through this, he’ll be fine.  Part of me is pretty freaked out, especially after learning how swollen he’ll be in the hospital after the surgery.  He won’t even be able to open his eyes for a few days.  Poor kid, he will be so sad and scared!  He won’t know what’s going on.  What if he’s never the same?  And part of me—especially in the middle of the night—is worried that we’re all just overreacting.  What if it turns out he doesn’t need surgery and you’ve told everyone for no reason?

All the parts of me want to give my baby extra love and hugs and songs and snuggles.  I stroke his funny head and imagine what we’ll tell him about it when he’s old enough to understand.  We haven’t told his brother about it yet; we’ll wait until the surgery is scheduled and then give an overview appropriate for a three-year-old.  Little Boy had his adenoids removed last week, so he has some personal experience with the concept of hospitals and operations, and won’t, I think, be overly upset.

A weird little part of me is glad that I didn’t put more effort into job-searching in the fall.  If I had, we might’ve already moved and be dealing with new doctors, new health insurance, and complicated schedules with limited time off.  As it is, we’re here in a place that we know, with reasonably good insurance, and I have all the time I need to take my baby to his appointments.  Sometimes, things work out the way they need to.

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A pile of new book(s), 2018 edition

The book Artemis by Andy Weir.

Not really a “pile” this year, just the one book.  (A book that I’m quite excited to read, since I absolutely loved The Martian.)  I received some other excellent Christmas gifts, including LEGO’s Women of NASA set and a beautiful framed photo set from my spouse.  I’m still working on last year’s books, plus an extra bunch sent mid-year by fellow blogger Leah, so I’m not in any danger of running of things to read any time soon.

Five children's books.

Little Boy got a more pile-like quantity of books for Christmas.  The picture above includes only the new stuff; my mother also gathered up a half-dozen books from my childhood and sent them home with us.  (She also found and gave us my old Sesame Street sheets and my brother’s Thomas the Tank Engine towel, all in remarkably good shape.)

What are you looking forward to reading this year?

Postpartum dispatch #3

With my first baby, I learned that the first three months are the hardest.  I also learned that it gets worse before it gets better: newborn fussiness peaks around six weeks and slowly drops off from there.  This time around, the roughest parts for me were the seventh and eighth weeks, because we’d hit that peak and it seemed like things should have been improving but they weren’t.

We made it through.  Things did start to improve, slowly and erratically but noticeably.  Younger Brother dropped to two night feedings, then one.  His naps are still all over the place, but that’s less awful now that I’m not as desperate for naps myself.  He’s a sociable happy bean when he’s awake, cooing continuously in his delightful baby voice.  He “talks” to me, to the mirror, to the ceiling fan, to the toys on his chair.

I enjoy spending time with him—and with his brother, although three-year-olds require an entirely different sort of energy—and I enjoy having time to think by myself again, too.  There’s still a sort of underlying panic in my mind about all the things I need to do, but I can ignore that feeling much of the time.  At this point, I figure my priority is to get us all through Christmas, and then I can step up the job searching and other activities in the new year.

I’ve been looking forward to this

Little Boy went for a run with me today.  Rather unexpectedly, when he overheard me talking last night about my plans for a morning run, he announced that he wanted to run, too.  So I did my main workout, a slow and awkward two miles, and then told him to put on his shoes and join me.

I’ve been looking forward to this, to him being big enough to join in activities that I love.  He may or may not stay interested in running for the long term, but for now he’s three and spending time with Mama is one of his very favorite things.

We ran up one side of the street and down the other, pausing to look at Christmas decorations and the neighborhood peacock.  He ran right next to me or slightly ahead—he likes to be the one in front—while I kept pace comfortably.  It was a beautiful day and it was fun.

On laptops and cell phones in the classroom

The academic side of my Twitter feed has been abuzz recently over this New York Times article, in which a University of Michigan economics professor explains why she bans laptops and other personal electronics in her classroom.  Laptops, she explains, are a distraction, both to those using them and to the students around them.  She also references an idea that has been around for a while, backed up by some research studies: that people retain more information when they write notes by hand as opposed to typing.

