As mothers, guilt is an emotion that’s hardcoded into who we are. We can feel guilty for absolutely everything from snapping at our children to not saying yes when they ask you to read the same book for the 15th time that day!
Guilt in small doses can be a good thing. It pushes us to do our best and forces us to ask questions of ourselves. But then there’s the pointless guilt that stems from no solid foundation, the guilt that can eat away at us and make us blame ourselves for things that are out of our control. That’s the guilt a mother of a premature baby carries with her every day.
The things you blame yourself for on the road through NICU do not begin and end with the fact your baby was born early. There are endless things that, as their mommy, you take responsibility for. This guilt and blame can build and eat away at you every time you have to walk out of the hospital and leave your baby behind.
Once your baby is home and you are fighting a battle in your own mind to come to terms with what has happened, to process all of the emotions you have faced and hidden from, including the guilt, it’s my belief that the biggest challenge is accepting that none of it was your fault.
I wanted to share some of the things I blamed myself for so that hopefully other moms going through the preemie journey can realize that they’re not alone in blaming themselves, that every preemie mom faces the same feelings, and that accepting they were things that were out of your control can help you move on.
1. I’m sorry you had to be born early, and I couldn’t keep you safe.
Guilt about the fact your baby was born early is undoubtedly the first thing you feel guilty for. No matter the reason behind the early birth, as a mother you will feel there surely was something you could have done ― but there really wasn’t. It was not your fault. It was no one’s fault.
Hand in hand with the guilt your baby was born early is the feeling you failed for not keeping them safe. There is no escaping this feeling because it is our maternal instinct from the moment we conceive to keep our child safe and protected. Accepting it was entirely out of your hands is the only way to quiet the voice that you did something wrong.
2. I’m sorry I couldn’t give birth to you.
Obviously, not all premature babies are born via C-section, but many are. For me, this was a devastating part of what happened. Having given birth naturally to our toddler, I knew everything I was missing by having to have an emergency C-section. Having this option “stolen” from me ate away at me.
I missed out on the feeling of overwhelming accomplishment when your baby arrives, the first moments of skin-to-skin contact when your emotions are firing around your body at a million miles an hour, feeling your baby’s tiny breath on your skin, and nursing your newborn miracle. I felt guilty that I had been able to give my toddler these precious moments of bonding and not my twins. More than that, I felt I actually mourned the loss of these moments and so many more over the coming weeks.
3. I’m sorry I was able to leave you.
It’s inevitable that when your child is in NICU, you will at some point have to leave them. It goes without saying that this is the hardest part. There is nothing at all natural about being separated from your newborn baby, and the empty void it leaves inside you is incomprehensible.
What took me by surprise is that my ability to put one foot in front of the other and walk out of the hospital day after day made me feel like a failure as a mother. I felt that surely as their mommy I should cry uncontrollably every time. I should have to be dragged kicking and screaming from the ward. But this didn’t happen. I sang to them, kissed them goodbye, and walked out day after day ― and for that, I carry guilt even now.
When you are in such an unbearable situation, I have now realized it is completely normal for your brain to put up a wall, to turn down your emotions, making you numb to the world and the hell you are living through. This is how you are able to bear what is happening. It’s how you will cope. For me and my husband, it worked. But in the aftermath, when your emotions get turned back up, you may feel ashamed that you coped. As with everything that happens, it’s not your fault that you reacted the way you did. And without that coping mechanism, you would have been no use to your baby. Accepting this is hard but it’s true.
4. I’m sorry I wasn’t there more.
For parents who have other children, being beside your baby’s incubator for long periods of time often just isn’t practical. Unfortunately, life carries on and as Mom, it’s your job to keep it running smoothly. Of course this, therefore, equals more guilt! I felt unbelievably guilty that I was only able to spend 2-5 hours a day with my babies, and that during that time, I would be lucky to hold them both for half an hour when juggling expressing, cares, and tube feeds.
You are constantly spinning several plates to keep your home life stable, your other children happy and cared for, your new baby loved and bonded with, and yourself sane ― so please don’t add guilt on top of this. Whatever time you get to spend with your baby is precious, and you are doing your best!
For parents without other children, you shouldn’t feel guilty for not sitting there 24/7 either. Although you long to be with your baby, the NICU can be a soul-destroying place. You often don’t get to hold your baby, and it’s okay to feel bored or in need of a break. It’s normal, and you are not the only one feeling that way. So please don’t beat yourself up or feel like you aren’t showing your baby enough love.
5. I’m sorry I let other people care for you.
To some people, this may sound ridiculous. Of course, it’s not your fault someone else is looking after your baby. They need specialist care, and you can’t do that. But still, I managed to feel guilty about this, too.
I hated that other people changed, fed, and cared for my babies. I hated thinking that my boys found comfort in another woman’s voice or touch or smell. I hated the thought that they thought of that place as their home, and I questioned whether they thought of me as their mommy or just another nurse. This all sounds insane now, but when you are in that situation, it’s normal to feel jealous and protective. These first few weeks would usually be precious bonding time, and the feeling you are missing out on this is awful. I felt guilty that I had ‘let’ this happen — as if this was ever a situation within my control.
6. I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you.
Watching your child feel pain is horrendous. Standing there seeing a cannula being moved or your baby being intubated causes every fiber in your being to want to scream, “Stop! Get your hands off my baby.” It doesn’t matter that it’s all to help them. It hurts you in a way you never knew possible, and it is a memory you will carry for the rest of your life. Feeling you should have protected them is beyond a normal feeling, it is an intrinsic part of being a parent. Although I think you have to accept this wasn’t your fault, it’s futile to say “don’t feel guilty” because it’s part of who we are as humans and mothers.
7. I’m sorry I couldn’t feel more.
The numb feeling that got me through NICU and my son’s subsequent admission to intensive care for bronchiolitis made me feel robbed of five weeks with my babies. I was so numb. I was like a walking zombie, just existing and getting through but not feeling. I loved my babies without question, but I didn’t feel that overwhelming love and joy that usually builds over the first few days until they had been home for about three weeks. When it came, it hit me like a sledgehammer — quickly followed by the guilt that I hadn’t felt like that all along. I felt like a heartless bitch and was ashamed I had not felt what I feel now from the very beginning. Accepting this was not my fault has taken a long time, and I still grieve for those lost weeks. I hate my mind’s ability to cope and the way this robbed me of feelings for so long.
These are just some of the things I blamed myself for, and I am sure if I sat here any longer, I could think of many more. Accepting you aren’t to blame and you coped and did the best you could is a long process — and one you can’t really “do.” It just happens bit by bit as you adjust to life at home. It happens slowly, as your mind gets back to normal and you see things more rationally again and realize nothing was your fault. You are, in fact, a bloody awesome mother and human being for getting yourself and your family through a completely crap time.
For me, I found writing my sons a letter explaining everything I felt guilty for was a real catalyst to moving on, as I could then simply put it away in a drawer and start to forget about it. Whatever way you find to process the guilt, please just keep telling yourself: You are not to blame.
September is Neonatal Intensive Care Awareness month, a time to honor NICU patients, their families, and the health professionals who care for them. Visit www.nicuawareness.org to learn more.