Baby gifts scattered on the kitchen table, unopened and unwashed, from the baby shower two weeks prior. The crib still in pieces on the floor of an unfinished nursery, waiting for a missing part to arrive before we could assemble it. And Christmas decorations lingered throughout the house because I wanted to wait until after New Year's to take them down, hoping I could get a few maternity pictures with the glow of the lights on my almost 33-week belly.
But I wasn't home to see all that. I was in the hospital trying to wrap my head around what had just happened. Only three hours separated the time we arrived at the ER and the time we had a baby. There had been no time to process things, no time to cry.
It wasn't until the storm began to calm, and I lay alone in the bed recovering while my husband went to the NICU, that it truly hit me—we have a preemie.
I couldn't shake the overwhelming feeling of failure.
I went through every detail of my pregnancy, criticizing and blaming myself. I shouldn't have worked out so much. I should have drunk more water. I should have gotten more sleep. I shouldn't have stressed out about things.
I asked every single medical provider the same question: Was there something I did to cause this? And I would preface it with "be honest," as if I thought they would sugar coat something or tell me it wasn't my fault just to be nice.
I was angry.
Why did he have to come early? Why was my pregnancy cut short like that? I wasn't ready—we hadn't taken the maternity photos I wanted, we hadn't finished getting the house ready, we hadn't celebrated our last days as a couple.
I felt cheated: I loved being pregnant and I wanted my last seven weeks. That belly was my sidekick; we did everything together. We rocked out to '80s music in the car. We kicked butt in spin class every Saturday morning. The end of long days, while I chilled on the couch with hot apple cider, was our special time when my sweet baby would kick and play the most.
Unexpectedly that all came to a halt. And as I zipped my winter coat for the first time on the day I was discharged, I was flooded with the reality that I was leaving the hospital alone—without my belly and without my baby.
I was sad.
It is heartbreaking to have to hold your baby's tiny hands through isolette doors, fighting the urge to just grab him and wrap him tightly in your arms. When we were finally able to hold him, I would cry for hours with his tiny body against mine, looking at all the wires hanging off his small chest and the feeding tube taped across his sweet cheeks.
How did we end up here? It became difficult to see people around me with great pregnancies and healthy babies. Every night they kissed their babies goodnight and we kissed ours goodbye.
And I felt guilt, so much guilt.
There was the expected guilt where I continued to blame myself for causing my preterm labor. Then there was the unexpected guilt where I beat myself up for feeling all these things. How dare I be so selfish? It could have been worse. I should be grateful he's doing so well.
That's when I realized this might be the hardest emotion to deal with: Why couldn't I just give myself permission to feel?
My heart breaks for families that go through much worse. But at that moment, my heart was breaking for my family. I had to mourn the loss of the expected and accept the path we were put on. We got pretty good at watching the monitors, and the constant beeping eventually became unnoticeable. We celebrated different milestones and unique firsts, like the day he moved into an open crib and the day the NG tube came out.
Over the next days, weeks and months, I continued to struggle through these emotions. These feelings don't just go away when you and your baby finally walk out those NICU doors to go home. The NICU stays with you. For some, it might be a short time and for others, it may be a while before they start to heal.
As for me, I am still brought to tears thinking about everything we experienced. I don't know when or if it truly ever goes away. What I do know is that my son is now 10 months old and I am embracing every emotion as they are all part of the journey of a preemie Mom. I give myself permission, and you should too, mama.