Neonatal tenure

My son was in Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for just under five weeks. Having been born at 29 weeks 5 days, he was allowed to go home just after he got to 34 weeks, gestational age.

NICU is an interesting place. There’s almost a fraternity of parents whose children are in that unit and you become supporters, cheerleaders, and confidantes in many cases. It’s a solemn place but there are also pockets of joy and laughter echoing through there. The nurses are caring and sympathetic and really seemed invested in my son’s progress.

Despite his early debut, he did very, very well. He steadily gained weight, progressed beyond various machines, and showed off his attitude. He loved to cuddle when we were allowed to hold him. He hated having his diaper changed and did not keep that a secret. He had this tiny, soft cry on the occasions he deemed necessary to use it.

I did not get to hold him immediately after he was born. I did not get to hold him until five days later, just as I got discharged from the hospital. On the recovery floor, nearly all the women had their babies in the room with them most of the time. The first time I even touched him was through a plastic box. I felt cheated out of these bonding opportunities, even though I knew it was best for him. I knew I was blessed by a really easy (even to the point of escaping notice) pregnancy but it didn’t seem fair that I had to have such a difficult time mothering my brand-new baby in those first few days.

The one thing I knew I could do was express milk for him. I’d heard women talk about how they sort of hated pumping–that it was uncomfortable, impersonal, or a hassle. But in the absence of “normal” postpartum rituals, it was an important responsibility for me. Even though the circumstances of his arrival weren’t optimal and I had a c-section pretty early, I was blessed by ample supply. The nurses always seemed impressed when I brought bag after bag of milk for them–they started what ended up to be a sizable stash in the NICU freezer.

Every day, his doctors reiterated how well he was doing, so really at no point did I seriously worry about his health and condition. Every time he gained an ounce was cause for celebration, especially since certain weight benchmarks meant his daddy and I could have more access to him. In the beginning, once his umbilical IV came out (which happened at 5 days, when we were able to hold him for the first time), we could hold him for 15 minutes per day. They explained that kangaroo care was important for the development of premature babies, so we took turns doing that. When he surpassed 3 lbs 8 oz, we could kangaroo twice a day and no longer had to take turns–we each got an opportunity every day. Occasionally he would be assigned a particularly sweet nurse who would conveniently “forget” about us for a few minutes, so we got more than the usual 15.

During these moments, my bitterness about not being able to bond evaporated. The unit is laid out in such a way that each baby’s family is afforded a lot of privacy and quiet. I wanted the time we spent together in that glider to last forever, and every day I looked forward to getting to do that as much as I wanted when he came home.

The other thing that kept me from feeling too sorry for myself–you see a lot of heartbreaking things in there. In honoring other people’s privacy, I tried to avoid looking at the other babies too much, but there were some REALLY tiny ones hooked up to tons of life-sustaining equipment. There were also some really young parents in there and I wondered what kind of support system they had on the outside.

We had none of those problems. My tiny baby was and still is clearly a fighter, and from the near-constant stream of visitors to his bedside, was always destined to be fiercely loved. In the face of the stark contrast between us and other families, it was impossible to feel anything less than eminently blessed.

Whaddya think?