When I went in to give birth to Elijah, I didn't just become a mum, I became a NICU Mum. This was not in the birth plan. I never considered in a million years that there would be something wrong with my baby, let alone I would watch him fight for his life in the Neo Natal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for nine days before we could finally bring him home.
You wake up in an unfamiliar room, it takes a few seconds but then it hits you like a ton of bricks. You instinctively feel your deflated stomach. Your bump is gone, you scan the room, in the distance you can hear people and babies. That noise isn't your baby, you are not even in the same room as your baby. The empty incubator and car seat are stark reminders of this. You are not on the ward with the other mums, you are in a side room. Alone.
As soon as you possibly can, you get out of your room, not caring what you look like, you have one goal in mind - get to your baby. No matter what physical state you are in, you waddle/ hijack a wheelchair. You do what you can to get there, not caring about eating breakfast or seeing a midwife as the pity is too much to handle right now. Your physical health means nothing to you, you will push yourself to the limit for your baby.
You have a knot in your stomach, and you could physically pass out as you approach the NICU double doors. You press the buzzer to enter and sanitise your hands. You're shown to the room your baby is in, beginning to get overwhelmed almost instantly. The machines with their alarms going off is a sound you will hear for a long time even when you are not there. The lights, the doctors, nurses, the other babies and their parents looking as strained as you seem to all blur into the background.
Then you see your baby, they are hooked up to everything and suddenly your knees buckle. It is something you can never get used to, never un-see. You spend nearly the whole day sitting by the side of your baby, hoping, praying that you will be able to bring them home. Ignoring the pangs of hunger or the fact you have sat there for two hours straight - when you are holding your baby's hand through the door of the incubator nothing else matters. You know the daily routine of the NICU, when the doctors come around, who is the best to talk to, the shift changeover, when they turn the lights down at night. You try and fit into it, you try to be any sort of mother you can, but most of the time you feel like a spare part, in the way of the medical staff doing their jobs. At times, you feel like you have to ask permission to be a mother to them.
When you do take a break, it is normally spent in the hospital café, using that time to update family and friends. You don't really want to eat but you force it down. You don't taste anything, you don't enjoy it. You're on autopilot wrestling with the fact you shouldn't be away from your baby. Everything you do is timed around them, you don't want to miss a feed, or a nappy change or even when those jobs have been done. You scroll through the photos you have taken, later these will even be hard for you to look at.
The time in the NICU has a strange way of going quickly and slowly at the same time. You're in a world you didn't ask to be in, one that at times feels like you cannot escape from. You feel trapped, you spend so much time in your head sitting by the side of your baby. The feelings of anger, guilt, resentment, anxiety and shame overwhelm you. It is like you are viewing the day and what is happening through someone else's eyes.
The milestones you reach when you are in NICU, are not the ones you would be celebrating if you were at home. Dressing your baby, changing their nappy, feeding them for the first time, moving into a cot - all things that are taken for granted - but when you achieve these in the NICU it is like you have won the lottery. You hold them close, you shout them from the rooftops, share them with everyone you know. Then come the dark days, where no milestones are met, setbacks that make you catch your breath and your stomach drop to your feet. You fear you will lose them all over again.
Then comes the night, it will be something you will dread. Although there is a 24-hour access policy, you tend to have to make the heart wrenching decision to leave your baby. To return to your hospital room, or home. Spending the night without your baby is traumatic. You won't sleep, you will go through the motions of resting but your mind will not turn off. You call the NICU at 3AM just to make sure they are okay. You wake up to the empty cot again, and your day begins. No sleep, barely functioning and going through every emotion you can possibly go through. It is like Groundhog Day.
This is your life as a NICU Parent, this will be your life until you hear those words you have imagined in your head, 'You're going home'.