I finally got up the courage a month or two ago to open J's journal that documents his NICU stay. It wasn't as painful as I'd expected, so now I've gotten the courage to sift through my posts on my personal blog. It is actually much harder than I anticipated. The posts are usually short, but the emotion in them cuts through my heart. Looking back, I know how awful some days were, but it's hard to remember exactly what I was thinking at that moment in time, without any perspective on how things would turn out.
One post that affected me was about PTSD. Here's what I said two months into J's NICU stay:
Not to belabor how difficult this journey has been, but apparently NICU parents can have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to a NY Times article. I try to focus on how fortunate we've been, but staying positive is becoming increasingly difficult. I can feel myself starting to pull away. Does my own son even know me? I feel helpless to comfort him. It's not right for a little one to have such a rough start, with all the poking and prodding and needles and tubes. And I have no privacy with my own baby, even when trying to learn the art of breastfeeding with a very sleepy preemie. Every word spoken to him can be overheard. Now, I can't even touch him, skin to skin. The MRSA outbreak means that for his own safety I have to don rubber gloves and a Hazmat gown just to hold him. The entire situation is so artificial.
I know, I know. It's necessary. It's temporary. It won't always be this way.
But, with each passing day, I shut down a little more. I can't help it. Otherwise, it just hurts too much to leave your baby with strangers day after day.
Our experience has been nothing compared to some parents, so I can totally believe the whole PTSD thing. I just hope we get out soon--preferably before RSV season starts, which is fodder for another worried blog post for another day.
I am struck by my fear over my connection with J, which, as it turns out, was legitimate. I had a hard time bonding with J when he came home. I went through each day sacrificing everything I had to give him, but it was out of a sense of responsibility and duty. I owed it to him to be a good mother. The confidence I now have as his mom and the playful relationship we've developed took more than a year.
I'm also touched by the topic, that PTSD can haunt parents long after the NICU. Even in the middle of our first NICU stay, I was trying to balance complex emotions: fear, loss, joy, anger, despair, anticipation. Some days I just put one foot in front of the other other and shuffled through the day. On good days, we laughed and cried at the beauty of J's little life. But, it was a terrifying time, and even as I write this, it takes nothing for me to feel the despair wash over me again.
What happens when you start your parental journey with such trauma? Are you a better or a worse parent for it? Are you different from other parents? Do you have more of a relaxed approach, because the sting of the NICU puts life's challenges into perspective, or do you have a focused approach, because life is so tenuous? Even though our kids won't remember their beginning, does it affect them? Somewhere in their being, do they know the road they've traveled?
I don't know. But, I do know that the NICU puts a brand on you; it's a mark that will never come off. We are still in the middle of it all, too close for much perspective. But, I am aware of all the ways it has shaped my husband and me. Do I still feel the trauma? Yes, every, single day. But, I also feel so much joy that comes from rising out of a dark place. In that way, we are fortunate. The most fortunate. It's too bad I can't go back in time and tell myself that the shock waves would pass and a peace would follow.
But, it's probably a good thing that I can't go back and tell that poor, tired mama that she was only halfway through the first NICU stay.
I'm sure she'd say, "Wait, what?! We'll do this all over again??!!"