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

Entering the New Year with Radical Acceptance

A new year is upon us. We may not be ready to leave the one left behind; or, we may be grateful to let go and never look back. For some of us, this was a wonderful year. We achieved recovery. We worked incredibly hard, we saw the light at the end of the tunnel, we grieved, we cried, we conquered. And for some of us, the cloud of darkness hasn’t lifted as we are still in the throes of our battle with a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder.

The new year tends to make us want to set goals, both realistic and not. We attempt to define the best version of the person or mom we want to be. She, most often, is not the reflection we see in the mirror. This realization can lead to feelings of guilt, shame and defeat which perpetuate cycles of depression and self-loathing. But, trust me when I say, you are already enough, mama.

Instead of viewing the turn of the year as a fresh start or a new beginning, we spend time beating ourselves up about all the things we didn’t accomplish, the days we couldn’t get out of bed or the number of times we lost our patience. We relive the failed medication trials, the sleepless nights and the panic attacks. We dwell on the things we may have missed due to our illness and we question our strength and our resolve. We question if we were meant to be mothers at all.

But we cannot live in either the past or the future; therefore, we must learn to accept wherever we are on our journey. We must embrace what we are capable of right now and truly believe that whatever that is, it’s okay. We need to sit with our emotions, good or bad, and acknowledge that both are part of the human experience. In doing so, we learn to sit with our anxiety, discomfort or pain and experience even greater joy when good times arrive again.

So, enter this new year day by day, or even moment by moment. Set appropriate boundaries and expectations for both yourself, and others. Ask for, and accept help, professional or otherwise. And perhaps, most importantly, do what you can to care for and love yourself for, without self-compassion, all other efforts are futile. Know that we often discover purpose in our pain and through this, you will learn so many amazing things about yourself. I know how hard you tried, mama. I know how hard you’re still trying and how you worry that you will never be able to NOT try so hard again. But you have it in you. This new year may not be without its trials, but you will overcome. You are enough…strong enough, brave enough and loved enough. And, you are never, ever alone.

-Written by Alexis Bruce

Experiencing the Holidays in the Midst of a Perinatal Mood or Anxiety Disorder

The holidays can be a joyful time of year. However, they can also be a source of great stress, overwhelm and even pain. For moms who are struggling with a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder, the pressure to share in the happiness and spirit of the holidays can be intense and feel nearly impossible. The following are some perspectives you may not have considered from the point of view of the mom who is battling a PMAD.

First, imagine the thought of bundling up baby and standing in line at a crowded mall to visit Santa when finding the energy to get out of bed is too much. If you haven’t been able to take a shower all week, guess where buying and wrapping gifts falls on your priority list?  Things like decorating, making food, throwing a party, dressing baby in fancy holiday attire or even trying to feel joy may seem too overwhelming. Imagine what it would feel like to not even want to be around your family or baby at all. Picture wishing you could just hide from everything and everyone until it was all over.

Maybe the holidays cause a spike in your anxiety or OCD. Let’s say you find the courage to attend a holiday party with family or friends. You exhaust yourself pretending to be social; meanwhile, your mind is thwarting intrusive thoughts and you’re ready to jump out of your skin. Your head is filled with questions like, “What if they knew the thoughts I was having about hurting my baby?” “What if they knew I wish I never became a mother?” “What if they knew I thought my family would be better off without me?”

Or, you may be the mom who feels filled with rage. You can’t stand the lines in every store or the added clutter around the house. You fear you might lose it if you hear “Jingle Bells” one more time. And irritated doesn’t even begin to describe how it makes you feel to see others enjoying this time of year. You just wish everyone would just leave you alone.

Perhaps the holidays are difficult because painful memories begin to resurface. Maybe your depression was too heavy last year and you feel you missed out on a special time in your baby’s life. You may be grieving the holidays you wanted to have but didn’t because of your illness. Or, it’s possible that you experienced trauma around the holidays and even just seeing the holiday lights around the neighborhood brings you back to that awful time and place.

Now, imagine the guilt and shame you might feel for not being the mom who is decorating cookies, singing carols or staging the perfect holiday card. Imagine how easy it would be to feel some jealousy or resentment towards the moms who seem to skate effortlessly through the holiday season. It’s hard for the mom fighting a PMAD not to wonder “why me?” It’s no wonder she thinks something must be wrong with her when she sees such happiness in the hearts of those around her and she feels nothing at all.

But, have hope. There are some things this mom can do to help cope with this time of year. Here are some basic tips:

  • Set realistic expectations with yourself and others. Know where you are in your recovery journey and respect what you are capable of right now. The lights might not get up this year and you might still be wrapping gifts on Christmas Eve. That’s okay. If attending every holiday party you were invited to is too overwhelming, pick one or two. People will understand.
  • Learn when to say “no.” This also means, asking for help when you need it. Maybe it’s as simple as requesting family members bring a dish to pass; or, it might mean asking for some additional sessions with a therapist.
  • Be mindful. Try to accept whatever feelings, emotions or thoughts come to the surface and try your best to sit with them. They will pass if you let them.
  • Practice good self-care. In the hustle and bustle of the holidays, it can be difficult to find a moment to yourself but carving out this time is absolutely necessary in order to preserve your mental health. Take a bubble bath and listen to your favorite holiday music or treat yourself to a gingerbread latte at your favorite coffee shop.

