Happy first birthday: letting go of the NICU
It is St. Patrick’s day and I am sitting here, listening to Celtic lullabies, holding my littlest guy, decked out in his St. Patty’s day onesie, rocking him to sleep, and I am reminded of where I was a year ago today. One year ago, I was sitting in the NICU, holding my littlest guy, kangaroo-care style, and rocking his tiny body, too small for clothes, only a hat with a shamrock sticker on it to show it was St. Patrick’s day. Tonight I am rocking my littlest guy for the thousandth time, but a year ago, I rocked him for one of the first times, after waiting several days to finally be able to hold him.
Less than two weeks ago we celebrated a big milestone for my littlest guy, his first birthday. I was prepared for it to be a bittersweet day, a day of mixed emotions, but it wasn’t. The past week and a half since then has been the emotional part for me.
We had just a small celebration with our three other kids and my parents, which seemed fitting since they were the ones who were really there for us through last year’s ordeal and the ones that really sacrificed for my growing family. My wonderful mother was a Godsend when everything happened so I was glad that she decided to come out to celebrate our accomplishment of making it through that first year. There was no party and very little pomp and circumstance that day. I made a homemade vanilla cake with blueberry filling and blueberry butter cream frosting. I was obsessive about making it as perfect as I could and poured a lot of attention into the cake making processes. It is only now that I realize this obesession with the cake was a way of keeping my mind off where we were a year earlier. I felt like it was some how vital that his cake be perfect, even though he wouldn’t know otherwise, nor would he remember it later in life. He received a few gifts that day, but the main event of the day was a return to the NICU with gifts. I was insistent that it be done on his birthday because I felt the need for some sort of closure. I brought one and a half dozen cupcakes, the same flavor as his cake, for all the NICU nurses working the different shifts that day. I had also organized and assembled, with the help of one of my moms groups, care baskets for the parents in the NICU. During my small amount of spare time, during the months leading up to his birthday, I crocheted a dozen Easter bunny hats, like the one I’d made my littlest guy while he was in the NICU. On his birthday, I delivered all these things back to the place where he had spent the first 77 days of his life. I thought for sure that I’d break down upon entering the NICU again, but it didn’t happen. I got a little teary eyed, especially when I saw one of his first nurses, who cared for him the most during his stay there. Other than that, I didn’t feel the need to escape quickly before I was overcome by emotion. In fact, I didn’t really feel that way at all that day. The days after his birthday, however, were another story.
People talk about having PTSD after time in the NICU and it is very much real. I know I never totally dealt with all of what was going on at the time and instead I pushed things down inside or tried to brush them off because I didn’t have the time or strength to deal with them. I kind of assumed that it had all gone away with time, but that wasn’t the case. A lot of these emotions and thoughts are starting to resurface now that we have made it through the first year. My husband keeps telling me not to be sad because our baby is healthy now, but it isn’t about that. I’ve found myself in a not too wonderful place mentally and emotionally the last few days. Some of this is partially due to how other people in my life dealt with (or didn’t deal with) this important milestone in my son’s life, but part of it is just the experience itself and the finality of the fact that this is my last baby and I didnt even carry him to term, hold him when he was born, or get to take him home and enjoy him until he was several months old, and even then there were still several more months of problems before I could let go and just be a a regular mom. On a recent trip to Target, I found myself close to tears while browsing the baby clothes aisle when I came across a pair of tiny little mittens that were identical to the ones they attempted to keep on my son while he was in the NICU. I started to think about him in the NICU with those tiny mittens that were still too big for his even tinier hands, then I began to think of how we will never again own tiny mittens like those because he is our last baby. I’m sad because I feel like I want to have more babies, but not really, I just want my time with him back to do again, but this time to do the way I had envisioned it.
I want a chance to finish my pregnancy, know it is time to deliver him, and for both of us to be ready to meet on the outside world. I want a chance to hold my baby in those first hours, breathe in his wonderful baby smell, and rest with him in my arms after such a big day. I want to chance to buy those outfits that say “baby’s first” St. Patrick’s Day and Easter that I never got to because he was too small to wear them and because he really should have been celebrating these holidays for the first time right now. I want the chance to be a new mom who celebrates and shows off her new baby instead of one who hides away in the sterol world of the NICU, afraid to be happy because my baby might not come home. I want to let go of and not know the anger I feel over people in my life not understanding or caring about the heaviness that comes with having a baby in the NICU or how monumental that first birthday is after surviving such a year. But most of all, I want to finally come to terms with and feel peace with how my last son came into this world and what he went through during his first year of life, because like my husband constantly reminds me, he is healthy now and that is what is important.
Despite all these emotions and all the difficulties of my son’s first year, I know that I really wouldn’t change it. My littlest guy’s first year made my family stronger, more appreciative, and showed us who really loved us enough to be there for us. His first year made my littlest guy stronger too and gave us a glimpse of who he is; a determined, stubborn, fighter, who is small but mighty. I guess that means that I just need to except these mixed emotions, allow myself to feel them, and move past them. Our experience in the NICU will always be a part of us, but it shouldn’t continue to hurt us. I am sure by the time we reach this time next year, our time in the NICU will feel like a life time ago, as I watch my littlest guy run around with his brothers, laughing and yelling, the picture of a healthy two year old.