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By David Weisberg
Every year my family (and some wonderful close friends) get together and walk in the March of Babies to help raise money for March of Dimes and newborns who need some extra assistance. My daughter was about six weeks premature and spent two weeks in the NICU before coming home. Having her in the NICU gave me the toughest two weeks of my life, and I thought talking about it might help give some other people perspective.
Here are some of the most prominent memories I have of our experience:
1. You are told when you can and cannot hold your child
I want to preface this by saying the NICU doctors and nurses we had were absolutely incredible people. They were kind, informative, professional, and as far as I'm concerned, a main reason my daughter did so well. As part of their job, they have to be very firm about when you can and cannot hold your baby. A lot of the time my daughter was sleeping, and needed the rest to get better. The basic rule was unless it was time for food, we weren’t allowed to disturb her if she was sleeping.
Of course you logically understand the situation, but it doesn’t matter. All you want to do is sit with your child and hold her. I remember my wife, who was on a lot of pain meds post c-section, would try and time her trips to the NICU just to get to hold her. It took her forever to get out of bed and get there, and a lot of time she would miss her few-minute window to hold our daughter. This made her incredibly upset, and she began to sit for four or five hours in the NICU just to make sure she got a few minutes to cuddle our little girl.
2. Your joy is shrouded in fear
For most people having a child is the best day of their life. It’s an unbridled joy. Of course there are other feelings as well, but not as strong as the overwhelming happiness. When your child is born with major health concerns, this goes out the window. You can’t be happy. You want to be happy, but you are just terrified. The first few hours, nobody could really tell us anything other than that we would have to wait and see. They told us about how she wasn’t getting enough oxygen internally, and how they didn’t know how that affected her brain. They also told us some things about her tone, and APGAR scores, but mostly what we heard was that our daughter could be in a lot of trouble.
I can’t accurately describe the mix of helplessness and fear that just sweeps over you. Especially for those first few unknown hours or days. As my daughter improved, the happiness began to come back, but the fear takes a long time to subside. Even when you leave the NICU, certain things aren’t resolved. One doctor told us that we would have to watch her for the first year to see if she had permanent brain damage from oxygen deprivation. It’s impossible to block that fear from your mind, and it nagged at me for a long time.
3. There is no balance
To be fair, new parents cannot really find much of a balance no matter what their situation is. However, when your child is in the NICU the situation is compounded by wanting to be there as often as possible. Due to the fact that I worked in retail and could not take off more than a week, I was back at work before my daughter was home. So I would work an 8- or 9-hour shift, then instead of going home I would go to the hospital and sit with my daughter for 2 or 3 hours until they basically kicked me out for my own health. I would get up early the next day and do it again.
After my wife’s c-section she was in the hospital for almost a week. I did everything I could to take care of her and my daughter, but I totally forgot to take care of myself. The first 40 hours I didn’t sleep at all, and I couldn’t even relax for five minutes. Eventually, my wife kicked me out and told me to rest, and people ran errands for us to help. I thought I was helping, and I’m sure I was on some level, but I had tipped the scales so far that I almost made myself sick in that first week. The problem is that there is no correct balance. Still, you have to take care of yourself, but I openly admit that is easier said than done.
4. You start to feel guilty
My daughter was extremely lucky in many regards. She was born in an area with a world-class NICU, and she only needed to be there for two weeks. Compound that with the fact that she is now a happy and healthy little 4-year-old, and we are certainly counting our blessings. That being said, having a child in the NICU was still really difficult. It is physically and emotionally taxing, and the bottom line is no parent should ever have to leave their baby in the hospital.
There is an odd thing that happens when you are in the NICU though, and it continues when you come home. You start to compare your story to other parents' stories, and you begin to feel guilty. I started thinking we didn’t have the right to be upset, because my daughter was only in the hospital for two weeks, and some kids were there much longer. Some kids had major birth defects, and some never even made it home at all (even typing that still hurts).
This is obviously counterproductive, and really complete nonsense. We had the right to be upset that our daughter had a complicated birth and subsequently needed more care. It was scary, difficult, and it is a part of my life I will never forget. However, I still feel bad talking about it sometimes, because of how much worse other people’s stories are.
5. The appreciation of parenthood
I’ve heard that sometimes dads can take a little longer to connect to infants than moms do. It’s understandable. We didn’t have the kid in our bodies for months, and we don’t have the immediate physical connection. Add this to the fact that the first few months of parenthood are really, really tough, and that connection can be harder for some people.
This wasn’t the case in my house. The day my daughter came home was like a load was lifted off my back. I remember just cuddling up with her and passing out. She was home, and nobody could tell me when to hold her, or when to leave. Everything else I could deal with. The crying at night, the diaper changes, the constant exhaustion, etc. The things that I think usually got to new parents just made me happy. She was doing normal baby stuff, and after the NICU all normality was welcomed. I was basically walking on air (OK, maybe it was more of sleepwalking on air), and none of the usual infant stuff aggravated me. As long as she was healthy, everything else was going to be all right.
