A Story of Hope: Talia’s Story – Love Takes Time

Trigger warning: birth trauma

I watched my son as he fell asleep in my arms today. In a simple way, it was magical. The way he gazed at me as his eyes started to close melted my heart. He held my finger as dreams began filling his sweet head. Little puffs of breath floated against my chest as he drifted off.

And while I watched, I found myself enamored with this beautiful little soul who now trusts me to be his safe place. It felt like one of those unicorn moments of motherhood.

I cherished the moment as I realized I had experienced very few memories like that in the first part of his life. My postpartum anxiety, depression and PTSD robbed me of them all.

After a hugely traumatic birth experience and hospital stay, my early days of motherhood were filled with grief and rage. My son and I almost died in birth, and in those coming days, weeks, and months after his birth, the darkness that enveloped me made me wish over and over that I had died.

There was no light. There was no joy.

I recall taking hundreds of pictures of him as a newborn hoping that someday I’d actually care. I felt no connection with my son. Or with myself. I was supposed to be a mom now, but what did that even mean?

I was drowning in depression and anxiety. I wanted to escape from what felt like the prison bars of motherhood.

Every time my son cried, I cried too. For every passing day where I couldn’t put him down for even a moment, I felt panic grow in my suffocation.

I felt I was failing as a mom in every way. I knew I needed help. I couldn’t continue on like that.

I started seeing an amazing art therapist twice a week. I began to work through the trauma. I felt supported, and she cheered for me and supported me every step of the way.

I had to face my grief. My rage. I had to accept the work it would take to heal what felt so broken within me.

Slowly, and I do mean very slowly, the haze started to lift.

I’ve had to take motherhood day by day…most times, second by second.

My son will be 10 months on Wednesday, and I’ll be honest, I sometimes feel behind in my healing process. To my own disappointment, there are still dark days.

And yet, today was proof that I am making progress. I was able to see the beauty in that moment. There are now days when I can delight in my son’s giggles and watch in amazement as he grows. Now, no matter how dark the days, the connection I feel with him is unbreakable. It grows stronger by the day. And so do I.

When I became a mom, I thought I’d know what to do. I expected to instantly love my son in the way they talk about in movies. I believed I’d be over the moon with motherhood. It turns out that although my journey would be nothing like that, this broken and worn path I’ve had to take has ended up being even more exceptional and gratifying. Each moment…each milestone is even more meaningful now.

So if you’re somewhere in the middle of this journey, too, know you’re not alone or behind, Mama. You’re exactly where you need to be, and I promise, you’re everything your baby needs, here and now. There is light out there for you, even if you can’t see it right now. Sometimes the best things in life take time. Love. Connection. Motherhood. We’re all works in progress, and perhaps that’s where the magic happens.

–Written by Talia Granzow

I Didn’t Ask to be a NICU Mom

I didn’t ask to be a NICU mom. No one hopes that the first time they see their baby that he or she is tangled in a web of medical tape and tubes. No one wants the first time they’re able to touch their baby to be through the portholes of an isolette or that the first time they feed their baby is by helping to connect a G-tube. 

I also didn’t ask for my son to be 7 weeks premature. I can finally (yes, he’s almost 2) admit to myself that it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t eat or drink the wrong foods, use harmful substances, behave inappropriately, do ANYTHING to put my baby at risk…nonetheless, Leo was born at 33 weeks.

If I’m being honest, it took me longer to bond with him. Even after he was home, my subconscious told me I couldn’t get attached for fear that he’d be taken from me…his health too fragile. 

But well before he came home, I assumed the undesirable role of NICU mom. I spent countless hours at my baby’s bedside while he lay lifeless. I listened to the staccato of alarms…his heart rate slowing, oxygen dropping, his inactivity all signaling alerts. While the alarms sounded, I sat, helpless and unknowing, waiting for staff to tell me if my son was okay, when to intervene, how to intervene. In these moments, I felt utterly and completely inadequate as a mother. I told myself how much Leo needed me but, truthfully, I don’t think I believed that. I watched nurses and neonatologists give him the care that I should have been able to give him. I showed up. I sat with him, read to him, pumped for him and held him when I was allowed but inside, I felt like I had already failed him. 

