In my mind, I tend to play what you could call the Reverse Pain Olympics.
When tiny Blaise was hospitalized with RSV, I struggled and struggled, partly because I was just a couple weeks postpartum and partly because, well, I had a sick baby in the hospital.
But then I would look around the pediatric floor at the other children with their tubes and wires and IV poles, at the other parents who'd been keeping bedside vigil for weeks or months, and I felt like I had no right to be sad. They had it so much worse than I did. It was silly for me to be so upset about something so relatively minor.
It was silly, and yet I couldn't stop crying.
A week into Blaise's eleven-day stay, when I'd been sobbing on and off for twelve hours, I told the nurses on the floor that I thought I needed some help. One of them walked me down to meet with a social worker. We got tons of great care during our stay at the children's hospital, but for me that social worker was the single most helpful person I saw during the visit.
I worked my way, puffy-faced and hoarse-voiced, through a box of tissues. She listened, then with firm kindness dismantled my game of Reverse Pain Olympics.
Not only was it okay for me to grieve, she said, it was necessary. If I didn't process my pain over having my baby's first weeks disrupted by illness, it would turn into trauma. Everyone else's relative amounts of pain had no effect on my situation: I felt the way I felt about it, and I had to give myself permission to work through those feelings.
Mentally, I turned the corner that night. We went home three days later. I continued processing, and very quickly Blaise's hospitalization came to feel like a minor event in my life.
I'd been right about the relative smallness of the pain, but the social worker was right too: I deserved to grieve what I lost, and letting myself do it was the healthy way to handle it.
For the second time in a row, we're not having the postpartum period I imagined. I've said this whole pregnancy that our main goal was to grow healthy babies and hopefully bring them home from the hospital right after birth. The first part of that, blessedly, happened. The second part did not.
As parents of premature babies, we have pretty much a best-case scenario. Our babies were born at 34 weeks, 3 days, which is barely premature. They were big for their gestational age. They'd had steroids and breathed on their own immediately, with APGARs of 8 and 9. We've had minimal struggles with digestion (Linus), temperature (Linus), and jaundice (both, but mostly Ambrose), all of which are now resolved. I'm making an overabundance of milk - the freezer at the NICU is already stocked - and the babies are progressing on feedings, which is all they need to do to come home. As a bonus, they both have great latches and the few times a day that they nurse, they do well.
Our NICU has two areas, the ICU side and the Special Care side. Linus and Ambrose spent less than 48 hours on the intensive side before being moved to Special Care. The ICU is dark and humming, full of very young or very sick babies, many of the isolettes covered 24 hours a day. In Special Care, we have windows. At just nine days old, our babies lie in the sunshine in open cribs. They are big and healthy and close to full-term.
By preemie-parent standards, I have nothing to complain about.
But when I walk in the hospital each day and ride the elevator up to the third floor to visit the NICU, I often see a family coming out of the mother-baby unit right across the hall. The mom is in a wheelchair holding her baby, the dad carries the carseat, an older sibling might clutch a bunch of balloons. They're going home together.
My throat feels chokey and my eyes burn, every time.
I wanted that to be me, bringing my sweet baby boys home, and instead I've spent the first nine nights since their birth away from them, with many nights to come. When I wake and pump in the night, I look at pictures of them on my iPad to help trigger letdown. What I want to do is sniff their necks and rub my cheek against their soft heads.
We're lucky enough to live very close to a hospital with a Level III NICU. It's a 12-minute trip from door to door. I go to see and nurse the babies two or three times a day, and when I walk into the hospital and head for the elevator, I think about how my reason for being there is a joyful one. That's probably not true for most of the people I pass on my way.
There are the Reverse Pain Olympics again. Be happy, they say! You're lucky! You have no right to feel sad!
Thank goodness for that social worker from last time, for her kindness and firmness. She is the voice in my head this time around, reminding me that grieving is a healthy thing, that the only way past my sadness is through it.
So sometimes when I leave the hospital I sob in the car and bang my fist on the steering wheel, angry and upset about what I've lost and what I'm still losing every day my little boys spend away from me. I'm crying right now as I write about it, crying about the fact that Linus and Ambrose are not still in utero where they belong, crying about my body's inability to make it all the way, crying because this is different from what we wanted it to be, and harder, and I deserve to be angry and upset about that.
The only way through it: to put my head down and cry.
We're doing everything we can to make this time bearable for our family, and I feel good about the choices we're making. I'm home most of the time, sleeping in my own bed and showering in my own bathroom. Bryan and I spend the afternoon feeding together with Ambrose and Linus at the hospital, and stay afterward for snuggling and parental down-time. We trade off the 9:00 feeding, so one of us is here to put Camilla and Blaise to bed every night, and we're keeping their day-to-day life as normal as possible.
I feel, most of the time, happy and optimistic. The worst part of our NICU stay is over. We are coping well. Our babies are healthy and growing and in beautiful shape. It will feel like no time before we bring them home and are thrown into the chaos of life with four children so that - as I joked to one of the nurses yesterday - there will probably be moments when I wonder what was so bad about having the babies in the hospital after all.
But I will be able to smell their necks and rub their heads whenever I want to.
It makes me cry just thinking about it.
*I said 34w2d before, but technically, since they were born right after midnight, it counted as 34w3d.