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