Did you miss Kelly Gerow? One of our favorite parenting columnists in THE WORLD is finally emerging from an unexpected couple of months in the hospital, and then an expected couple of months home with her new baby boy. What does that all do to a family anyway?
Photo by: ♥ jules
I was in a hospital for 64 days this year due to pregnancy complications. I went in at 25 weeks pregnant, and was released two days after giving birth to my son at 34 weeks. When you enter the hospital being told that there’s a chance your baby won’t survive if you go into labor that night, you don’t expect to go home with a healthy baby. However, everything that could go well in my situation did go well and when I was discharged from the hospital, I left with my son.
Being in a hospital for an extended stay is probably more traumatic if you’re not sure that you’re leaving, and it doesn’t quite rank with being incarcerated or deployed,1 but it is on a spectrum of isolating experiences that you have to go through to really understand. One of the questions that I got the most both during and after is how I dealt with boredom, and I’ve found that hard to answer. I was unexpectantly removed from all the things in my life that make me feel whole, like being able to take care of my family, go to work, and/or have the freedom to leave a building. I was an active and healthy person who was given physical restrictions and kept in a place associated with illness. With all the time spent worrying that the only alternative to going home was to have a premature baby and a lengthy NICU stay, plus the fear, anxiety, and financial and logistical burdens, having to deal with boredom wasn’t my top concern. Though I suppose a good short answer is, “I played a lot of WordBrain on my phone.”
I’ve had two months to process what happened to me. The biggest revelation for me was to be honest with myself that there was something to process after bed rest.2 I was positive and uncomplaining to exhaustion for most of my hospitalization. Staying upbeat and keeping all the fear and sadness to myself instead of sharing it with the number of people who were there to listen to me was not the most healthy way to go about it. I wanted to make my concerned visitors feel better. I told them all the good news and that I had everything else under control. I didn’t tell people that I secretly hated everyone who got to spend time with my daughter outside of a hospital setting or how sad it was to eat hospital food alone on a Sunday evening. Even though I had the best possible outcome and medical care, and many good memories from my time there, bed rest was terrible.
When I came home, I was recovering from childbirth, reentering real life after 64 days, and had a newborn baby whom I could only remotely prepare for. While my husband was out getting dinner that first night, I had a terrible crying fit that scared my daughter.3 We had to explain to her that nothing was wrong but I might do things like cry for a while (she was spared seeing it after that). The next night we all sat on the couch and ate sandwiches and watched a movie, and I almost cried again because I was happy to be home and with the baby. I overworked that first weekend and was still in pain, and overwhelmed with the dozens of things that I wanted to do. Thanks to my husband and mother-in-law, a lot of work was done to our house (some of it was a surprise. It was like a home makeover show), and I was eager to help get the rest of our home organized.
When I thought back about the hospital stay–especially the first night when the nurse confirmed that my water had indeed broken several months before it was scheduled to–I experienced the same panic and sadness, although I was home and safe. Two weeks after the baby was born, I was asked by two different people I had just met at a party some open-ended questions to describe how terrible it was. I managed a response but felt gutted and wanted to leave. I did not want to talk about it–that’s how I got by for two months–and I certainly couldn’t make small talk to strangers that either did the experience justice or made me not sound like a sleep-deprived basketcase.
I was worried that my relationship with my daughter would be affected by my absence from the house, but we quickly fell back into a good routine. I spent more of the next seven weeks at home with her than with the new baby (who is still doing great, by the way). For awhile she was clingy and cried when I left her at school. She cried at the smallest things. But after spending more time with her classmates and seeing that they acted the same way, I didn’t worry as much. She’s done well coping with the new baby in the house, and did exceptionally well during the hospital stay. It’s me who has hangups about it. When her dad is giving her a bath or putting her to bed and I’m in the other room with the baby and can overhear them, I get sad at that glimpse of what life was like for them without me, although they did fine. She had many sleepovers (mostly with my sister) while I was in the hospital, and she continues to ask everyone if she can sleep over, but the idea of spending a night away from her again is too hard right now.
Although we only dealt with less than three days of my son being cared for in the NICU, we were mentally prepared for more than that. Even those few days were strange. It’s weird having to ask someone if you can hold your own child. My job was to pump, nap, make phone calls to sort out insurance and disability, and pack up to leave, and I felt almost unessential to my son’s care. Even when we faced only an extra day with him in the NICU after I went home, it was stressful planning how to make that day work. On the morning I was discharged, a nurse confirmed he could go home the next day, and immediately another nurse walked over and said he could go home that afternoon if he passed a couple screenings (I also get weepy thinking about that moment, but I don’t count that as hospital-related PTSD).
