Welcome to the first in a series of guest blogs here on Confessions of a NICU mom! Each of us has a story, and every story is different but we all have something in common… we are all mamas.
So to begin the series please welcome Kaity Abreo.
Gilmore Girls & Crying in the Shower
Hi, I’m Kaity! A Life Coach and Counsellor with a background in Wellness. I’ve been in the industry for 16 years - but when my baby boy Owen came at 29 weeks, much of what I’d learned went out the window.
The emotional consequence of a traumatic pregnancy, birth and child who’s life’s at risk is one that can’t be thought through. Although things can help, nothing is going to take away the fear, anxiety and sadness. The emptiness that comes with not having your baby in your tummy or arms and the helplessness you feel in not being able to keep them safe and comfort or care for them is something I wish no one had to experience. But, it’s a reality for more than one in ten mothers and one most are not prepared for. I know I wasn’t.
I didn’t know what a NICU was. So to all of a sudden have my baby boy in an incubator with tubes and wires everywhere - his face covered by a breathing mask was quite a shock. So was having to stay separate from him while recovering. It was a lot to process and to do that I needed space. So that’s where we’ll start.
You need time to process. Recovering from birth, experiencing the drop in hormones and feeling the effects of any medications you might be on - all while trying to visit with your baby, learn how to pump and take in the information from the constant stream of caregivers is overwhelming.
The pain I felt was unlike any other. I was a mess. Uncontrollably crying from depths I’d never felt. People couldn’t understand and I didn’t have the energy to explain. On top of that, I learned that my baby had a compromised immune system and that getting sick could mean the worst for him. So, although family and friends had been looking forward to visiting - it wasn’t worth the risk. That meant, boundaries.
You have to say no. Not in a mean, rude or disrespectful way but in an “I’m overwhelmed and need time to process” kind of way. I wrote a letter on my phone and gave it to my sister to send to everyone so they’d hopefully understand (as much as they could).
Those you love most might feel hurt by not being able to visit you or your baby. At the same time, they want the best for you and this is it. Those that matter most will applaud your boundaries and will be there when you’re ready. Those that don’t, well… this may be a catalyst for the inevitable.
People probably won’t get it. You might not get it. Your baby isn’t going to get it. You’re going to find yourself in situations where emotions take over and you’re at a loss. Where the ability to respond disappears and reacting is all you have. In those moments, using this script saved me:
“This doesn’t make sense but I’m feeling ___. The only thing I can think of that’ll help is ___. Can you please do that for me?”
Acknowledging to others that most of what’s happening is not cognitive (but emotional) and that you just need relief and help, then asking for it (in the most practical way possible) will help you make it to the next moment - and that’s the goal. Moment by moment, day by day - it’ll get easier but until then we’re going to need the people around us to lean on.
My self-care list was huge before baby and now, it’s down to basics. Nothing is going to make you feel better than a glass of water, a warm meal, a shower, fresh air, sunshine, a walk or a few minutes of uninterrupted time.
I couldn’t relax if Owen was crying for me. It wasn’t physically possible. So at the beginning, I had 5 minutes here or there. Now, (at 16 months) I can disappear for a day while my husband takes care of him.
Meeting his needs, remembering to think of my own and then acting in whatever way possible (even if it’s 3 hours later) is what got me through. You might be eating cold cereal while crying in the shower, but you do what you can.
Don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing to little or too much. For me, the fear of Owen getting sick was greater than the loneliness I felt in saying no to social invitations, so I stayed home.
Eventually, things shift. Maybe your little one gets stronger or your loneliness becomes too much. Then it’s time to find a balance. You can find people who don’t mind washing their hands, sanitizing their phones or not touching baby and ask them to let you know when they’re healthy.
You have to do what’s right for you and your family. It’s a constant balancing act and at the beginning - baby often wins. Whether that shifts because it’s best for you or them doesn’t matter. What matters is that you feel free to change your mind without feeling obligated to explain yourself as it happens. There are an infinite number of ways to do everything and you can find research to back up any one of them. You do you.
When it comes to parenting, there’s no shortage of advice. As Preemies our babies lives are saved by machines and once home, a lot of the advice out there would have us treat them as one. The truth is that no two babies or mom’s are exactly alike and therefore, there’s rarely any blanket advice that’ll work for everyone.
You have a connection with your baby that no one else has. You’re hardwired to figure out what they need and respond accordingly and if you’re at a loss, we have more information and support at our fingertips than ever before. Take it all in, but don’t ignore your instincts when that little voice is telling you to do something else. Trust your gut as it’ll never steer you wrong.
