“Aim for the due date and you won’t be far off.”
My sons were scarcely an hour old when a midwife uttered those words. That due date was almost 13 weeks in the future. Yet that’s how long we’d apparently have to wait until we could take them home.
It dragged. There was so much that happened between that traumatic premature birth and the moment when I left the hospital with my family of four.
In this post, I rewind to that day in the summer of 2019 and relive the immediate aftermath of bringing my sons into the outside world.
Whether you’ve spent a day or what feels like a lifetime in NICU with your baby, you’re affected for a long time. And all the while, the thing you focus on more than anything — even when you don’t realise it — is going home… forever.
For me, that moment came, somewhat miraculously, earlier than that projected date. My sons had been patients in two different neonatal units for a total of nine weeks, gradually developing and progressing to the point where nurses, doctors and consultants all collectively agreed it was time.
The chaos of discharge day
Chaos? But hadn’t everything been building to this moment?
Well, yes… and no.
Because while some people take their babies home hours after their birth with a happy smile and a grateful wave, parents of preemies have a lot to take in and think about.
“We’ll do our best to send you home by early afternoon so you’ve got time to settle in”, is what we were told.
But thanks to the unit seeing one of its busier days in terms of new arrivals and staff scurrying around the ward, it felt as though we were largely forgotten about for much of the day. After all, by this point, our babies were the ones needing the least amount of medical attention.
To get things moving, a consultant paediatrician needed to perform some final checks and sign the discharge papers to allow us to leave for good. In the midst of this, a photographer — one of those from Bounty that snaps newborns — was clicking away in the corner. This was in lieu of the boys not being photographed at their actual birth because of the medical interventions.
By the time those important (and unimportant) items were ticked off the list, I excitedly went to the car and unclipped the pristine new car seats we’d bought, and trudged back to the NICU ward with one in each hand.
But it still wasn’t time. With dusk falling, there was another piece of admin: watching some videos about baby safety.
I get it: parents of sick or premature children are stressed. In fact, parents of any baby are stressed. But I really didn’t see the benefit to me watching a DVD that warned me of the damage a parent can do if they shake their baby. Or how stress can cause a parent to inflict physical trauma on their child.
I know it happens. I know there are sick individuals in the world who harm young people. But for the past nine weeks, I’d sat by the side of two incubators praying that my children would pull through — that they’d survive this ordeal.
Was this really the time I needed to watch it?
Another video followed; what to do if your baby stops breathing. Complete with a practice on a dummy.
Again, understandable — but why now? Why not any other time in these past nine weeks?
Finally, at around 5:30pm, we bundled our boys into car seats for the first time and took them into the outside world for the first time. The two-minute walk to the car took at least 10 minutes, as I took in the experience; the first time their skin had been touched by fresh, outdoor air.
“Welcome to the world. These are trees. That’s the sky”
In our shiny new car, having checked the seats had safely clicked into their bases a million times, I drove home at a snail’s pace, hands clammy with nerves.
And then, we were home. My wife and I each placed a seat on our living room floor and laughed at each other.
“Erm, what now?”
After weeks of coming home alone, here we were with our sons. Just us. No nurses, doctors or consultants. No prying eyes. No machinery and medical equipment. Just the only thing we’d prayed for — a healthy family of four.
Except… it wasn’t.
The hospital had been our home from home for more than two months. Now we were home, parenting for real. At times in the hospital it had almost felt make-believe. Asking to hold your baby or changing their nappy while a nurse looks over you is not normal.
And while it felt great to finally have the boys with us, there was an overwhelming sense of trauma and raw emotion that we brought home too.
We’d had no chance to process everything that had happened and, to boot, we had the worry and angst of being solely responsible for our babies’ health. Preemies are more at risk of illness and infection, and we were ultra-wary about exposing them to anything that might harm them.
With two babies to think about, it was hard enough keeping track of feeds, but we also had to administer medicines and supplements throughout the day.
I don’t believe bringing any baby home is a cakewalk, but this — despite me not having any other experience — felt different.
The end of the beginning
Leaving the NICU for good is not the happy, fairytale end some people make it out to be. In fact, many babies find themselves back in the hospital due to complications or illness. Thankfully, we never found ourselves in that situation.
Once your baby is discharged from neonatal care, it may seem like the end, but really it’s just a closing of a chapter. There are still emotions running high and there’s lots to consider and overcome.
Of course, the experience will be different for every family, but there are many similarities that only parents of premature or sick babies will understand.
Time is the only healer.