One of the hardest days of my life as a NICU parent was not what I would have expected it to be. It was the day I went home without my baby, after spending every waking moment since my emergency C-section by his incubator. I never knew I had a dream about what it would be like to have a baby until that dream was taken away.
As we finally drove away from the hospital, four long days after the birth of our child, I remember thinking, “NO, NO, NO! This is not happening! I am not supposed to have empty arms! I am supposed to have my baby in the back seat and be able to put him to sleep in his nursery, nurse him and show everyone how perfectly beautiful he is.”
This wouldn’t be the last time I would have that thought over the next three months in our NICU journey. But I was lucky enough to have an amazing team of doctors and social workers, who recognized that I would be suffering from terrible anxiety in the NICU and afterwards. They saw me struggle and go blank when I looked at the brain bleed on my baby’s head ultrasound. They gently but firmly scheduled a meeting with a physician specializing in the mental health of expecting and new mothers. They made sure I showed up for it.
At first, all I could do was live with the burning anxiety in my chest, that if I ever left my baby’s bedside, if I ever slept, if I ever stopped paying attention, something terrible would happen. And if I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, dreams of white and grey destruction visible on the brain imaging would haunt me. The difference between awake and asleep was blurred by constant fear. The physician treated me for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and with time, counseling and medication, the NICU and my own mind stopped being places of torture.
Over time, something else extraordinary happened.
My old ideas about having a baby were replaced by even more wonderful ones: I dreamt of my scrawny, saggy-bottom fuzz ball of a son growing strong in his own way, leaving the NICU, and meeting every challenge life would throw at him with his family by his side. And I held my baby boy close to my heart, now convinced that this was NOT going to be a catastrophe, and we WOULD heal together.
I don’t want to minimize how awful it is to have a child in the NICU, or how terrible PTSD is. But, I will say that sometimes, for some people, laughing at tragedy makes it easier to handle. And that is what we did as a family.
So in the spirit of finding something real and positive even in the NICU, when you’ve just gone through utter terror and chaos, here is my list of
The top 5 reasons NOT to hate the NICU.
1: You have a reason not to look like a celebrity after giving birth. No one expects you to wear anything but a hospital gown, ratty slippers and a frown of pain in the NICU for the first week or so. You might even start a new trend.
2: You should be eating a lot of nutritious food so that you can make breast milk, which is the most powerful medicine for your NICU baby. The best part is that you’ll lose weight even after eating all those French fries dipped in a vanilla milkshake! (It sounds gross, but try it.)
3: Your baby may have 2 birthdays, the day he or she was born and your due date. That means two official reasons every year to celebrate your wonderful child, although it also means twice the cleanup.
4: You will never ever have a babysitter like a NICU nurse. These nurses are calming angels of caring and advocacy who demonstrate the utmost responsibility, competence and intelligence. After that, you can look forward to hormone-charged, barely-legal-to-drive teenagers as babysitters.
5: You have a baby, an amazing, incredible creature who will change you forever.
So, get help if you have PTSD, make new dreams for yourself and your family, and if you have time, share your reasons to NOT hate the NICU with me.