I watched my baby grow through a perspex window. Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. I learned how slippery time could be in neonatal intensive care (NICU). Horror-filled seconds would expand with the shriek of an alarm, only for precious hours to melt away when his breath was close to mine.
My baby. It took me a while to whisper those words to the tiny, blood-red thing quivering within a nest of rolled-up cloth nappies. His skin was almost transparent, revealing blooms of delicate veins that I was afraid to touch for fear of injuring him. Early on, someone good-naturedly referred to him as a ‘little frog’, and while the comparison briefly stung, with his arms and legs splayed in submission to a mass of IV lines and tubes, I understood why.
In Ward 9 I learned about intensive parenting. Tucked away in the corner of Monash Newborn, away from the joyful cacophony of special care babies (the ones we NICU mothers so jealously ignored). There, any trace of the normal parenting journey is stripped away. We pray for the daily miracles that will bring us one step closer to the milestones that we should have taken for granted. Seeing your baby for the first time post-partum (26 hours), holding him (240 hours), hearing him cry (1008 hours), breastfeeding him (1512 hours), leaving the hospital (3312 hours). In the meantime, you learn to find the small celebrations in every day (first dirty nappy, first ml of breastmilk well-tolerated, a 20g weight gain), whilst never (never) expecting more. To do so is dangerous, because things can change so damn quickly in a NICU. They call it a roller-coaster, but when your baby’s life is teetering so close to the edge, it’s anything but a fun-filled ride.
You begin to question whether you can even call yourself a mother, when the only daily task you can accomplish for your son is changing his nappy. Still, when it’s the sole contact you’ll have with him that day, you make sure you tell the nurses when you’ll arrive so it can be left for you.
Slowly, slowly, the privileges of parenthood are expanded. From that first, incredible time you held him skin-to-skin (I can hold my baby), to his first bath (clean him), first pair of pants (keep him warm), to an open cot (see him). And then finally, an achingly long time since you were first wheeled down that corridor, you hold your son to your breast. It’s been a long journey till now, starting with a midnight visit from a midwife who squeezed painful drops of colostrum from your breasts while you bled and bled. The ugly, often excruciating, routine of expressing using a mechanical breastpump. The sheer tedium of emptying a breast into the hungry mouth of a plastic funnel at 4am. Mastitis (twice) and nipple thrush that continued for months and months. But for that single moment when my baby first latched onto my breast, in the midst of a sterile room with artificial lights, alarms, hurried nurses, and an uncertain future, we were only mother and son.
Milky Mums is a community organisation established to provide support to Mums who are breastfeeding or expressing for premature and seriously ill babies in Australian neonatal intensive care units (NICUs). Learn more about our work at www.milkymums.org.au