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PTSD in NICU moms is a real thing and we need to talk about it

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Moms are built to manage crises. It’s what we do. Daily crises – we are out of bread, someone forgot their homework. Crises of epic proportions – a death, or an accident. It’s in our mama blood – our child hurts, we rise to the occasion. My story is no different, but what I didn’t realize is that while we may be great in crisis, the effects can be long-lasting, and we must take care of ourselves to continue thriving as Mom.

When my son Benjamin was two weeks old, he was in an accident in our home. It was a normal Saturday morning, I had pancakes on the stove and coffee ready to pour. My husband ran upstairs with our newborn son in his arms and on the way down, tripped over our dog and fell, dislocating his own shoulder and dropping Ben. Realizing very quickly this was not a minor fall I called 911 and they were transported to our local hospital where we discovered Ben had a bleed in his brain.

When we learned that there was a bleed, Benjamin was transported to our local children’s hospital, where we are fortunate to have one of the best NICU’s in the nation. I went into survival mode –organizing things within the hospital and ensuring that things ran smoothly for my husband and other son back home.

I remember so vividly, walking down the halls thinking to myself, “Mama, you got this. You’re doing great”.

Thankfully, our stay in the NICU was a mere two weeks – 15 short days. In the world of NICU hospital stays, that is a blink of an eye. On my heart and psyche, that was a lifetime. The NICU is an incredible and horrible place – it houses the sickest of babies and the greatest of miracles. It’s not a place you forget, and it’s imprinted on your soul with even the shortest of visits.

I had no idea. Here I was, priding myself on the way I was holding it together, and I was completely unprepared for the fallout.

In those two weeks, I sat with my son through MRI’s, x-rays, I breathed for him when he was bagged, and I watched him scream in pain when three nurses couldn’t find a vein to start an IV. I saw him self-extubate and thought I was watching him die. I talked to doctors who said they didn’t have a crystal ball and couldn’t tell us if he would walk or talk. I learned medical phrases that no common mama should ever have to learn. I thought about the “what if’s” we might encounter if Ben didn’t come out of his coma as we were hoping.

When I finally was diagnosed and realized I had PTSD my first thought was shock. My second was, “heck yes I do.”

While our babies go through the physical pain of their illnesses or procedures, it is us as their moms who go through the actual gut-wrenching pain of watching these little pieces of ourselves suffer. I can hear the monitors in my sleep and see the NICU hallways in my dreams. It was two weeks of my life, but I can be brought back to every single moment of it without warning.

As a Mom, I felt that I needed to continue to make sure that my family was OK. I was a coordinator of the day to day which now included doctor’s appointments and various therapies. I worried about everyone except for myself until it I was in real trouble if I didn’t take care of me. To be a Mom is to be strong – and to be strongest we must take care of ourselves. PTSD in NICU moms is so very common, but not really talked about. So many of us are suffering – and while a lot of us recognize that we need help, there are so very many that don’t.

It’s been almost two years. I’ve seen a therapist and learned how to manage my flashbacks and panic attacks. I still deal with the pain of what happened to Ben, and when we talk about the accident I still cry. But my tears are a mix – sadness at what was, and happiness for what is. My sweet boy is healthy and thriving. And I’m happy to say so am I.

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