As a NICU mother, it felt like I’d failed my newborn son

By Tania Lorena Rivera
@Tania Lorena Rivera – Writer

I failed him.

That was the thought that kept invading my mind for the sixteen days my newborn son was in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). I failed him, or rather, my body failed him. I was bound to a wheelchair, unable to walk properly due to a semi-urgent C-section where I sustained a double scar. The cord had prolapsed into my cervix, and the baby presented feet first. 

“You have an inverted T scar on your uterus. You will be unable to give birth naturally if you decide to have more children. The risk of uterine rupture is too great,” said the young surgical resident who assisted the attending during my C-section. His tone was apologetic, and he was fiddling with his surgeon’s cap in his hands. 

More children? This baby was my third child and last. I wasn’t worried about more children. I was concerned about the tiny human alone in an incubator, separated too soon from his mama. 

Why did this happen? I wanted to ask, but I didn’t. All I could think of was my baby, and his absence in my room in the maternity ward. Why didn’t I ask? The lack of a clear, definite answer haunts me to this day and has kept me up many nights. Did I not drink enough water? Did I not rest enough? Was it the fertility treatments I had undergone to conceive him? Was it foolish to conceive and carry a child approaching forty years of age? All these questions echoed in my head, but one rang louder than the rest: will he be alright?

Time stands still in the NICU. Days are long, nights are lonely, and you feel useless—nothing to do but hold your baby and wait. Wait for the next feeding, for the daily record of your baby’s weight, for the doctor. Those first few days, I always waited for a nurse to bring him to me. Due to the pandemic, I spent my days alone with him. Only one parent was allowed in the room at all times.

My body still healing from that complicated C-section, I dared not get up and grab him by myself for fear of dropping him. So, I waited. The need to cry wanted to break me, but I never allowed myself more than a few silent tears. And so, I focused on the positive. Granted, he was born six weeks early, but he was healthy. He didn’t even need to be on oxygen. But he did have an intranasal feeding tube. His suckling reflex wasn’t good enough yet. 

On the third day, paramedics wheeled in a new baby to the incubator in the adjacent room. The mom, a young woman, wobbled behind, wincing and heaving. Her eyes were red and puffy. She, too, had had a C-section. Her newborn son, born full-term, suffered a seizure a few minutes after birth, and after that episode, he no longer was responsive to any stimuli. He was a transfer from a smaller hospital outside the city. 

Medical personnel whizzed in and out of the room, performing tests and placing the baby in an encephalogram. From the look of concern and the hurried footsteps of the nurses and doctors, the situation was serious.

Glancing back at my baby, sound asleep in his hospital bed, a pang of guilt gripped me and flushed my cheeks red and stung my eyes. Here I was, forsaking the cards I was dealt, and right beside me was an unresponsive baby.

From that day forward, I saw the birth of my baby for what it was, a blessing and a miracle. No, it was not the birth I had envisioned, and yes, my C-section had unforeseen repercussions. But both my baby and I were healthy. What more could I ask for?

On the day of my son’s discharge from the hospital, we crossed paths with that mom. Her son was now in the urgent care of the NICU, and by the somber look on her face, things were not looking good. I held my son’s car seat closer to me. We got to go home with a healthy baby from the NICU. Not everyone gets that chance. 

Today, over a year later, I often think of that young mother whose child shared a NICU room with mine. And as I smile down upon my son, I hope and pray she too is somewhere smiling down at her baby. 

Tania Lorena Rivera lives in Montreal, Canada, with her husband and three children. Her preemie is now 18 months old, driving his two older sisters mad and thriving. Every day is a blessing.

Like what you are reading at Motherwell? Please consider supporting us here

Keep up with Motherwell on FacebookTwitterInstagram and via our newsletter