Parenting Lessons We Can Learn From the Mom of AOL's 'Distressed Baby'

baby handLast week AOL's CEO Tim Armstrong angered many when he blamed distressed babies as the reason employees weren't going to get certain benefits. He called out two babies, without using names. Babies born to his employees apparently cost the company millions and so now everyone else has to financially suffer because of these two kids. Maybe he sees babies as second class citizens who do not deserve life-saving procedures. Perhaps all those erectile dysfunction prescriptions were totally fine with him as they chipped away at the bottom line. But babies? Nope. Scapegoat them. Make all the employees angry they aren't getting the 401(k) they expected eyeball the people who had a baby this past year and see who to direct their anger at.

The mother of one of the babies Armstrong blames spoke out. At first I was concerned Deanna Fei outed herself, but I understand why. She countered Armstrong's coldness with warmth. She put a face, a life, to the million dollars.


Life. It sure is worth more than that, isn't it? In her personal essay, Fei teaches us a lot about life. And I hope Armstrong read it because he could learn something from it. Something that he as a CEO of a major company should know.

Fei points out how Armstrong took one of the most emotionally powerful experiences of her family's life and reduced it to a money thing. Armstrong's quote was:

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.

Just like that he blamed babies. Blamed families. Belittled their experience. He didn't have to name them. They knew who they were -- they lived it. He seemed to have forgotten what health care is all about. The system put in place by his company and what it does for people. It's often one of the reasons why workers put in their time away from their families -- for financial security and health benefits. For building families. For life. For living. How he could be so callous is insulting. He's since apologized. And restored the benefits he was going to take away as well.

Fei's essay describes her experience of having a premature baby girl who weighed just 1 pound, 9 ounces. She talked about how she couldn't breathe unless she was on a ventilator. How she had a one-third chance of dying and a chance of being severely disabled. As a parent, hearing those chances changes you. And you are already being changed so deeply just becoming the mother or father to a child -- to a life you must keep alive, nurture. Her baby girl suffered a brain hemorrhage, her right lung collapsed, and she stopped breathing one morning -- but she survived after three months in the NICU. Doctors called her "feisty" and "amazing." And she certainly is. She clearly is more than "distressed baby." 

Fei wrote:

Since her arrival, I’ve rarely been free from some form of torment over her premature birth. The months of pumping breast milk for a baby who might not live to drink it. The anxieties about every milestone: Will she smile? Will she lift her head? Will she crawl, talk, sing? The torturous thoughts of what I might have done wrong during my brief pregnancy, how I might have failed her as her mother. Because the day of her birth was the furthest thing from a happy event, because so many of her first days were lived under the specter of death, I’ve never had the luxury of taking her presence for granted. Every time she wakes with a dazzling smile and goes to sleep with her soft head against my shoulder feels like a wonder. It can be a struggle to set aside my lingering trauma amid the daily realities of coordinating her care to simply celebrate the fierce, beautiful girl who has completed our family.  All of which made the implication from Armstrong that the saving of her life was an extravagant option, an oversize burden on the company bottom line, feel like a cruel violation, no less brutal for the ludicrousness of his contention.  Let’s set aside the fact that Armstrong—who took home $12 million in pay in 2012—felt the need to announce a cut in employee benefits on the very day that he touted the best quarterly earnings in years. For me and my husband—who have been genuinely grateful for AOL’s benefits, which are actually quite generous—the hardest thing to bear has been the whiff of judgment in Armstrong's statement, as if we selfishly gobbled up an obscenely large slice of the collective health care pie.

This. Exactly what she said. Parents of preemies do not want to take advantage of the health care system. Or our jobs. Or feel like we took away a dream vacation from another employee because we had a distressed baby. That's not what it's about. We are, however, certainly thankful for our health benefits given to all employees who need to utilize them as their situation suits them. We are grateful.

I had my own traumatic birth and high costs associated with the care I needed when I had my twins. And that makes me appreciate life so much more than I did before. I saw how delicate the line between life and death is. I see the smiles on my now 4-year-olds' faces and am so thankful that my benefits from my job afforded me to smile back. The little moments are momentous. They mean everything. We can all learn from Fei and her daughter. It's true that every day is a gift. We are fragile -- all of us ... preemies, parents, people of all ages. We aren't indestructible. We may face challenges at the start of life, the middle, the end. But life is worth it. Take the time to enjoy every moment. It's not money that makes us rich.

I hope Armstrong's apology was sincere. I hope he has since learned, truly learned that the way he decided to phrase his statement was an absurd justification that was unjustified.

And I have to thank Deanna Fei for sharing her story. I'm so thankful her daughter is feisty and amazing. We need more of that in this world.

What do you think of this story? Can you relate to Fei? Did Armstrong's comments upset you as well?


Image via Weird Beard/Flickr

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