Adjusting to life with a new baby is always challenging, but adjusting to life after premature birth can be a lot harder. You may not realize how much premature birth will impact your life at first because your preemie is new to the NICU. Once you’re discharged, you’ll be spending a lot of time (and energy) going back and forth to the hospital while still recovering from the delivery, and the days can pass you by in a total blur. If your preemie was very early or has significant health issues, you’ll probably be totally focused on them.
Bottom line: It’s hard to think about yourself at all when your preemie is new to the world and struggling.
Eventually, though, the NICU becomes more familiar and life after premature birth becomes your new normal. As feelings of fear subside, feelings of grief and anger can emerge. All the stress you weren’t giving yourself space to feel hits you like a wall and suddenly you’re anxious, depressed, and unbelievably tired. Maybe you’ve burned through the parental leave you had available and you need to go back to work. Or you have older children at home. Finding a balance between being there for your preemie and being on top of your responsibilities can seem impossible.
Caring for yourself? Who has time for that!
Many people decide that seeking help from a counselor or a therapist is helpful after premature birth since there are so many feelings to unpack (and so little mental space to do it in). Premature birth is traumatic in so many ways, and if you’re mired in guilt or anxiety or coping with PTSD it’s a lot harder to adjust to life with a preemie in the NICU or at home. Your emotions following premature birth may be unpredictable and you may experience lots of ups and downs. Letting yourself feel whatever you’re feeling is okay, even your emotions are different from what the people around you expect you to be feeling.
Talking about your feelings (with a therapist, a social worker, a good friend, or a preemie parent mentor) gives you a safe outlet for them and may make it easier to focus on your day to day life. Feelings, when shared, have a tendency to become less overwhelming.
The truth is that adjusting to life after premature birth is a matter of time passing versus doing this or that. A lot of resources will tell you that it’s easier to adjust to life after premature birth if you are getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, taking breaks, and carving out time to spend with family and friends – and that might be true. But most of us know from experience that when you’ve had a preemie, you’re inexorably driven to devote your time and energy to that precious baby. No one should make you feel guilty for putting your preemie’s needs first if that’s what feels right.
As for when you’ll feel normal again after premature birth, the answer will be unique to you. At some point you’ll probably realize that you feel less stressed and more capable, but this can take a long time if your preemie’s early life is full of ongoing challenges or you aren’t getting plenty of support. It’s important to be realistic about this adjustment because it’s a BIG one. You may find that you have a well of strength and resilience you’ve never tapped before. Or you may discover that parenting a preemie takes you to the very edge of your courage.
Self care may seem like a laughable indulgence at this point in your life, so practice self awareness instead. Keep an eye on your emotions – if your feelings are unmanageable or you feel like you may harm yourself or someone else, seek help. If your feelings change abruptly or you’re not feeling any emotions at all, seek help.
And make ‘this, too, shall pass’ your mantra because it’s true. Someday the NICU days will be a distant memory and you will have survived them, adjusting to new reality after new reality as part of your larger parenting journey.