By Sarah (@littlebutfierce16)
When Sarah’s second baby was born early due to pre-eclampsia (as in her first pregnancy too), she found herself a single mum to a premature baby and thus, a single parent on NICU. Navigating neonatal care is no mean feat for any parent but without a partner to lean on, it can be especially difficult. In this piece, Sarah talks bravely about her two premature births and her experience as a single parent on NICU.
I am mummy to two girls who were both born prematurely because of early onset pre eclampsia. My placenta began to fail and they were safer out than in. By the time my second daughter was born, I was also a single parent.
The best-case scenario both times was that I made it to 34 weeks. Spoiler alert. I did not.
With my first daughter, I was a daily visitor to the ante-natal ward for monitoring by 28 weeks. By 30 weeks, I was admitted because my blood pressure was too high. The following day, after some questionable stats and slowed foetal movements, the consultant arrived in her scrubs and told me it was time to take her out via c-section. I was terrified.
I just kept saying that she was too small, and that it was Friday 13th so it just couldn’t happen yet. The theatre was filled with staff who all introduced themselves kindly…but what do you say back? “Hello, lovely to meet you but this wasn’t supposed to happen for 10 more weeks?!” Most frighteningly, there was a neonatal crash team there too.
There was a very loud silence and then against all odds, weighing just 2lb 15oz, Isla was born screaming. She was immediately handed over to the paediatricians. The first I saw of her was a blurry photograph later that day; she was in an incubator, more nappy and tubing than a baby.
The next nine weeks were hellish as I came home without my daughter. She repeatedly had jaundice and almost had to be moved to a higher dependency unit because she wasn’t tolerating milk. She had e coli, a lumbar puncture…We rang ahead every morning to get an update before going to visit, hardly daring to breathe.
I was expressing milk every three hours, wherever I was, because I didn’t know what else to do. Isla gradually put on weight and was moved into a hot cot. We learnt to swap her sats monitors, wash and dress her through the portholes, administer milk and medicines through her nose and then finally, I could feed her myself.
My overriding memory was the noise. The constant shrill beeping of machines monitoring the babies, the alarms, the staff running, the awful sense of relief when it’s not your baby setting them off. We were told many stories about someone’s baby who was premature being “now 6ft 4” or similar. I didn’t need her to be 6ft 4, just okay.
We eventually went home with our 4lb baby, multiple prescription medicines, a truck load of frozen breast milk and our hearts in our mouths. The first few months were scary. I’d feed her every two to three hours, recording everything as in the NICU and watching her like a hawk. As time went on, and certainly by the time we got to weaning, I began to relax.
One thing I wasn’t expecting though was how out of place I felt as a new mother to a premature baby. My daughter was so small compared to babies of her age but she also didn’t fit in the adjusted age category either. I was fielding questions and comments – “she’s how old?”; “How much does she weigh?”; “You had to leave her in the hospital?”… Yes, she’s tiny. She was 9 weeks early. No, she’s not rolling yet…. I simply stopped going to baby groups altogether. In hindsight, I had blocked out all that had happened and wasn’t ready to relive it with people I didn’t know. Now it would be called boundaries, I just knew it as protection.
Becoming a Single Mum to a Premature Baby
It was around this time I noticed a change in my husband. I thought he had PTSD or post-natal depression. He began to run obsessively and stopped eating properly, he was detached and disinterested, and I was at a loss. By some miracle I fell pregnant again, but between conceiving and finding out, he left.
I knew he was dealing with something; I had no idea it was actually someone… and had been going on for a long time. He assured me it was over and we limped along for a little while.
The final months of my second pregnancy went much the same way as my first: aiming for 34 weeks. This time I almost made it. At 33 weeks, it was me not the baby who was in distress and, after passing out while being monitored, my favourite consultant was back in her scrubs. Emmi was born weighing 3lb 11oz. The same, blurry, tube covered baby photo arrived and I braced myself to be a single parent on NICU.
Being a Single Parent on NICU
Emmi was in hospital for 3 weeks. More beeping, but thankfully less tubes and medicines. I knew the routines and the staff; that the middle of the night was the quietest time to sit with her and when you got the most information from the staff about how to look after her. My husband had basically already moved out and when Emmi was 6 weeks old he left for good. I was officially a single mum to a premature baby – well, two.
It was relentless and I felt empty and broken for a while. Once again, I didn’t feel we fitted in with the new baby narrative and explaining my situation was something I felt embarrassed about. That said, I strangely found being a single mum easier than doing it as a couple. I didn’t have anyone to confer with or take into consideration, I just did what was best for us. We have had many adventures as a three! At times it was sad and exhausting but being a single mum was also liberating after a year of treading on eggshells.
The bond I have with the girls is intense. I still check their breathing before I go to sleep and wear their prematurity like a badge of honour. It’s a hangover from the way they came into the world. They are now six and eight; bright, hilarious, and fiercely independent. I am doing my utmost to protect them from my worries.
They won’t grow to be 6ft 4 but they are both beyond magic. The hospital saved them, and they certainly saved me. The following year I met someone who loves us without question. He is the most incredible stepfather, helping me see that families don’t have to all look the same. And mine? It’s full of love.
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