This morning my sister sent me a #NICUAwarenessMonth video on social media (NICU - Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). It shows women with their premmie babies in the intensive care unit. The music is powerful and the words inspiring:
”This is not what you pictured... your baby surrounded by machines and wires... leaving the hospital empty-handed... But you are strong.. Because your baby needs you... To comfort them even when glass separates you... This journey is overwhelming... But you are adapting.”
Nine years ago I had a premmie baby. I had pre-eclampsia which resulted in my son being born two months early via emergency caesarean. He weighed 835 grams. We had gone for an impromptu check-up and didn’t come home for two months. Most of that time we spent in NICU. That baby has grown into a wise, creative, funny, resourceful, intelligent and beautiful little boy. We are so blessed.
And yet, as I sat at the table with my morning coffee, watching this video, tears poured down my cheeks. It caught me off guard. Again. This mountain of feeling - so mixed with grief, love, traumatic memories, gratitude, and even a bit of shock, all these years later. The endless helplessness and shock. The survivor guilt - so many people so much worse off. The babies that didn’t make it.
And I’ve done a lot of work on this already. Am accustomed to deep self enquiry.
So how to survive NICU?
My son is thriving. He has flourished since his first breath, though we all fought harder than we ever expected to. We focussed everything on him. That habit was hard to break. Time has offered its mellowing gift. Six years ago we had another beautiful son, also birthed in fairly dramatic fashion. These days we are getting on with the business of living. But it took quite a few years for us to find our feet. More than I expected. We were deeply impacted by all that happened, and there have been lots of challenges along the way.
When I think of that time, my greatest support is the bone deep certainty that we did everything we possibly could to create an environment in which our baby could thrive, despite the beeping machines, changes of staff and invasive procedures. We left nothing in the tank. From Kangaroo Cuddles to fierce advocacy. We held firm to our convictions around attachment parenting, despite the dominant culture.
This claiming of our parenting style in the midst of an environment less than conducive to an intimate connected family circle, helped to ensure our role in a setting where we could easily have felt extraneous. One of us was with our baby 24 hours a day, just as it would have been if we were home. I sang lullabies through the glass. We even put up little signs on the humidicrib asking people to speak respectfully to/about him. Some staff loved us, some not so much. For someone who is a bit of a people-pleaser, that was surprisingly OK. I let my Tiger-Mama do her thing when necessary. If we had listened to the dominant culture, then and later, there may have been a very different outcome.
In essence, we shaped the situation in any way we could, in a situation where so much was completely out of our control.
One of the offshoots now, is that other people’s opinions about our parenting don’t matter so much. Under the layers of shock, we found a deep sense of agency that has seen us through our parenting to date. We learned to trust ourselves and trust our kids.
I have come to see that the important question isn’t “How was the birth?” But rather, “How have you been transformed by motherhood or fatherhood?”
This processing of our experience has been hard-earned and is ongoing. There is a whole lot of isolation that comes from such an extra-ordinary experience. It’s not great coffee shop conversation. No-one really knows what to say to you. And it can be tricky to integrate into the “Mums and Bubs” set with such vastly different formative stories. I didn’t talk much to other people in the beginning. It was hard to reconcile my experience with what I presumed theirs had been. A surprising number of friends dropped away. I was so insular, both out of my own trauma and the reality of needing to protect my vulnerable baby. It seemed like there was no way anyone could connect with me in the enormity of all that had happened. And I was too exhausted and focussed on survival to try. I wish that I had kept talking, taking the risk to be heard, had kept going until I found the support I needed.
I’ve come to a place, finally, where I am ready to be heard. To be witnessed. For someone to stand present with everything I say and not feel compelled to compare it to something they’ve heard or experienced. To not try to make it better. Just to listen. I’ve discovered my own need to stop protecting other people from my story and to have the courage to just tell it. There’s a surprising amount of fresh air in the places left by the telling.
You can listen to Krishna's interview with Sally via this link below.
Thank you. This could have been my story. the only difference is that i came to the realisation early that my story needed to be told and shared. Since the birth of my son at 29 weeks i have become passionate about helping other prem parents through their journey.
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