Last year at this time my newborn Callum was in the NICU and I was staying at the Ronald McDonald House with two year old Nora and my Mom (most of the time.) Since Callum’s first birthday I have been surprised and kind of annoyed by the waves of emotion I’ve been experiencing. The days he spent in the NICU replay vividly in my mind. That night when Josh had to drive Liam and Asher back to Tuscaloosa and I was left alone in the hospital recovering from my c-section and I hobbled down to the NICU at 2 am because I missed my baby so much. I couldn’t hold him yet, I couldn’t breastfeed him or have him in my room, but I COULD look at him, so when my thirst for him just could not wait another minute I walked all the way to the NICU without a wheelchair for the first time, alone. When I finally saw him the pride and goodness of my boy filled me up, but the nurse was visibly irritated by my presence. She side eyed me standing there next to his bassinet and I asked if he had taken anything by mouth. I had been waking up every three hours to pump and then getting up to wash all the pump parts and labeling the breast milk and sending it to the NICU, so I was proud of the breast milk that was available for him now. “Yeah, he had formula and did a pretty good job with the bottle.” “Oh, why wasn’t he given breast milk?” I asked. “I just reached in and grabbed whatever was there and it happened to be formula. He’s been crying for the past hour and I just got him to sleep. It’s not even feeding time so please don’t touch him. It’s not really time for you to be here.” she said. I was stunned into silence. Right after he was born my nurse had told me I could go down to the NICU and see my baby any time I wanted. But now, the one thing that brought me comfort, being able to physically be present with Callum and see him in the flesh, this nurse was taking it away from me? And he had been screaming for an entire hour without his Mommy. And the milk I had worked so hard to pump for him was left in the cooler. I didn’t say anything and stood there like a little kid who just got in trouble for coloring on the walls. Post pregnancy hormones coursed through me and I crumpled into tears and just sobbed, heaving and heaving. It was so embarrassing. Snot and tears trickled down my face and I stood rooted there, body aching from being on my feet for so long but I didn’t know what else to do. The nurse felt awkward and handed me a tissue. I wiped my face and hobbled out the door, down the hall, into the elevator back up to my hospital bed, crying the whole time. I know the nurse probably had a long day and was tired of taking care of somebody else’s screaming baby and wasn’t trying to hurt me, but I felt completely defeated. Now in hindsight I’m irritated with my self for not standing up to that nurse and explaining that if they had certain visiting hours for parents they should have told me, and please give him the breast milk I sent for him. Why do I even care? Callum is literally playing right in front of me right now and he is perfectly healthy and he’s with me ALL OF THE TIME. He has no recollection of that incident so why am I wasting my emotional energy on it right now?
I think having a baby in the NICU is hard for any mother but it’s even harder after you have lost a baby. It’s hard to be empty handed after giving birth, AGAIN. At the time I was in survival mode…pump, go visit Callum, drop off milk, breastfeed, go back to be with Nora, take care of Nora, eat, pump, head back to Callum, etc. (there was very little sleeping going on.) But now, in hindsight, I can make a bit more sense of how I felt. For some reason while Cal was in the NICU I felt like my parental rights were waived and the nurses were his parents, calling the shots. I had to be given permission to hold my own baby or to even be there by his side. I had to ask if I could touch him, feed him, hold him, change him. Most nurses were amazing and I was overcome with gratitude for these women who poured so much love into my baby. They even sent a card to our house after we got home with Callum congratulating us and thanking us for choosing them to care for Callum, which was so amazing. But my mind flits past that and settles on the one nurse who, after I had just met with a therapist about how to handle a preemie, broke all the “rules” I had just been taught and roughly picked up my baby, startling him into screams. She moved quickly and suddenly with him and was not gentle. He cried and I just watched because I wasn’t the parent in the NICU. But if my newborn had been in his little bassinet beside me in my hospital room recovering after the birth and a visitor handled my baby that way I would immediately take him out of her arms and not allow her to hold him anymore. The NICU was different, though, and I had to leave my son there all night with that nurse, and I felt sick leaving him there. I couldn’t sleep either because I worried about him. The next morning he was fine and I felt silly for my strong emotions and fears. But now these experiences replay in my head and I grieve again for the days I lost with Callum. I wonder if I should have been more assertive as his mother? Maybe I was too assertive? Since I felt like I wasn’t the parent, it was hard to bond with Callum like I should have in those early days and that is what grieves me the most, I think. I didn’t get to start truly bonding with him until he came home and I was his mother. People asked ME for permission to hold him and I had the choice not to leave him with anyone I felt uneasy about.
I remember how painful it was after Lucy died to hear women complain about how hard the NICU was. I equated the NICU with “live baby” and envied women who got to experience the NICU. In a way I felt like I was one of the lucky ones while Callum was in the NICU which gave me a weird sense that I was not allowed to grieve the losses I was experiencing. They were on such a smaller scale than the losses of the women who gave birth to still babies. But not grieving properly means the grief can fester and erupt later so now, one year later, I am grieving for the things I lost with Callum in his early days. Tomorrow will be one year since he was discharged from the NICU and I’m hoping this weight will lift and I can move on. I am so thankful to have him home now, healthy and thriving, and I revel in the fact that I get to be his Mommy, just me and no one else.