Confessions of a NICU Mom
Today a lady came into my store, and as 99 percent of my customers do, she inquired about my tiny Willow, who was riding around strapped to the front of me in her soft and cozy wrap. The lady, Kay, asked how old she was, then remarked about her being so tiny. I explained that she had come 10 weeks early, and that really, she’s just barely past her due date. I could see Kay was listening with heightened interest as soon as I said Willow had been premature, and she quickly proceeded to (ask and then–) take Willow’s picture, get my name and phone number, and ask if I would keep “Natalie” in my prayers.
Natalie is currently in the hospital on full bed rest. She’s 26 weeks pregnant with her first child, and doing everything she can to keep her little one inside for at least a little longer. Kay asked if I would be willing to share with Natalie how we got through my time on bedrest and our months in the NICU. I, of course, readily agreed.
The rest of the afternoon, I thought back through those long hours, days, weeks and months. Now, barely a month out from our NICU experience, I think I’m finally starting to process our time there. And here’s my confessions of being a NICU mom:
- There’s a lot of heartache. The single-hardest thing, for me, was having three children – in different places – and knowing how to be a good mommy to all of them. Some people were telling me my older girls would be fine, that I needed to be with the baby, that she was the one who needed me. Others told me the baby was fine (after all, she would never remember this anyways), and that it was my older girls who needed me to be available to them, to reassure their senses of security and normalcy. The reality was, I needed to be with all three of my girls – I needed to be mommy to them all.
Most days that looked like hanging out with my big girls during the day, and then after I got them to bed at night, kissing my husband goodnight, and making the hour drive up to the hospital to stay with Willow through the night. Two months of (mostly) sleeping in the NICU with machines beeping and alarms sounding, plus getting up every two hours to pump, and every three hours to diaper and do skin-to-skin while Willow got her feeding through a tube, was exhausting, but you just can’t think about sleep. When you’re a mom, you just have to do what you have to do…I’m sure most of you can relate!
It felt like my heart was being ripped out every time I left my sweet, tiny baby to go spend time with her sisters, and it felt like it again every time I had to kiss them goodbye and leave them at the door crying when I left for the hospital. There was a lot of heart ripping going on during those two months, but it was just a season, and it (thankfully!) passed.
- It’s lonely. While I was so thankful to spend hours with my little love, the loneliness of being on bedrest and then in the NICU, caught me by surprise. Despite the fact that I was stuck away in a hospital room, real life went on for everyone else. My husband had to work and figure out childcare for the girls, my sister was still home schooling and caring for her four children, my mom had a full-time job and three kids still at home, my grandparents were working, my in-laws live in a different state, friends were busy with their own lives – and that hour drive to the hospital made it even more difficult for friends and family to come visit. Being in the hospital and then having to be so careful about germs and not exposing Willow to anything, really made for a couple of lonely months. It felt like I was in a whole new, sometimes scary world, and all by myself. The loneliness was very real, and very intense.
- It hurt. It had never once occurred to me that I would go to the hospital pregnant and come home without a baby. That ache was almost physically painful for the entire time Willow was in the NICU. My womb was empty, but yet, so were my arms. That hurt. Every time I set my alarm and got up to pump for a baby I couldn’t hold, every time my girls would forget and refer to the baby in my tummy, every time I saw a new mom out with her infant, my heart hurt. And yet, I had a baby in the hospital, and I made it through by reminding myself that one day soon, I would have my baby home with me. Others weren’t that lucky, and it’s for them that my heart still aches.
- It’s a rollercoaster. Being in the NICU is a rollercoaster ride. Your baby comes off oxygen; you celebrate. Your baby’s SATS drop and they put her back on oxygen; you feel disappointed. Her bilirubin levels are too high; you worry. They put her under the lights, her levels come down, you rejoice. Then they test again the next morning and ten minutes later, she’s sun tanning under the lights. They tell you ultrasound is coming to do an ultrasound on her head as babies this premature often have bleeds in their brain, horrible clamps pull back her eyelids as they check for blindness, she gets shots for RSV because getting a virus could be detrimental for her…the scary possibilities seem endless. Test results come back normal, and you feel huge relief. Then, you’re told more tests are needed, because things don’t always show up right away. Hours, days, and weeks stretch out long and daunting, then right when you think she’s getting close to going home, they tell you the final step she needs to take before getting released, could take weeks to accomplish…weeks when you had just dared to begin to dream of days. Up, down, forward, backward – back and forth your emotions go, rolling with the ever changing rollercoaster that is life in the NICU.