So, this holiday season, give yourself permission to be wherever you are in your journey. The holidays are a difficult time for many of us so please trust me when I say that you are not alone. Be kind and gentle to yourself. It won’t always be this hard and this darkness is not forever. My hope is that a year from now, you will have found joy again and will be able to enter the holiday season with the happiness and excitement you once knew so well.

-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

The Waiting Game

No one ever warned you about this. No one told you that you were vulnerable from the moment you saw the positive pregnancy test. But here you are; rock bottom, the lowest of lows…the saddest and scariest place you’ve ever been. But this is reality. You’re here and you’ve decided to ask for help, GOOD FOR YOU! Time to put on that armor and fight for your life.

Since you probably weren’t expecting this, it’s hard to know where to go first. You cover your bases – OB, primary care…you know you really need to talk to someone and frantically Google therapists and psychiatrists nearby. What you’re feeling is urgent and real.

OB is too busy and you can’t get an appointment for 3 weeks…

Primary care doctor tells you this is just the baby blues…

Therapist can’t see you for another 4 weeks…

Psychiatrist can’t see you for another 5 weeks…

But you are hanging on by.a.thread.

You are playing the waiting game. The space between realizing this is bigger than you and the time where you can connect with the help that you so desperately want and need. You’re terrified. Holding your breath. Fearful that you can’t wait that long. You are not alone!

If you’re reading this, you’re lucky. Because that means you’ve found Moms Mental Health Initiative. It means that you’ve likely been connected with resources near you and that you’ve been given access to a peer support network of moms on a similar journey. Suddenly, there is hope.

But you still may be left with a wait. Whether that is hours or days, how do you fill that time? Here are some things that have been helpful for this struggling mama:

  • SELF-CARE: You might be thinking that taking time for yourself is selfish. Or, maybe you tell yourself that you have a newborn and all this comes with the territory. But I encourage you to think of the safety instructions before a flight: “the passenger should always fit his or her own mask on before helping children, the disabled, or any persons requiring assistance.” You can’t take care of anyone if you’re not taking care of yourself. What does this mean to you? Maybe it’s a walk outside, a 5 minute guided meditation or a few minutes reading a book you enjoy. Whatever it is, make time for it. You do deserve it and it’s essential.
  • MINDFULNESS: This takes dedication and practice. My OCD loves to latch on to the “what-if’s” and mindfulness is often able to shut that down. An exercise that has been helpful for me is the 5 Senses Exercise. The idea is to ground yourself in the present moment through the five senses. Start by sitting upright, rest your hands on top of your thighs, and make sure you’re comfortable. Next, breathe slowly and deeply. Focus in on the 5 senses one by one: hearing, smell, sight, taste, touch. Try to find 3-5 things that you can partner with each of the senses. If you get distracted, that’s okay, just start again. 
    • TIP: YouTube offers many videos guiding you through this exercise if that is helpful for you!
  • BEHAVIORAL ACTIVATION: Essentially, Behavioral Activation is doing the opposite of what you feel like doing. When depression hits, even the smallest of tasks can seem insurmountable. Call a friend, go for a walk or (depending on where you are) this might even mean getting out of bed or taking a shower. That’s okay. The key is to challenge yourself and go against the scary, negative feelings you are feeling. By doing this, you are proving to yourself that it’s possible one step at a time.
  • SELF-COMPASSION: Self-compassion has been a hard lesson for me. However, through my journey, I’ve come to realize just how critical self-compassion is. We all have hard days, we all make mistakes, we all wish we’d handled certain things differently. In those moments, what would you say to a friend? How would you comfort or support them? Why do you deserve any different? The next time you notice negative self-talk, try to shift the perspective and treat yourself like you would a dear friend.
  • GRATITUDE: I wish I had a nickel for everytime someone told me to start a gratitude journal! In a very dark time, I decided I had nothing to lose and started each day by writing 3 things I was grateful for on a notebook beside my bed. What I soon realized is that the entries didn’t need to be profound or life-changing. Some days, I wrote that I was thankful for ice cream or the smell of my babies’ shampoo and those are 100% valid!
  • MOMENT BY MOMENT: Waiting will likely not be easy (boy, I have been there!). When things seem hopeless, the best advice I can give is to take it moment by moment. Remember that two opposite things can be true at the same time: “Right now I am struggling but I have taken action to get the help I need”. Try not to get too far ahead of yourself and focus on what is right in front of you.

I wish I could hit the fast-forward button because I’ve been where you are and it is absolutely agonizing. But hopefully the tips above and even just knowing you aren’t alone gives you some comfort. Above all else, be kind and gentle to yourself. Remind yourself that (even though you might not believe it right now) you are incredible, you are strong and you WILL get better!

-Written by Alexis Bruce