Nobody warns you about life in--or after--the NICU.
It was a sunny afternoon in February, exactly 6 months to the day from when my son, Beckett, was born. My husband and I had taken the afternoon off to take Beckett to his check-up at the pediatrician’s office. After dealing with the trauma of his premature birth at 33 weeks, and a nearly 8-week stay in the NICU, we both try to attend each of Beckett’s doctor’s appointments, eager to hear that he is progressing as he should be, and that any developmental concerns related to him being born prematurely are fading away.
Thankfully this was all affirmed, and we were told it was time to start solids. But instead of feeling excited about this new adventure, I felt anxious. As a working mom, our nanny would be responsible for many of my son’s feedings. This feeling--a perceived loss of agency and control--brought me back to those first several weeks of Beckett’s life.
Beckett was born via emergency C-section on August 19th as the result of a placental abruption. Up until that day, my pregnancy had been extremely normal. While I was aware of and prepared for the fact that his delivery, whenever and however it happened--even if at full term--could not be scripted, I had a vision in my head of what certain aspects of it would be like; I could see clearly, for example, the happy family photo we would take right after he was born, his dad and I smiling proudly as we held our new son.
That was not to be. I was able to kiss Beckett very briefly right after he was born--still in the operating room--and then he was whisked off to the NICU for evaluation. I was unable to see him again until the next afternoon.
The days that immediately followed were a blur. It was a surreal experience waking up no longer pregnant, and instead of having my son in my room with me, having to be wheeled by my husband to the NICU several floors away. Seeing Beckett for the first time there, closed off from us in a covered plastic bassinet and connected to various machines and monitors, was overwhelming.
We were very fortunate that he was born at a healthy weight for being premature, but he struggled in other ways. He required various medical interventions early on to address apnea and a lack of sufficient surfactant, the sticky substance that keeps the lungs from collapsing. Throughout his hospitalization, he also experienced Bradycardia events related to apnea as well as acid reflux, during which his heart rate would become dangerously slow and he would not have sufficient oxygen. And while he is quite the eater now, Beckett was only able to eat through a feeding tube at first, having not developed the ability to coordinate the sucking, breathing and swallowing reflexes required for bottle and breastfeeding before being born.
As I recovered from his birth, I longed to hold Beckett, but it would be four days before I would be able to be that close to my son. I briefly held him in the NICU for the first time just prior to being discharged from the hospital myself. The lack of immediate physical connection right after his birth and in the days that followed continues to sadden me.
After my discharge from the hospital, my husband and I reluctantly settled into a routine of daily visits to the NICU. Even as Beckett’s mother, I felt I had very little agency in his care. Sure, the nurses encouraged me to change his diaper and do the feedings, but for the bulk of his stay, I had to ask permission to engage in such activities. This even included the simple act of holding him. When I was away from the NICU, I was at the mercy of overworked hospital staff when requesting updates on Beckett’s status by phone.
I felt there was very little I could do for Beckett to advance his development and move him closer to being released aside from working to establish and maintain my milk supply and trying to will the heart rate and breathing monitors to not dip to rates that indicated he was in distress.
I was fortunate in that I was able to establish and maintain an adequate milk supply; this is something that proves very difficult for many mothers with babies in the NICU because of the physical separation. I was less fortunate in trying to will him out of the NICU.
Each day, we hoped that Beckett would strengthen enough to be sent home. But what was originally thought would be a stay of two to three weeks, turned into four and then five and then almost eight. On more than one occasion, we were within several hours of Beckett’s discharge only to find out--or worse yet witness first hand--that he had had another Bradycardia, thus pushing his discharge date back again.
We longed for five days in the clear, which was necessary for his release. Words cannot describe how difficult it was to leave the hospital so many nights in a row without my son, while at the same time witnessing other parents leaving each day with their healthy, presumably full-term babies.
Finally it was our turn to be the happy parents leaving the hospital with our baby. It is natural for any new parent to be nervous about taking their baby home from the hospital, but after spending weeks obsessing over monitors and trusting them to give an indication if Beckett was in distress, I had trouble believing that all would be fine once we were home and without such aids. I was so anxious about this that my husband, mother-in-law and I took turns staying awake so as to have someone constantly monitoring Beckett during this first week home to ensure that his health was not in danger.
Despite my joy in bringing him home, I struggled for months to feel connected to Beckett in a way that I imagined mothers who are able to bring their babies home sooner after birth do. Thankfully, our connection has improved significantly since then--we grow closer and closer each week.
But I still struggle at times to see myself as his mother because I am not always sure that he sees me this way. I fear that he still sees me as just another caregiver in a rotating cast, like I was in the NICU--that there is nothing differentiating me from the others. I know logically that this is not true. In fact, Beckett shows me each day that it isn’t with the happiness and affection he directs toward me. But I struggle with it emotionally nonetheless. I simply want to feel differently about this--to put this doubt out of my mind and to truly 100% feel that I occupy a special place in his life that cannot be filled by anyone else.
I am beyond thankful that Beckett is growing into the strong boy that he is, and I realize how fortunate we are, given his good health now. I love him more than I ever imagined possible and delight in each development--every smile he makes and even his stellar burping skills. I simply hope that, as Beckett has clearly moved on from the NICU, I will be able to do so as well someday.
To all of the mamas out there with babies in the NICU, my heart goes out to you. You are always in my thoughts.