The ABC's of NICU Life
There's more than joy when it comes to bundles of joy.
I had been warned many times throughout my pregnancy that a premature delivery would be likely. Regardless, I had it in my head the whole time that I would surprise the doctors and carry these babies to term. It was not a matter of determination or anything like that; it was simply an unfounded feeling of confidence that I carried along with the babies. Everything in my life had always worked out, so why should this be any different? Well, to no one else’s surprise, our twins were born about five weeks early and spent some time in the neonatal intensive care unit.
I had done absolutely nothing to prepare myself for this mentally. I assumed breastfeeding would be a breeze (women who “couldn’t” were just wimps, right?). I assumed Twin A would eventually flip, thus avoiding a C-section (he did not). I assumed I would recover quickly enough to take the boys for walks outside every day until it got too cold or until I was skinny again, whichever happened first (I was SO DONE with the fatness!). I assumed that by the time I was discharged from the hospital, I would be in an acceptable physical state to care for a child (or two)... but I could barely stand.
I have seven siblings, four of them younger than me. Furthermore, I have been working with children since I was nineteen. I was not nervous about anything. Even when I was in labor, all I could think about was meeting our little beans. Everything changed when the nurses rolled my hospital bed into the operating room. My exact thoughts at that moment were, “This looks nothing like Grey’s Anatomy. This looks like a place where people die.” We didn’t, though! Thank goodness for modern medicine!
Then came the NICU days. I was at a loss as to how to organize my thoughts about this. Keeping with the “kid” theme, I decided to use the alphabet.
*A special thanks to some fellow NICU mommies who added their own ideas to help complete this list.*
Babies need milk, sleep and cuddles. Mine didn’t want the tiny amount of milk that I had to give, and I had to sacrifice the cuddle time to pump as a result. Nothing was going according to plan. We were all anxious and stressed, to say the least.
A baby should not have to hear “bye bye” from his parents that many times that early on in his life. We left them in excellent hands, of course, but it was hard.
Once in awhile, things got scary. There was one baby in particular (not one of ours) who just kept having issues. I will never know the details of her story, of course, but her alarms kept going off (and they weren’t false like the majority of others' alarms). On one of these many occasions, the only non-babies in the room were me, my husband, and a usually calm nurse. That baby’s alarms went off again. The nurse rushed over to her and immediately started yelling to my husband, “Go through that door, go down the hall, and get help! I need another set of hands!” Without hesitation, he did what she asked. Another nurse came running. I don’t even remember what transpired in the next minute; I was busy trying to hold back tears (postpartum hormones, I guess?) because I was sure that baby was going to die. Well, she didn’t, and I have never been so proud of my husband (okay, the nurses did alright too).
Speaking of nurses, they loved to gossip. I didn’t totally mind the free soap opera, though.
Need I say more?
I was frustrated that I couldn’t walk, that the babies wouldn’t breastfeed, that I didn’t have enough milk for one, let alone two, and that our insurance deductible was so high. Above all, it was so frustrating to be what most people would label as the most important person in these children’s lives, when all I could do was wait with them until they could come home. Mother is supposed to know best, but it felt like I was postponing my title until the doctors’ work was done.
There was about a week between when the first twin came home and when the second twin was ready to do the same. We felt like horrible parents that week. With a new baby at home and being in abysmal shape myself, we lost hours just trying to get everyone out of the house to go see the other twin. We did our best, but I still wish I could go back and somehow give the second twin more time during that period.
Harp & Hope
Harp: There was an elderly woman who came often and volunteered her time to play soothing harp music for all of the NICU babies (and any lucky mommies who happened to be present). She provided some peace in the midst of such a stormy time.
Hope: I can’t stress enough how important it was to keep looking forward during this entire process; the NICU days felt interminable, but the sun kept setting and coming right back up the next day. No parent wants to hear that his/her bundle of joy will have to spend time in that place, but where would we be without it?
I was ready to parent. I knew all about babies and all about kids. Now I had two preemies, though. I had never even seen a preemie in real life, and now I was expected to raise two of them and not let anyone die.
At the end of the day, your family just grew, right?
This list would not be complete without a reference to the “plastic bag drifting through the wind” that my best friend and I witnessed through the panoramic window during one of her visits. Sometimes, it's the little things.
