It’s been a little while since I shared the first part of my story and I’m grateful for the comments both publicly and privately in response. Five days after my son Teddy’s birth, I was finally able to hold him for the first time. He had come off the ventilator the day before and was now on a CPAP system, which meant he received breathing support through an oxygen mask, but he was essentially breathing by himself and stable enough to do a 30-minute kangaroo session, where the premature baby, wearing just a diaper, is placed on the naked skin of a parent. This skin-on-skin cuddle-time is medically extremely beneficial and one of the main ways parents can care for their babies in the NICU.
In this moment, as I sang and talked to him, I suddenly felt how strong my little boy was and I knew he would be fine.
Teddy’s stay at the NICU was fraught with emotional upheaval. In the grand scheme of things, he got better and better, but there were many days where his breathing worsened again or we had to deal with other health scares, and sometimes it was hard for my husband and me not to lose perspective.
If the NICU taught me anything, it is how strong and resilient women are.
But there were many joyful moments – dressing him in the clothes my mum’s friend sent us for the first time, giggling at his funny facial expressions, taking him out of the incubator for kangaroo cuddles.
Bob had been able to take some leave during Teddy’s first weeks in hospital, but then he had to go back to his job in London. He could reduce to part-time and he flew back to Zurich every week to spend half of the week with us. Like many fathers with a NICU baby, he felt guilty and stressed about having to divide his time between work and a sick child, but we were extremely lucky that everyone at his work was so supportive and he could be there for Teddy as much as he was.
Meanwhile I was still pumping breast milk 8 times per day and left every morning at 9:15 for the hospital, often only getting back home at 22:30. Like me, most mothers with NICU babies spent long daily hours at the hospital, and the breast pump was such a frequent companion that one mum we kept in touch with still dreams of the sounds it makes, two years later.
I started wondering whether he could even tell me apart from the nurses and started to believe that anyone would probably make a better mother for him than me.
If the NICU taught me anything, it is how strong and resilient women are. Some mothers had multiples that were placed at different hospitals because of the babies’ different health needs, and the mothers had to divide their time between the two. Some had older children at home who were too young to fully understand why their parents were away so often. Some of them were looking after the multiple who had made it, without having the time to mourn the one who had passed away.
Every woman seemed to have her own methods of self-care to get her through these days: One mum turned up every morning with a perfect blow dry, even though she had twins at two different hospitals and an older child at home. When I marvelled at her gorgeous hair, she explained that she could face the long hospital days much better when she looked put together. I, meanwhile, timed my breast pumping sessions to GIRLS episodes and rediscovered face masks.
Two and a half months after Teddy’s birth, I started to feel burned out. When Teddy was born we were told that most babies could leave hospital around their due date. Many of the other babies at the NICU even went home a couple of weeks early, but as Teddy’s due date came, he was still on oxygen and suffering from frequent apneas (moments when he completely stopped breathing), which was frightening.
Looking back, I realise that at this point post-natal depression had crept in, but at the time it was difficult to distinguish these symptoms from stress or anxiety
It was hard for me that there was so little I could give him, when all the nurses and doctors could do so much. While on some level I knew this to be irrational, their capabilities made me feel useless, compounding the guilt I already felt for his prematurity. I started wondering whether he could even tell me apart from the nurses and started to believe that anyone would probably make a better mother for him than me.
Looking back, I realise that at this point post-natal depression had crept in, but at the time it was difficult to distinguish these symptoms from stress or anxiety — particularly since post-natal depression’s depiction in the media emphasised an inability to love or bond with one’s baby. In my case, the person I could not love or connect with was not Teddy, who I loved more than anything: it was myself.
Luckily, my husband and the staff at the NICU were extremely supportive, and a brilliant nurse suggested that I try out a baby sling so that Bob and I could take Teddy for walks around the hospital, hooked to a tiny mobile monitor. To experience this freedom and privacy with my family made the last stretch at the NICU a lot more bearable, and Teddy even gave me his first smile in the sling!
After exactly 3 months in hospital, Teddy could finally come home, free from apnea and oxygen support. Gradually, as we were able to settle into our own routines, the fog of hopelessness, guilt and anxiety started to lift.
Looking at Teddy now, you’d never guess how tough the first 3 months of his life were. He is a rambunctious 2-year old who is obsessed with trains, feeding ducks (and the occasional pigeons) and he spends a disproportionate amount of time dancing to Beyoncé songs.
I am deeply grateful for all the medical support he received and extremely conscious of the fact that if he had been born in another time or in another place, things could have turned out very differently.
You can read part 1 of this story here.