When my water broke six weeks early, I think my brain decided to check out for the rest of the day. As a trauma momma I’m well aware of dissociation, but I didn’t anticipate checking out while in labor.
My friends and family kept telling me how calm I was, how cool and collected I was, while they all panicked around me. These panics were really excitement, of course, but I think deep-down I knew:
I knew they weren’t going to come home with me in 4 days.
I knew we were facing down a NICU stay (another unexpected, painful hurdle).
I knew I’d be responsible for keeping it together and making important medical decisions for two tiny humans who, up until that day, I’d never seen. I’d felt their kicks and watched them on the ultrasound machine; I inferred their personalities through their movement and patterns, and though we were bound by genetics and time, I still felt unequipped to advocate for them in the way a NICU stay requires.
So I spaced out and found a calm I didn’t feel again until 36 days later when my daughter was finally released into my care and we could be a family of four at home.
In this bizarre world where you’re a momma but you can’t bring home your babies, you get a lot of unsolicited advice and perspective from people who haven’t been in your shoes. They imagine it’s easier because you can actually sleep at night. They don’t realize the sliding glass door reminds you of the NICU room and you jump to attention after it’s opened so you can see if it’s a doctor or nurse coming in to give you an update on your babies’ lungs.
A microwave beep startles you. You think it means your baby isn’t breathing or their oxygen saturation suddenly diminished.
Every time your phone rings you’re afraid it’s the hospital calling to tell you something horrific.
You’re on high alert constantly and you never really get to settle, not even when you get to hold them.
While I’ve heard a lot of new parents say they really embraced the NICU and were thankful for the care they received, you don’t hear a lot about the fear and deep shame carried. Honestly, even with therapy and self-help books, I think part of me will always carry a deep sense of fault.
If I could only have carried them another two weeks, we would’ve skipped this awful hospital stay altogether.
And yet, life has to keep moving forward. People around you remind you of that. Life does, too.
You spend Thanksgiving in the hospital, then your husband’s birthday, and Christmas draws nearer as you wish and hope to be home by then. You grow eager and expectant, and then your baby does their own thing:
That’s when you realize you really can’t control any of this. It has to happen on your child’s time. A hard, hard lesson for a hormonal mom.
“What can I do for you?” people ask.
At the time, what I really wanted was someone to take care of everything except my kids. I could handle the 12 hour days at the hospital, but I wanted someone to take care of my dogs or the groceries we needed. And while this seems like nothing to someone on the outside, taking responsibility off the plate of a NICU parent might be the greatest gift you can give them.
While I could go on and on about the intricacies of this experience, I want to be clear that there are ways you can help someone cope with being a NICU parent. Here’s how:
Take care of them.
Just as you would any new mom, pour into this one the same. Make meals, clean their house, find a task they can’t take care of while they are at the hospital and do it. Or, if you have to work and can’t give them the time, or you have your own kiddos to care for, consider services that make their lives easier like:
Instacart or Shipt:
A grocery delivery service membership was easily the best gift I received while the babies were in the NICU. It allowed me to order groceries from their room and set the time for delivery for when I knew I’d be home. It was thoughtful and took a responsibility off of my plate, leaving me feel like I didn’t have to leave my twins for a stupid to-do list.
A Cleaning Session (or service):
This doesn’t have to be costly. The sweetest gesture/gift given to me was by my mom, stepmom, and sisters who all came together and cleaned my house from top to bottom, even doing our laundry and organizing my chaotic, filthy bathroom. They left notes and small self-care items throughout the house so when I found them I’d be reminded they were with me. I felt so very loved and cared for by this, and it wasn’t something I had to be home for, like I might for a cleaning service.
Comfort Items for the NICU room:
We all know hospital rooms suck. Though places try to make them as comfortable as possible, they aren’t remotely as good as being at home. However, comfort items, like slippers and cozy blankets, helped me feel a little less like I was in a sterile room. Mints, chapstick, and small things that they can have – within their hospital’s regulations – will help anyone sitting in a room all day to feel like they have a bit of the outside world with them.
Most of all, love them well. No matter how much they tell you they are happy because their babies are in the best hands and NICU nurses are angels (they are), they’re probably still hurting. A lot. This extra-long hospital stay brings up a lot of feelings of inadequacy and a lot of fears about their child’s well-being, especially for those born extra early who may have long-standing complications to overcome long after they leave the hospital.
Are you a NICU mom? What was the best gift you received while your little fighters hung out at the hospital? Let’s fill the comments with suggestions so those who need a little guidance later can find return here and use it as a resource.