Editor’s note: We believe that all birth stories and birth experiences matter. This post is part of our ongoing series of birth stories featuring a diverse range of women and their birth experiences.
Julia’s newborn ended up in the NICU after a difficult delivery and low blood sugar. It’s been three years and Julia still struggles with the shame and trauma, but she has chosen to share her story here with the lessons she learned from her birth experience.
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I was still in tears as my husband and I scrubbed into the NICU. A kind doctor stopped and asked how many weeks our baby had been. We were confused by the question but eventually realized he assumed our baby was premature. He expressed genuine surprise to hear that our son was born full-term. My 8-pound baby stood out in the NICU. I stood out, too, as the only person there not keeping it together emotionally. His first NICU nurse was tough on me, pointing out that my son Miles needed me to be calm. I knew she was right and was disappointed in myself once again during this increasingly unbearable hospital stay.
I’d had a fairly unremarkable pregnancy. The pregnancy nausea lasted longer than I’d expected, and I had my fair share of discomfort, but I found I enjoyed prenatal yoga and the opportunity to relax my diet a bit. I went past my due date and went in for a stress test a few days later. Miles didn’t pass the stress test, and they decided to induce me. While I had been hoping to avoid induction, I was somewhat relieved to finally be having this baby. A nurse told me, “You’re not going to be leaving this hospital without a baby.” She was wrong.
My husband Alex brought my packed bags and birth plan to the hospital while they strapped on the continuous fetal monitor to my stomach and hooked me up to an IV drip delivering Pitocin. I was hoping to avoid an epidural as I’d always prided myself on having a high pain tolerance.
The first several hours of labor were pretty easy, and I felt hopeful that I wouldn’t need the epidural. However, about 10 hours in, my labor was not progressing despite the increasing pain of contractions, and I decided to go ahead and get the epidural to help me be more comfortable as I labored through the night.
The epidural never took, and I continued to feel pain on one side of my body. I didn’t know enough at the time to ask the anesthesiologist to reset it, and by the time I needed to push I felt every contraction fully on both sides. I was physically and emotionally exhausted and didn’t think I could do it anymore and said as much.
I pushed for 3 hours and became increasingly whiny and uncooperative. I begged them to pull him out. I felt ashamed at how I was behaving and sensed the doctor was annoyed by my behavior. A month later, I learned that my son had a birth defect that prevented his head from being able to mold as it went through the birth canal. But at the time I just thought I was weak. Finally, the doctor gave me an episiotomy and Miles was born. I felt every needle prick as they stitched me up.
During my pregnancy, I’d felt a frequent fear that there might be something wrong with my baby: that he wouldn’t be completely healthy. When I first looked at him I did so anxiously, looking for some kind of defect. Thankfully, he looked perfect other than his head appearing coned and bruised from the experience of being born.
Tears continuously streamed from my eyes for 3 hours after Miles was born. My delivery nurse asked if they were tears of joy. I said I didn’t know, but the truth was they were tears of pain and shame as I thought back on the birthing process and how poorly I felt I’d handled everything.
I felt embarrassed that so many people saw me act so ridiculously. But eventually I composed myself and focused on taking care of my newborn. My husband and I worked hard at taking care of our new baby despite the exhaustion of being up all night and constant visits from doctors and nurses preventing us from getting any rest. We documented every diaper change and the details of each breastfeeding session the first two days.
We had Miles circumcised on the second day, and he was quite understandably cranky after that and didn’t feed well. He did take a long nap at one point and then the nurse grabbed him to do some testing. I let her know that he hadn’t eaten in a while because he’d been sleeping and asked if that was okay. She said yes and took him for testing including a blood sugar test. They returned to tell me his blood sugar was too low, and they needed to give him formula, which they did. They tested him again and said he needed an IV and to go to the NICU because it hadn’t improved enough.
The idea of having to separate from my newborn baby devastated me. We’d been working so hard to take care of him. He was nursing pretty well, and now he was going to be getting more bottles and formula and I couldn’t even stay with him. It was also 11:00 at night and we were supposed to go home in the morning. My emotions took over as I tried to imagine having to leave the hospital without my baby.
We visited Miles in the NICU a few times before heading home the next day. He looked good in the incubator, and I continued to work on nursing with the help of a lactation consultant. My heart broke as we walked to our cars. Against advice I drove myself home since we’d driven to the hospital separately. I was going home alone and separated from the life I’d been carrying for 9 months. I was exhausted and in a lot of pain from the difficult birth.
I returned to the hospital myself the next morning. Alex went to work. As I walked the long and painful walk from the garage to the building and across several more buildings once inside, I knew the hospital wasn’t taking care of NICU mamas the way they should. Once you check out of the hospital, you stop being their patient, and the entire focus is on their remaining patient, the baby.
I made this walk several times over the next few days, and each step hurt physically and emotionally. On the third day they moved Miles to the stepdown unit, and I was allowed to room with him. I was so incredibly grateful to be back with my baby. I wouldn’t have minded staying there longer now that we could be together, but they released him the following day. They checked his blood sugar every few hours via skin pricks to his poor little feet, and it had never been low after that initial time.
I didn’t know at the time that I’d be staying with Miles again in the hospital in a couple of months’ time when he would need to have major surgery on his skull, which had fused prematurely—that this was the beginning of our journey with doctors and hospitals and not the end. I did know that the next time I had a baby I would do things differently—and 20 months later, I did. I got the epidural sooner and spoke up when once again it only affected one side. I was happily numb when I delivered my daughter Annabelle after 5 minutes of pushing, and I made sure to nurse her every 2 hours no matter what so her blood sugar wouldn’t be low when they tested it.
Miles is turning 3 this summer, and it’s still hard for me to tell this story. I avoided seeing the doctor who delivered him all throughout my second pregnancy, purposefully scheduling appointments with other doctors, but couldn’t avoid scheduling an appointment with her towards the end of my third trimester. I wanted to tell her about Miles’s head—that it wasn’t just me being weak and dramatic. But I didn’t even know if she remembered me, and she didn’t ask how he was doing.
It didn’t matter that she knew, I guess. I’m the one who needed to forgive myself: I did the best I could at the time. It was over. Miles is healthy and an amazing toddler, and it doesn’t matter that I was an emotional wreck when he was born. It doesn’t matter that I got a bunch of medical intervention I didn’t want or that we had to be separated within his first days of life.
I know some families who had babies in the NICU for months, and I honestly don’t know how they endured it. Less than a year after Miles was born the NICU at the hospital where I gave birth opened a new, state-of-the-art NICU with private rooms that allow mothers to room-in with their babies. I’m thankful that future mothers at that hospital won’t have to go through the pain I went through, and I hope all hospitals will be able to provide these private rooms eventually. Until then, my heart is with any mother who is going through this or has been through it because the healing takes time.
Julia Vorobiev is a mom of two, teacher, and freelance writer. She lives in Pittsburgh and loves bike rides, bubble baths, and travel. Visit her on Instagram.