My firstborn came into the world unexpectedly and early – six weeks early to be exact – and even though he is all grown up now and living his very best life as a healthy young man, I will never, never forgot those very scary first weeks of becoming a parent.
A time that is meant to be full of joy and celebration, which instead, is replaced by fear and uncertainty. A time when friends and family ask cautiously how you are doing, how the baby is, and you are not quite sure what to say.
Receiving visitors in a maternity hospital when you have no baby tightly swaddled beside you is an experience no new mother should have to endure. Not only does it feel strangely fraudulent to receive gifts and good wishes in such circumstances, but every single fibre of your body is pulling you downstairs to the NICU where your poor newborn is struggling along.
We count ourselves lucky
Despite his early and speedy arrival, our little guy was a good size at birth but had immature lungs. So with time and a lot of really excellent specialist care, he stabilised pretty quickly and after a pretty hairy first week – a week where we could only look at him labouring on the ventilator – he started to improve.
He never had any setbacks, which are so common in premature babies – two steps forward, one step back – and for that, we count ourselves really, really lucky. Once his health started to improve, it continued to improve.
Getting to know some of the other families in our short time spent in this part of the hospital, we knew our baby was the poster child for blossoming good health. Some parents had been coming to the hospital for months already, and their babies were facing very uncertain futures.
Going home – minus baby
Five days after his birth, I was discharged from hospital. I went home, got into bed and wept. Leaving the hospital with an empty capsule in the backseat of the car was just so wrong.
Then I got up out of bed, got in the car and went back to the hospital to sit by his bed. And I continued to do that every day until he came home.
I expressed milk every couple of hours, put it in the freezer, got in the car and drove to the hospital. On repeat.
A moment to hold him
With each visit, there were tiny changes, tiny improvements until that amazing bright December day when I arrived at the hospital with my mother for a visit and the nurse told me that today I could hold my baby.
He had been transferred into a humidicrib, was still attached to a million tubes but now was the time for skin-to-skin contact. Ten days after he was born, he was placed into a faded hospital blanket, lifted carefully from his bed and laid on my chest for the very first time.
In that moment, my heart completely broke in two and in some small way, I am not sure I have really ever recovered. All the fear, all the longing, all the love that had been held in abeyance, poured out of me and into that tiny warm body. And that is how it has continued forever – my heart walking around in his body. That intense moment of connection bonded us in a way that still feels physical even all these years later.
Bringing baby home
We graduated from the humidicrib to a nursery bed after a week and once in the nursery, we were all focused on him gaining enough weight to bring him home. Happily, he had found his appetite and another week later, we were discharged from hospital as the family we had become nearly a month before.
Caring for a baby 24/7 is a rude shock for all first-time parents, but caring for a baby with a ‘high needs’ label attached is a whole other ballgame.
I know I ruined any chance our baby had of being a good sleeper because I picked him up all the time. I couldn’t bear to hear him cry for even a moment, and just wanted him in my arms where he was safe.
Very luckily for us – and for my sanity – he was basically a healthy baby and my Tiger Mother instincts were allowed to step down from High Alert over time. So he learnt to sleep as, eventually, did I.
But even now, this intense time still feels very vivid in my memories. All babies are special. All babies are cherished. But premature babies are loved a little more fiercely because we have endured such an epic journey to bring them home.