Baby M is three and a half weeks old, but today marks one week since she came home. Even though there’s no opportunity now to leave M in the care of her nurses to sneak away to lunch, etc, it’s still undoubtedly easier to be at home with her. No wires, no vitals taken every few hours to disrupt everything (apparently all babies hate having thermometers stuck under their armpits), much softer bed.
I want to write about my experience having M stay in the hospital both for my own processing and in case anybody in a similar situation comes across this. I’ve been surprised how strongly connected I can feel to people who’ve had this experience, even if that’s all I know about them. There’s something uniquely devastating yet universal to having your baby go to the NICU.
From the start, I knew M was going to be okay. When the midwife came in with the doctor who first speculated about M’s esophageal issue, that was what she emphasized — this will be fixed. It was surreal getting the news, even though it was on the ‘good’ end of the spectrum (M has a few associated physical symptoms/complications, but they’re mild compared to what’s possible). Seriously sick babies happen to other people; they’re stories you hear secondhand and feel terrible about, but not something you have to worry about in your own life. In a way, I’ve had a difficult time imagining what our unfolding story must seem like to other people — even though I’ve emotionally reacted to it like the big deal that it is, some other part of my brain has processed the events as our ‘normal’ or maybe hasn’t even accepted everything that’s happened.
Even though I knew M was going to be alright in the long run and that the hospital was where she needed to be, some more primitive part of my brain completely lost it when M was taken away and kept apart from me. The NICU must be a draining place to work, with all those parents’ emotions always hanging around. Because I trusted that M would be okay, a lot of my sadness came from the time we were losing. The two and a half weeks she was in the NICU and ICC (the funny little crib in the top photo was in the ICC) should have been spent at home — the first days with my newborn. I could rationalize that it was a short time compared to the whole future ahead of us, but it was time that I couldn’t reproduce, plain and simple. Those weeks would have been rocky in their own way even if everything had gone perfectly to plan, of course. But M didn’t get the introduction to the world that I wanted for her (to think that I declined the newborn Hep B vaccination because I wanted to avoid her having to get an unnecessary needle stick), and I didn’t have the laid-back recovery from labor that I would have liked.
What surprised me was the way our experience started to color things outside my little hospital bubble. I had such an easy pregnancy and enjoyed it so much, but it was impossible to look back on that time without feeling completely tricked. I’ve been asked by many doctors and nurses if I knew about M’s issues ahead of time, and of course I didn’t. (I’ve read that esophageal atresia can’t really be seen by ultrasound until 26 weeks, and most anatomy scans are done around 20 weeks.) The entire situation felt very similar to a break-up: no matter how many good times you had together, it’s hard to think of them fondly when your heart is hurting from the split. Naive old me, enjoying being pregnant, not knowing what was going to follow. I also had a difficult time reading the accounts of other new mothers (the internet tends to connect people with close due dates), at home with their healthy babies, without feeling completely bitter. Every time somebody made a run-of-the-mill complaint about having a hard night, etc, I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Cool story, bro. My baby’s in the hospital.’
But now we’re home. M is growing and recovering. I had moments of intense frustration with her doctors when I felt like they were more interested in not making the wrong decision than trying to make the right one. But the fact is that without them, M’s condition would have been incompatible with life. As much as I’m not looking forward to all the appointments in our future, I have to think about the micro-premies still plugging away in the NICU rooms surrounding M’s and feel extraordinarily lucky that all I lost to the hospital was two and a half weeks.