There is no way to put into words my feelings over the last two weeks.
When I found out I was pregnant with twins, I immediately felt like a first-time mom. I had so many questions, so many unknowns and so many insecurities.
It was hard not to feel like I was completely starting over.
My pregnancy wouldn’t be the same.
My body wouldn’t respond the same.
My labor wouldn’t be the same.
My chances for a natural birth wouldn’t be the same.
New gadgets, new rules, new doctors appointments, new and unknown things around every corner.
One of those corners that seems ever-more scary is the NICU.
Some forget that this stands for intensive care unit — for sweet little babies. Vulnerable babies, who need constant care and monitoring.
When I found out I was having twins, I read a lot of accounts and it seemed like a high probability that my babies would need some special care.
They usually delivered twins early, which put them at risk for complications that can vary widely. As I read these accounts, I tried to think through my situation. What would my babies need? Would I be ok seeing them plugged into monitors?
I was realistic and open-minded, but I was certainly not prepared.
If you’ve ever had a baby in the NICU, then maybe a few of these will ring true.
You might be a NICU mom if…
YOU START OUT OPTIMISTIC
The first day of the experience, is one of hope. You feel like your baby is getting special care and treatment, and you’re glad there are people with expertise that your baby needs.
When Weston was born, he aspirated fluid. He needed help clearing this, and he was put on oxygen and some other devices for monitoring. Day 1 we were optimistic.
YOU DON’T GET COMFORTABLE
The first day or two, you feel like this is a temporary operation. You don’t pull out the newborn clothes, blankets or special trinkets, because this isn’t what you pictured. You continue to wrap your baby in the small half tee shirts, because you think, I’ll wait to get a picture of him when he’s out and looking his best.
YOU FIND A NURSE THAT YOU RELATE TO
Every mom will find a nurse friend during her NICU journey. For us, it was one of our first nurses. She was there when the girls got to see Weston for the first time. She took care of him in his first few days, and she would always check in on him (and me).
YOU START TO GO CRAZY WITH THE MONITORS
The NICU is constantly ringing with sounds, alarms, bells and whistles. One night when I was taking a shower, I actually could hear them still ringing in my mind. The alarms are intimidating at first. We spent hours and days looking at the monitor… wondering what it meant, what his levels were, and why all the dinging. You wonder if your baby is at risk for severe problems because of these “desats” and why a nurse will pop in asking “is everything alright in there?”
YOU HAVE NO HOME
When the NICU stay starts to last a few days, you don’t feel at peace. You don’t feel at home. You aren’t comfortable, because a piece of you is not there. During our stay, we moved rooms 4 different times. He had a small bay room, a private room with a crib, stayed in the special care nursery with some other babies and in an overnight room. The only room I wanted him in was his room at home. I would cry thinking of his empty crib and the “Welcome home” pictures that just weren’t happening. We were fortunate enough to stay in a courtesy room on the postpartum unit.
At 9am, 12pm, 3pm, 6pm, 9pm, 12am, 3am, and 6am I would walk down the hall, push the elevator buttons and ride up and down up and down. I did this for 13 days and still counting. I would pick up the phone and tell them my room number. I would sleep in the hospital bed, eating make-shift meals, and fitting in showers when I could. Sometimes Michael and I would snuggle up together in the small bed to watch Family Feud or the Office, trying to take our mind off our baby downstairs.
Most times, we would be separated. One with one baby, one with another. You see, our family was incomplete.
YOU FEEL TORN
NICU moms deal with an enormous amount of guilt. I should be down there, I should be pumping more milk, I should ask more questions, etc. etc. I would check in and sign in every night, going though the motions like a zombie.
When should I go back upstairs? Should I hold him? Does it make it worse? Is my milk causing him to gag and making it harder to breathe? You are constantly torn… where you should be, what you should be doing, and it goes on and on.
YOU CAN NEVER EXPECT TO LEAVE
The boys were born on a Thursday, and by Saturday we thought Weston was coming up to the 5th floor to stay with us. All he had to do was pass a 90 minute carseat test, like his brother had just done. His blood sugars, his feeding, his heart rate and other vitals were working well. He had been off the oxygen, and he just needed to sit in his carseat and keep all those vitals up.
However, he couldn’t do it. Although he was a big boy, his body wasn’t able to oxygenate properly. His lungs needed strengthening, and he failed his carseat test.
In fact, he failed it twice. He clearly needed more time. You can never expect to go home, until you’re actually home.
YOU FIND LITTLE VICTORIES ALONG THE WAY
Because the NICU is such an intense environment, you have to celebrate every little thing. When he got his first bath, when his IV came off, when he would keep his eyes open and look around, when he would sustain a certain level, when he got the nurse you liked, and so on.
One day I deemed it a good day because I was able to meet with a lactation specialist. She was specific for the NICU and filled us in on not just feeding a NICU baby with oxygen problems, but how it works. Why some nurses would make some decisions, what “orders” were and how things were reported. Up until that point, we felt like so many things were just dependent on which nurse you got and how they felt, but that wasn’t true.
It was such an emotional experience with so many set backs, I had to find small things to keep me going.
YOU START TO TAKE INITIATIVE
After a week or so of intense pressure and feelings of inadequacy of how to care for your baby, you start to take control. I would talk to the nurses like I knew what was going on. When it was time for the “touch times” I would take the temps, change the diapers, report the feedings, before they asked. I would walk up and find the doctors to ask my questions, instead of waiting for them to make their rounds. You see, there’s not a whole lot of planning that goes on with NICU babies… a lot of times you hear, “they just need to get bigger and grow” or “it just takes time.”
