Learning from the NICU, Times Three

Most of you that know me know that the twins were in the NICU, but some people probably don’t realize or remember that our firstborn son was too. My labor progressed quite slowly, and after 3.5 hours of pushing, my son had to be delivered with the help of vacuum extraction. He had the cord around his neck and was covered in meconium. He had swallowed some and was not breathing well. His breaths were shallow and the minute he came out he did not cry, he just whimpered. My first moments of holding him were bittersweet, as I was excited and overcome with joy to finally hold him in my arms, but also a bit panicked that there was nothing I could do to help him breathe better.

After spending a few sweet moments with our boy, we had to hand him off to the people who could clean him up and help get him breathing and stabilized. He was okay and breathing normally soon after a bit of assistance, but meanwhile, I was left completely alone in a hospital room with just a nurse that popped in and out to check on me. To say that I felt disappointed and emotional is an understatement. What had I spent those endless hours of labor and those nine months carrying him around for just to have him swept from my arms moments after meeting him?

In those moments, as I prayed to God for some peace and reassurance, I remembered something wise someone once told me. Back when Brian and I were doing ministry partner development for his campus ministry job, we met with potential donors in their homes and usually got to hear a lot about their faith journeys and lives. One woman was sharing about her kids moving out and moving very far away. I asked her how she felt about it and how she was holding up under all the changes. I loved her answer. “Well,” she said, “it is hard, and I miss them all a lot. But I’ve always tried to remember that while we are given our children, ultimately they don’t belong to us, they belong to God.”  She shared how God has continued to show her that He has good plans for her kids and that she can give that area of her life over to Him.

As I drew my mind back to that conversation, lying there alone on the hospital bed, I smiled a little. God wasn’t going to waste any time showing me that while trusting Him with those we love most can be terrifying, it is important that we do so. My boy wasn’t mine. Well, he was, and he wasn’t, and it was going to be okay.

The next few days taught me a few things that I learned the hard way, but carried into my second NICU experience when the twins were born.

 

