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A tribute to Joan and the unfiltered mothers

Motherhood wasn’t designed to be filtered. Birth and life aren’t supposed to be pretty and perfect and as such, neither is this story. No mother and baby are positioned for a smooth, comfortable ride into life. Motherhood doesn’t look like the magazine photos or TV commercials. We can’t and shouldn’t pull the fruits of labour from a mother.

In its unfiltered form, motherhood is comprised of many layers. Everyone thinks of it differently but there are commonalities; the slowly blossoming stomach, a glorious eminence that grows and grows. We must write of these remarkable things, that under a gravid mother’s belly – glossy or dry and parched, a small baby grows. Yet this is hardly the beginning.

The Beginning. kind of….

One month after his birth, Joan Wong finally holds her son Liam for the first time.

The vivacious mother and entrepreneur cradles his fragile body so as not to break him. The premature infant, a “preemie,” weighs 1.5 lbs, the volume of a stick of butter.

Liam was forced to fight for his life from the get-go, at just 26 weeks. The normal gestational period for a baby is roughly 40 weeks. Liam was practically born on a respirator. He arrived so early that he couldn’t breathe on his own.

In the months previous, Joan and her husband Kris, aware of the baby’s extremely low chance of survival, were asked by doctors if they would choose to terminate the pregnancy. Repeatedly and with conviction, they answered, no.

Today, Joan reflects.

"Sometimes we ask, what if we made the mistake and terminated him, what if Liam didn’t exist?"

A $30,000 embryo

Joan’s pregnancy wasn’t perfect. After years of trying for a baby with Kris, they sought help from a fertility clinic that initially waved off her concerns. Insisting, again, that something wasn’t right, doctors ran tests. Joan had PCOS, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, a hormonal disorder that prevents a woman’s ovaries from releasing eggs. It was time for in vitro fertilization – IVF.

The first round of IVF wasn’t very successful, so Joan and Kris underwent the procedure again, altogether spending roughly $30,000. This time, doctors retrieved 41 eggs. For one week after, Joan was bed ridden; the hormones had enlarged her ovaries into two swollen, painful masses.

News of the pregnancy was exciting. During the ultrasound appointment, the sonographer spread clear, cold jelly across Joan’s stomach, the handheld transducer gliding back and forth, probing her womb’s tissue to create a sonogram – their first real photo of Liam.

On a cold, crisp January day, Joan and Kris visited the hospital for another ultrasound exam at 8 am, which had become an almost daily routine. The couple, aware and accepting of any possible complications, prepared for the worst, according to Joan.

“We were supposed to get pancakes afterwards, but the ultrasound showed the oxygen and blood flow weren’t getting to him. It stopped and reversed. That’s why we had to get an emergency C-section. They said we’re going to keep you here, you’re delivering today.”

Liam was on his way.


If you want to understand Joan, you need to forget about any archetypal mother you’ve memorized from TV or in the books you that you read as a kid. You have met no one like Joan and she’s the least of what you’d expect.

Given that her business promotes beauty and self-care, it was natural to ask her how she nourishes herself during her spare time. She responds candidly,

“I have a lot of hobbies. I like to collect things. I have fish tanks, I do aquascaping, I garden, I ride motorcycles, I DJ. Usually my husband and I just take turns with the motorcycles…he’ll go riding with his buddies one day, and I will the other day.”

I have a lot of hobbies. I like to collect things. I have fish tanks, I do aquascaping, I garden, I ride motorcycles, I DJ. Usually my husband and I just take turns with the motorcycles…he’ll go riding with his buddies one day, and I will the other day.

Joan is raw and honest in her story but she’s also incredibly low-key and hilarious. Her gratitude blankets the grittier corners of her life, when three years earlier, Liam was fighting for his own.

“I remember Liam going into heart surgery just under two months old and I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared in my whole life. I don’t care or get scared for my own medical surgery or anything like that. That day after he got the surgery the doctor called us in and said, ‘I think you guys need to come in because he’s not looking too good’,” says Joan.

“We drove to the hospital and it was the quietest ride we’ve ever had. We didn’t say a word to each other. That’s the most scared I’ve ever been. I felt I was back to my childhood or something.”

A garden of glowing cubes

As Joan held Liam, she worried about the possibility of hurting him, as his underdeveloped frame and skin were extremely susceptible to harm. Her maternal instincts guided the process. Her palms and fingers folded over the tiny yet exquisite human. Joan nervously held him to her chest; his unsteady neck, twigs for arms and legs and his balled-up hands.

Liam is gingerly placed in his incubator, his plastic shell of a home in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) of the BC Children’s Hospital, based in Vancouver. Every day Joan and Kris visit him, peering over the peculiar space in which he resides.

As they enter and leave, they may cast their eyes upon a garden of glowing cubes. Each incubator warms a baby, beeps, nurturing the tiny human with fluids and air. These vessels warm preemies whose toes will wiggle once they are strong enough, their delicate skin and tiny toques that cover their heads. Mighty babies from strong moms.

Ten percent

When Joan was pregnant, the doctor estimated Liam’s survival rate at just ten percent. But the husband and wife team refused to terminate him.

“It felt like at one point everyone had given up on [Liam] and the pregnancy,” said Joan. “All the specialists were kind of saying things like ‘oh don’t worry, the next pregnancy we’ll know how to do better and how to navigate this’.”

