Natasha Borton is a Welsh poet and spoken word artist. She also happens to be a mum to a little boy who was born 11 weeks premature.
After a bumpy road through the SCBU (special care baby unit) which took its toll mentally and physically, she used her creativity to help others who’d lived similar experiences.
I caught up with Natasha to discuss all things preemie, and to hear more about the neonatal project she spearheaded.
In a rush? Prefer to watch or listen? Hit the button below to get links to video and audio recordings of our chat:
A tough start to motherhood
Natasha’s son was born when she was only 29 weeks and four days into her pregnancy, plunging her and her family into a new and uncertain world.
“I kind of knew that they (babies) could come early and it could be okay but I kinda didn’t know that SCBU was a thing”, she explains.
Alongside that trauma, Natasha had to deal with instant separation from her son.
“It was very difficult; I was quite unwell. I had preeclampsia quite severely so I wasn’t really allowed to go anywhere. My little boy actually had to go to a completely different hospital to where I was, and he ended up being in three different hospitals.
Things didn’t get much easier for Natasha, as she admits to finding it difficult to be around other people.
“I couldn’t go into the communal areas. I didn’t want anyone to talk to me. I didn’t want to make friends… the talk in the breast pumping room drove me up the wall!”
It’s hard to believe this amiable and affable woman – a person who makes a living from the spoken word – could have been reduced to such feelings, but such is the power of the neonatal experience.
It was “four or five days” before she was able to meet her baby for the first time, and says “we didn’t get to really get to hold him or have him out of the incubator until he was two weeks.
“It was really weird like getting to know this little baby. In my mind I was like oh, obviously I made him. But it was like getting to know a completely separate person.”
Gradually though, Natasha started to follow her motherly instinct and bond with her baby.
“When you start doing the cares and things and start slowly becoming a parent, I think you start slowly taking over that responsibility”, she explains.
“It was really bizarre but now it seems like a solid foundation for the kind of parents that we are the kind of kid that he is.”
Smiling throughout the conversation, Natasha admits that as her son approaches his second birthday, she’s only now starting to look back “with a little bit of hindsight” as thing are “starting to get normal”.
Me, You and SCBU: a project for parents of neonatal babies
Many parents seek some kind of outlet or catharsis before or during the SCBU/NICU experience, and Natasha was no different:
“I think it’s just very natural for us to want to write about what we’re going through.”
“On a personal level, keeping a diary throughout the journey of SCBU really helped me. Not only because I was getting my thoughts out on the page so they weren’t necessarily just like sitting up here” – she points to her head – “and I didn’t have to go and speak to somebody else, I could just write them down. But also looking back on them now it’s made me remember little bits that were nice.
“It helped me keep a log of what was going on; I remember the very first song I ever sung to him in the incubator because I wrote it down, whereas I wouldn’t have remembered that. It’s also allowed me to access some of the happier moments of being on the unit.”
However, she decided to go one step further, and involve others.
She explains: “It seemed to me like we were lacking a community of SCBU parents; I didn’t know anything about children, I’d had no kids before or since… and so I didn’t really know how many people went through this and I felt like we didn’t have a point of reference to talk to people about it. There wasn’t any counselling on the unit and there wasn’t anyone else to talk to, in a professional capacity at all.”
The result? A creative writing workshop involving parents who’d been through similar situations.
Natasha continues: “It came out of a funding stream from Literature Wales, and they fund projects that improve wellbeing in the community. And so having a come through SCBU, it just seemed really logical to me that I identified a group who I think needed that wellbeing and mental health support in SCBU parents, and it was kind of an excuse really for me to get a lot of people around to talk to me about going through SCBU!”
Indeed, it had been the writings of other parents that played a part in Natasha’s journey through the experience.
“One of the things that I found really reassuring whilst on the unit was reading all the cards that people had sent in. Like they’d send a card in and their kid’s just graduated from university at 21 and they were born at like 26 weeks and it was just really emotional reading about their journeys”, she says.
This sharing of words seemingly planted the seed that later blossomed into Me, You and SCBU, Natasha’s writing project. She continues passionately outlining the idea.
“What I wanted was to create an anthology of people writing about their journey so that we could all feel like we’re part of this community together, even if we’re not experiencing it at the same time, or even if you don’t want to leave your ward to go talk to anyone, so you can just read this book.”
After six sessions in North Wales, the anthology is almost complete – though not quite. The coronavirus lockdown put paid to hopes of it being published by now.
“One big part of the project for me was we got a photographer to come and take pictures of the families that were involved in the anthology. Unfortunately, our second photoshoot for that was due mid-lockdown. I don’t want to forego that, so I’m just waiting to see when we can when we can do that.
“But everything else on the anthology is raring to go really. So we just need the pictures, but that’s a really important part of the anthology for me.”
Photoshoot pending, Natasha hopes the anthology will be released by the end of the year.
What’s next on the horizon?
Like all good creatives, Natasha’s next projects are never too far away – and her SCBU experience continues to drive her.
“At the moment my next plan is I’m going to write a one-woman show about SCBU, the journey and motherhood and how that kind of started”, she says.
“I’m hoping that will be another big vehicle I can use to go into community centres and go into like baby and toddler groups and to start having that conversation”, she continues.
“I think my goal really is just to start normalising access to parenthood because I remember when I was pregnant and people would just get rid of all negativity, they’d be like:
Oh, you’re going to have a perfect birth, it won’t hurt, you’re going to breastfeed, it’s not a problem; don’t worry about it, it’ll just happen naturally.
“I just kind of want to deconstruct that because I don’t think it’s helpful for anyone and I don’t think it’s realistic.”
Further down the line, Natasha also hopes to support fathers of neonatal babies.
“I’d particularly like to do something with dads, maybe not me per se but like maybe enabling another dad to take on a similar kind of project”, she says.
Part of this desire again comes from her own experience, and being unable to understand her partner’s feelings: “It was really hard for me to gauge where my partner was at. I didn’t know if it was overwhelming. I don’t think there was much emotional support.”
Natasha’s advice for parents
Of the SCBU experence in general, Natasha feels “there’s a lot more work that needs to be done on getting people’s mental health straight in the unit.”
By being part of the conversation and creating a community, she’s eager to make that become a reality.
For those parents currently living the NICU/SCBU journey, she offers one key piece of advice: “take each day as it comes.”
As Natasha puts it, neonatal babies “do everything exactly when they want to do it and when they’re ready to do it, and there will be no rushing them or pushing them.”
“Just have faith and stay there and support them every step of the way”, she concludes.
Watch or listen to the full chat!
Big thanks to Natasha for taking the time out to speak about her experience and project. If you’d like to hear more, you can access a video or audio file of our conversation – just click here.
Interested in the Me, You and SCBU anthology? Give Natasha a follow on Twitter to stay up to date with the release.