  1. It’s okay, and good, to rest. On top of just having a baby (or two, or more, whatever your situation may be), it’s an extra kind of stress to have your newborn(s) in the NICU. As most women experience soon after having a baby, my emotions were all over the place and hitting new extremes, and when your baby is in the NICU, you do not have the luxury of having your baby in a bassinet next to you so you can wake up and nurse them and go back to sleep, or have your baby brought in by a nurse, or right near your own bed at home. I was able to stay at the hospital a third night so that we didn’t need to leave my son behind, and he was discharged after that. But after two nights at the hospital with the twins, I had to leave. Every NICU mama knows, it is challenging to say goodbye to your babies each night before you leave, draining to spend your newborn bonding weeks with a slow stream of people in and out of your room, including doctors and specialists and other staff that have conversations with you at seemingly every hour of the day, and downright exhausting to get up multiple times in the night to pump only to wake up, get yourself halfway presentable, travel to the hospital, and walk through those doors to see your baby(ies). Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to spend every minute with my newborns. But I also didn’t. With my son I had been given the terrible advice from the nurses that I needed to pump the amount of time I would spend normally nursing, about 40 minutes. When they had unhooked my son from most of the supports, and I could nurse him the second day, that meant I was spending 40 minutes pumping and 40 minutes nursing him every three hours. After sleepless nights leading up to labor, followed by an 18 hour labor and delivery, followed by having to drag myself out of bed and into a wheelchair (okay, Brian always helped me!) to go to a different floor of the hospital every time my son needed to eat, it makes sense to me now why I had some sort of exhaustion-induced breakdown the second afternoon in the NICU. I was simply nursing my son and I suddenly started shaking uncontrollably and crying, and the nurse made me stop and go sleep. I don’t think I had slept more than an hour  I slept for about four hours that afternoon, and it was amazing. I woke up with a smile. So when the twins came, I not only gladly followed the lactation consultant’s suggestion to only pump about 15 minutes every 3-4 hours, and even less at night, and that I should sleep longer stretches at night while I could, but I (mostly) chose not to feel guilty about it. Most parents expect the newborn stage to be exhausting, but having NICU babies means the newborn stage is extended (the twins had an extra 6 weeks of being newborns, for example), and there are also factors that present extra emotional and physical stress you wouldn’t have if you just brought your baby home. Funnily enough, I got a lot more sleep those first couple days in the hospital after the twins were born than I did with my first, because I saw the importance of sleep in helping me be a good, strong mama for my babies.
  2. You are your child’s biggest advocate, support, and voice until they can be that for himself or herself (and then you’ll probably still be one), and YES, you are their mom. I lumped this into one because these two things went hand in hand for me. I really struggled to feel like a mom when my son was in the NICU. It probably was in part due to being a first-time mom, but I have heard other moms with NICU babies comment that they don’t feel like their baby belongs to them. And it makes so much sense, when you’re in the midst of it. You stay in different rooms, or on different floors, or for some mamas, in different hospitals. You are almost completely reliant on doctors and nurses to care for your baby – and keep them alive and healthy. But NICU moms, you are still their mama. That little one grew inside of you and it’s okay to make decisions for your babies or speak up if you don’t appreciate how somebody is caring for them. I’m not advocating biting anybody’s head off or tearing others down in efforts to get what you want for your baby. But you may need to speak up, and it really is okay to do that. After spending all that time pumping (again, that was bad advice, you don’t need to pump for 40 minutes every three hours!), I was beyond angry when the nurse didn’t call my room to say my son was hungry, and fed him a bottle of formula, so by the time we got up there with the milk, he was already fed and sleeping. But I didn’t say anything until a social worker stopped by our room to see if we needed anything, and I burst into tears asking why I was pumping so much if they were just going to give him formula anyway, and asking why they didn’t call me. She comforted me and assured me that I was my baby’s mom, and if it was important to me to feed my son in a certain way or if I wanted to have my room called for each feeding, that I should let them know. She talked to them for me, but I learned a lot from that little experience. With the twins, I felt much more confident in sharing (kindly!) the ways I wanted to be involved, and the staff was so supportive and helpful with that. Even though I was a second-time mom with my twins, I still found it very hard to feel bonded to them and like I was really their mom – I honestly cried a lot in the hospital because I missed my one-year-old son. Despite not feeling the instant connection though, I was confident that I of course AM their mama, and from day one was able to discuss with the doctors and nurses the daily decisions for their care. Letting logic, not feelings, guide me was crucial.
  3.  You don’t have to have the same experience as somebody else for it to be meaningful and special. You can simply treasure the special moments you have with your babies. We compare ourselves to others way too much, because the temptation is a touch away. I have had conversations with my grandma before about the fact that the culture today is much different when it comes to being a new mom. I have read articles (haha, of course) by/about other moms from her era, like this mom of FOUR sets of twins.  Moms of the past weren’t generally tons of parenting books and websites and blog posts. Of course I don’t think that’s all bad. But at the end of the day you have to be able to have a pretty strong filter and be disciplined enough to limit what you read, or it can become quickly overwhelming. I made the mistake of reading this blog post about what the postpartum days “should” look like while I was spending one of my long days in the hospital with the girls, and the comparison monster devoured me in moments. It made me angry and bitter toward moms who get to just take their healthy newborn home from the hospital, and wonder why instead I had all three of my babies in the NICU. But as I’ve taken time to process this moment, I want to use it to encourage moms to not compare and instead just enjoy the moments that have been given to you. I had so many special moments with each of my newborns in those first days in the hospital. I remember the moment they laid my son on me, and looking at his tiny face and how blue his eyes were even then. I remember how happy I was that nursing was no problem the first time I tried. I remember seeing my two tiny, tiny girls on the table in front of me seconds after they were born, my wild girl screaming louder than my son had, and seeing them both wiggling around and crying, making me rejoice in the fact that they were strong and breathing.  I remember how well my one girl ate her bottle and rapidly gained weight so she could get out of the NICU. I remember getting to hold my three-pound girl and marvelling at how such a tiny baby with the tiniest cry was the most alert of all three of my babies, quietly taking in the world around her and doing all the things any newborn does. I remember the moment after we had to take one of the girls home and leave the other behind that we finally got to hold both girls in our arms together, and lay them right next to each other on the bed. After seven months of snuggling together inside me, they hadn’t been next to each other for over a week following the delivery. It was so special to see them reunited, not to mention the incredible feeling you get holding TWO babies in your arms. It is easy to hear about others’ experiences and think that they sound perfect and yours less-than, but every baby has their own special journey and special place in a somebody’s heart, and that is what really matters.

I still sometimes dream of having a baby, just one baby, that doesn’t have to be in the NICU. But I am thankful for the experiences I got to have, and for the three beautiful children I have. All three are a testament, not just to good medical care and advancements in technology, but to the power of God in my life. What an incredible role He gave me, to be the mama of three NICU babies. I am blessed to have been through those times, and can confidently say that my three littles are three miracles.

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