Getting stuck in parental limbo

My daughter spent the first 8 days of her life in NICU and High Care. In that time everything was so up in the air it seemed we would never know the comfort of solid ground again. Instead of the answers, we were desperate to have, we were almost always left with more questions. And the truth of a premature baby’s circumstance is that nobody can predict with 100% certainty what will happen – and even more truthfully nobody wants to in case they get it wrong.

So, NICU becomes a place of parental limbo.

NICU Day 2: First time since birth I held her

You are not really parenting because you have nurse watching your child around the clock and you often feel more in the way that a critical member of the equation. You are not in charge of your child’s care, decisions are made without you, and you tend to find out once they have already happened – feeding times, check-ups, nappy changes, baths, needles, drip changes, needles, medicines and even medical interventions. You are not in charge of your child, a team of strangers are.

You return to the maternity ward childless, you return home to your beautifully decked out nursery childless. But you have a child and everyone is asking how that child is. But you are in parental limbo, and you have very few answers to provide because you are on a need-to-know basis and the medical team are deciding what you need to know.

In parental limbo, your plans also don’t always work, making you feel even more powerless, even more, useless.

In parental limbo skin-to-skin is hard

Skin-to-skin sounded like an amazing way to nudge a brand new Earthling into the crazy world. I had planned for lots of skin-to-skin time. But then I went from planning to execution and at the risk of sounding like a stuck record – planning and parenthood go together like cereal and water.

When your daughter is in an incubator and attached to wires and drips, amidst a bustling ward with very little privacy, skin-to-skin while not impossible, is definitely not the dreamy soft focus vision that came to mind when constructing my plans.

Skin-to-skin with wires

In parental limbo you miss out on a lot

There were a few small upsides to my plans going to hell in a handbag. One was that because we were not really in charge of Izzy’s care for those first eight days we avoided the much-hyped and much-dreaded first poop. 

According to Wikipedia, “meconium is the earliest stool of a mammalian infant. Unlike later feces, meconium is composed of materials ingested during the time the infant spends in the uterus: intestinal epithelial cells, lanugo (didn’t know what that was, wish I hadn’t googled it, it is fine soft hair that covers the body and limbs of a human fetus), mucus, amniotic fluid, bile and water.”

This poop is unlike any poop you have ever seen and you only have to deal with it once a lifetime – thank the pope. Why is this poop so kak (excuse the pun)? Because it is pitch black like tar and it has the same consistency. It is sticky as hell, like, “Oh well, that is just gonna have to stay there forever” kind of sticky.

But as I said we never saw it and we never had to clean it, so whatever happened, or however it happened, happened without us. And I for one do not feel less of a parent for dodging that bullet. Always cling to the small wins.

Izzy looking cool under the blue lights with jaundice

Parental limbo is a confined and regulated place

One of the stark reminders that the NICU is a place for sick and vulnerable babies are the procedures. As you enter the room, you must thoroughly wash and sanitise your hands. After eight days my clinically diagnosed OCD husband had viciously and vigorously washed cavernous cracks into his knuckles that took weeks and weeks to heal after we left the NICU.

Parents are allowed to visit almost always, except after 10 pm and during shift handovers between 6:30 pm and 7:30 pm. Grandparents and other immediate family are not as free to visit. My parents and Will’s sister saw Izzy for the first time in real life about three days after she was born.

Two evenings a week, Grandparents (and in the absence of grandparents, a familial substitute) may visit. One at a time your family member can enter, wash and sterilise, stare at the baby in its incubator or if they are brave and if the baby is strong enough they can hold it briefly. This relay of awkwardness and quiet fluster is carried out over the course of the visitor’s hour.

My husband feeding Izzy for the first time

Parental limbo is a joy thief

NICU comes with a lot of rules, a lot of doctors and nurses, a lot of machines, a lot of beeping, a lot of squalling, a measure of false cheer, a lot of silent falling tears and many bereft parents, wondering how they ended up here, at a time when we are all led to believe should be the happiest and momentous time of our lives. 

I have no words of solace or false optimism for anyone who has or is experiencing this place of parental limbo. Because that would be glib and disingenuous.

All I can say is I hope you and your baby get out soon.

And until then, know you are not as alone and useless as you may feel.

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