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NICU Boot Camp - NICU Emotions

So, you're feeling emotional?

Welcome to the NICU.  It's got to be one of the most intensely emotional places you'll ever find yourself, even though everyone inside seems to be quite calm and collected. 

For the nurses, it's routing, everyday kind of stuff. But for parents, it's probably one of the scariest experiences of their lives. Whether their baby is just barely sick, or is fighting for life, it's an emotional whirlwind and there are no emotions spared.

First Things First - You're not alone

We'll look at finding other parents you can talk with to help you feel less alone, but know this - you aren't alone on this journey. 

Now, of course in some ways this isn't true. When you are driving through bumper-to-bumper traffic just to go visit your fragile newborn at the hospital, you may in fact be alone. When you're up at 3 am attaching yourself to a massive sucking machine, you may be all by yourself.  When the doctor says "we need to talk," you may not have anyone standing there beside you. 

But you are not the only one feeling the way you're feeling. You are not the only one who understands this stress. You are not the only one who feels overwhelmed by the emotions.  Adn you don't have to go through this without talking with a friend who really does understand. Let's take a look at what most moms (and dads) experience during their NICU stay (sometimes in the span of just a few moments)...

Secondly...

Later I'll talk about how and were to get some help, whether it's just finding a friend to talk with or it's finding a physician to talk about antidepressants. I'm going to run through some of the common emotions, but keep reading to find out how to get help with them.

NICU Guilt

How could your body fail your baby so badly? What did you do wrong to cause this disaster?  What should you have done to prevent this? Are you a terrible mommy?

Does any of this sound familiar? Nearly every single NICU mom goes through this. Every one. Because you care, and you'd give anything to make it right. 

But guilt really gets you nowhere.

Stop for a moment, and really think - DID you really do some awful thing? Did you shoot up with heroin right before you went into premature labor? Did you eat wretched food, devoid of all nutrition, drink margaritas every night and smoke like a chimney? No? I didn't think so. You were trying your best, weren't you? Of course you were. Maybe you could have tried harder - everyone could. I could try harder to make this article better, you could have eaten something a little healthier, maybe - but at some point you just have to embrace the fact that you did your best and nature had other plans. So drop the guilt - it will get you nowhere. 

"Whose-baby-is-sicker" Emotions

If your baby is the sickest, tiniest, most fragile baby in the NICU, it's inevitable that you'll feel some resentment at the other babies and other families who don't have it so bad. 

If your baby is on of the biggest, most stable babies in there, it's very likely you'll feel guilty for having an easier time of it, guilty for struggling when you KNOW it could be so much worse. 

If you've been watching babies and families come and go for weeks now, while you've been stuck in the NICU for months and months, you'll probably find yourself ashamed of the way you want to punch somebody who gleefully says "We're going home today!" 

It's all normal to feel these emotions. Don't beat yourself up about it - you're going through such a tough time, you're not expected to be Mother Theresa or Princess Diana. You can be bitchy mommy and bitter daddy. Just try not to let it consume you. Try not to let it become your whole experience. 

No matter how sick your baby is, other NICU families really are the ones who will understand you better than anyone else, so keep them as your tribe the best you can.

NICU Jealousy

Feeling jealous of all those mommies out there who are still pregnant, getting bigger bumps and glowing about their big, healthy, beautiful babies?  Feeling so jealous, in fact, that you can't even stand to be in the same room with a pregnant mother? That's normal.  In time it gets easier, according to what most NICU moms say, but it takes time.

Don't beat yourself up about it, just try not to let it consume you. Because remember this - just as it's not your fault that you were got this crappy situation, it's not their fault that they're enjoying what really is a wonderful thing. Try to find it within yourself to give them their happiness without it taking away from what happiness you are able to muster during this difficult time.

(But if you're secretly hoping their baby will be born bald & ugly, or with a big nose or with terrible colic, I won't tell on you....)

NICU Anger

Feeling angry about people saying insensitive things to you about your baby or about you? Normal. Angry that this is happening to you & your baby? Normal. Angry when other moms complain about getting stretch marks in their last months of pregnancy, or not fitting into their jeans any more as they approach 40 weeks? Angry that the stupid traffic is slowing you down from getting to your baby? Angry at everything?

It's pretty normal. You've been dealt a really tough hand, and it's natural to feel angry about it. 

Don't make it worse by getting angry with yourself for being angry at everything. But if you actually do find yourself overwhelmed with anger, find someone to talk with. 

It's normal to feel angry about some little things and big things right now, but if it's overpowering and you can't stop feeling angry, it's time for some help. 

NICU Depression

Of course it makes sense you'd feel sadness and depression about your baby being sick, fragile, & separated from you. If you find yourself feeling sad, that's normal. If you find yourself crying as you have to head home and leave your baby behind in the NICU, that's normal. If you find yourself crying as your alarm goes of in the morning and you have to pump rather than cuddle with your little one, that's normal. 

But I need you to know that the depression some NICU parents feel is so powerful that they really do need some help. There's no shame in needing help when you're really & truly in the midst of a crisis. 

Now, many people on the "outside" won't understand how this is a crisis. They may think that the NICU means nothing more than your baby being with highly-paid babysitters waiting to gain a little weight before coming home. If only they knew....

So just because nobody else seems to think you need help, you still very well may need help. Just because everybody tells you how "strong you are" or how "they couldn't hold up as well as you are" doesn't mean that you are, in fact, holding up well. 

One thing I've learned about NICU parents is how well they fake their emotions. I'm not quite sure why, but it's totally common for parents to feel that they "shouldn't just sit at the bedside and cry" or they feel they "need to be strong." Really, you don't. Not for the NICU nurses & doctors, you don't. We've seen people fall apart, and it's actually a healthy sign that they're processing their valid emotions. 

Anyway, bottom line - post partum depression is real, and many moms get it. Postpartum depression in NICU moms is significantly higher.[1]  And post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is absolutely a common outcome for some NICU parents, regardless of how sick their baby actually is. 

The stress of alarms, of the fear of death lurking around every moment, the uncertainty, the helplessness... all of it can contribute to PTSD. If you or someone you know who's had a baby in the NICU seems to be unable to pull through it, if you seem to be more than just sad & worried but in fact you're not sleeping, you're unable to take care of yourself, you're plagued by nightmares or irrational thoughts - seek help. You deserve it. 

It's not your fault, and there are treatments that do help. Talk with your OB doctor about it. 

Next Up....

 

[1]http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/751755