She had pondered, “Why are we talking about the next pregnancy? I’m still on the current one. It almost felt like it was a done deal for them, like [they were saying] he’s not going to make it so would you consider terminating at this point?’”

Doctors had a duty of care to remind Joan of her choice to terminate based on Liam’s prematurity that could result in a long list of disabilities, illnesses and more. Continuation of the pregnancy could also pose a risk for her own health. Asserting her decision for the final time, “[the hospital staff] asked, how do we support you through this, what do you want out of this?”

“I said if I need to be at the hospital every day, I’ll do that,” says Joan.

The couple could easily find themselves living in the throes of a tragedy, but only if they chose to take that angle. Curiously, they don’t. They are incredibly optimistic. It’s as though they came to terms with their reality before it happened. Choosing the odds meant they were willing to live in a gap between the world they’d imagined, and the world they were dealt – and that was ok.

Innately connected

Liam knew his mother well before he met her outside of her womb. What does this have to do with anything? Everything.

The scent of a mother is the first sense a baby develops and can be key in its survival. The baby memorizes her scent from her amniotic fluid, inside the womb. Many incubators including Liam’s are engineered with a handy spot through which his parents could reach their hands to hold his own, to touch him and let him know they’re present.

When Joan placed her hand in the incubator, touching Liam’s fragile but soft, curled fists, her scent had the power to reduce his stress. The incubator may be cubed, squared and/or shaped with glass, plastic and steel. Pipes and tubes carry supplemental oxygen to Liam, while he learns how to breathe. When asked if there was anything in her experience that she had to “unlearn,” Joan addressed the issue of expectations.

“I think a lot of people feel robbed of a normal pregnancy or just raising a normal baby…but I said this is our norm now and instead of comparing it, I just embraced it,” she says. “We were always joking and making light of situations that were almost uncomfortable for other people. You see your kid attached to oxygen tanks and people feel bad, but we could joke about it. We did funny things with the cards we were dealt,” says Joan.

Business mom

One month after Liam’s birth, Joan was back to work while her husband, Kris, tended to Liam.

I have a lot of hobbies. I like to collect things. I have fish tanks, I do aquascaping, I garden, I ride motorcycles, I DJ. Usually my husband and I just take turns with the motorcycles…he’ll go riding with his buddies one day, and I will the other day.

“I always say [Kris is] a better mom than I am. He’s just one of those dads who does everything. He’s stayed home with Liam for three years,” says Joan.

As an entrepreneur, she works in a fast-paced career as co-founder of Crest & Crown Lash Bar and Cartel Lash & Supply Co, which touts some of the Lower Mainland’s greatest talent including 10 specialized lash technicians. The business has serviced more than 15,000 clients and is known for its luxe, high-quality lash extensions sourced from South Korea, famous for its K-Beauty.

It’s a big deal, given South Korea’s highly-valued beauty industry that has become a worldwide sensation – an industry that had a market value of $10.2 billion in 2019. Access to these lashes has filled a gap in the Lower Mainland because they are notoriously difficult for customers and competitors to attain, even online.

Running a business with a preemie in hospital or a child is a feat – to say the least. Many may say, even in 2021, that motherhood and entrepreneurship are incompatible. Joan offers positive insight. “I think it’s possible. You just need strong support, you need a good community, you need a partner who is able to support you.” If her positive attitude is of any indication,  Joan and her husband seem to have parenthood down to a science. “We are pretty balanced. We went through the toughest part and now it feels more manageable.”

With years of experience, her business partner and childhood friend connect with new and long-time customers. Joan feels a special appreciation for the mothers who visit to get pampered.

“They always tell me they feel so great after getting lashes done, not only because it looks good, but they just feel nice;  because they’ve rested while they’re there. These moms don’t ever get to stop during the day, this is the one time they have to lie down – are forced to lie down – and not do anything for one hour to 90 minutes. For them I think that’s the biggest treat.”

The beautiful dichotomy of motherhood

After seven months in the NICU, Kris and Joan finally left the hospital’s front doors with Liam, bringing him home. The next morning, he nestled between his parents in bed for the first time. His presence was surreal, when just seven months before the doctors asked the parents if they wanted to abort Liam. Joan reflects.

“They asked, ‘Are you ok with a special needs child?’ and we both said yes. We wanted him so badly, it didn’t matter.”

Now Liam is three-years-old. Joan just posted a video of him on Instagram, weighing in at 20 lbs. They cheer the little boy on as though he’s won the title of a famous heavy weight champion. Through the social media platform, Liam and Joan have become an inspiration to parents with preemies. During this time, he has evolved, explains Joan with a contagious smile.

“He has a lot of fire, I think because he had to fight for his life very early on. He’s a very determined child. Everything they said he wouldn’t be able to do, he can do. For every milestone, he’s always been able to meet or beat it.”

. . .
The term preemie in itself is fascinating. It is real, prevalent and terrifying. Symbolically, the word “premature” may do these babies a disservice as it denotes a weakness, yet babies “prematurely” defy death every single day. They are so, so small and underdeveloped, yet when faced with death, they can rise at the helm of it.

This is not to deny the losses of other parents who are not as lucky, for those who leave the hospital without babies are still mothers, too. There is such a beautiful dichotomy in motherhood.

Reflecting on Liam and his mother who was adamant in her decision to keep him, one may ask themselves if sometimes it’s not necessarily the baby who’s not ready. Maybe sometimes it’s the world that’s not ready.

When Liam grows up to tell his story, I wonder who may change their mind.