When you are a pregnant with your first child, many parents take a tour of the hospital where they will deliver. I know we did. We passed the NICU, we were told what it was, but never did I give it a second thought- we wouldn't need it. And as it happened, with our first child we did not. We brought home a happy, healthy baby girl.
Fast forward, about two and a half years and we are expecting our second child- a boy! My son was due February 23, 2013. Well, he had his own idea about when he would be joining our family and he made his appearance on January 3. He was 7 weeks early, 3 pound 12 ounces.
When you deliver a healthy, full term baby- you get to bond, you get to hold your child. When you deliver a preemie- it's a very different picture. There are many doctors in your room. You are scared, you know it's too early. I was lucky enough to hold my son for just a second- to get ONE picture without tubes and wires and machines. But then they took him, and we waited...and waited. I don't remember how long it was after I delivered that we were wheeled in to see our son- it could have been one or three hours. It was a life time. Then...there he was...in an incubator...covered in wires. It was scary and I was helpless. I could not help him. I could not hold him. I was his mother- I could not make it better. That's your instinct as a mom- to hold and cradle, to help and make better. I could do nothing.
When you are a NICU mom you have to do one of the most unnatural things - you have had a baby and you must leave the hospital without him. For me, I also had to explain that to my older child. The day I came home from the hospital without my son, I sat at my dining room table, called my mother and I just cried and she kept saying, "I know," and I knew she did, she had been in my shoes thirty years ago, and it helped to know someone knew just how much it hurt. But it still hurt SO much.
When you are a NICU mom, you must ask permission to hold your child and in those early days, sometimes the answer is no. As a parent, this is heartbreaking, even when you know the nurses and doctors do know best. Your child actually has to "graduate" into wearing clothes. Can you imagine? Words and acronyms like Cpap and Dsat roll off your tongue as a NICU parent. If you're like me and my husband, you actually download an ap on your phone that will convert grams into pounds...because they weigh him only in grams. And, well weight matters...a lot. Then you pray. You pray hard, harder than I ever have.
Every day, my older daughter spent the day with my family, while I spent the entire day in the NICU. My husband stopped in to see our son on his way home from work. Then he came home, had dinner and went back until about midnight...only to do it all over again the next day. I had no time to cook, or clean... My family and friends were nothing short of AMAZING. My parents, sister and bother made all of our meals. My co workers sent me meals. My friends dropped full meals at my doorstep without ringing my bell- not wanting to disturb what might be a quiet moment with my daughter. They say it takes a village- I am so lucky to have my village.
When you are a new parent, everyone wants to come see your baby. Family and friends want to come. But when you are a NICU parent you are afraid of germs in a whole new way, because that little baby has no immune system really. So with Purrelled hands you let immediate family come to see him once and then you guard him with your life. You will Purell for years.
As a NICU mom, you pump milk like it's your job. You literally carry a backpack pump wherever you go. Your baby NEEDS that milk.You pump at the hospital, you pump at home, you get up at 2 am when you should be feeding your baby and you pump. Then you pray your baby will eat 2mls at one sitting because eating and gaining weight are part of the equation- a big part. When you are a NICU mom, you hold your breath every time that monitor beeps. You pray for Dsats to stop. Because that's an equally big part of the equation...breathing and eating, eating and breathing....praying.
Then, when you are so close to coming home- if you're like me, you call the NICU at 3am to see if your child passed the car seat test. Because if he did, he's coming home and if he didn't it's three more days- at least. And waiting till 7 am isn't an option because you cannot sleep, because all you want is to bring him home. When the nurse says to you, "Hi Mrs. Potter, yes Gavin passed, he can go home tomorrow," you cry tears that you didn't know existed. You cry the happiest, most relieved tears ever.
When you do, finally bring home that baby- when you get that joy of making home complete- you thank the doctors and the nurses and the staff who made it all possible. The nurses- the nurses who were mom when you couldn't be there at 4 am. The nurses who held him when you couldn't. The nurse who held you together at your lowest moments. The doctors who answered your questions - even when you kept asking the same ones over- "When will he come home?" The hospital staff, who worked with your insurance, because HEAVEN KNOWS this is far from cheap.
I have learned three things from being a NICU mom. Be grateful. Be grateful for what you have- your health. Be grateful when your kids are healthy. The NICU is a scary place. I was a lucky one. Be grateful you weren't one of the less fortunate. Be thankful. Thank those who have helped you along the way. My family and friends who made being a NICU parent more bearable. The doctors, nurses and staff that made it possible. Pay it forward. Being a NICU parent is such a unique experience. I only knew two moms who had been there before me- one was my mom....the other was a friend I knew growing up who I was friends with on Facebook. I reached out to her. I had not seen her or spoken to her since I was probably 12 years old, but she helped me, she listened, she KNEW. A few months later, I knew someone going through this and I reached out because now I KNEW what it was to be a NICU mom, now I could be a shoulder.
It is not easy being a NICU parent. I was certainly a lucky one, whose child left 6 weeks later, healthy. Now I have a healthy almost 5 year old. I pray daily for the babies, parents and staff of the NICU where my son was - it's a place where miracles happen.