Henry is my New Year’s Baby. He wasn’t supposed to be my New Year’s Baby. He wasn’t supposed to be born until five weeks later. I wasn’t supposed to find myself standing helplessly at his bedside in the NICU, feeling as if a tangle of tubes and machines could care for him better than I could. I wasn’t supposed to be watching my milk being fed to him through a tube in his nose instead of skin to skin and heart to heart while we soaked up the feeling of oneness that pervaded while he was still in the womb.
But life doesn’t always go the way we think it is supposed to, and we sometimes suddenly find ourselves in situations that require us to remain calm and collected with Herculean physical strength, even though there are moments when we just want to curl up in a ball and awaken from the bad dream into which we seem to have been plunged.
And so I accepted the NICU challenge.
With the help and support of God, family, and close friends, I entered a state of “mommy autopilot”, ready to do whatever it took to turn my and Henry’s relationship into the “normal” that I knew. This wasn’t just about my baby’s physical health. This was about my style of mothering and everything that I believed the mother/baby dyad was meant to be. We both needed the nursing, the snuggles, and the proximity to gaze into each other’s eyes so we could get to know each other through unspoken words. I entered a world of mothering that seemed guided more by science than by instinct. Weighing diapers, measuring milk, and watching the clock between feedings became the new normal for me. The machines quietly whirred along, humming the tune of my baby’s growing strength and stability.
As the hours turned into days, Henry was thankfully moved into a Special Care room that provided a place for me to sleep so I could be by his side 24 hours a day. He was gaining in strength and starting to nurse more effectively, which left more room in my anxious mind for thoughts of the rest of my family.
The visits from my other three children were brief and bittersweet. My parents took wonderful care of them during the first few nights when both Rob and I stayed at the hospital, but it soon became apparent that my children’s homesickness could only begin to subside by being at home with their Daddy.
So I sent Rob off, certain that I was strong enough to handle the sleepless NICU nights on my own. I wasn’t quite as prepared for what I would encounter during the first visit from Rob and the kids.
The sudden and prolonged separation hit my 22 month old Hazel especially hard. When she arrived in my hospital room, clinging to her Daddy, I expected her to want to sit with me, cuddle, nurse, and reconnect. But instead she looked at me with a sadness and distrust I had never seen in any of my children’s eyes before. She preferred to stay with Rob rather than come near me. It struck me in that moment how much our constant and reliable presence solidifies the trusting bond we have with our young children, and how quickly that trust can begin to waver. That was a difficult moment. All I wanted to do was go home and return to the way we all used to be, and yet I felt as strongly tethered to Henry’s machines and tubes as he was. So I had a good cry, and moved forward with more determination than ever to focus on my premie and his health so we could go home as soon as possible.
Eventually, the NICU week did come to an end, and my family joyfully arrived to take Henry and me home. I was especially hoping that my presence in familiar surroundings would encourage Hazel to surrender her trust to me again.
Upon arriving home, I reveled in the simple things I had missed so much: the big blue La Z Boy that could hold a nursing mama and baby plus up to two other children, our king size bed that promised the joys of co-sleeping again, and our kitchen table where we could all sit as a big, happy family that evening. But as I soaked all of this in, I carefully watched my little girl circling around me as if she couldn’t quite believe that I was really home to stay. Finally, I sat down in our big blue chair. Hazel gazed at me intently with her big brown eyes, then suddenly, with a choked, “Mama!”, she ran into my arms and we assumed that old, familiar position that says, “You are mine, and I am yours–completely and forever.” As she happily nursed and I brushed away my happy tears that threatened to mix with her own on her soft, sweet cheeks, I sighed with relief. I was finally home!
