Three-year-olds have a way of accepting life as it is, not as how it should be. They only know that things are the way they are. They don’t have the capacity to think, “It wasn’t supposed to be like this” or “I wish it were different.” They simply accept.
My daughter was three years old when I delivered her brother and sister four months early. She had no idea they were supposed to stay inside for much longer or that their early arrival turned our world upside down. Somehow we had to try to keep life as normal for her as possible while caring for our twins in the NICU for an extended period of time.
One night as she and I were taking a bath, she noticed my c-section scar. She told me, “That’s a bad boo-boo Mommy.” I asked her if she knew why I had that boo-boo. She told me, “That’s where they cut the babies out, and me too when I was a baby. I lived in the hospital too when I was a baby until I got big to come home.” I told her, “That’s right baby.” I left out the part that she was not delivered by emergency c-section, she was big on day 1, and she came home on day 2. I was surprised to see that in her eyes, this was all very normal. Babies live in the hospital until they are big enough to come home. It seems so simple. Unfortunately, it was much more complicated, and I would have to figure out a way to be her mommy at home and my extremely premature twins’ mommy at the hospital.
If I could find a way to split my time equally among my three kids, one at home and two at the hospital, maybe I would feel as if I was giving each of them equal love, right? It turned out that was not nearly as easy as it seemed. In fact, I soon realized that was impossible.
During the four and a half months we spent in the hospital, I spent much more of my time at the hospital than I did at home. I gave in to the reality that someone else would have to watch my daughter for me during the day. Several of our friends and family stepped in to help take care of my toddler so I could be with the babies at the hospital. I constantly felt torn. If I was at the hospital, I would think I should be at home, and if I was at home, my thoughts were at the hospital. It took me a while to accept that where I should be was wherever I was needed the most. I was only one exhausted, stressed person; I could not be both places at once.
Explaining a NICU stay to older siblings is different for every family. My niece who was eight worried about her baby cousins much more than my 3 year old daughter. She understood more and had past the age of simple acceptance. Each family has to make decisions on how much information to share with older siblings or cousins based on how much they think that child can handle and understand. My daughter did not meet her baby brother and sister until they were nearly three months old. I worried that she would be frightened by the ventilators and CPAP. This was a personal decision that felt best for our family. Before she met them, we explained to her they would have tubes in their noses to help them breathe and eat. All she saw when she met them was her cute baby brother and baby sister; she didn’t even notice the tubes.
For those currently torn between older siblings at home and a preemie in the NICU, remember that you are only human. Spend time where you feel you are needed most and try to be present in that moment. When you are home with your older children, explain to them why you need to be at the hospital and show them you love them. They may surprise you with their acceptance.
Mommy you’re sad because our babies live at the hospital, right?