In February 2014 at an AOL town hall meeting, CEO Tim Armstrong cites “distressed babies” as the reason that the company has decided to cut the retirement benefits of its employees:
We had two AOL-ers that had distressed babies that were born that we paid a million dollars each to make sure those babies were OK in general. And those are the things that add up into our benefits cost. So when we had the final decision about what benefits to cut because of the increased healthcare costs, we made the decision, and I made the decision, to basically change the 401(k) plan.
Armstrong’s rationale set off a fiery media discussion of workplace gender discrimination, corporate accounting, and medical privacy. The mother of one of the “distressed babies,” novelist Deanna Fei, counters Armstrong’s narrative that reduces babies to monetary figures first with a piece that she has written for Slate and now with her memoir Girl in Glass.
Fei’s memoir begins as a private recounting of her painful and bewildering delivery of her second child, Mila, who was born prematurely at 26 weeks into Fei’s pregnancy and weighed 1 pound and 9 ounces at birth. Confused and shocked by the unexpected turn of an otherwise smooth pregnancy, Fei soon found herself immersed in grief and guilt, as she struggled with making sense of Mila’s premature birth (which one doctor called “catastrophic”), attending Mila’s intensive care, healing from the physical and emotional trauma of a caesarian, and taking care of her energetic 13-month-old son. While Mila lay in her NICU isolette fighting for her life, Fei was often troubled by her own lingering doubt of whether Mila was meant to live.
Armstrong’s comments at the town hall meeting, a year after Mila was released from the NICU, propelled Fei and her husband’s personal struggles and pain into public debate. Fei’s writing, too, turns from private reflection into a contemplation of the larger history of neonatology and the interplay between politics, economics, the health care system, and medical ethics and practices.
In turns heartbreaking and haunting, Girl in Glass offers a movingly honest look at the ambivalence that sometimes comes with motherly love and underscores the public, historical, and political dimension of neonatal care. Fei’s courageous narrative invites us to observe the simultaneous uncertainty, fragility, and resilience of human life and urges us to question the social norms that shape our understanding of childbirth.