ramona’s second week of life was much more difficult for me than her first. she continued to improve by leaps & bounds on a daily basis. i haven’t been worried about her health at all (which is an enormous blessing). but without the percocets to take the edge of the surreal experience of having my newborn daughter in the hospital, i definitely struggled.
first, let me explain the NICU for those that have never had the experience. it’s an entire floor of sick &/or premature babies. some of them, like ramona, are considered pretty large & robust. her neonatologist said that ramona is considered large & in charge for a NICU baby, tipping the scales at nearly five pounds at that point (she’s five pounds, five ounces now–maybe more, depending on what she’s gained in the last 36 hours). the proprietor of the baby consignment store down the street, where i stopped in to pick up some preemie-size sleepers for ramona, told me about a friend of hers that had a 15-ounce micropreemie in this same NICU. that baby is home now, six months old, & finally weighing in at eight pounds. because these babies are so tiny & sometimes so sick, of course there are a lot of shellshocked, emotionally exhausted adults wandering around.
there is a parent room at one end of the unit. it’s a tiny room, like the size of my bathroom, & trust me–my bathroom is not large. there’s a couch, a fridge, a TV, & two microwaves in there. one microwave is for heating up food. the other is for sterilizing breast pump supplies. there are also cabinets full of snacks like crackers, fixin’s for peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, hot cocoa packets, microwavable soup, etc. there’s a basket of magazines & a bunch of brochures about premature baby care, infant CPR classes, grief support groups, WIC, etc. a “private room” for a NICU baby is a little room with a dimmer switch & a curtain, in a block with a bunch of other similar rooms. ramona has one of the best set-ups because she shares her block with only three other babies. in the older part of the NICU, the blocks contain twelve babies. each room is outfitted with an isolette or a crib (depending on the baby’s ability to maintain its own body temperature–a crib baby is a more advanced baby), a bunch of monitors that record the baby’s vitals, a glider, a table where the nurses/doctors can take notes, a plastic mailbox for parents, a trash bin, a linens bin, & a crappy rolling chair. this takes up pretty much all the real etsate in the room, & you have even less space if you have a really sick baby requiring more equipment, like a ventilator. the nurses will recommend that you not put anything on the floor, because it’s a hospital & who knows what kinds of terrifying strains of MRSA are on the floor. if something, like a hat, a burp cloth, or a boppy, gets dropped on the floor, they will suggest you take it home & wash it. if you are anything like jared & i, you are spending a minimum of five hours a day, & sometimes up to nine hours, at the NICU. which means you have kind of brought a lot of stuff with you. because, yeah, you’re going to be holding your baby a lot, but your baby is tiny & needs to sleep a lot, & it is going to be examined regularly by doctors & nurses, & it will have to be in its bed then, & you will have downtime, so you will need to have a book to read, or a “new yorker,” or maybe your journal, or your computer. plus some snacks or leftovers from home so you’re not trying to care for your NICU baby on nothing but a steady diet of club crackers & lipton tea. don’t forget that you’re not allowed to eat or drink in the baby’s room, even if you are breastfeeding or pumping (which really consumes calories–the thirst & hunger associated with pregnancy is nothing by comparison). nor can you use your phone in the baby’s room. so all those well-meaning texts & phone calls you are receiving from people who want to know how baby is doing just pile up until you’re done with the NICU for the day, at which point all you can do is think about how good it will feel to go to sleep after your 40-minute drive home, so when you look at your phone & see all the texts that you should answer, you just want to throw your phone through a wall.
jared & i brought in a set of plastic storage drawers to try to make some space for ramona’s stuff. at eight days old, she was finally allowed to start wearing clothes, so we brought in a bunch of sleepers from home. it was kind of rough because she was already dressed when we showed up on her eighth day of life. her first outfit, & we didn’t even get to choose it ourselves. to top things off, our nurse that day kind of sucked. she kept saying that ramona was a little chilly in her isolette (they like the babies to maintain their temperatures between 36.5 & 37.5 degrees celsius & ramona was around 36.3), & therefore she had to stay in her isolette & we couldn’t hold her. even though kangaroo care (skin to skin) is recommended for warming up premature babies & we were happy to do it. i also got the okay to start putting ramona to the breast that day, & the nurse was surprisingly unsupportive. she seemed really uncomfortable with the idea of walking in to ramona’s room to make a note on her chart or check her feeding tube & find me sitting there with a breast out. but there are a lot of babies in the NICU & i see other NICU moms sterilizing pump parts all the time. i’m sure there are a lot of exposed breasts happening behind those curtains. get over it, lady.
that was kind of a taster of what the week would bring. i struggled a lot & cried almost every day. as i became more aware of what was happening around me, with the nurses & some of the other NICU parents & some of the written & unwritten rules of the NICU, i had to adjust to more & more stuff & process more & more information. on top of continuing to recover from surgery. on top of never getting more than two & a half hours of sleep at a time because of my pumping schedule. on top of the emotional upheaval of being separated from my baby. i routinely felt physically exhausted but emotionally wrecked by the prospect of going home so i could go to bed.