Kristin Moan couldn't look. Not yet. She'd waited years to become a mother. But then her daughters came too soon — born four months early, at 23 weeks, six days. The girls were tiny — Dylan weighed just 1 pound 3 ounces; Hayden, 1 pound 7 ounces. They were not much bigger than four sticks of butter, and Kristin was afraid to look. "How could you even imagine a one-pound baby?" she says. "It was almost too much."
Kristin had been having a "seemingly normal" pregnancy until the day her daughters were born. That day, she began having pain that would eventually lead her and her husband, Eric, to the emergency department in Maple Grove, Minnesota. That's where doctors discovered Kristin had a placental abruption and would need to deliver Dylan and Hayden immediately.
The girls' early arrival thrust the Moans into the frightening, unfamiliar world of the neonatal intensive care unit. While orienting the couple to their daughters' new home, a nurse suggested they buy a stuffed animal to include in photos tracking the girls' growth. Instead, Eric bought Mrs. Potato Head dolls. Their size would be familiar to anyone, he thought, and — more importantly — they could be sanitized. "We took weekly photos of the girls with the dolls and shared them with our family and friends," Kristin says. "It gave people a way to see their growth."
The Moans didn't know it then, but they'd just given birth to something else. As their girls grew, Kristin and Eric would occasionally hear about another micro-preemie's arrival. They'd send each one a gift: their own Potato Head doll. "It just sort of spiraled from there," Kristin says. They decided to start a nonprofit, The Potato Head Project, to send dolls — and hope — to other families like theirs. They've since sent out more than 2,000 care packages, reaching families in all 50 states.
Today, 6-year-old Dylan and Hayden are actively involved in the project they inspired, packing boxes and writing notes to the families who receive their gifts. "They don't have any idea that anyone lives any differently," Kristin says of her daughters, now first graders. "When the Amazon guy comes, they ask, 'Is that for us or for The Potato Head Project?' It's always been a part of their lives, and they love to help."
That's something they seem to have inherited from their parents. In addition to The Potato Head Project, the Moans have written a baby book for the NICU and preemies — something they wished they had when Dylan and Hayden were born. "Regular baby books didn't have a place for the milestones you have with preemies," Kristin says. "We felt like there was nothing there for us, and we wanted to create something so other people didn't feel that way."
For the Moans, The Potato Head Project and baby book are labors of love that give meaning to their experiences as parents of micro-preemies — experiences that continue even as the girls grow. "My girls show signs of being premature on a daily basis," Kristin tells us. "They still see lung doctors and eye doctors." (Including Erick Bothun, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Mayo Clinic.) Those appointments are reminders of where they've come from, and of how they want to use that experience for good. "Every time I go to church I hear the message 'Do for others,'" Kristin says. "It gives me satisfaction to be able to do something so that hopefully other parents don't feel as alone as we did. It makes me feel that what we went through wasn't in vain. We went through what we did to help others."