The title of this post came from a study conducted in 2014 that found that mothers in particular have strong, varied, and long-term reactions to preterm birth. While most of us are personally and acutely aware of that fact, it was nice that the study’s conclusion recommended that more attention be paid to preemie parents’ mental and emotional health.
The world probably doesn’t need more studies proving that parents who are coping with preterm birth will have strong emotional reactions to their circumstances. Preterm birth is traumatic and everything that follows is frightening. What we’d like to see are more studies addressing the huge range of feelings parents have about prematurity and an investigation of the types of support that are effective at helping them work through those feelings.
For now, we wanted to outline some of the many challenging emotions parents coping with preterm birth experience. Please understand that these feelings are what they are – they aren’t right or wrong but rather simply part of the reality that is premature birth. And barring other forms of support what helps ease these tough emotions is often simply the passage of time.
Fear: Preterm birth involves so many unknowns and frightening possibilities that it’s only natural that parents feel some degree of fear. Sometimes this fear can be debilitating and last well after doctors have deemed a preemie healthy enough to make the transition home.
Guilt: Many mothers of preemies feel a sense of guilt because they couldn’t carry their babies to term, though logically they know that nothing they did or didn’t do caused preterm birth. Some parents grapple with guilt for many years after the birth of a preemie.
Anger: It’s not uncommon for parents of preterm infants to feel a sense of anger because they were robbed of the chance to have a full term baby or because premature birth often happens randomly. Sometimes parents feel angry at the NICU staff, themselves, or even their preemies.
Sadness: Even parents of a relatively healthy preemie can feel a strong sense of sadness after birth. The experience of having a baby in the NICU is so different from what families expect and that can be very difficult.
Loss: Many parents of preemies will find themselves mourning the loss of the “normal” pregnancy, birth, and infancy experiences. This sense of loss can lead to feelings of resentment directed towards friends, family, and acquaintances who carry their babies to term.
Grief: Parents whose preterm birth experience includes the loss of a preemie may be coping with all of the emotions above while also grieving. Parents of preemies who are very sick or who are facing the possibility of future disabilities may also feel a strong sense of grief.
Powerlessness: Parents in the NICU may feel like they can’t do anything to change the course of their babies’ lives and that they are secondary to the doctors and nurses providing their babies’ medical care.
Exposed: It’s not unusual for parents to feel raw and on display after preterm birth. People in their lives may ask very personal questions or make snap judgments. In the NICU, they may have little to no privacy.
Detached: Bonding with a preemie in the NICU isn’t always easy – especially when a preemie is very sick. Parents may not feel emotionally connected to their babies for many weeks or months after preterm birth.
Intimidated: The idea of caring for a preemie who is attached to breathing machines and monitors can be scary. Sometimes parents of preemies are reluctant to take them home even once their babies’ are strong enough to make that transition.
Unlucky: “Why me?” or “Why us?” is a question many parents ask themselves after preterm birth. It can feel like everyone else got a healthy baby and that can leave parents feeling defeated.
Overwhelmed: Moms and dads of preterm infants in and out of the NICU often wonder how they can continue to shoulder such an incredible burden day in and day out. Parental burnout is real and not all that unusual.
Unhinged: When you’re a NICU parent, it can feel like there’s absolutely no stability in your life – and also like the world is passing you by while you’re stuck in limbo.
Frustrated: Sometimes as parents of preemies get further and further into their NICU journeys, the fact that no homecoming dates have been proposed can start to wear on whole families. And after discharge, many families deal with frustration related to access to specialists and services.
Isolated: Many parents don’t know anyone else who has dealt with preterm birth, and so they may feel like they can’t share what they’re going through with anyone else in the NICU and after their NICU discharge.
Confused: Preterm birth is unlike anything most people have experienced before and so the mix of strong emotions a parent may leave parents feeling off kilter. “My baby beat the odds, so why am I still grieving?”…”I know I shouldn’t feel guilty but I do”…”Why am I so angry?”
There is a lot to unpack when it comes to the feelings most often felt by parents of preemies – and the ones above are only some of the more challenging emotions felt by moms and dads! After preterm birth, parents may experience soaring highs along with crushing lows or long periods where it seems like they’re not feeling anything at all.
Whatever you’re feeling in any given moment, remember that it’s okay to seek out professional help to deal with strong emotions. And if you feel like you might harm yourself or someone else or you feel like you can’t control your own actions, then it’s even more important to get help! But in general, preterm birth comes with a lot of different kinds of feelings that strike at different times. Someday soon chances are that you will discover your new normal and you’ll find that you’ve stepped off of the emotional rollercoaster. Until then, do what you need to do to find a little peace whenever you can.