I often wonder what I would do if tested like the great saints and martyrs were. Perhaps on a smaller scale, situations like this are God’s way of showing us who we really are and which virtues need strengthening. We are not called to find the easiest, safest, most convenient way of living. We are called to seek God’s way. Those who are called to the vocation of marriage also carry the responsibility of embracing their gift of fertility and all that encompasses. For some, this calls for heroic measures, whether it be using Natural Family Planning to avoid a high risk pregnancy for an indefinite amount of time, or accepting pregnancies at God’s calling, trusting that His plan is best, whatever the outcome may be. Others are called to live out the message of God’s love in all of the smaller mundane moments of parenthood while caring for a large family. Some couples are called to bear the burden of infertility, multiple miscarriages, caring for a special needs child, or losing an older child as part of God’s plan for their lives.
So after the birth experience I had with Henry, would I do it again if God asked me to? Absolutely. As I write this, we are awaiting the birth of our fifth child. While we are hopeful for a smooth labor and delivery of a healthy baby, we are also prepared to embrace whatever situation God chooses to give us. Although the week in the NICU with Henry was difficult, it also showered me with many blessings. I realized how fortunate we were to have such a big, strong premie with no serious health concerns. I now have more compassion for other mothers who go through the same experience, and I feel compelled to send extra prayers out to parents who are separated from their children due to illness or long hospital stays. But most of all, that week in the NICU gave us Henry. Joyful, inquisitive, energetic Henry. Someone who God gave us the privilege of bringing into the world. Someone who makes every anxious, difficult, unsure NICU moment a faint memory as the person God created him to be shines brighter and brighter with each passing day.
Tips for Establishing an AP Style in the NICU
God will not fail you. He will give you the strength and wisdom you need to get through this. All you have to do is ask.
2. Be informed and have a birth plan.
Put your plan for labor, delivery, and newborn care in writing and bring plenty of copies with you so you and the medical staff will have a clear goal in mind for the type of relationship you eventually want to have with your baby.
3. Have a support person present who can be an advocate for you and your baby.
Either a doula or a husband/coach who can communicate your needs when you are unable to is indispensable. This person should also be well versed in exactly how you want your newborn to be cared for so he/she can communicate these desires to the NICU team immediately following birth.
4. Be persistent.
Remind the medical staff that you want to hold and nurse your baby as soon as possible. Speak with a good La Leche League leader or lactation consultant immediately following birth so you can be well informed about how to pump and get your milk supply going. Insist that baby receive only your milk, even if it’s through a feeding tube for awhile. Premies often have difficulty nursing at first. Keep trying. Insist on sleeping in the same room as your baby if at all possible. You are your baby’s best advocate. The persistence will pay off.
5. Build a relationship of trust with the medical staff.
Be persistent, but speak with respect. Voice your desires and concerns, but be open minded while listening to their reasons for how they want to care for your baby. Be willing to compromise at times, and have good information to back up the way you want to see your baby cared for. I found that by appearing well informed and open minded, the staff seemed more likely to ask my opinion and involve me in their decision making process of how to move forward with Henry’s care.
6. Let your baby experience you as much as possible with all of his senses.
“Hug” your premie in his warming bed by cupping your hands around his tiny body so he can feel your presence. Place fabric swatches that have been tucked next to your skin for a few hours next to your baby’s head so he can smell your familiar scent. Talk and/or sing to him. Lean in close and look into his eyes when they are open.
Let your baby experience Kangaroo Care once you are allowed to hold him: Hold baby skin to skin with plenty of warm blankets covering both of you. This will also encourage him to nurse more frequently.
Participate in as much of your baby’s care as the staff will allow. Take his temperature, change his diapers, learn how to administer a feeding or medication. Your baby will thrive on more interaction with you, and the medical staff will have confidence in your ability to care for your premie.
7. Trust that the bond you’ve already established with your older children will carry those relationships through this time.
Separation from your family is never easy, but a well-established bond gives children something familiar to come back to. Trust is fragile, but children are very forgiving and resilient, especially when the bond with their parents is deeply rooted in mutual respect, faith in God, and a love that runs deeper than the surprises and uncertainties of life.
My children and I sometimes discuss the events surrounding Henry’s birth. Although they still agree that it was no fun to have Mommy away for so long, they also unanimously agree that Henry was worth it! They love their little brother dearly, and they have lived the lesson that God’s plan for life is worth a little sacrifice and hard work.