by Ali Dunn
When my twins were born at 28 weeks, I was unprepared to deal with life in the NICU. I had never seen a premature baby. I had never toured a NICU. I didn’t know how much trauma a NICU experience could create. As I was wheeled down the hall to the NICU to see my tiny babies for the first time, after 8 days of hospital bed rest and an emergency c-section, it was all so surreal. I felt completely hollowed out. I was empty from all the years of infertility, from the guilt that this early delivery was perhaps my fault, from the realization that my babies might not survive. I had been unsuccessful at getting pregnant and staying pregnant, I couldn’t deal with another failure.
To fill this void inside me, I needed some control over what was happening. I decided that I was going to be the best preemie parent that I could. If the nurses wanted me to pump every 3 hours, then I would pump every 2.5 hours. If it was advised to visit your baby in the NICU frequently, then I was going to be there every day. From the outside, I was the ideal preemie mom. I came to the NICU every day and stayed for many hours. I pumped, changed diapers, and kangarooed both of my babies. But the only way to project this ideal was to detach emotionally and become a NICU “mombie.” To cope with the anxiety, fear, and grief, I didn’t allow myself to connect. I went through all of the motions, but none of the emotions. In fact, during our 65 day NICU stay, I can recall crying just one time. Since my twins were in a traditional open-bay NICU I spent many hours a day in close proximity to the nurses. And yet, no one ever asked how I was feeling, or what I was doing to process this experience. There were no support groups and no past NICU parent visits. Since I appeared to be functioning, even thriving in my new role, and fulfilling my duties as a NICU mom, I wasn’t on anyone’s radar.
After discharge, I had two babies under 5 lbs to care for. I had never even roomed-in with them, so needless to say, I didn’t have a lot of time to process my feelings or heal from the trauma of the NICU. It wasn’t until several years later when I began the creative process of writing my first book that I was able to turn the fear and trauma into something beautiful and positive.
Looking back now, with the wisdom that you can only gain through hindsight, I really wished someone would have told me that it is ok, to not be ok. In fact, holding all of the trauma and emotions inside is not what is best for anyone. As silly as it sounds, I really needed someone to give me permission to be a mess. While your baby needs time in the NICU to learn, and grow, you need time to start to process the trauma you have been through and to begin to heal. It won’t happen overnight, but I believe that it can happen. I’m not sure who needs to hear this, but from one NICU parent to another… it is ok to not be ok.
Ali Dunn is the founder of Me Two Books and the author of four children’s books: I Was a Preemie Just Like You, I Needed the NICU Just Like You, One of Two, a Twin Story about Individuality, and The Career Explorer: An Introduction to Career Development and STEAM Careers. She is also the creator of an ecourse for parents about Career Exploration. Ali is the chief mom officer of identical twins born at 28 weeks via emergency c-section. You can connect with her on her blog, Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.