I probably won’t be the first to tell you there is no shortage of available resources for expecting parents. Books, magazines, apps, articles, and discussion forums are everywhere, and when I was pregnant I received daily emails with details about registry essentials, notes about what fruit my baby was the size of any given week, foods to avoid, what to pack in the hospital bag, and fairly obvious details about what my body was going through (as if I were somehow unaware of my own day-long nausea and swollen ankles).
I signed my husband and myself up for childbirth classes, and took part in a Dogs & Storks class at our training school to help in preparing our dogs for life with baby. I was diligent about scheduling appointments with my physician and midwife practice. We painted the nursery, built the crib, and washed loads of baby clothes. We set up the stroller and started treating the dogs when it was around. I studied the many options of pain management and methods for having a baby without medication, and started thinking about my birth plan. I started doing meet and greets with my friends who offered to watch Ollie and Balton when I went into labor, so when December came they (namely Balton with his stranger danger issues) would be okay going to someone’s house or having someone come to our place for a few days.
What none of these things really prepared me for was the notion that I, going through what was by all accounts a “normal” pregnancy, would have my water break four weeks early. My husband was on the other side of the world for his job, having strategically planned this work trip so he would be back should I go into labor three weeks earlier than my due date. I had about a million loose ends at work that I had planned to wrap up by early December, and having every intention of being in the office the day my son was born, my desk was a mess.
Birth plan? All in my head. Hospital bag? Packed, but as the on call nurse at the hospital didn’t seem to think I was in labor, I was not told to bring it with me and didn’t think to do otherwise. Dogs? I had no real emergency plan in place for them, so I woke them up at 1am, took them outside to potty, and left them in the kitchen with food and water. I would have to figure something out if it ended up I would be staying at the hospital longer than a few hours.
My concern in that moment was something was wrong. The idea that I was in labor didn’t really cross my mind until a couple hours later, when I was told I would be admitted and should plan to deliver a baby within the next 24 hours.
Thanks to the little bit of “just in case” planning we had done, and an ability to adapt to changing circumstances that I can only assume was inherited from my mother, my sister and mom met me at the hospital, acted as my birth coaches in my husband’s absence, and took a trip to Target to pick up recovery clothes for me. My amazing (and dog savvy) friend turned things upside down in order to come to my house to care for Ollie and Balton until my husband made it stateside. My co-workers re-routed my emails and told me not to worry about anything at the office. My son was born just before 5pm on a Thursday, and my husband arrived at the hospital by 10am the next day. I learned and accepted my first parenting lesson – someone else was calling the shots on my life as I knew it.
Giving birth was hard, but I expected it to be. What I didn’t expect was some of the hard stuff that happened after birth. I had planned to do this as a single list post, but then I realized that writing about them as completely as I want to would make for a really long post. So, each piece will get its own post, which I hope helps resonate with people a little more broadly (a NICU mom might not be a breastfeeding mom, or a dog mom might not be a working mom, etc, so finding common ground might be found more easily in the little pieces of the full picture). With that…my first item on the list of unexpected bringing home baby events.
Unexpected Bringing Home Baby Event #1: Becoming a NICU Mom.
Baby boy was born at 36 weeks gestation, which qualified him as “late pre-term.” This meant he might acclimate to the outside world just fine, but it also meant he might not, and we wouldn’t know until he arrived. He came out breathing fast and grunting, which I would soon learn were symptomatic of respiratory distress. After about 3 hours in the nursery for monitoring, he didn’t acclimate on his own and was taken to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where he would remain for six days to help him breathe on his own and later be treated for jaundice.
I can’t speak for any mom beyond myself, but for me, having a late pre-term NICU baby came with a dichotomy of emotions. It was an incredibly supportive environment (NICU nurses are truly remarkable individuals), yet I felt so terribly lonely. I recall sitting in a hospital breastfeeding class the morning after baby boy was born, trying my hardest not to cry because everyone else had a baby to hold while mine was connected to monitors and a C-PAP machine. Pumping in my hospital room instead of nursing my baby made me sad, disappointed as I collected nothing, then teeny tiny drops to try and bring a medicine dropper of something to my little one being fed through tubes. I spent hours watching the clock, monitoring pump times, NICU visiting hours, and trying to catch a nap in between them and trying to be a gracious visitee to my hospital visitors. I wandered the halls, bringing my little medicine droppers of colostrum to his attending nurse, trying to coordinate my visit with his feeding/diaper changing time. I would spend some time watching him, and go back to my room to pump, sleep, and try not to cry. In the moments where I was without my family or attending nurses, I would just go ahead and cry. When I was discharged from the hospital, my brain was telling me he was in the best possible place, yet my heart was aching and I was sobbing because I was leaving with a hospital rental pump instead of a baby.
I felt guilty, like I had done something wrong, causing him to come early and need to go there in the first place. And I felt guilty for having a baby who, despite his very real health needs, was probably the most robust of the NICU babies. We were stationed next to a family whose little girl had been born at 25 weeks gestation and, glancing at the little index card they use to track baby weights, I saw she was not even 2 lbs. This mom and I would regularly find one another in the room set within the NICU wing for pumping, and although we were both going through the NICU experience, we were each going through very different experiences. She would continue to visit her daughter daily until closer to her due date (mid-February) and I would get to bring my son home after just a week. She had to look at her baby through the plastic walls of an incubator when I was able to hold him (under close supervision) after just two days. I counted my blessings for sure. But while I knew my own stress and emotions were valid, I also somehow felt badly for feeling them.
After four days, I was given the okay to try and nurse him. The hospital lactation consultant had warned me that for a 36-weeker, it would likely be similar to tasking a first-grader with third-grade level work. With this in mind, I tried not to be too discouraged when I attempted to feed him and he seemed utterly unsure of what to do. I was also terribly engorged once my milk had started to come in, which didn’t make things any easier on us. The nurses advised I pump a little before feeding time, but nursing was no easier. On day five, when we called in a lactation consultant to help, he went from utterly unsure to utterly unhappy and refused to eat. Fortunately by then he was eating from a bottle without issue, which is all the NICU required for allowing him to go home. All I could do was hope he would eventually get it. Nursing a pre-term baby and dealing with some persistent engorgement issues in the early days presented its own unique challenges, but that’s another post for another day. I’m happy to report he now nurses like a champ and many of the early postpartum pains and problems I encountered did dissipate over time. But man, do I understand how moms lacking proper support systems (and maybe also my hardwired stubborn streak) might intend to breastfeed, but give up because they don’t think their bodies are built for it.
One benefit of the NICU was that it allowed me the opportunity to try and catch up on some sleep (relatively speaking, anyway – I was still waking in the middle of the night to pump and super emotional and stressed out, but my baby was in the very capable hands of his nurses). Another benefit was I was able to come home to my dogs and spend some time with them between leaving them in the kitchen for the hospital and bringing their new human brother home. I brought a blanket for them to sniff, and amid the hormonal, leaking, sore, exhausted mess I was, I took in some much needed cuddles. I don’t know if this down time between my homecoming and baby boy’s homecoming made much of a difference for the dogs, but I felt at least a little better prepared for when we brought him home and introduced everyone (I also had time to pick up some bully sticks to make a good first impression). And yet, I would find myself struggling quite a bit (and so much more than I expected to) with how to get through the weeks that would follow as our furry family would need to make room for their not so furry family member.
More on that, and how we managed, next time…
P.S. – This article might be one of the best “checklist” type articles I’ve read for handling the NICU experience, whether your wee one is a micropreemie or closer to term, like ours. Thank you Sharon Epel for penning it, it’s a great little resource.