What One Mom’s ‘Distressed Baby’ Taught the World

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Mila, now a healthy toddler, was one of the “distressed babies” called out by AOL’s CEO Tim Armstrong in 2014. Mom Deanna Fei recalls her traumatic birth and the media firestorm that followed in a new book, “Girl in Glass.” (Photo: Deanna Fei)

Imagine going into sudden, dangerous labor when you are not even six months pregnant. Then imagine, after undergoing a C-section and hearing doctors dub your baby’s birth “catastrophic,” and having touch-and-go months of watching your tiny, fragile preemie fighting for her life, you get to take her home — only to find that she has been blamed in the media for being a drain on her father’s company.

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That was the reality faced by Brooklyn mother Deanna Fei, who gave birth to one of the “distressed babies” blamed by AOL CEO Tim Armstrong in 2014 for cuts he made to employees’ 401(k) plans. Fei’s husband, Peter, was on staff at AOL at the time, and the traumatic early birth of their daughter, Armstrong explained in a now-famous employee conference call, was one of two that had cost the company “a million dollars each” for medical care.

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“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,” he said at the time. “So when we had the final decision about what benefits to cut because of the increased health care costs, we made the decision, and I made the decision, to basically change the 401(k) plan.”

In other words, noted the New Yorker: “Don’t blame us for cutting back on retirement benefits; it was two babies we had to keep alive who took your money.”

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Deanna and Peter with Leo and Mila. (Photo: Deanna Fei)

Shortly thereafter, in an effort to defend her family, Fei outed herself as the mom of one of the babies through a widely buzzed-about essay in Slate. Now she has published a book, “Girl in Glass,” about the entire horrific experience — the frightening onset of labor; the three months she and her husband spent willing their baby, Mila (born weighing only 1 pound 9 ounces), to pull through; the impossibility of already having her 13-month-old son, Leo, to raise and, just when she thought they’d made it out of the woods, the crushing blow of corporate public blame. Fei’s prose is honest and clear-eyed, upsetting yet mesmerizing, and she spoke with Yahoo Parenting this week about all that brought her to this point.

In your book, you say that the publicity surrounding the AOL incident was like “a bad dream.” Why expose yourself to more of it by writing this book?

After the firestorm surrounding “distressed babies” finally died down, I found myself waking up day after day to this outpouring from strangers around the country, who felt like, in some way, I had spoken up for them, too. It never occurred to me that that’s what I was doing at the time — I was just defending my daughter’s basic humanity. But it had exposed much more than my personal trauma. [Strangers wrote to say] “You’re not alone and you’ve made me feel less alone.” That was one of the most moving and profound experiences in my life. I’m glad that I spoke up. I hope it might’ve served as some sort of wakeup call to a lot of working Americans and a lot of employers who might think twice now. So it became clear to me that there’s a lot more here to tell, and I felt a certain responsibility to tell it.

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Mila in the NICU. (Photo: Deanna Fei)

There are some disturbing descriptions of how Mila looked while in the NICU, some of which had you flinching. How concerned were you about how this might come across to your daughter when she’s old enough to read the book?

For me, there was no point in telling the story unless I was going to be completely honest about all of my own fears — my own inability, in some moments, to even look at my daughter, because the circumstances of her birth were so terrifying. I did have moments when I was writing that it almost felt like a betrayal to expose all these details. But what I’ve really come to see is that everything that happened made her who she is. I think I would be taking something away from her to not tell Mila her own birth story. [For a while] I didn’t even know how I would tell her how she arrived in the world, and that’s really painful because as parents, it’s the fundamental story we all tell our children, and for kids that’s how the story of the universe begins.

How is Mila now?

She’s doing great; she’s 2½ and getting all the mileage she can out of the terrible twos. She throws operatic tantrums.

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Mila in the early days, when her foot was tiny enough to slip through a wedding band. (Photo: Deanna Fei)

How did all this affect your relationship with your son?

He was still a baby himself when this happened, and I’ll never forget the helplessness I felt when I came home from the hospital, when I couldn’t pick him up and I couldn’t hold my daughter, either. At one moment, I was everything for my kids — I was their world — and the next moment, I could hardly do a thing for them. He really saved me, because he was so young, so I didn’t have to explain anything to him. Every day when I came home [from the hospital] he was like, “It’s time to dance! Read me this story!” There was no time to sit and mope. It taught me that sometimes you have to lean on your kids a little bit.

How did your relationship with Peter weather this?

Having a child on life support was probably the most challenging ordeal that I hope we’ll ever endure as a couple. But I think in many ways it also strengthened us. Until this happened, I was the kind of woman who always felt like I had to be strong and independent, and not dependent on my husband in order to feel whole. And after my daughter was born … I suddenly did feel the sense of needing my husband like I never needed him before. And he was there for me. It was also extremely challenging in that he, as a journalist — and also I think as a man — could maintain a distance form the event in a way that I never could. I think it enabled us to cope, but also it was sometimes terrifying to think: I’m going through some of my darkest moments alone. But it ultimately enabled me to see we have to take turns rescuing each other. His trauma may be less overt and obvious, but it’s just as real as mine, so I had to really see that there are times I have to help him just as much as I expect him to help me.

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Photo: Deanna Fei

In your book, you write about how Arianna Huffington courted Peter to come work for her, and how well she treated you both at first. But she was less than supportive when she learned you would be writing your Slate piece. Has she — or Armstrong — ever contacted you with support since?

Arianna never reached out to me on a personal level, and I think that’s still a lingering hurt for my husband and me. I’m a longtime admirer of hers, and I think she does serve as a role model to so many working women. It’s part of what made the fact that she not only failed to support us, but tried to pressure us to stay silent, so shocking and disappointing. Tim Armstrong reached out with a gracious and personal apology, and I really appreciated it. But after I wrote the story in Slate and the story was going viral and they were in crisis-management mode, anonymous sources were continuing to put out leaks to the media with unfounded claims that it was actually $2 million, not $1 million [for each baby], and that the care was above and beyond what they were obligated to cover, which was completely dishonest and cruel.

What do you want people to know about the NICU experience?

I think we all have this image of a preemie as a perfect little baby who fits in the palm of your hand and just needs a little extra time and care, and this obscures the reality for babies like my daughter. The journey is extremely uncertain and terrifying and heartbreaking. I myself had no idea that prematurity affects one out of nine births in America, more than 450,000 babies every year, and is still the No. 1 cause of disability among children and the No. 1 cause of death among newborns. I think it’s often uncomfortable for people to contemplate this reality, because the care of premature infants forces us to face this knife-edge between birth and death that we all would rather not see. But it’s also a fascinating and necessary reality, because in some ways, the care of premature infants has always been a measure of our humanity. It’s a question of how we care for the most vulnerable members of our society, and how we decide the value of a human life.

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