He wasn’t the only one I thought I was failing. The pressure to balance it all was intense. With two other children at home, I constantly felt pulled in multiple directions feeling I should be home while at the hospital and at the hospital while at home. My husband, who also experienced trauma from my son’s birth, also tried to balance work, family and hospital life (albeit much better than I did). We’d steal a short kiss in passing as we’d switch roles allowing the other to go be with Leo. We had neither the time nor the energy to nurture our relationship or to comfort one another. My house was a mess, laundry piled up and we rarely ate regular, healthy meals (besides those so generously dropped off by friends or our church…which was a HUGE help!). And while all these wheels kept turning, I was silently…falling…apart. 

And during those countless days, hours and minutes at my son’s side, not a single NICU or hospital staff member asked how I was doing. There was no acknowledgement of the traumatic birth I experienced, no sympathy, kindness or care. I tucked away the “do you know how lucky you are?” and the “this could have ended tragically” comments and slowly, they accumulated. I ridiculed myself for the fleeting thought that perhaps I did experience trauma and that I might also be deserving of some compassion. The thought seemed selfish and I forced it out of my head preserving all mercy for the baby in the crib labelled “Bruce”…the baby I felt I barely knew.

So it makes sense that studies consistently show that mothers of infants in the NICU experience PPD at higher rates with more elevated symptomatology than mothers of healthy infants. While more research is needed, these studies suggest that up to 70 percent of women whose babies spend time in the NICU will experience some degree of postpartum depression, while up to one-quarter may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (International Journal of Women’s Health). Let’s also not forget the impact on a mom who’s suffering with postpartum anxiety. Caring for a premature, or special-needs baby, comes with unique (and sometimes critical) responsibilities. After my son came home, I realized just how dependent I had become on those nurses, monitors and alarms to tell me he was okay. When that responsibility was transferred to my husband and me, my anxiety skyrocketed.   

It’s time to recognize that a NICU mom needs specialized care and attention just like her baby. We are doing a disservice to NICU moms and, consequently, their babies by not using time spent in the NICU to check-in with moms regarding their mental and emotional health. Sharing support, resources and implementing routine screenings (along with a clear plan for moms who screen positive for depression) should be standard of care. 

While I may not have asked to be a NICU mom, it was a part of my journey as a mom and part of my special journey with my son. It took time, but what we experienced together cultivated an indestructible bond that serves as both a testament to our strength and resilience as well as a new understanding of unconditional love. 

–Written by Alexis Bruce

Somewhere Along the Way

Somewhere along the way, mothers are often forgotten. After giving ourselves entirely to the process of growing and birthing a human, it’s unfair that we don’t still share the spotlight when our tiny miracles arrive. But the second we start to feel like we should receive a portion of that love and adoration, we shame ourselves for being selfish.

Somewhere along the way, we might have experienced trauma. And at some point, we started to believe that trauma had only one definition. And that because the pregnancy, labor or birth we experienced may not fit the criteria for this definition, we are not allowed to give it such a label.

Somewhere along the way, this motherhood gig started to look entirely different than what we envisioned. Picture perfect images of a glowing and rested mama holding her peaceful, sleeping babe are replaced with sleepless nights, alarming intrusive thoughts, nursing difficulties and an anguish that makes even the simplest of tasks seem insurmountable.

Somewhere along the way, we might feel as though we lost ourselves. We might grieve the life we once had. The freedom, the friends, the finances now might seem like worlds away. We might wonder if we made a mistake. We might wonder if we have what it takes to be a good mother. We might wonder if our families would be better off without us.

Somewhere along the way, we might feel hopeless. We may feel overcome by darkness and unable to see a way out. We might feel anxiety so intense that we are afraid to leave the house, afraid to sleep when baby sleeps or we might even be too afraid to be alone with the very being we once longed so strongly for. We might have flashbacks, or terrifying nightmares, of birth trauma that bring us instantly back to that wretched place. We might have thoughts that make us question our sanity, our baby’s safety or if we are truly a monster at our core.

