“So what’s it like being a mom?”
Since giving birth to the Tagalongs three weeks ago, I’ve been congratulated and welcomed to the mommy club. But no one had asked me how it felt to be a mom—until last week. Truthfully, I didn’t know how to respond.
Life Outside the NICU
The thing is, leaving your baby in the NICU delays the whole parenting gig. I don’t really feel like a mom. Yes, I now bear a C-section battle scar, and my once nicely toned abs now sport a mommy pooch. Chris now folds his tall frame into my four-door sedan, while I cruise around town in a seven-passenger minivan. And one room in my home now houses three cribs and a small truckload of diapers, while the rest of my home is slowly becoming littered with baby gear.
But that’s the extent of my experience with parenthood. The sounds of baby squalls and coos don’t fill the air. The van transports car seat bases rather than infants. And the cribs sit empty, the baby gear untouched, save for when it’s moved out of the way. There are no babies here—just the telltale signs of them. No, my babies are snugly nestled into closed isolettes in the NICU, the only home they’ve known since coming into this world.
Life Inside the NICU
There’s much about the NICU that’s hard. The doctors speak in a foreign language, and even the medical acronyms are multisyllabic. The machines are bulky and complex, and they hiss and ding to the beat of their own conductor. The babies have so many wires attached to them that it seems like they’re more wire than baby, and they can be handled only during their 30-minute care window every 3 hours. Everything is cold and sterile—even the air. No NICU tour will prepare you for this.
But the hardest part of leaving a baby in the NICU is the deparentizing (for lack of a better term). This isn’t done intentionally. Our NICU does a fantastic job of trying to transform itself into a home away from home for babies and parents. Name signs and scrapbook pages go up at the bedside as soon as the staff knows a little one is coming, and parents are encouraged to bring trinkets to go with these decorations. Scent cloths are placed in the babies’ isolettes so they’re surrounded by the smell of their parents (or at least of Mom). Babies can be dressed in clothing from home once they’re free of certain wires and have the doctors’ approval. Parents are referred to as Mom and Dad, and they’re encouraged to visit and call for updates as often as they’d like. And caring for the babies isn’t reserved for those with medical degrees. Parents are encouraged to participate in taking temperatures, changing diapers, giving baths, carrying out simple physical therapy exercises, holding, and giving kangaroo care from Moment 1. Our NICU’s philosophy is that they have our babies for only a brief time—we parents have them for the rest of their lives.
But at the end of the day, we go home and the babies do not. Chris and I used to joke that we liked kids, but we liked handing them back to their parents after a few hours and running away. Ironically, we still do that—but with our own kids. We spend a few hours at the hospital every day participating in cares, and then we go home, leaving our children in the very capable hands of their NICU nurses while we carry on with the rest of our lives.
And that feels wrong. It feels wrong to be at home doing the dishes or laundry, at the store grocery shopping, or out grabbing some dinner while your babies are lying in cribs across town being taken care of by someone else. It feels wrong to have conversations about how to fit going to see your babies into your daily schedule. It feels wrong to stare into your babies’ eyes—eyes that sometimes look at you like, “Who are you again?”—as you kiss them good-bye (not goodnight) and tell them you’ll see them tomorrow. At the very least, it makes you feel like you live a very, very busy life. At the very worst, it makes you feel like you’re not a parent—just a visitor. And that’s a hard feeling to wrestle with. The mommy guilt starts early when you’re leaving your baby in the NICU.
Life Beyond the NICU
Thankfully, the NICU is only temporary. Before I know it, I’ll be running around after three little ones in a crazy, sleep-deprived stupor. On some days, I’m sure I’ll long for the days of the NICU—at least the part that involved handing my babies over to someone else for a few hours. Until then, I’ll bide my time, trusting that what I’m doing is enough and doing the best I can to help my babies recognize me as Mom and understand just how much I love them.