The steady beeping of a heart monitor. The soft overhead lighting. Blankets, bottles, and decorative jungle animals. I can close my eyes and immediately be brought back to that place. Sitting in a rocking chair that isn’t quite as tall as the isolette he lay sleeping in, I reach through the carefully constructed hole in the plastic to take hold of my premature son’s hand. For any person that has endured the harsh reality of a NICU stay, I offer a hug in solidarity. But I was different than the other parents there visiting their tiny infants: I was placing my son for adoption.
I was a jerk during my pregnancy. Swollen, achy, uncomfortable, all sorts of negative emotions. I tried to distance myself from the fact that there was a person growing inside of me. The sicker I was, the more I wanted the pregnancy to be over. I allowed myself the denial that after he was born, my life could return to “normal” and I could figure out all these feelings I had inside me. I was grieving multiple losses, depressed, tired, a literal hot mess. I wished to be released from pregnancy, but looking back, what I really wanted was to be released from these feelings I didn’t understand, that I hadn’t known before.
Then, all too sudden and before I knew it, I was no longer pregnant. The second that they pulled him from me and it registered that he was born, I immediately felt empty and I wanted them to put him back inside me, to let him cook longer, for me to appreciate his existence and be his only person just a little more. But, being born at 34 weeks gestation, he was taken to the NICU, where he could have help breathing, eating, and staying warm until he could do it on his own.
When you’re placing a child for adoption, there’s a large amount of guilt and grief that accompanies that on its own. But, being a soon-to-be birth parent in a NICU situation, those feelings were exponential and overwhelming. I felt so guilty that he was so small I only needed one arm to hold him, that he needed help breathing because his lungs hadn’t fully developed, that he had a feeding tube because his sucking reflex hadn’t kicked in yet, and that his tiny body couldn’t regulate its own temperature and his isolette had to do it for him.
Any new parent in this situation would feel guilt, but I condemned myself because I wished him out of my body not knowing what that would mean for him. My sickness kept him from growing to be healthy and strong from his first outside breath and I was destroyed by that. All I could think was, “Of course I can’t be his mom. I can’t even take care of him well enough in the first 9 months.”
I felt guilt that somebody couldn’t be with him every second of every day. Rounds were at the beginning of every hour and everyone had to clear out so the nurses could get their reports. In the first 24 hours of his life, he wasn’t held by anyone but the nurses doing his care because I was too sick to be with him. When I was finally able to be near him, holding him was a delicate matter because of tubes and wires. I felt all eyes on me as I held him and tried not to move too much in fear I would set off a monitor or hurt him.
Then, there’s the grief. In making an adoption plan, you’re already trying to grieve that you are leaving the hospital without your baby. But, I was now also grieving the idealistic birth plan I had in mind. I was grieving and angry that I couldn’t be alone with him like I wanted, that I already felt this disconnection, that I wanted to talk to him and sing to him and pour all this love that I had for him into his little cup, but I felt so embarrassed in front of his medical team who knew of the situation, who knew personal details about me, and the weight of their gaze was overwhelming when I was with him.
I had this weird mental wrestling match for the two weeks he was in the hospital of wanting to soak up every moment I could and also disconnect as much as possible. I spent time with him, but then feared how hard it would be to walk away from him and I would panic and do so. I left his medical information up to his new parents. I knew that the end of whatever this was was approaching and quickly and I felt panicked and heartbroken and angry at myself for getting pregnant when I wasn’t ready and making an adoption plan and doing this to me and more importantly doing this to him.
But, the end did come. After a steroid shot for his lungs, he was like a new baby. He spent a week in the NICU and a week in pediatrics, that second week affording a little more privacy. He went home to be with his parents and within a couple months, there was nothing reminiscent of a preemie about him. When I close my eyes though, I still picture that 4-pound baby whose pacifier was bigger than he was, whose diaper swallowed his little body up, and whose newborn size Minion onesie looked like a dress. From time to time, I still harbor some of those feelings of guilt and grief, but seeing how far he has come, those feelings subside to thankfulness toward the staff that so lovingly cared for him and his parents for continuing that great care and more. The NICU can be a scary, heartbreaking place, especially for a birth parent.