What I Learned about Motherhood in the NICU

Why this twin mom considers her experience there a gift.

In all my prenatal research, I failed to connect some of the dots about my twin pregnancy. I knew I would probably deliver early, but I didn’t consider the likelihood that my babies would have to stay in the NICU. Maybe it was optimism or pregnancy brain, but I thought we would just bring home 2 smaller-than-average, adorable little babies. Little did I know, we would have to wait six weeks for our little ones’ homecoming.

Having twins at my recently celebrated “advanced maternal age” classified me as high risk. So I required more frequent prenatal appointments and scans, and at 33 weeks, the ultrasound confirmed one of my doctor’s worries: Baby B’s growth had slowed and it showed that his placenta was tiring out. Suddenly, we were talking about delivering the next day and having our babies stay at the hospital until their full-term due date, which was seven weeks away!

Thankfully, with some monitoring, the right treatments and a lot of rest, we were able to postpone our scheduled C-section to 34 weeks. After the birth, we barely had the time to snap a few photos before our boys, Rhys and Owen, were taken to the neonatal intensive care unit. Four hours later, were we able to visit them for the very first time.

It was late, and the NICU was dark. Aside from hushed voices and the muted beeps of the million monitors and machines, the room was calm and quiet. We weren’t allowed to hold them yet, and part of me was actually relieved. They were so teeny and hooked on so many wires and tubes, I was honestly scared to touch them.

I was also instinctively filled with maternal worry, yet the physical separation made me feel strangely detached. After all, I was a few floors up from the NICU and had to work through the effects of the surgery by myself while my husband spent most of his time with them. I stayed in my room while my husband spent most of the first night with them, and every time I heard a STAT call to the NICU, I texted him in a panic.

By the next morning, they were already doing so well. Their breathing tubes were gone, and we could better see their sweet faces. To my surprise, the nurse told us we could hold them, and while it was amazing to finally do that, I had to fight the urge to put them back. I felt they would be safest in their little boxes and was afraid to disturb them because they had growing to do. That is, until our nurse told us that skin-to-skin contact would advance a preemie’s development – much more so than him resting on his own.  

Three days later, we went home — without our boys. It was heart wrenching. Though my husband was back at work and I was still recovering, we had to go back to the NICU every day. He’d go before and after work, and I would spend most of the day there, sitting in an uncomfortable chair holding one baby, often feeling guilty that I wasn’t holding the other too. So I would take turns and  would often lose track of time, worrying that one of them got more snuggles than the other.

After just 10 days, the doctors  told me that Rhys could go home! He was still so tiny, but he had grown and was eating and holding his temperature. I burst into tears — it was much earlier than the seven weeks they had predicted, and though I was happy, I was also scared. Having all that support from the hospital staff was a major crutch: if I couldn’t get him to nurse or take his bottle after 30 minutes, the nurses knew how; if I couldn’t get the burp out, they always could; and how would I know if something was wrong without the monitors for his heart and lungs? At that point, all the beeping machines and quiet voices were very comforting.

Of course, Rhys’s homecoming turned out to be amazing. But the fact that Owen, our Baby B, was still in the hospital made this joyful moment bittersweet. Since we couldn’t bring Rhys to the NICU, we had to recruit the help of our family and friends and coordinate our NICU visits so that Owen wouldn’t be by himself for too long. One week later he too was ready to go home.

I think about our NICU doctors and nurses a lot. They were just so supportive and helpful — it was comforting to know that our babies were in their care. Not only did they facilitate bonding to counteract the physical separation, they helped us with breastfeeding and diaper changes and even encouraged us to take breaks to take care of ourselves.

We didn’t just learn from the hospital staff, but also from other families who dealt with complicated situations too. A mom was on bedrest for months before delivering prematurely, while another one had to go back to work and could only visit her teeny tiny baby during lunch and on weekends. Some babies were born way too early, yet were beating the odds. We marveled at the strength of everyone we encountered in the NICU, and though we had our own trials and setbacks, we were grateful for the cards we were dealt.

When it was time to leave, saying goodbye to the staff turned out to be very difficult. We cried, a lot. Not just because we were relieved, but because we were going to miss the community that we had there. The NICU is not exactly an ideal place to be, but we ended up seeing it as an incredible gift: the gift of being able to bring 2 smaller-than-average, adorable babies at home.

Gillian O’Banion is mama to identical two year old twin boys and wife to Colin, an integrative physical therapist. After 15 years in Manhattan, she’s a recent transplant to the Westchester ‘burbs and is finding the balance between a previous life in wellness and lifestyle marketing and her current profession as a full-time toddler wrangler. 

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