I imagined the complicated feelings other parents had during NICU hospitalizations. I kept thinking of ways that situation could be worse, even though we were in the clear. What about those moms who were on bed rest for most of the pregnancy, had two months of the NICU, and then had to adjust to home life with an infant and had to return to work right away, if not before the baby came home? What about those parents who lived out of town and couldn’t see their baby every day? At some point, would you not even want to bother visiting? Even though we avoided a typical NICU experience for a premature baby, it was hard to shake the dread and anticipation that had been building for nine weeks.
We had a parade of help from our friends and families while I was in the hospital. Our circle of friends took control of what they could immediately. I had visitors and messages of best wishes and offers to help. Our daughter had her first sleepover that weekend after a playdate and lunch out with friends. The number of people who brought me food and gifts, took care of our daughter, checked in on and walked our dog, checked in with my husband and me, and even brought their families to hang out with mine at the hospital made me feel loved and secure. I have made a list of it all and hope to one day do something to show everyone how much it meant to me to feel that taken care of (though I think the most I can really do is make sure that I am that helpful in the future if I suspect someone needs it).
When we brought our first child home, we had stocked up on prepared food. Meals were brought to us, too, and dinners were taken care for that first month. This time, our moms had brought groceries because we didn’t have much food at the house. Even though we would have enjoyed having people bring food and visit, it wasn’t difficult for us to handle two kids, and we often had dinner in the works by the time someone offered to bring us something.
Getting so much from other people took its toll on me. I am terrible at asking for help, and being useless and needy made me feel bad, and made me think that people thought that I couldn’t take care of myself in general, even outside of hospital life. I felt guilty accepting more help. How could I rightfully expect my busy friends to make dinner for me when I was able to successfully assemble a slow cooker meal with one arm and hold a baby in the other? It made it hard for a meal train to get through because of that guilt, but a couple friends managed to overrule me. And it was still appreciated (I will always accept pizza and watermelon, by the way).
Lastly, my stay at home after my son was born was brief, with a sad trombone sound following my reply whenever anyone asked me when I had to return to work. I like my job (and appreciate all the benefits that I had available, though I now have stronger opinions about maternity care in America than I did before). Before bed rest, I planned a 12-week stay at home with my new baby, and I ended up with seven. It was hard to think about going back to work because he needed round-the-clock care (though, my husband covered more of the baby care than I did. I had closets to declutter and papers to organize). Plus how could I be around all those people when I couldn’t hold coherent conversations that weren’t about nursing, pumping, or SpongeBob SquarePants (my daughter’s new favorite)? I assumed I would cry all the time or just stare blankly at coworkers while I tried to remember how to use words correctly.
When I got back to work, I was on time and dry-eyed. My husband is doing the stay-at-home-parent thing for a while, which also helped me deal with leaving home because we didn’t need to hand our teeny guy over to a stranger. Being back at work made me feel more normal than I had since before I was in the hospital. It officially marked my hospital and childbirth recovery as over.
I have many reminders of the casual aspects of hospital life. I crave the turkey burgers that I could order from the hospital cafeteria. I remember on Monday evenings that there is a Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives marathon on although we don’t have cable, (I was able to stay true to my birth plan and watch it while I was in labor). When I drive past the hospital on the way home from my daughter’s school, I try to spot the red-tailed hawks that were often around the grounds and would fascinate my husband and me in the courtyard. I saw one sitting on the cross on top of the hospital.
Plus I think about the nurses. I really liked them, and all the doctors and staff that I saw daily. My daughter talks about the nurses a lot, and she and I have visited them already. If you ever find yourself in risk of pre-term labor and need to be in a hospital, direct yourself to St. Mary’s Hospital. Tell them Kelly sent you. They’ll know who you’re talking about.
- Though I related to Orange is the New Black more when I watched it while in the hospital than when I started it at home. ↩
- I use “bed rest” because “hospital arrest” isn’t a medical precaution. I could and did get out of bed after two weeks of being there. I couldn’t leave the unit unsupervised and was not able to be alone with my daughter. I was there because a number of high-risk scenarios that could occur due to a condition called PPROM. I did not make enough jokes about prom while I was there. ↩
- He picked up fried chicken from Lee’s, which we also had the day we brought our firstborn home. The woman who took his order noticed his wristband from the NICU and gave him double our order for free. This is the biggest incentive for having more children so far. ↩