Throughout Daniel's 105 days of hospitalization, I sat by his bed in the neonatal intensive care nursery and daydreamed about his homecoming. I pictured myself nursing my baby in a rocking chair by my bedroom window. I imagined my husband and I smiling over Daniel as he peacefully slept in his new bassinette. Even the doctors and nurses indicated that Daniel's homecoming day would be a happy ending to a long, heart-wrenching story ("Discharge day is nearing! Soon you'll be a family.") So I wasn't at all prepared for what I now refer to as the emotional "aftershocks" that followed our NICU experience.
For several months I would wake up in the middle of the night from terrifying dreams about Daniel's delivery (he was delivered by emergency C-Section due to my preeclampsia). I often felt unbelievably scared and worried, wondering if he would overcome all his preemie-related problems. Throughout my days, I felt incredible loneliness, and sometimes sadness. I left my job to care for Daniel and with my husband at work and often traveling, I had little contact with other adults. I avoided mothers' clubs and playgroups because I couldn't risk Daniel catching an illness from the other babies, and, truthfully, I didn't want to be around full-term babies and mothers who had carried to term.
Some family and friends understood, but most thought I should put Daniel's traumatic birth behind me now that he was home, but I couldn't. In fact, I hadn't really dealt with my feelings during the NICU experience; I had stayed in the "survivor mode," handling one day at a time. Once I left the NICU, my feelings of guilt (Why couldn't I carry my baby to term?), incredible fear for the future (What medical and developmental problems would now surface?), and even anger (Why did this have to happen to us?) caught me off guard.
"Parents are often surprised when their feelings continue after homecoming," says Mara Stein, PsyD, a Chicago clinical psychologist, who also delivered twin girls 10 weeks early. "Having a traumatic birth and a premature baby isn't something you ever get over. It's something you must gradually integrate into your life," says Stein, who is currently co-writing "The Emotional Journey of Parenting Your Premature Baby" (NICU Ink, 2001).
Give yourself permission to feel Giving yourself permission to feel and finding a safe place to talk about your feelings can help, Stein says. Support can come from an Internet or parent-to-parent support group, another preemie mom, an understanding friend or family member or a professional. For me, sharing my thoughts with another preemie mom (and learning that she had similar feelings!) helped me come to terms with our family's crisis. But it didn't happen overnight, and even nine years later, I sometimes find myself tearful around Daniel's birthday and Christmas (he was discharged on Christmas Eve).
"Feelings can last a long time and can be triggered throughout life," Stein says. "Some lurk under the surface, and you don't even realize they're there. For instance, you may burst into tears when your baby rolls over, not realizing how worried you were about possible developmental delays."
Seeing a pregnant woman, watching a diaper commercial, smelling a hospital-like scent can all make you relive those old feelings. Your child's ongoing problems can be a constant reminder of his traumatic beginning. You may even find yourself overwhelmed by emotions during happy occasions, as I did when Daniel "graduated" from Kindergarten (We'd overcome so many obstacles!).
Feeling is healthy, stresses Stein. "But if your feelings start getting in the way of your life, affecting your marriage or other relationships, then you need professional help." If you find yourself constantly crying or feeling depressed, or you simply want to sort through your feelings, consult a trained therapist (a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker or family counselor).
Not all of your feelings will be "bad," many will be positive. The NICU experience taught me how precious a new life is, and I've always felt tremendous love for Daniel (and later for his brother, Steven). Every time Daniel plays a song on the piano or shoots a hockey puck, I feel overwhelming pride. And sometimes, when I reflect on the NICU experience or look through Daniel's baby album, I feel an incredible sense of triumph.