Returning to Work During a NICU Stay

August 12, 2013
Preemie in isolette

Leaving my critically ill premature baby to return to work was incredibly difficult.

I wish I could say that I was the NICU mom who spent every day in the hospital with my baby. Even after 3 years, I am still working through the guilt I have for returning to work just 8 days after my daughter was born. The reality for our family is that both my husband and I need to work in order to make ends meet. When I suddenly ended up on hospitalized bed rest during my 20th week of pregnancy we quickly became concerned about how we would get by. Fortunately, thanks to technology, I was able to set up work remotely from the hospital which allowed me to get some things done during those long days spent on the prenatal floor. It was in no way ideal for me to not be in the office, but it worked for a few weeks.

When Isabella was born at 23 weeks gestation, it was clear that there was potential for a lengthy NICU stay. As if the NICU isn’t stressful enough, we had the added challenge of balancing finances and maintaining an income.  I worried incessantly about our daughter, and for brief moments in between, I wondered how we were going to manage financially. When I was discharged from the hospital, I had already missed an entire month of work. I was lucky in so many ways. My employers were more than understanding and went above and beyond to accommodate my needs during this very unpredictable and scary time. However, I knew that what we had worked out could not be maintained for an indefinite amount of time. I knew I needed to get back to work.

Balancing work, NICU, pumping, and maintaining a household was daunting at times. It took some practice to figure out the best schedule. I was able to work fewer hours, coming in late and leaving early. Fortunately, the hospital was between my home and work, and so it became my routine to stop at the hospital for an hour or two on my way to work. I was thankful that I was encouraged to call the NICU at any time. Checking in with Isabella’s nurse during my work day always made me feel a bit better.  After work, I was able to visit with Isabella for much longer before finally heading home to get some rest. Day after day I repeated the motions, all the while wondering if I was doing the right thing.

As much as it broke my heart to leave the hospital, work did give me a reprieve from the terrifying rollercoaster in the NICU.  My work environment is the complete opposite of the NICU. It’s predictable, even mundane at times, problems are solved quickly and easily, and there is a gentle rhythm to the day.  I now understand that working was a way for me to cope with my situation. I was emotionally crippled by my daughter’s early birth and I found it difficult to spend all my hours at the hospital. But my work, well I could handle that.

Today, my daughter asks me if I stayed with her at the hospital. She’s three. She asks a million questions. But this question makes me cry. How do I let go of my guilt and cut myself some slack? I did the best I could. I try and remind myself how blessed I am. But nothing seems to break down the final remaining bricks in my wall of guilt. I’m pretty certain that this is the part of my NICU journey that may take the longest to heal. Thankfully, I have more and more moments of reprieve from the guilt.  I’ve come to understand that every family that experiences the NICU does so in their own unique way.  Some parents return to work and that is just fine.