I have an admission to make:  Sometimes I still struggle with my son’s premature birth.  Although he is three and is doing very well despite his early start, I still struggle with the fact that my pregnancy ended three months early.  Day to day, it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to, and like everything, life goes on.   I even had a full-term baby boy after a premature delivery, but some days I can’t help but think about what I had went through.

I didn’t realize how much prematurity affected me until a couple of months ago at my friend’s annual Halloween party.  A few of us moms gathered around the kitchen island and one of our friends just brought in her brand-new baby.  We all started oohing and ahhing at this precious little person and we asked our friend how the delivery went.  The conversation then leaned towards “exciting first birth stories.”  Some were exciting and some were very funny. 

Then, in the midst of it all, I blurted out that I was terrified that my son was born, as he arrived nearly three months early. This was then followed by a long, awkward pause.

It then hit me:  I still was not over it.

When I look back at what we went through as a family, I realize we went through a lot. During my son’s 65-day hospital stay, we were in survival mode. We put our brave faces on as soon as we entered the NICU, scrubbed up and joined rounds. People came up to us and complimented on how “strong” we were and so “put together” during that difficult time. Yet there was another side to all this.

There were times that I would weep for hours while pumping in the early hours of the night. There were moments when I would hear a song on the radio and it would make me think of my son, and I would start to cry. I won’t deny it, being an NICU parent was very, very hard. With that being said, there were many precious moments during our NICU stay that made everything worth it, like the first time my husband and I got to bathe him or the first kangaroo cuddle.

If anyone can describe life in the NICU, it is simply one step forward, two steps back.

Although our son did not have any serious complications, his biggest challenge was feeding. Our son had reflux and this would cause him to desaturate. But with the help of our diligent nurses we successfully made it to discharge with bottle feeding pumped breast milk. I remember feeling that discharge was a distant dream and when we finally made it there, it was pure bliss. Coming home was the best feeling ever.

As we began to settle into our new surroundings, we felt “normal” – something that we strived for so desperately since he was born.

Unfortunately, the challenges we faced in the NICU did not end at discharge. During the months that followed, our son struggled with reflux and weight gain. Initially, he was doing well with conservative methods but as he began to eat more, the reflux would be worse and he would vomit a whole feed. He then began to associate eating with pain and eventually did not want to eat. This as parents was awful to watch as we felt so helpless for him. It brought back all the stress we had faced during our time in the NICU. However, we were determined to turn things around for our son and get him back on track with feeding. After consulting with our son’s pediatrician, we got a referral for a specialist and figured out the best medication to control his reflux. Eventually he saw a dietician and occupational therapist to help us with feeding and weight gain. Things eventually got better once we had the right plan in place for him, but going through all this left us feeling completely burned out.

This became my breaking point.

After months of keeping it to myself and feeling alone, I decided that it was time to talk to someone about what I had been going through.

I felt very misunderstood by my family and friends, who at times I felt as if I was judged for the decisions I made, or as if I was being over protective. I strived so hard to have some normalcy in life and realized I needed someone to simply talk to. During a conversation with my son’s occupational therapist, she asked me if there was anything else I needed. I looked at her and asked if there was someone I could talk to. She replied that she had “just the thing.”

She connected me with a wonderful counsellor who came to my house every few weeks to simply talk.

We talked about how my day was.
We talked about how I was feeling.
We talked about my hopes and my dreams.

Looking back, it was probably the best thing I could have done for myself.   For the first time in months, I felt a release from all the worry and stress.  I learned a lot about myself during my conversations with my counsellor and realized I was doing an amazing job as a first-time mom, despite all the challenges we faced in those first few months.   I also accepted that there is no such thing as “normal” like what we see on television or on social media. 

Once I accepted my reality, I was able to move forward with my life.

Many NICU parents often say that the worry will always be there and I definitely agree with that statement.   But as time goes on, I am slowly learning to let things go and let things be.

A huge part of my own personal healing process was to talk openly about my experience with premature birth with family, friends and over social media.  I’m proud to say that my former 28 weeker is now a strong-willed, smart, funny little boy who will be starting kindergarten in the fall.  I have so much admiration for him because he taught me how to be a strong person.  I will admit though, sometimes certain songs or television shows will trigger a few tears about the past, but all in all, I’m a stronger person because of what I have gone through. 

I have also learned that the best parent I can be is one that can look after myself too, because a happier me makes me a better mom, wife, sister and friend.   

As February is mental health awareness month, I can’t stress enough how important it is as parents to take the time to look after ourselves.  If there is anything you can take out from this commentary, I hope it is this: Parenthood in of itself can be full of challenges and new worries. But if those challenges and worries becoming overwhelming, know that it is okay to feel that way and that there is help available out there in the community.  That can be as simple as talking to your doctor or joining a local support group.  In summary, I would like to end my commentary with a quote that I came across the other day: “The only time you should ever look back, is to see how far you’ve come.”  Cheers to parenthood and cheers to you!

Natalie resides in Burlington, Ontario along with her husband Michael and two boys, Tomislav and Ivan.   Natalie’s interests are food, wine, travel, reading, coffee, and anything preemie.