And then, in between the back and forth is just a lot of waiting. …waiting to see what will happen next, waiting for test results, waiting for her to grow, to learn to eat, to be able to stabilize her own heart rate, to maintain her own temperature, to breath on her own. Hours and hours of waiting….mostly just you and the baby, waiting to the sound of the same quiet lullabies playing on speakers, nurses walking by in the halls, alarms piercing the air when a heart rate or SAT level drops too low, and machines abruptly splitting the silence as they signal that a feeding has been completed.
- It’s a gift. Being a NICU mom is a gift – a wonderful, blessed gift. Being a NICU mom is a privilege – something to be oh so thankful for. My very first day at home after being released from the hospital after giving birth, I was a complete mess. My husband had to go back to work, and just six days out from my extensive emergency surgeries, I was caring for my 2 & 4 year olds, on pain meds, pumping every two hours, my baby was lying in a hospital bed alone more than an hour away, and I had absolutely no idea how I was going to survive the next two to three months. I hurt and was scared and empty and tired, and I could barely face the day, much less the knowledge that this was our new reality for, potentially, the next 10 weeks. Then, my sister told me the story of a woman who gave birth the same time I did.
While my family waited in the waiting room while I gave birth to my tiny but healthy baby girl, a church family waited while a member of their congregation birthed her full-term stillborn child. They all knew the baby had passed before the woman ever went into labor, and the woman’s church family stood in the halls singing worship songs to bring her peace while she endured the excruciating pain (both physical and emotional) of birthing her lifeless child. This child had been healthy and perfect just days earlier at a routine visit, but had somehow gotten her cord wrapped around her neck and was gone before the doctors could do anything to help her.
I cried as my sister told me the other woman’s story. I may have had difficult months ahead of me, but it was nothing compared to this woman. I realized how fortunate I was to have my baby in the NICU. It was a gift to have Willow alive and fighting. It was a gift to have her in a great hospital receiving wonderful care and all the help she needed to grow and be healthy. Not every mother has that luxury. From that moment on, I refused to take the bait of self-pity. My baby was alive! We had much to be thankful for. We kept an attitude of thankfulness, and minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, we made it through our time in the NICU.
Sometimes we go through seasons and we just have to give our best and hope it’s good enough. This time it wasn’t. My best wasn’t enough to keep my baby inside of me for the recommended 40 weeks. It wasn’t enough to keep my family or my business OK. But my God was enough! It was His grace that got us through. His grace kept me thankful. His grace kept my husband and I on the same page and supporting one another when stresses could have pulled us apart. His grace sustained my older girls as they somehow made it through those months of being constantly left behind. His grace helped steady me and kept me emotionally stable, despite the crazy postpartum hormones, NICU rollercoaster, and sleep deprivation. His grace surrounded Willow and brought her out of the NICU nearly a month earlier than doctors had predicted. His grace strengthened my husband to take on the extra load, and to support me and our girls with such selflessness and love.
Sometimes we go through seasons when we just have to give our best and hope it’s good enough. This time it wasn’t. My best wasn’t enough. But my God was enough! It was His grace that got us through.
So my biggest confession as a NICU mom, is that I am thankful. I’m so thankful for our time in the NICU – for the great medical care, but also for the things we learned and the people we met. And I’m thankful that it was just a season, a chapter in our story, and that it has passed. I’m thankful for my sweet Willow, who is healthy and growing, and an absolute joy to our family! She is absolutely my miracle baby. Most of all, I’m thankful for my God, who carried me through, who was there in the long hours that I felt alone – who always carries me through, who is always there when I feel alone. Who is absolutely enough, even – especially – when I am not.