Much of the criticism of this article’s attitude focused on its treatment of students with disabilities.  The author allows laptop use as a disability accommodation, admitting that it singles out students who need such accommodation.  It also assumes that no student without a formal diagnosis would ever benefit from typing notes or Googling an unfamiliar term on the fly.

Me, I take notes by hand, because my brain likes it.  I have a very visual memory, and seeing words laid out on a page is much easier for my mind to deal with.  I kept handwritten research notebooks for my dissertation; I keep a physical day planner; heck, I wrote an outline for this post by hand.  I read the research about handwritten notes being good for learning and it makes sense to me.

But not everyone’s brain works like mine, a fact that is obvious in a multitude of ways.  Some people enjoy talking on the phone, some people like music without words, and some people learn better by typing notes.  So while I think it’s fine to encourage paper-based note-taking, university students should ultimately be allowed to take notes in whatever way works best for them.

The distraction factor is a trickier issue.  The internet is awfully distracting, and large screens spread that distraction around.  And it is kind of rude to be obviously on Facebook when someone’s trying to teach.

That being said, here is a partial list of internet-free things that I have done in university lecture halls: doodled; brainstormed projects; read the textbook; read journal articles; read the newspaper; done crossword puzzles; done Sudoku; done homework for that class; done homework for another class; planned my schedule for the next day/week; wrote notes to the person next to me; and tallied how many times the speaker said “um.”  It is incredibly difficult to maintain full focus through an hour-long lecture, even a good one (which, unfortunately, many are not).  It is especially difficult when you’re taking medication that makes you drowsy, as I was for several years.  I could doodle and read and whatnot, or I could straight-up fall asleep in the second row.

I had finished all my required grad classes by the time I became a parent, but was still attending various seminars and colloquia.  My cell phone came with me then, because I needed to know right away if something happened at daycare.  I am now firmly against “no visible cell phones” policies (exams excluded), because keeping my silent phone in view next to my notebook was less disruptive than tucking it away on vibrate.

In an ideal world, we could just trust university students to be adults, take responsibility for their own learning, and be politely discreet about texting.  I did very well in all my classes.  Occasionally I didn’t pay enough attention at the beginning and had to course-correct as the semester progressed.  However, I wasn’t always terribly discreet about doing stuff in class, and I can assure you from my experience as a TA that other students aren’t either.  We aren’t all as good at self-regulating as we’d like to think.

So I’m sympathetic to professors who just want students to stop playing on their phones already.  It’s not necessarily about ego and respect for them, either: plenty of instructors genuinely want to help their students learn and believe (probably correctly much of the time) that cutting back on internet distractions would help.  Instructors—especially those employed as adjuncts rather than full-time faculty—also face various pressures about grades and class performance.  And it’s frustrating when students seem to be ignoring you.  I get it.  Nevertheless, it’s not appropriate to completely ban devices in the classroom.

What has your experience been with laptops and cell phones, as a student and/or instructor?  Which classroom policies work really well?  Which don’t?

Postpartum dispatch #2

Ninety minutes is the magic number, the length of one adult sleep cycle.  One 90-minute nap resets my brain enough to carry on a little longer.  Three 90-minute stretches over the course of a night and I am semi-human the next day.  Zero such stretches—the nights when Younger Brother wakes at the end of each of his 45-minute sleep cycles—and life is gray and heavy.  I fantasize about checking into a hotel, taking a sleeping pill, and crashing for 12 hours beneath a puffy white duvet.

(Update: He slept for five-and-a-half hours straight last night, then went down for another two.  It was glorious.)

 

Postpartum dispatch #1

For the first two weeks after giving birth, feeling like a mental wreck isn’t pathological.  Something like 80% of new moms experience the “baby blues.”  To nobody’s surprise, it turns out that dramatic hormone fluctuations and acute sleep deprivation can really mess with your head.

I have cried over the strangest things since Younger Brother was born.  For example: I thought of happy memories from when Little Boy was a baby, like going on walks in the evening light, and that made me sad.  They were not tears of joy, but tears of deep melancholy.

