We were very blessed to have a brief 14 day NICU stay when the boys were born at 34 weeks. With the exception of a few breathing issues and the suck/swallow learning curve, our visit was relatively peaceful and just grow time. That didn’t make it any less painful or difficult on us to go home without our babies every day or to travel back and forth to the hospital 3 times daily for visits while I was recovering from a c-section. It was one of the most difficult two weeks of my life and I know so many people now who had much longer stays with many more obstacles to overcome. We’re all part of a special club and while this list is certainly not the end-all, be-all and there are countless more (feel free to add yours in the comments section!), here are a few simple tips to help cope with the reality of life in the NICU as a preemie mom:
1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Sometimes life moves at rapid pace in the NICU and the room is spinning, and sometimes it feels like it is crawling and you’re counting down the days until discharge or even passing a major milestone that means one step closer to health. In those moments when decisions are made quickly and actions are taken (especially while you may have been away), do not be afraid to ask any and every question. In those endless moments that drag and you’re contemplating life long term while you stare at the monitors and the clock, ask any and every question. ASK. A good NICU nurse anticipates this desperate need for control and intimate understanding of every detail of your little one’s life and should welcome and encourage you to use your voice. The very best nurses will answer your questions before you even ask.
2. It’s ok to be scared. There are going to be so many highs and lows during your stay. The NICU is a virtual non-stop emotional roller coaster. I made the mistake of trying to act like I had it all together, played super strong for my boys and never shed a tear over the experience. That was far too much of a burden to share alone. It’s ok, vital even, to experience the emotions, to seek comfort from loved ones, even from the staff. It’s ok to be honest that this is the hardest thing you’ve ever experienced and you’re scared you’re not up for the task. Don’t be afraid to befriend the families you see coming and going each day, who have little ones beside yours in the NICU. You need all the support you can get, especially from people “in the know.”
3. Accept that you did nothing wrong. It’s hard as a mother to not feel guilty and that we somehow are responsible for why are child(ren) are in the NICU. You want to ask yourself every question, wonder where you went wrong, what you could have done better. This guilt is not only unfair, it’s unhealthy. I struggled with wondering if I had been too active, if my anxiety had contributed to an early delivery. Did I do too much? Did I miss the cues and not listen to my body? Very quickly, I was reminded by the NICU nurses that I was the very best mom for my children and that micro-managing the past was pointless and invalid. Life happens.
4. Remember that your partner is hurting too. We spend so much time carrying our children inside of us, it’s very easy to forget that this experience is equally scary and painful for our children’s father. As mothers, we have this intimate connection that sometimes makes our world almost egocentric. I made a very big mistake by isolating my husband on his own island to cope with the challenge of babies in the NICU while I “braved MY journey” alone. It was heartbreaking for him to see his children there, just like it was for me. Cling to each other, support each other, love each other. Acknowledge that you are both hurting and share the burden together. This is happening to the both of you.
5. Take advantage of the time available to properly rest up and heal. While far from any parent’s ideal situation, the reality is that you have a rare opportunity when your child(ren) are in the NICU to get a full night’s sleep. As hard as it feels to be home or elsewhere without them, you can get yourself back to your best self faster if you make the best of a bad situation and work in between visits to properly care for yourself and heal. Chances are when they do come home, you’re going to need that extra energy and then some. Take the rest while you can get it.