YOU HAVE TO RULE OUT BIGGER PROBLEMS
When your baby isn’t improving, fear sets in. I would constantly worry — what if there’s something REALLY wrong here? He had Echo scans, head ultrasounds, blood work, x-rays… all came back normal. We said prayers of gratitude.
YOU GET “OVER IT”
There’s a time when I just felt over it. Signing in and out, picking up the phone to get them to open the door, the small talk with the nurses. I just wanted to leave.
The bags under my eyes were still there. I would wear my unattractive blanket with a zipper, I had milk stains and a less than supportive bra… I was in survival mode. These moms are warriors. When I would sign in on the list, my heart would sink every time I saw a new name.
Friends, visitors, aunts, moms, dads, sisters… all coming to lend support, a shoulder to cry on or a smile of encouragement.
YOU LOWER EXPECTATIONS
At some point, you just stop planning, stop hoping and you just embrace that this is the way it is. You bring the outfits from home, you send the pictures. This is the new normal.
YOU HAVE TO SEE YOUR BABY UNCOMFORTABLE
They put patches on his face, sticky leads that hurt on his chest, pricking his heel multiple times. It’s hard to see your baby in pain.
YOU MISS YOUR PEOPLE
I can’t tell you how sad I felt and how I longed to be with my girls. I would get pictures of them having fun or would FaceTime, and I knew they were happy. I knew they were taking care of. I missed kissing them goodnight. I missed holding them. I wondered if they knew how badly I wish I could be there for them. I was able to leave the hospital for the first time for Carmen’s 7th birthday.
The night before her special day, I got so emotional, watching my van drive off with my mom, Michael’s mom and my children. I felt gratitude for loving moms, but I was her mom. I wanted to wake her up and wish her a happy birthday. I didn’t get to… but I did make it to her party. That was a tough day, but that’s what the NICU is made of. Tough days and tough mom moments.
YOU REACH OUT
During my NICU stay, I met some friends. One of which I already knew who happened to deliver her sweet girl just a few days before me. I also chatted with other moms and we helped encourage each other. When one couple was discharged, baby in hand and bags in tow, she came over and gave me a hug and said, “Good luck mama. We’ll be praying for you.” Love from a stranger, bonded only by NICU uncertainties.
YOU ARE MOM AND DAD
It’s hilarious to me that all the nurses will refer to us as “mom” and “dad.” It’s weird at first, but then it becomes normal. They have lots of parents to deal with, I think it keeps it simple for them.
YOU GET KICKED OUT
Well, I guess there is a point when you have to face reality. Ours came when the charge nurse on the postpartum unit told us they may need our room. Michael called it the “walk of shame” every time he went by the nurses’ unit — feeling like we overstayed our welcome. Although we always saw empty rooms, I guess it got to a point where we needed to leave. I sobbed. I didn’t want to go home with just one baby. It wasn’t the cuddly-snuggly twin picture I had in my head. But nonetheless, we left…
YOU ENCOURAGE EACHOTHER
While we were driving away, Michael stayed positive. Even when the Dairy Queen was closed, he kept a smile on his face. He had been so sweet to our boys. Holding them every chance he got, blessing them, praying over them. Offering support and being by my side every step of the way. We said heartfelt prayers together, and I snuck this photo of him visiting our sweet boy.
YOU GET COMFY
You bring your laptop to write this blog post, you get a new crib instead of a plastic bed, you bring some snacks during your visit… and you can even go down to the cafeteria without feeling intense guilt. You start to get used to the NICU life… and wonder when it’s ever going to end.
YOU WONDER ABOUT THE EXPENSES
At some point, you think…geeze, how much is all of this going to cost? With each day, I would get so nervous imagining the bills that will be coming to my mailbox. Of course, I would pay any price for a healthy baby, but as the days passed on, so do the dollar signs.
I joked with Michael saying, “You know for these 10 or so days we could’ve gone on a pretty nice vacation.” and he said, “Yeah, and for the amount of money we’ll be paying, I bet it would be somewhere amazing.” Needless to say, insurance is a joke and this is going to get messy when the bills come in. Luckily, Michael took control of this. I was dealing with a NICU baby, had just fed at 9am, got a call about insurance and broke down. Nursing two babies, hormones, and money is not a good combination. I needed a level-headed partner to take it on, and he spent hours on the phone making it happen.
ONE STEP FORWARD, THREE STEPS BACK
Our NICU journey isn’t ending with the victory celebration we imagined. He didn’t all of a sudden turn the corner, he didn’t have his triumphal moment in his carseat… he’s going to come home on oxygen. After so many tries, it’s just clear he needs more time. And for our sanity, that time is better spent at home with his brother and our family.
When you sign in to the NICU desk, you wonder what everyone else’s story is. I was nursing my baby when I heard them yell, 24 weeker, STAT. This put it all in perspective. I was grateful for what I did have — a special baby boy that would be better in no time.
YOU LOVE LIKE YOU’VE NEVER LOVED BEFORE
When you see a tiny person trying so hard to get better, you love on a new level. You have zero control. It’s up to them. It’s their time table. You can’t fix anything.
You can only pray and hope…
When I felt like all hope was lost, so many dear friends and family reached out. They shared their experiences, they told me they were praying for me, and they sent flowers, visited, and put a smile on my face. We tried to balance normal life with this NICU journey, and we are better for it.
Most of all, I love my little Weston in a whole new way. I will never take “coming home” for granted. I will never take a healthy baby for granted. Birth is a beautiful thing. Motherhood is divine.
These past two weeks were so trying, so awful, yet so beautiful. I don’t ever want to forget what it’s taught me to be and what it means to be a NICU mom.