My son was born at 26 weeks.
Up until that point my pregnancy had been very similar to that of my daughters three years earlier. I had constant morning sickness so was medicated and felt pretty awful most of the time, but I’d carried Sally to term and had a natural birth with a wonderful outcome so saw no reason why this time anything should be different.
Alfie arrived very quickly without any real warning. He came 17 minutes after arriving at the hospital by ambulance and my husband was unable to be there as he was arranging care for our daughter.
I went into complete shock.
I wish now that we’d known Alfie’s gender beforehand, he was born with his placenta attached and even the vast medical team didn’t know his gender for 10 minutes as they worked to stabilise him.
I coped by detaching. I can still vividly remember and feel guilty everyday for the fact that during his rapid birth I focused on our daughter. I pictured her in my mind and reminded myself whatever happens I’ve got her. My mind continued to cope by focusing on her for at least the first 48 hours.
Alfie was transferred to a specialist hospital 60 miles away and we followed. I’d never left Sally over night before so was tormented by thoughts of her distress and just wanted to get home to be with her, but when I did the following day I felt judged for doing so by all but one wonderful nurses.
I returned within 24 hours and continued to do 48 hours with Alfie followed by 24 hours with Sally in shifts with my husband until Alfie was transferred back to our local hospital 18 days later.
I had bonded with Sally instantly when she was born, but she as been handed to me the second she was born and had barely left my arms in the days, weeks and months that followed. I got to touch Alfie’s tiny, tiny hand briefly as he was whisked away and then all contact was controlled, monitored and terrifying. Even the first time I held him after 13 days was hard as my instinct was to rock and stroke him but that was not allowed.
I tore myself in half to spend time with both of my children everyday but never felt I was giving either of them enough. When Alfie finally came home along with his oxygen my body and mind caved in and I suffered severe stress induced IBS and debilitating anxiety, not helped by him being readmitted with pneumonia and a collapsed lung 5 weeks later.
I struggled on exhausted and carrying the guilt that I had not bonded with Alfie straight away until I went to see my GP as I reached breaking point. To the outside world I hid it well, but that is not always a good thing. She got me counselling which identified that I had PTSD and post natal anxiety. It helped but I was still struggling and in the end agreed to try medication and wish I’d done it months ago. I still get anxious but I can manage it now and my IBS has reduced massively. I can look at things rationally now and know deep down that what matters is that I have bonded with Alfie not how quickly that happened.
I still feel haunted by his birth and first year of life, but I know now that I’m not alone in these feelings and that helps a lot.
The NICU experience does not end at discharge and everyone copes in different ways, but just because someone appears to be coping do not assume they are and just be there to listen and support.