The wacky mood swings have mostly faded now, a month out, but chronic sleep deprivation is taking its toll.  I distinctly recall feeding Younger Brother shortly before midnight last night, and I know I was roused again by a hungry baby around 4 a.m.  I think there might have been another feeding in the middle, about 2 or 2:30 . . . but I honestly cannot say for sure.  Perhaps I dreamed it, or perhaps I merely stirred briefly and glanced at the clock.

 

Introducing Younger Brother

Kid #2, who shall henceforth go by the pseudonym of Younger Brother, has arrived!  Eleven days early and nearly nine pounds.  He is healthy and adorable and relatively calm for a newborn.

Close-up image of a newborn baby's foot.

I like a good birth story, so I’ll write up the details of my labor for a later post.  I never went into labor with my older son (who was breech and born via C-section), so this birth was an entirely new and different experience.  Recovery has been much easier.

(Side note: You might have noticed that I’ve changed some blog things recently—like the name—to reflect my graduation and changing life.  Those updates aren’t completely finished, so please pardon the mess!)

Saying goodbye to my office and to grad school

I said goodbye to my office yesterday.  Literally: I closed the door for a minute, so no one could see, and gave each remaining item a small farewell.

Goodbye, chair.  You have been a good and comfortable chair.

Goodbye, computer.  Thanks for holding up as long as you did.

Goodbye, desk.  May you last forever.

(Seriously, that desk is a giant industrial metal thing.  It will last forever.)

I moved into that office three years ago, about a week before Little Boy was born, so it seemed fitting that I would be very pregnant again while moving out.  The furniture had come with me from my first office, a larger shared space in the main building.  That office switch had been quite the kerfuffle, the product of some rather poor decisions by our department chair, but it had worked out in the end.

After my little parting ritual, I turned all my keys into the department office, one of the last steps to being done.  I submitted the final version of my dissertation to the appropriate authorities last week.  My campus parking permit expired on Friday; my student health insurance ends at midnight tonight.  It’ll be another week before my transcript says I’ve finished, and then goodness knows how long before they mail out the actual diploma, but at this point, I’m not a PhD student any more.  I have a PhD.

Goodbyes to furniture are melancholic but easy.  Goodbyes to people are much harder, especially when you’re trying to communicate how important someone has been in your life.  I ended as awkward as ever, and spent the next few hours at home trying to recover from the panicky anxiety that ensued.  Watching the new grad students register for classes and the established ones settling in for another year, I also got the feeling that the department was moving on without me—which of course it is, because that’s how universities work.

I won’t miss academia, but I will miss this place, if only because it was a part of my life for so long.  I’ll miss my friends, many of whom have already gone off to various jobs in other states.  I’ll miss, for a short bit anyway, the part of my identity that revolved around being a student.

Goodbye, graduate school.

A fun office trip with Little Boy

Little Boy’s daycare is closed for a few days of teacher training, so I brought him with me to campus this morning.  My office is in a mostly-empty outbuilding, so there weren’t any major concerns about disrupting others.  (Not that there are many other people on campus at 9 AM in early August anyway.)  The plan was to try to keep him entertained with the novelty of it all while I sorted some papers and packed a few things.

It went delightfully well.  When you are almost three years old, there are many new and exciting—and sometimes scary—things to experience at a university.  Parking garages!  Elevators!  Public bathrooms with loud toilets!  And of course, Mommy’s office, with swivel chairs and a dry-erase board and stuffed animals and a vuvuzela (yes, really).  Plus a scientific calculator (he assumed this was a phone at first) and a computer with a mouse that he could click and scroll and use to make new desktop folders!

I had several dozen old pens that had accumulated over the years, and set Little Boy to checking them.  “If it works, give it back to Mommy; if it doesn’t work, put it in the trash can.”  He was quite effective at this task.

The best part of the morning was when my friend, who is also graduating and packing up her office across the hall, arrived.  Little Boy was ridiculously excited to see her, despite only knowing her by name before today.  He spent a good 20 minutes jumping up and down and running back and forth with sheer happiness.  Preschooler enthusiasm is amazing.

When I was Little Boy’s age, my dad was a PhD student.  I’m going to have to ask him if he has any stories about my visits to his office and lab.