But somewhere along the way, we realized that we are not alone. We realized that we are front and center in the spotlight of our baby’s eyes. We realized that baby doesn’t need perfection, just love and just a healthy, happy mama. We realized that trauma is subjective, that our feelings are valid and that we deserve to allow our wounds to heal. We realized that nothing about motherhood will likely be the way we envisioned and we realized that freedom from these expectations lies in acceptance of this fact. We realized that it’s okay to grieve the life we had while also exploring new facets of our identity. And, perhaps, most importantly, we realized that the darkness was not forever. We realized that help is available. We realized that it was in our struggle that we found our strength.

Written by Alexis Bruce

Happy Birthday, Leo

*Trigger Warning: preterm labor, birth trauma

Today marks one year. One year since I laid on the floor in a pool of blood wondering if my baby boy’s heart was still beating. One year since my life was forever changed. Changed by this beautiful miracle of a human and changed by the way my brain morphed into some unknown enemy. Some anniversaries are good. This one is not…

Because one year ago marks the most terrifying day of my life. Stranded, alone, not knowing if either of us would make it. But somehow we did. My sweet Leo, you came into this world at 33 weeks fighting like a lion and that same ferocity shines through in the way you play and the way you love. You have conquered so much in your tiny life and I’d like to think that I have too.

I’ve been anticipating this day. Holding space and bracing myself for what might come. It has been a nightmarish year. One where I couldn’t trust myself to be alone with you much less enjoy you as the gift you truly are. I’m told this day won’t always have so much sting…that time will erase some of the intensity. I pray that is true because the only thing worse than revisiting this trauma is thinking that the day of your birth might be overshadowed by my pain.

To tell you the truth, I am angry. I’m enraged that I didn’t get to hold you on my chest after they ripped you out of me. I feel robbed that the first time I saw your face it was covered in tubes and medical tape. I’m horrified that the first time I heard your cry, it was followed by sounds of them trying to revive you. In fact, I am still grieving all the moments we should have been able to share together. I wanted to breathe in your newness…to inspect every inch of your perfection. I wanted to touch your skin without having to reach through the portholes of your isolette. I wanted to nurse you. I wanted to rock you, on those first few days, in the silence and stillness of the early morning. I wanted your dad and I to bring you home to your brother and sister in the lion outfit I’d so carefully chosen for you. But, instead, I came home with empty hands and a piece of my heart left behind.

I spent those early days balancing home and hospital-life while living in complete survival mode. And when you did finally come home, my anxiety prevented me from enjoying anything at all. How could I relax when there were no monitors to tell me that you were getting enough oxygen or that your heart was still beating? And it got worse. As you got better, postpartum OCD crept in and swallowed me whole. My disease ripped away every shred of  the mom I thought I was and left me debilitated, fearful and empty. My brain worked hard to convince me that I was an evil monster and that I didn’t deserve you. I feared just about everything but worst of all was the fear that I couldn’t protect you from myself.

This has been the hardest year of my life and I’ve learned that I will likely always be vulnerable to triggers that bring me back to that dark place. I understand that I will always need to be cautious and gentle with myself because what I experienced was terrifying and real. But instead of viewing life through the lens of fear and bitterness, I choose to take my trauma and use it fuel my drive for advocacy. I am willing to risk being vulnerable if it means that I can be the voice of comfort and support that makes even one other mom feel less alone. And if, through my story, I am able to bring awareness to the need for better maternal mental health care…then, I will absolutely keep telling it.  

And you. You handsome, incredible, marvel of a boy. The lessons you’ve taught me in your short time here on Earth have been nothing short of astonishing. As your mother, I can tell you that you will do great things. I hope you are encouraged by the way you’ve fought through every obstacle in your path and are comforted by my fierce and undying love for you. I hope that someday you are as proud of me as I am of you. And even after all this, I’d live it again. I’d go through the trauma, the pain, the fear and the healing all over if it means that I get to share this life with you. It has all been worth it to see your dimples when you smile, to get to run my fingers through your dark, curly hair and to feel your buttery soft skin against mine. This is our story, my love…and it’s only just beginning.     –Love, Mama 

Written by Alexis Bruce