Where my story starts is a bit of a question mark, to be perfectly honest. I suppose that it would only make sense to begin with our son, Aedan, being sent to the NICU but I’d like to take one step back. Getting pregnant was a slight challenge for us; so when we became pregnant with Aedan and knew that it was time to start preparing the nursery for a little boy, everything felt, well, finally settled. We thought, okay, now comes the experience that everyone always talks about. You know, starting contractions, rushing to the hospital, and most importantly, leaving the hospital with a beautiful healthy baby while thinking to yourself, I cannot believe they let me go home with this child after only two days!
Thirty-five weeks and two days pregnant, I woke up around 3 a.m. thinking I needed to use the bathroom. When I stood up, I was soaked with fluid. I thought to myself, wow have I really gotten to the point where I can’t hold my bladder?! I went into the bathroom and was hit with the realization that I was uncontrollably leaking clear fluid. I yelled to my husband, “uh, I think I’m leaking amniotic fluid,” to which he groggily replied, “are you sure?.” Um, yeah hunny, I was sure.
Now, I think it is important to note here that in no way did I think I was going into labor at 35 weeks pregnant. I thought that there was something wrong but certainly not that I was about to have a baby. I imagine this happens to many preemie moms. This mental distinction is significant because as a mom of a preemie, having not finished your journey through pregnancy before becoming a mother becomes the first thing that distinguishes you in a list of many from moms of full-term babies.
Soon we were in the delivery room throwing our birth plan right out the window. The most difficult part was when the NICU nurse came into the room as the Pitocin started running through my body with a pamphlet on NICU babies. She laid out the best to worst case scenario of complications we were about to face and explained that a team of NICU doctors would be waiting outside the door to sweep him away, just in case. As one might imagine, there was no controlling the sobbing by this point.
Aedan came out crying and appeared okay. We were so relieved. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before his breathing sounded a bit odd to me. He needed to go to the NICU.
It was official, our baby was premature and needed to be in intensive care. This was not the picture I had in mind. The experience of holding that baby in my arms and teaching him to nurse as we bonded was slipping away. Leaving the hospital scared out of our minds at the thought that they would allow us to take this baby home when we had no idea what we were doing, was no longer our experience to hold dear for years to come.
The next time I saw my 4 lbs and 13 oz baby, he was attached to all sorts of wires and monitors. One for breathing, one for feeding, one for fluids, and so on. He was surrounded by other tiny babies, some as little as two pounds. This image will never leave me. I looked around me as I truly realized for the first time that I was a mom. He was beautiful but fragile, and I was scared.
Believe it or not, that wasn’t the most difficult day of the 11 days to follow while he was in the NICU. He was not in my room with me but he was a floor away and we spent all our time up there with him. I could not nurse him but I pumped every two hours so that I could build my supply and still have that experience when the time came. Yes it was difficult, but the most difficult day of my life did not come until the third day. People take for granted that they get to go home with their baby just a day or two after they give birth. At least, I think I would have. Building up the strength to walk out of that hospital door after being discharged and leaving my son with people I did not know still amazes me. I’m not sure how I even did it except by putting one foot in front of the other.
The next 8 days were filled with days in the NICU and nights wishing we were still in the NICU. We went home to eat dinner and sleep as best we could. My husband only had a few weeks leave and so we decided it would be better for him to go back to work while I stayed with Aedan in the NICU so that he could spend time with us when we went home. My family took care of the dogs and made us meals. I feel certain we wouldn’t have survived the experience without them. Leaving the hospital each night was difficult but the human instinct to survive is amazing. This became our reality and we found a way to normalize and survive it.
The NICU became our home and the only reason we even left to eat or sleep was because of the amazing nurses we came to know and trust to take care of our son. We spent our 11 days there staring at the heart rate monitor while Aedan slept on our chests. Not a lot in the way for entertainment as you might imagine. The support we felt from the staff in that room was wonderful. I suppose the silver lining came in the form of the immense amount of knowledge we gained during our time there. We left more prepared for parenthood.
We consider ourselves lucky. Although it was not the experience we had hoped for, there were so many babies there fighting a tougher battle than our son. In the large scheme of things, 11 days for a baby in the NICU is not very long. There were babies there for months and whose parents did not have the luxury of taking leave or being close to the hospital. Aedan left strong, happy, and all ours. For that we are so very thankful.
For a parent of a preemie child, the time in the NICU is just part of the story. Once you leave the hospital and your baby starts to grow and you meet other parents with children, the inevitable comparison begins. Parents of preemie children leave the hospital relieved but then immediately begin to worry about development. We are told to go by adjusted age (when they should have been born). This means they can start to smile at 4 weeks or 14 weeks. And when you see your friend’s baby smile right on time, you just wait as you secretly hope it won’t be too much longer before your baby smiles for you. When they roll and your baby isn’t even close, a small part of you feels sad and worried. My husband, the man of reason and who always knows the right thing to say, tries to calm this fear by reminding me that whether they roll at 4 months or 8 months, it does not matter. After all, do we know who rolled first of our friends? Unlikely.
I have learned a great deal from this experience but I will share just some of the highlights.
*First, try to remember that not everyone has the same experience and be sensitive to it.
*Second, if you are the parent of a preemie, find other preemie parents. It is very helpful.
*Third, if someone you care about has a preemie in the NICU, go visit her, even if it is just for a few minutes and you can’t see the baby. Don’t forget to ask how she is doing, not just the baby.
*Fourth, cook them food and leave it at their house. The last thing they want to do is go home at night and make dinner.
*Finally, reassure her that it really doesn’t matter if her baby smiles a few weeks later and tell her how great her baby is doing.
Aedan is six months old now and doing exceptional. He loves laughing at the dogs and playing peek-a-boo. He is sweet and happy and I couldn’t even tell you at what week he hit what developmental milestone these last six months. He’s my just my special little guy and I hope you preemie moms out there feel some comfort from reading my story.