I never, ever, ever thought I would be a NICU parent. Then my boys were born at 34 weeks, and suddenly, there we were. Instead of taking my babies home with me, I left the hospital without them. I cried nonstop for days and refused to go in their nursery, just waiting for the day they could come home – which, as it turned out, wouldn’t be for another two months.
I found out my babies would be going to the NICU while pregnant when my OB told me I would have to deliver early. I’d had a complicated pregnancy. Nathan’s growth was significantly slower than Alexander’s, and he was diagnosed IUGR – intrauterine growth restricted. I learned that identical twins are supposed to be the same size in utero, but Nathan being so small was considered a serious complication. I had to have weekly ultrasounds and tests to make sure both babies were okay.
At 33 weeks pregnant, I was told it was time to deliver and that for their safety, my babies would have to be born the next week, six weeks premature, and they would definitely be going to the NICU. We were told they would likely have to stay in the hospital until their due date, “give or take.” They ended up staying two weeks longer than that. It was by far the most difficult experience I have ever had. At one point, Alex had to go to the Children’s Hospital in Birmingham for a procedure, and our family was split – I stayed in Birmingham to be with Alex, while James stayed in Tuscaloosa to be with Nathan. We stayed that way for two weeks.
When I was told my babies would be in the NICU for a long time, I heard the words, but I wasn’t at all prepared for what that time would really feel like. It was a rollercoaster – I’d feel joy and depression and fear and gratitude and guilt all in one day. If I could go back in time, these are the things I would share with myself on that first day that I became a NICU parent:
1. The nurses will become your lifeline; don’t be afraid to lean on them.
NICU nurses are beautiful, perfect, wonderful, magical angels. Seriously – they do incredible work, and the ones at our hospital (Northport DCH) were amazing. They truly treated our babies like they loved them like their own. They did things to make us smile, like making us cute holiday cards from the babies, making signs to hang by their beds when they hit an important milestone, or taking pictures of them and printing them for us to frame. Nurses are the ones taking care of your baby around the clock, giving you updates on your baby’s condition (by phone or in person), and talking you through what’s going on with your baby. They also provide a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear to vent to. The doctors are great, but the nurses are the ones who got us through this whole experience.
2. You can take care of your baby almost as much as you will at home, so you’ll still learn the basics and get to bond.
As long as your baby is stable and it’s feasible with their condition, the nurses let you do a lot of caring for your baby. We changed diapers, took temperatures, changed clothes, gave baths, fed, burped, and rocked to sleep. As a bonus, as first-time parents, the nurses taught us all of the basic baby care skills we needed, so when we got them home, we felt at least a little prepared. When Alexander was at the Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, there was a bed in his room – so I was there even more, and often served as his primary caregiver with the nurses just checking in now and then. Plus, the doctors and nurses encourage parent-child bonding, so when they were stable enough, I could cuddle and hold them for as long as I wanted. Sometimes, if we weren’t there, the nurses would even call us before feeding time so we could come up to the hospital to feed them. (Like I said, the most magical people on earth.)
3. You don’t have to be there every second of every day.
At first, I felt obligated to stay at the hospital from sun up to sundown, and when Alex was transferred to a hospital room where I could sleep, I felt obligated to stay in his room all night. I felt guilty when I left, and this wasn’t helped by well-meaning family and friends saying, “Wow, I bet you’re at your baby’s side night and day!” I felt like if I left the hospital, I was a bad mom. Eventually, I found I had to have a life outside of the NICU or I was going to lose my mind (even more than I already was.) Go home. Sleep in YOUR bed. Go out to lunch. See a movie. Go shopping. Do something for yourself. It doesn’t mean you love your baby less. But taking care of your baby means taking care of yourself.
4. You will break down in front of strangers, more than once, and that is okay.
The day I was discharged from the hospital after giving birth and my babies were not, I lost any and all shame – I wept openly in front of everyone in the NICU. I mean breaking down, ugly crying. And that wasn’t the last time. There were many instances where I sat at my baby’s bedside, sobbing over whatever was the latest setback, with nurses bringing me tissues and quietly rubbing my back. It’s okay – I promise, everyone there understands. It’s a difficult place to be – the mama beside you is probably crying too. Cry as much as you need to, wherever you are.
5. There will be letdowns, setbacks, and disappointments.
There were times when I was sure my babies were about to come home. The doctors and nurses would tell me what great progress they’d made, or talk about how it seemed like “any day now.” Their little bodies would be doing everything right. Then we’d get a bad news phone call, or come in to visit and find out they’d taken several steps backward and now we were back where we started from. I cried many tears over the disappointment of getting my hopes up, thinking I was about to get my babies home and finding out I was wrong. I tried to stay neutral, to not get too excited, but I couldn’t help it – I wanted them home so badly. I wish I could’ve prepared myself for that disappointment, but there was no way I ever could have.
6. It doesn’t last forever, no matter how it feels.
I remember telling the NICU nurses, “I feel like you’re going to send them to kindergarten from here.” It was the longest two months of my life. People kept asking us when the boys were coming home, and it became so frustrating because we genuinely had no idea. Then one day, it was over. We got the call to take them home, and they didn’t go back – they were 100% ours. We didn’t have to make that daily drive to the hospital anymore – ever. Before long, we looked up and realized they’d been home with us longer than they’d been in the hospital. Amazing how fast 59 days can go by in different circumstances.
Now, I can’t even imagine life without them in our home. But in a way, I’m thankful for that experience. I’m thankful for the hospital staff who made sure our babies went home healthy, no matter what it took. I’m thankful for the friends and family who supported us, even when we were struggling the most. And I’m thankful that this experience showed me how strong my little family really is.