As Owen was better able to cope without me and I had more time - it was enticing to try and get all the things done. Sometimes, that’s what will make you feel better - a clean house and laundry to wear. Other times, you’re going to need a nap. The most indulgent thing. Nothing’s getting done and no one is being taken care of, other than you.
Whether it’s laundry or napping, the feeling is the same. You’re not with your baby and you could be. Someone else is taking care of them but
surely they’re missing you. So, how do I convince myself to do what I need to do for me? I ask myself how it’s benefiting them and then look for evidence that it is.
A nap means I’m well rested and more likely to stay healthy. Me staying healthy means my baby is more likely to stay healthy. It becomes easier to cope with challenges, respond vs. react, engage vs. disconnect and be present/at peace with whatever is going on within or around me.
Being Present and Peaceful.
As a Mom, it’s easy to be fearful. Fear can help us, especially if there’s real danger. But once we’ve acknowledged the danger, made a plan to tackle/prevent it and put it in to action - we’ve done all we can. At that point, it’s not helping us. In those moments, it can be helpful to address our mindset.
To shift your perspective, start by taking a deep breath. Feel your body relaxing, feel the ground beneath your feet and become present. Take two more breaths and sigh as you exhale. Let go. Notice the space around and within you. Within this space you can choose
to think of whatever you want.
I like to think of 1. Challenges I’ve gotten through successfully in the past, 2. Things that are currently going well and am grateful for, 3. Resources available to me, and 4. The fact that there’s at least a 1% possibility things could get better. I then become willing to feel hopeful and maybe even a little excited. I might not feel it right away but I become willing.
Any losses you experience are going to be hard no matter what. It’s okay to be hopeful and celebrate the little wins, they are what get you through the more difficult times.
Coping with Challenging Feelings.
Being able to switch our mindset when needed is a powerful tool. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge and honour what we’re going through. To feel and let it move through us. Whether by journaling or talking through it with a trusted friend, you gotta get it up and out.
You might not be ready to feel your emotions fully and that’s okay. Part of self-care is the ability to dip in and out as you’re ready and able. Sometimes, you’ll need to disconnect and binge watch Gilmore Girls while your little nugget naps. That’s okay.
Just remember that although it may seem like it, you’re not going to die from feeling your feelings. They’re there and affecting you no matter what. Acknowledging and experiencing them helps you move through them faster and come out the other end wiser and stronger than you ever knew possible. You’ve got this Momma.
When it feels Hopeless.
If you don’t feel like you’ve got this, get help. I’ve seen a counsellor regularly for the past 10+ years. It may seem like the last thing you want to do but trust me, having someone who’s only there for you can make all the difference.
I’m able to talk out loud about whatever I want. I can hear my thoughts, discover where I’m stuck and where I need help. A good therapist can act as a sounding board or give feedback and advice if needed. The earlier in your journey the better. Even if you think no one will understand, try. With every session you’ll have to explain less of your backstory, letting you jump in wherever you’re at. They’ll get to know you better and become even more effective.
Just because there’s a stigma around mental health doesn’t mean it’s founded or justified. There’s no shame in asking for help. It’s a sign of strength and mental/emotional wellness. If you feel like you can’t cope, I’ve compiled a list of helplines that you can call. Click here to access it.
Healing is a Process.
Healing isn’t a one time event. As I mentioned above, most of what I knew went out the window when I had a little one. I had to find new ways to apply my knowledge to my current set of circumstances. It’s easy to beat yourself up and say “I thought I’d dealt with this” but the truth is, we can always go deeper with the lessons we’ve learned.
Be humble and compassionate with yourself. You’re the most valuable resource in your life. Love yourself. Not just in the moments where you inevitably rise to the challenge but in your fear, sadness and loneliness. The only moment that ever exists is this one, and any moment spent in love with yourself and those around you is one well spent and the best self-care possible.
About Kaity Abreo
Kaity is a Life Coach, Counsellor and Group Facilitator with a background in Ayurveda, Yoga and Meditation. She lives near Vancouver, BC with her husband and son who was born at 29 weeks. She’s an aspiring activist, writer and entrepreneur who loves spending time in BC’s beautiful mountains, forests and lakes - when she’s not reading or watching Lorelai and Rory speed-talk over coffee. Get her free guide: Transforming Overwhelm in to Peace at www.kaityabreo.com