*Some cities have already held the March for Babies but many have not. Go here and type in your ZIP code to find a march near you.
Here are few more preemie stories, then and now:
Nicole Mabry (baby born at 34 weeks): I was so worried about every little thing then. He spent 12 days in the NICU.
Now, he's such an independent first grader. In this photo, he was the meteorologist for his class so he wanted to dress up.
Samantha Smith (baby born at 28 weeks, 2lb 3oz): I felt terrified, guilty, and excited all at once. The experience inspired me to create a Facebook preemie support page: Super Preemies.
Now that he's about to be 17 months and is doing so well, I feel blessed to have gotten to witness such a miracle. He's the strongest person I know. From 2 lb 3 oz and 14 inches to 22 lbs and 29 inches.
Kay Tyie (baby born 3 months early): I felt in a daze probably the whole 2 months she was in the NICU. I was only focused on getting her home and spending as much time with her as my mom allowed me (she limited me so I wouldn't just pretty much move in and ignore taking care of myself because I still had blood pressure issues from the pre-ecclampsia).
She did excellent for being 3 months early. Now it amazes that she's pretty much just like any other 2-year-old. Most people don't realize she was premature. But it was a long road and a lot of work to get her here. None of this is what I ever thought my motherhood would be like, but I wouldn't change it.
Claire MacMcgeehan (baby born at 35 weeks): This is Hudson who was born at 35 weeks with breathing difficulties and a number of other complications. He was in neonatal for 2 weeks.
He is now a cheeky, adventurous, and delightful 15 month old boy who makes us laugh every day. He is saying new words each day and just started to attempt his first steps.
Would-prefer-to-remain-nameless mom (baby born at 34 weeks): Our daughter spent 16 days in NICU. Leaving the hospital without my baby broke my heart piece by piece, day after day.
Now, such a short time later really, our baby is strong and full of personality. Whenever things get tough or I am up multiple times at night, I can think back to those difficult, upsetting days and know that our girl is a fighter and that everything is a phase and just a chapter in her story.
Catriona Ogilvy (baby born at 30 weeks): My son was born at 30 weeks and I'm always happy to speak about our journey. This photo is my first hold at Day 6.
Samuel now aged 4. Now, I run the Smallest Things blog and Facebook group which seeks to raise awareness.
Alison Inglis (baby born at 31 weeks, 5 days, 3lbs 14oz.): In the first few hours of Louie's life I was a mess, not knowing if our baby was alive or dead. The hour and a bit that the doctors and nurses took to assess our son and decide on what he needed felt like a lifetime. Then someone came to say that he was ok and that we could go to see him now. Except, I couldn't because I was waiting to be stitched. I think my husband found that the hardest decision to make – to go to our son or to stay with me. I couldn't believe the pictures he sent me from NICU. He was tiny but he looked real, and nothing like I'd imagined.
Two and a bit years later, I am mummy to the most incredible little boy. The pride I feel is indescribable. We have been so very lucky that he has not suffered any long-term complications due to his early arrival. Those first few months where everything was a worry – catching a cold, gaining weight, meeting milestones – seems a world apart yet still so vivid. The experiences we had because of our son's early arrival have shaped who we are as parents today. They have made everything we have even more precious.
Elli Prestage (baby born at 32 weeks/3lb 6oz): Looking back I can see now how anxious I was about everything. I tracked his weight and length meticulously and always knew what percentile he was on for his adjusted age. At the time though, I didn't have anything to compare it to. I remember getting so upset as the first thing most people commented on when they saw him was how small he was.
Now I can feel relief. He is developing at a good rate and is becoming a fabulous little person. Since his little sister was born he is interested in his own birth and I am still emotional when I talk about it. Now I think it is the memory of how stressful the NICU was and the guilt that he didn't have the same start as his sibling.
Laura Jessup (35 weeks, 5 days): I had a very difficult pregnancy with Scarlytt. I had vanishing twin syndrome, placenta previa, vasa previa, hospital bed rest for a month, all to end up with a c-section. Then, off to the NICU she went. It was a rough three days of fighting to get her off IV, breastfeeding independently and getting to take her home with us. It was a scary and unsure time for all of us. Then adjusting to life at home with a preemie. There was reassurance with her on all the monitors, but at home it was just me, fully responsible for this fragile tiny person.
Today, Scarlytt is a happy, healthy, energetic, silly, adorable 3-year old. She loves princesses, her family (including her dog) and life! It's hard to believe that just a little over three years ago we were so uncertain about if she would live, and now she's such a beautiful addition to our world!
Photo credit: Becky Kestenbaum
David Weisberg is a father, husband, and writer trying to shed some light on the wonderful absurdity of parenting on his blog at DadLunch.com. He can also be found on Facebook.
Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.