What It’s Like to Have a Baby in the NICU

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This is your baby, you are not a visitor

by Aviva Cohen, LCSW

Jane delivered her daughter 6 weeks early. Her water broke, labor started and that was that. This was Jane’s first baby, and first pregnancy. She had suffered from anxiety during pregnancy-enough to warrant weekly therapy as well as being put on an anti-anxiety drug that had been approved for pregnancy.

When the baby was born, as is standard procedure, the baby was whisked to the NICU for observation. Baby Sarah was not able to eat on her own. A feeding tube was placed as well as a tube helping Sarah to breathe.  Jane and her husband were informed that until Sarah could eat and breathe on her own, she could not be taken home.  This was devastating news to Jane.

Jane had imagined finishing up her time at work before maternity leave, and preparing the house and herself for the new baby. She had planned and imagined a natural birth with a doula and without drugs. All of that had been taken away from her when she was rushed by ambulance from work to the hospital after her water had broken and she began to bleed heavily. The doctor at the hospital had to perform an emergency c-section to save both Jane and Sarah, and now her baby wasn’t even able to come home.

Jane told me in those initial weeks she did not feel like a mother. She felt like a visitor when she came to see Sarah in the NICU. She perceived that the nurses in the NICU were Sarah’s “real parents” and she was just a guest. She often felt judged by the staff. If she was coming to see me, or going to have lunch with a friend to take her mind off of everything, the staff would ask her where she was going and when she would be back.  She felt guilty going home at night and sleeping through the night when she knew Sarah was up and needed to be fed.

Friends often told Jane how lucky she was that she got to go home, sleep, eat, and rest in order to heal and prepare her home for Sarah. Jane didn’t feel lucky. She felt cheated out of the initial moments and weeks of Sarah’s life. She was a bystander in the process, not a participant. Although Jane met other parents in the NICU during that time that had babies who were much sicker, Jane felt sorry for herself and her family that this was how she was entering motherhood. It felt so unnatural to be pregnant, have a baby, and then leave this very wanted baby behind in the care of others.

Sarah has been home now for 3 months. Jane has had a bit of PPD, and has struggled with her new role as a mother. She returns to work next month, and is very frightened for that new transition. She is grateful to have Sarah at home, and treasures their time together, but repeatedly tells me how traumatized she had been in those initial days and weeks, and how much she mourns not having the delivery, and homecoming she planned.

The moral of the story is that once you have a baby the script is out of your hands. You no longer have the power and control you once had to orchestrate life the way you wish to. You do have the ability to control how you raise your child, and how you react to that child as their mother. No matter if your baby comes home straight after delivery or several months later, you are the mother and not a visitor!  This is YOUR baby!

Aviva Cohen received her master’s degree in social work from Loyola University. Her specific area of focus is perinatal loss, fertility, Postpartum Depression, and work/life balance issues. Through her own personal struggles, Aviva has a depth of perspective in the area of pregnancy and loss that many do not. Aviva co-founded The Blossom Method in 2013 as a center for moms to connect and share their struggles and private pain.

The Blossom Method is a therapy practice in the heart of Chicago offering support, encouragement and hope to women and couples facing challenges as they start or grow their families. We provide a unique combination of therapeutic and counseling services, as well as education seminars, events, and one-on-one or group support.