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The Moment I Understood What it Means to Be a NICU Mom

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It was late the night my son was born. My husband had left to be with our other children, but the adrenaline of the day hadn’t quite worn off.

That morning I had woken up in a bed similar to the one I was lying in now, in the antepartum wing of the hospital. My pregnancy had been difficult, multiple episodes of bleeding led to several admittances, the sounds and smells of the hospital had become familiar. The cold blob of goop squirting on my stomach that started yet another ultrasound, the constant tense and release of the compression sleeves I wore around my calves to prevent blood clots during hospital bed rest, and the scratchy, dull white bedsheets had all become the familiar hallmarks of my high risk pregnancy. Still, despite my complications, when I woke that morning, I was not prepared for my pregnancy to go from high risk to, “we’re taking the baby out now.” An emergency caesarean section brought my son into the world 10 weeks prematurely, and sent him straight to his new home in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

Earlier that night, a sweet postpartum nurse took me to see my son in the NICU. I had seen him only twice: once, briefly, as he was wheeled past me in the OR, and again several hours later, when I was brought to the NICU to formally meet him. At that point, I was still tense and a little stunned from the morning. Besides, I could not hold my son, and could barely make out his tiny face from beneath his oxygen and feeding tube. That night, when I was pushed down the dim and quiet hallway of the NICU to his room, I held my baby for the first time. I cradled his small body to my chest, stroked his paper thin skin, and finally, the euphoria and joy of childbirth began to sneak past the heavy fear I felt that day.

I stayed in his room until my eyes became heavy and I couldn’t keep myself from falling asleep. A nurse helped me tuck him into his isolette, and I was taken back to my room to spend the first of many nights away from my son. It wasn’t then — that first moment of separation — when I realized what it would be like to have a child in the NICU. It was later, after my nurse settled me into my bed, made sure I was comfortable, and left me alone to sleep. It was when I heard another baby — a presumably healthy, chubby thighed, full term newborn — crying in the room next door to me. I imagined his mother, sleeping an arm’s length away from his bassinette, waking, immediately ready and able to meet her child’s needs. Maybe she was pulling him close to nurse, or carefully mixing a bottle of formula, or maybe she was simply holding him, sitting in the darkness of her room, touching his plump cheeks and wispy thin hair and marveling at the fact that he was here, with her, in her arms.

My child was a floor away from me, behind locked doors, alone, on the first night of his life. If he was crying in hunger, I wouldn’t know it, and even still, he was weeks away from being able to eat on his own without a feeding tube.

In the next day or so, my neighbor would dress her baby in the special outfit she picked out weeks ago, and she would take her baby home to start their life together. My son’s homecoming day was a question mark, a date that would come only when he could prove to his doctors his little body was capable of keeping him alive. He would have to fight for and earn this day. In the months that would follow, my neighbor and I will mark the same days on the calendar as we count our babies another month older. We will both spend sleepless nights holding a teething baby, we will both wipe runny noses, and we will both worry about the wellbeing of our child — but the way we worry will be different.

I will worry about all the moments I lost with my son, about all the nights when he woke and his mother wasn’t there to comfort him. I will worry about his adjusted age, about when and how he could ever catch up to his peers when their lives began so differently.

On that first night, alone in my room, I didn’t know it yet, but that is what it means to be a NICU mom. To cherish every coo, every cuddle, every ordinary moment, a little differently. My son’s life may not have started like I imagined it would, but he showed me just how strong and resilient he is when he was just hours old. And that makes him just a little different.

Getty image by mvaligursky

Originally published: June 15, 2018
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