It takes a lot of love, emotional strength, mutual respect and verbal restraint to maintain a healthy relationship during tough times when neither of you is getting any sleep. It is possible, though!
I had the help of two other NICU moms for this list. All four of our babies had the privilege of being born in this time in this place. A century ago or even today in many places, our stories would have turned out vastly different than they did.
Some were great and some were not, but those belonging to the former group were truly pillars of support during a very stressful time. There were also many times I noticed that if the nurses had any down time, they would just sit and rock with those babies who had no visitors.
I couldn’t help but notice other babies and their families (or lack thereof). I wondered what their stories were. My first reaction was to judge; why were my babies the only ones with frequent visitors? Why was that mom over there looking at her phone instead of staring helplessly at her child? The more days I spent there, the more I understood. Not every family has the privilege of taking time off to welcome a new child. Not every new parent is comfortable handling a tiny, precious new life, especially a fragile one. Not all NICU babies can be breastfed or even bottle fed. Not all NICU babies can be held or even touched! In these cases, what is there to do besides be present? That mom with the phone addiction could have been trying to communicate for more time off, talking to her other children’s babysitter, or even just doing the only thing she could think of to keep her eyes open!
Tempus fugit. Just eighteen months later, we find ourselves reminiscing on those silly NICU days when everyone was so worried. Think of it this way: there will always be someone whose child has a longer NICU stay than yours. If they can hold on, so can you.
Why does the monitor keep beeping false alarms?
Why does one twin keep falling asleep before finishing his bottle? You need milk to live, dude!
Why do they both keep yanking their feeding tubes out?
Why do the nurses keep telling me to get some rest and then immediately asking if I’ll be here for the next feeding? The word “nap” was nowhere to be found in the constant rotation of feedings and pumping.
Why is one twin ready to come home and not the other?
Why can everyone and their mother visit but not my twelve-year-old sister?
WHY CAN’T I EAT LUNCH IN THE NICU?
Rub some dirt on it.
Or don’t. Having spent so much time with children, I was prepared to take a very laid back approach to parenting. It was extremely difficult adapting to a mindset where I could not just brush everything off. NICU babies just need more care; every detail matters. The doctors counted every ounce of milk drunk, every ounce of weight gained or lost and even the nature of every dirty diaper’s contents!
Struggle, Scary, Strong
When I asked for help compiling this list, a friend provided these three words in that order. I am leaving them that way because I completely understand the thought process behind them. Before you even have time to think, everything is all of a sudden really difficult. When you finally have a second alone with your thoughts, you start actually considering all of the horrible possibilities of what could have been and what could still be… and that’s scary. Eventually, though, you realize how strong you are and how strong babies are, and you show up the next day and do it all again.
Where to start? Modern medicine, my husband, our families, our friends, doctors, nurses, that random room in the NICU with unlimited ice water, the plastic bag that came “drifting through the wind” just when we needed some laughter… and let’s not forget the babies themselves; they’re the ones who did the surviving.
Ummm… excuse me?
One nurse actually said to me, “You think that it’s nice when you stroke his head with your finger, but it’s actually like nails on a chalkboard to a newborn.” She failed to explain why it got him to stop crying, though. Moving right along.
As I mentioned earlier, I could barely stand up straight for a couple of weeks after my C-section. I was exhausted from a three-hour schedule of “attempt and fail to feed Twin A, attempt and fail to feed Twin B, pump, repeat.” I was spread too thin (but still fat!). I was hazy and drowsy from pain meds (it turned out my incision was infected… normal people only need meds for a couple of days). In short, I was physically incapable of taking care of myself, let alone twins. My husband really stepped up (no surprise there, but still mention-worthy!).
Wash wash wash
Before you even get to the main desk, you arrive at the bank of sinks (which, by the way, you cannot reach from a wheelchair). Never have my hands been SO CLEAN SO OFTEN as during the NICU days. (Edit to add: HA! Enter COVID.)
As any NICU personnel would tell you, babies need cuddles! This isn’t always possible in the very delicate situations, but luckily for us, our babies were usually allowed out of their beds and we had more than enough family members waiting for a turn.
You look tired.
Thank you. How very observant and constructive of you.
Story of my life…