It’s Okay To Love AND Hate The NICU 

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NICU parents have something deep in common: we’ve been through (what feels like) a war. We’ve fought for our babies to live and breathe and be okay, while managing our own emotions and hoping we’ll be okay too. 

If you’re a NICU parent, you know what I mean.

Each year an estimated 10 to 15 percent of babies born in the United States spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). 

NICU baby

My second baby was whisked from the operating room to the NICU. In the post-op recovery room, I saw my baby’s sweet face through a plastic incubator before she was air-lifted to another hospital with a higher level NICU. 

I am grateful for access to healthcare, hospitals, NICUs, and healthcare workers. But I never wanted to need their help.

As my baby lay there, hooked up to countless multicolored wires and cords with loud beeping monitors, I stared in disbelief. I hadn’t even held her yet.

I knew that little plastic cave was keeping her safe from the outside world, but I hated it. And I knew the tubes coming from her nose, the catheter in her belly button, and the pulse oximeter on her foot were helping her, but I hated them. And yes, I knew the NICU team was qualified and competent, but I hated them. 

My baby spent one week in the NICU. During that time my baby had over 20 nurses and at least 6 doctors including a pediatrician, pediatric neurologist, neonatologist, and other doctors whose titles I forget.

We experienced kind, empathetic nurses and doctors who respected us and seemed to truly care for our child and our situation. We also suffered through medical workers who spoke to us brusquely and treated us as if we were a nuisance.

I’m so thankful and grateful for the level of care my baby received — it saved her life. I love the healthcare advances our society has achieved. It’s what made my baby’s level of care possible.

I love the NICU and I also hate the NICU.

I hate how sterile and cold it is. You never forget the smell of the rooms nor the sound of all the obnoxious monitors.

I hate the term “kangaroo care” because something as normal and natural as holding your baby becomes as delicate an operation as diffusing a bomb.

Strangers must help you move your baby slowly and gingerly so you don’t tangle the countless wires and tubes or set off an alarm. These strangers watch you and tell when you can care for your child.

I hate how the NICU workers have to dictate how you lift and hold and feed your own baby. 

Still, I love the bulletin boards hung on the walls of the NICU. They’re covered with photos of newborn babies, small and smiling, and grownup babies, big and playful. It’s happy and  encouraging.

I loved how gentle and sympathetic our nurse, Helen, was as she told us she was just an observer. We were the parents so she would take her cues from us.

I loved how respectful and empathetic our doctor, Ben, was as he spoke to us honestly while giving us hope about our baby’s outcomes. 

I hated how immature nurse Jackie was as she told us everything she thought our baby liked and disliked, as if she was introducing her own baby to us.

She showed a severe lack of wisdom as she rattled off all the things I couldn’t do with my baby, without stopping to think how it would make me feel, instead of telling us what we could do with our baby.

More than anything, I love that NICUs exist to help babies survive and, hopefully, thrive.

But I also hate that my baby and other babies need NICUs at all. I wish all babies were born healthy and didn’t need extra care. 

To my fellow NICU parents: No matter how you feel about the NICU, I hope you know you can love it and hate it. Whatever your experience and feelings are, know they are valid.

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