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To Mamas With Babies in the NICU During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Dear Mama,

I can see you, sitting next to your baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. You are in a hospital gown that is loosely tied around your back but does little to cover you. After a long pregnancy filled with invasive ultrasounds, pinpricks of progesterone shots and IVs, perhaps it has been some time since your body has felt like your own. A fresh red incision cuts across your middle, a physical scar that will mark you forever with the memory of the emergent c-section that was necessary to save the life of your child.

Or perhaps your pregnancy was free of complications, and no doctor, and least of all you, could have predicted that instead of bump pictures and baby showers, you are here now, hunched over in a wheelchair, your legs still wobbly and weak from the epidural. The birth you envisioned and the precious first moments of your baby’s life that you dreamt of are forever altered by a premature delivery. I know what you have already lost.

When a kind nurse wheeled you into the NICU for the first time, the harsh lighting, the continuous beeping of alarms of other babies in distress and the stale hospital air hardly prepared you for the sight of your infant. Alone in an incubator, your baby, barely bigger than a Barbie doll, depends on oxygen and a feeding tube to survive. The knowledge that without these machines, your baby would surely die twists in your chest like a fist. You may feel powerless, helpless to protect your child.

Your baby was born into a time when the world is upside down. The anxiety that stems from the coronavirus and the serious or fatal respiratory complications it can cause is palpable. Every cough, every sneeze of their child makes mothers around the world wonder if it is something more than a simple cold or seasonal allergies. As she pushes back her child’s hair and presses her palm on a freckled forehead to check for a fever, a mom can’t help but wonder if her child is next. She, too, is powerless to stop this virus from sneaking into her home and infecting her child, just as you cannot control the circumstances that led to your child’s premature birth.

Every unexpected sound or change from the machines monitoring and sustaining your child can bring the same fear and more. Has the virus made its way into the NICU despite everyone’s best efforts to keep its fragile lives safe? Worst-case scenarios play constantly in a loop in your exhausted mind. What if today’s brain scan finds a significant bleed? What if your baby stops breathing again, but this time, they can’t resuscitate? What if today is the day the doctors diagnose your child with a lifelong condition resulting from their prematurity?

In the dark stillness of a sleepless night, mothers around the world think again and again about the worst-case scenarios predicted on the news. What happens if her child starts to cough? If her son or daughter wakes up with a fever, should she rush to the emergency room in pajama pants or call an ambulance? What if they get to the ER and there are not enough doctors and nurses to care for her child? Surely they would give a respirator to a child first.

She can’t dwell on this fear for too long, for the morning will bring children cooped up in a house who need to be guided through distance learning. She has a job to attempt to do through email and Zoom conferences, and pandemic or not, dinner needs to be made, laundry needs to be folded and diapers need to be changed.

But this is nothing new to you.

You have older children at home who keep asking why the baby hasn’t come home yet. Their anxiety is becoming more and more evident in their behavior. You are quickly running out of maternity leave, and the guilt that you will be heading back to work while your child lays alone in the NICU may make you want to quit the career you have spent your entire adult life building. Yet, you find a way to drag yourself to the grocery store to buy food for the family that needs you, too. You stand under a hot shower as steam clouds the windows of your bathroom, feeling guilty for taking time to wash your hair, because those are moments that could be spent with your child.

You, NICU mama, are watching as the world gets a taste of what you experience daily. Mankind has come to rely on experts and physicians, trusting they have the knowledge and skill needed to stop an illness from killing hundreds of thousands around the world. As your time in the NICU turns from days to weeks to months, you have learned what it is like to place the life of your child into the hands of strangers, knowing their training and expertise makes them more capable of carrying for your baby than you.

You have read about how COVID-19 kills indiscriminately — that being young and healthy is not a guarantee that you will be spared. But more than anything, despite the statistics and warnings of scientists, despite the empty stadiums and closed restaurants and upended plans, you already know the true worst-case scenario. Mothers around the world may now get a tiny taste of what makes the NICU so unbearable. The idea that your child could die, alone, without his mother, is the true definition of fear.

Eventually, mama, your time in the NICU will end and the pandemic will pass. Stores will reopen, students will return to school and life will begin again. I believe there will be a day when you no longer look at your child and see a preemie, and the wounds the NICU left on your heart will heal. Though the NICU will always be part of your child’s story, just as the COVID outbreak of 2020 will surely fill a page in a history book, it will one day be simply a memory, a period of your life that demanded strength and resilience and faith.

Mama, you are being asked to carry a cross that is heavy. When you feel your strength start to falter, when you wake up to a new day knowing that it might bring the worst, remember you are setting an example for mothers around the world who are scared and looking for heroes. You are showing mothers how to have faith in times of uncertainty, and that no virus, no complication, no periods of isolation, and no sacrifice can ever compete with the love a mother has for her child.

For more on parenting during quarantine, check out the following stories from our parenting community:

Getty image by Kwangmoozaa.

Originally published: April 3, 2020
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