I met a family last week who had an extremely premature baby. I had two extremely premature babies, but this baby was so premature that I was reduced to saying, essentially, ‘oh, shit, that’s an early baby.’
I have been thinking about that family a lot since. They arrived at the NICU – our NICU – a couple months after we left and stayed for a long time, though they are home now. But I keep feeling regret for them – not that they spent four months with a baby in the hospital, though that sure sucks a lot – but that they left the hospital without the resources that they would have had if things had gone more smoothly. Its hard to make friends with other parents when your experience diverged so sharply from everyone else’s so early, and its hard to settle into a rhythm as a new parent when you feel alienated from everyone else and their robust, healthy, oxygen-free newborns.
When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband and I did a birth-prep class. We had been warned that the content was not especially useful (it wasn’t), but that there was a lot of value in meeting your classmates – classes are organised by neighbourhood, and we live in an extremely fertile area, so our classmates lived around the corner, down the road, up the street – we were extremely geographically concentrated. When one of the babies was born early, the father sent an email to all of us saying how nice it was to meet everyone and he hoped to see us again soon sometime.
We had a good laugh about that at our fourth annual birth-prep group holiday in October. We saw each other almost every day all summer, and are still in regular contact with virtually everyone in the group, which has swelled (with second and, in our case, third children) to 32 people.
My group are outliers; most people don’t end up taking regular vacations with their parenting classmates. But most people do leave the hospital with a roughly shared experience of birth and new parenthood. Plus a baby. Most people leave the hospital and take their child with them.
For NICU families, it isn’t like that. I found it relatively easy to leave my daughters behind, not because I’m a callous witch, but because they were clearly…not finished. They were in incubators and they clearly needed to be. I found it harder at the end, when we were in sight of a finish line that never seemed to get any closer, and the girls looked and acted like babies instead of fetuses.
Still, from the moment they were born, I thought they were perfect. I wanted to tell people about my gorgeous twin daughters as much as any other new parent. When I was two weeks postpartum, I took my son to a birthday party and people asked how I was. It was only as I watched their eyes widen that I realised I had to adjust my rhetoric a little. ‘I just gave birth to tiny, perfect, extremely premature babies!’ isn’t exactly cocktail fodder. No one knew what to say. I skipped the next preschool party.
Of course there are families in the NICU who are going through something similar to what you’re experiencing. When people ask if I made friends in the NICU, I say ‘well – Facebook friends.’ I did meet people whose acquaintance I value, but none of them live within a twenty mile radius. Catchment areas for Category III (most intensive) NICUs can be huge; there are only a few in the UK. There are always families coming and going, and there is a hierarchy. One woman took weeks to warm up to me, presumably because her kid was having a rough go and she didn’t want to deal with another baby having an easier time than hers.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about this family I met recently, who had four crummy months in the hospital only to find themselves starting from a different place than everyone else who has a baby the same age (actual or adjusted) after they got discharged. I’ve wondered what could be done to make it easier for them, and I’ve wondered what I could do without coming across as an overzealous weirdo. I haven’t come up with much so far.