73 Days in the NICU: From Trauma to Acceptance

NICU incubator with babyI sensed something was wrong with my second pregnancy right from the beginning. I would randomly experience strange cramping, I spotted at times, I wouldn’t feel her moving as often—I just knew. Every time I felt that panic, I rushed to the doctor.

Each doctor I saw told me “everything was fine.” Twenty-eight weeks in, I began having contractions. Most of that day, I was in denial. I had spent the day before with the OB-GYN again telling me “everything looked fine.” After all those doctor visits, I thought I was just overreacting. I told myself the cramping was going to go away with time—denial. As the day rode on, my contractions increased with intensity and frequency. We finally rushed to the hospital. Two hours later, my little girl was born.

Seventy-three is a number that will always be with me. Seventy-three is the number of days I had to leave my daughter in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). For 73 days, guilt riddled my body night and day; I blamed myself like many mothers do. Why did I think I could have a child when I was over 40? I shouldn’t have played volleyball when pregnant. I shouldn’t have worked so many hours. I shouldn’t have had coffee–the list was endless.

For 73 days, guilt riddled my body night and day; I blamed myself like many mothers do.

I didn’t stop crying for the first 2 weeks of her life, even though the NICU nurses told me she was strong. Weighing 3 pounds at birth gave her an advantage, they said. Weighing 3 pounds at 29 weeks was a miracle, they said. I was one of the lucky ones.

The NICU was lined with minuscule creatures. Mothers standing over their incubators, inserting arms into suction holes, holding and stroking tiny hands, feeling helpless. The open unit allowed no privacy. You could hear the continual beeping of all the machines fighting for the helpless.

Some of the one-pounders didn’t make it. Some of the two-pounders would eventually move to cribs instead of incubators. The three-pounders were the lucky ones that didn’t require C-PAPs that smothered their faces. The days lingered on, each filled with bits of chaos—babies, nurses, doctors, and mothers, all in survival mode.

Every day I walked out of that hospital and had to leave my little girl laying there alone, with probes and needles all over her tiny little body, my insides tore apart. It’s the most unnatural feeling in the world to leave your struggling baby in the hands of strangers. I used the long drive home to let out my tears before I transitioned to the needs of my three-year-old, waiting not-so-patiently.

I remember asking the NICU social worker if there was a formula for making sure your baby didn’t endure any of the ailments premature babies suffer. I was determined that my baby would be healthy and not have limited brain functioning, poor eyesight, or lifelong heart problems. She kindly and gently stated that taking care of my needs and being calm would be all that my daughter needed. As a therapist myself, I knew she was right.

I swallowed my fear of medication, spoke to my doctor about my symptoms, and started a medication that helped ease my anxiety and depression. I returned to therapy myself to find support and process the trauma of delivering a premature baby. I also made up my own personal formula for healing: I held my daughter kangaroo-style for a minimum of 3 hours a day. Five years later, she has grown into a smart, independent, thoughtful, healthy, amazing daughter.

I decided to share this personal experience to reach out to other mothers. I want to let them know that guilt is a useless emotion that keeps us from shining. Guilt devours our energy, keeping us trapped in a cycle of darkness. Acceptance seems so foreign during difficult times, but finding acceptance, even in the birth of a premature or sick baby, can enrich our lives and allow us the peace we deserve.

I’m not sure why the universe/god decided my girl was to come into this world early. Sometimes I think it was because I didn’t have a good relationship with my mother, and maybe the thought that I could have lost her will always keep me connected—keep me self-aware not to take my daughter for granted. I am grateful today for my experience with the NICU. My thoughts and prayers are with mothers still in the trenches.

I hope you can find hope, light, and acceptance, leaving guilt far behind. Reach out to your supports, find new supports; it’s okay to ask for help.

Start your search for a licensed, compassionate therapist here.

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  • Shannon


    February 19th, 2020 at 10:01 AM

    Wow, thank you for sharing your story Kristen, this is so powerful and I hope that others who have a similar experience to yours are able to get the help and support through birth trauma therapy that they deserve.

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