Dear New NICU mom,
I'm sure your head is spinning, and you may still be trying to recover from the shock of ending up here, as a NICU parent.
Take a moment and breathe.
You might have to remind yourself to do that a few times during your journey, and that is okay! As a good friend told me at the start of our NICU stay, “no matter how long it lasts, it's a marathon, not a sprint”. It was a great piece of advice, and one that I actually wrote in the notebook I kept with me to journal and write my questions in, so that I would see it often and be reminded on the “bad” days. I'm not sure what the circumstances were that brought you here, or what lies ahead of you in this race but know this - you are not alone.
There are a few things I want to warn you about and several other things I want to tell you to hopefully encourage you!
First off, understand that while your baby(ies) is the “center of attention” right now, you are the center of their world. So many people will tell you to “take advantage of not having your baby at home and rest”, or “be sure to take care of yourself too”.
Their advice isn't totally unfounded, but it doesn't make it any easier to hear or accomplish. It can be tempting to spend every waking moment by that isolette, and don't get me wrong, that is the most important place to be, but be sure to take just a few minutes for yourself too. Shower. Eat. Sit on your front porch with a hot cup of coffee. Talk to a friend or a trusted counselor. When the time finally does come for your baby to come home, you'll want to feel confident and joyful, but you can not pour from an empty cup. No matter how you choose to self-care, you may feel guilty about it, and that's okay, but remember that it serves as an extension of the love you have for your child.
While we are talking about guilt, it is just one of the many emotions you may experience in the NICU. Like many NICU moms, the storyline of your baby’s birth and the circumstances that follow are not anything close to what you may have imagined, and often can be downright traumatic. How you feel and work through that process is okay and valid.
For me, I spent a long time in denial (well call it shock) and then the sadness hit and stayed until about the time I returned to work from maternity leave. Then the anger set it.
The constant irritation, anxiety, and often feeling of rage was alarming to me and I decided to reach out to a therapist for help processing. I encourage you to do the same (even now if you think it could help guide you). Remember, it's a marathon, not a sprint, and sometimes we all can benefit from a trusted coach or trainer to help us get to the finish line.
The NICU journey is an emotional rollercoaster. One day is never the same as the next. There will be days of sadness or fear from a new diagnosis or unforeseen challenge. Then there is the overwhelming sense of pride when your baby accomplishes a milestone like taking their first oral feed, moving to an open air bassinet, or passing their carseat test. And then there are a bunch of mundane days in between that make you look at not just the clock, but the calendar wondering how long you'll be stuck there. Marathon, not a sprint.
While you sit with your baby, you may see other babies and their families come and go. The sadness of seeing a new mom wheeled in to meet her tiny miracle for the first time is enough to gut you and make you sob and you don't even know her. You'll start to recognize faces of other parents, and even if you don't ever say a word (though I encourage you to make a friend - you're in this together!), a simple smile is enough to show a mom you see her and you understand her.
You may also get to experience watching a family take their baby home, and it will sting, especially if their time spent in the NICU was shorter than yours. But try to remember, their marathon was on a completely different course. And while the jealousy of their race being finished is totally justified, it doesn't mean they aren't exhausted from running too. You'll understand more clearly when your baby crosses the finish line too.
Final word of warning, your friends and even your family might just not understand, especially after some time has passed. At some point, though the support itself doesn't stop, the outward showing of it does often slow down. It is no one’s fault - life for you is in a slow crawl but for everyone else, eventually life returns to their normal. The texts and social media posts may slow, the visits might become less, and things can start to feel a bit lonely or isolating. It is hard to feel like everyone has moved on but their love and care hasn't wavered, I can promise you that. It can be hard to find someone to talk things through with or vent to who can truly empathize with you. See if your hospital has a support group or consider getting connected in a virtual group. We NICU mamas gotta stick together!
There are (believe it or not) a few positives of the NICU life! You will learn not just how strong your baby is, but how strong you are also. It takes real grit to be a parent, let alone a NICU parent. You'll discover that mama bear inside as you advocate for your baby, and you will learn true patience and grace as you and your baby run this race.
The saying “it takes a village” takes on a whole new meaning in the NICU. Your doctors, nurses, and therapists are your village. You will form a truly special bond with some of them and they will become like family. Don't be afraid to be vulnerable and naive in front of them; they are an amazing source of support and truly take pride in helping parents be successful when they take their baby(ies) home.
Finally, you will discover what and who is truly important in your life. After watching your child slowly move from suffering to thriving you learn to be in awe of the simple things. It takes less to give you overwhelming joy, you notice the little things and feel more thankful for them, and every tiny thing your baby does will fill you with such emotion because you know how far they had to run to get to the finish line.
It's a marathon, not a sprint, and you're not running it alone.
A fellow NICU mama.
Ashlin Stecz is a mom to 2 year old Wyatt, a former 29 weeker. She is a radiologist technologist in orthopedic and trauma surgery but also has a passion for supporting women in their motherhood journeys. She is currently working toward earning her certificate as a lactation counselor and plans to continue by completing her IBCLC and in her spare time she loves playing with her son and husband, reading, and completing DIY home improvement projects.