Guilt in the NICU

April 6, 2013

By Ashleigh Ashcraft

The moment my daughter was born I felt guilty, over many things – it changed on a day-to-day basis. I had a pretty normal pregnancy. Nothing exciting happened, until the end that is. I felt like I had done so much research on pregnancy, labor, and bringing baby home. I didn’t care if it was a natural birth or a c-section, I had my bags packed at 35 weeks (because my husband thought I was going to cough and she would be here.) I read every pregnancy book I could get my hands on, I even read “What to Expect” religiously. The only thing that was ever mentioned about the NICU, however never referred to directly, is after 23 weeks, the baby could be saved. That’s it, a little section at the beginning of each chapter, “If you baby was to be born now, they could survive.” So, being that I got to 37 weeks before my blood pressure got the best of me, I felt like my chances were good. She would be “fine.” I hate that word now.

This isn’t really about what happened. That’s another story. This is about guilt. Guilt is an enemy I have been fighting on and off since March 13, 2012. It started when she coded after birth. I was so angry with myself, I blamed my body. Why did this even happen? She isn’t a preemie, but, I’m not quite 40 weeks, maybe if she could have stayed in until she was ready, but no, my blood pressure shot up. What did I do wrong? Is it that I didn’t eat perfectly? Genetics? Maybe if I would have taken my leave from work earlier? Could I have held her in longer? I had a lot of questions, questions no one knew the answers to. So, I blamed my body. I was disillusioned with the fact that my body failed at doing the ONE thing I SHOULD have been able to do. I held onto that guilt for a long time.

The next layer of guilt was getting to the NICU. The NICU, to me, messed with the reality I chose to live in. In my reality, babies aren’t born early, they aren’t sick, and they don’t die. It messed with my head, and the only thing I wanted was my daughter out of there. So, I worked myself way more then I should have. The NICU was an hour away from the hospital I gave birth in, and two hours from home. So, 24 hours after a c-section, I bullied my doctor into discharging me, so I could be with my daughter… and with her I was. If I wasn’t, I was pumping, eating, and maybe sleeping for 30 minutes. I went into overdrive. I was in the worst emotional and physical pain I have ever dealt with, and I ignored it. I pushed my feelings down, and did not address them. It was all about getting her home. Another NICU mother here or there would talk to me, usually during late night feeds, and I would listen to them, but, I never felt right talking about my daughter’s issues. My daughter was a term baby, and I felt like they would just see me as a whiner or something. However, I wanted to talk. I wanted to tell someone how I was feeling, but I felt guilty about feeling the way I did, so I didn’t. I held it in, and pretended I was Superwoman.

The third layer of guilt, is kinda like the second, but, not really. After my daughter was 3 months old, I got to a point that I was ready to talk. I was okay with what happened, and I needed to get out what I was holding in. I went back to work and I had a few people here and there I could talk to, but at this point, everyone else was over it. I got a lot of “Well, she is fine now.” Yes, she is fine, but I’m not. I’m scared – I have been the whole time. I figured out that the things I was doing were just not normal. My daughter slept through the night at 2 months, however I still woke up every 2 hours. Why? I had to make sure she was still breathing, this is also when the nightmares started. I’d wake up in a panic, sweating, checking on her like a mad woman. Beeping machines – they make me nervous. Hand sanitizer – I can’t stand the smell, and I also use a bottle a week at work. The NICU was still there. I never let it go… I just held it in… and if I didn’t get it out, I was going to explode. I tried to talk about it, tried to let it out, but I was so tired of “She is fine now.” I should be over it, and once again, there is my guilt, ready and waiting at the pit of my stomach.

I am happy to say that it is getting better. I have done research on what happened.  I found support.  I am talking again. It’s taken time, but it’s slowly getting there. I realized that even though my daughter wasn’t a preemie, she was still a NICU baby, and it wasn’t any less traumatic. I know now that the other mothers wouldn’t have thought of me as less than normal. One of the mothers, who had two babies at the NICU at different times, told me after the fact that she knew what I was doing.  She wanted to push me to talk, but, knew that I would end up doing it on my own, which is why she left me her number.

If I could do it all over again, or was talking to a mother with a NICU baby, I would tell her to take care of herself. We so often forget to take care of ourselves, and the NICU affects us so much.

Ashleigh Ashcraft

Ashleigh is 26 years old, married to her soulmate, Preston, and upon the sign on deal with him, also got a “bonus” daughter, Mallorie, who is 6, going on 16. She works as a Customer Service Associate at Wal-Mart since March 2011. In July 2011, she learned she was expecting her first child, and after a very normal and uneventful pregnancy, developed pre-eclampsia that was diagnosed at 37 weeks. On March 15, 2012, she gave birth to a 8 pound, 21 inch long baby girl, named Rayven. An hour after birth, her daughter coded, and was airlifted to a Level 3 NICU for observation. Today, her daughter is a very healthy, very strong little girl, who has her mother, father, and big sister, wrapped around her finger.

Ashleigh has also graciously shared her birth story with us – be sure to check it out!