Dear Salma who just found out she is pregnant,
You’re going to be a different person this time next year. Not because you will go from being a mum of one amazing boy to being a mum of two. But because nothing about this journey is going to be as you expected it. All the lessons you learnt from the first time round will be redundant and instead you’ll be thrust into the most challenging situation you’ve ever faced.
You are only going to be your baby's home for 27 of the 40 weeks you expected to have that role. And it’s going to come as a big surprise because the pregnancy is without any complications up until that point. But one night you’re going to go to the bathroom at 1 am and find blood. And it is an image you will not forget; even having a period will be triggering (at least at the start).
You’ll get to the hospital and even though in your heart you’ll know baby is ok (by which I mean he is alive) every heartbeat trace you’ll hold your breath and say a little payer. It will seem like the bleeding is stopping and then it will start again. You’ll be moved to the delivery suite and you’ll be thinking its unnecessary to do that - until you stand up and blood just falls out of you and, like a glass smashing to the ground, goes everywhere.
You’ll have a steroid injection that hurts as you feel it spread within you ... but then will fast feel like a piece of cake compared to the magnesium drip. You’ll go in and out of labour a few times before, a week later, your body decides its time. Your labour will be recorded as 59 minutes.
Baby will cry at birth and you’ll get to have him on your chest before he is taken away. You’ll feel as if you are coping but will later start to realise you mistook suppression of emotion as resilience.
All of this is going to happen in the shadow of a pandemic. It will mean your NICU experience will differ from the many who came before you. At one point you’ll have to balance holding your baby alongside the risk of being an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. In your worry about the virus being a killer you’ll not initially notice that it is also a thief. It will steal not only your time with your baby but your support.
One day you’ll get a call to say your baby had to be resuscitated and is back on a ventilator. You’ll have to walk into that alone. There will be other challenges but nothing that compares to that so once you get through that hold on to that the worst of your NICU experience is behind you.
You’re not going to act like yourself for 2 months. You’ll be passive in your communication with medics doubting how you can really know best when you only see baby for 2 hours a day. But one day it will click that he is yours so your opinion is valid. Try to be kind to yourself about those early weeks. Not many people will have a prem baby and then a pandemic declared within a day of each other. “Overwhelming” is not even enough to describe it.
After 95 long days, he will come home to you. It will be the end of a chapter rather than of your whole NICU experience as baby will be under their care for some years following discharge.
Salma, no one ever thinks it will happen to them. But it will happen to you. You’ll be the parent that stops breathing when you get a call from a withheld number because you fear its the NICU calling with bad news. You’re the parent whose baby will have regular eye tests because there was a risk of blindness due to prematurity. Whose baby will be resuscitated twice, be diagnosed with chronic lung disease, have 3 blood transfusions and will spend the first weeks of the unexpected start of his life alone, covered in wires. Who, even when you’re being told has passed a sleep study and can come home, will need a blood test to rule out leukaemia. They rule it out. But you lived with that for a few days.
You’re wondering how it is possible you’ll ever get through this. You know how they say that the mother is born when the baby is? Well a NICU mama is born when a preemie is and that will give you the bravery, strength and morale to make it through. Also you’ll be home schooling your eldest and in many ways that will save you as it will remind you in the hard times that your role as mum is so important for both your boys.
About a year from now you’ll participate in social media events around NICU Awareness month. And you’ll wish you had come across a post about it last year. Nothing can prepare you for the NICU as such but having some awareness probably would have helped you in the start. And so you’ll tell your story and say to others – it can really happen to anyone. Try and make yourself more aware.