Written By: Eliza Howard
In November 2015, I gave birth to twins at 29 weeks. Having babies so early was a rude shock. The babies were in the hospital for ten and almost fifteen weeks, respectively, having personal and professional ramifications far beyond anything I could have expected. While talking about this personal situation in a professional setting might seem odd, it is impossible to completely extricate the personal from the professional, and neither should we. Especially when something so personal impacts every part of your life. Here is what I want you to know about having a premature baby:
1. The life of a NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) parent is highly misunderstood. Advertising campaigns raising money for foundations supporting premature babies that depict serious but caring environments where medical staff shows only the best of the human condition. Soft focus and gentle smiles fit for an advertising push can make any environment seem warm and inviting. Perceptions held by those who have no concept of what it is to be a long-term hospital patient remain as the advertisements have sold the story--soothing, mellow, empathetic medical ecosystems.
There is, however, no soft focus for those of us who have suffered through months of caring for a child in such an environment. Overworked medical staff, physically and emotionally exhausted parents, and a stark, sterile atmosphere make for an odd mixture of the best and worst of the human condition. Security guards posted at the entrance protect parents and babies from angry relatives, and domestic disputes are common. Daily disagreements between staff and patients and cliques of medical, nursing, and allied health staff are well hidden beyond locked doors that lead to the ward, never shown in the public depictions of NICU life.
2. My husband and I are lucky to live in Australia, where we have a relatively good healthcare system. We also have the advantage of being white, middle-class, and educated. Had we lived in the United States, we would have had several added pressures: potentially negotiating with our medical insurers, footing a large chunk of the bill for their care, and navigating woefully inadequate parental leave. Let alone the added pressures people of color and other minorities face in both the US and Australia.
My employer gave me a whole year of parental leave at half pay, and my husband had six weeks of leave in total, two paid and four as recreational leave. And between Medicare and our health insurance, we did not have to pay a cent for our twins’ care while they were in the hospital. (Although we did pay thousands of dollars in parking fees at the hospital-run car park.)
3. Once you have premature babies, even as they grow up, life becomes about them. Nobody talks about the added pressures and extra appointments—so many appointments—you have in the months and years after their birth. The added appointments never end. This cuts into work time and home time, and fun time. Many
premmie parents will have to prioritize the health of their children over anything else. This adds work pressure and potentially puts families in financial difficulty. It also cuts into the fun time you have with your kids because you all have no energy, money, or time left to enroll them in gymnastics or swimming or whatever else kids do where you live. Things just get worse if your premature baby is diagnosed with a disability.
So, if your colleague or anyone else you know has a premature baby, be kind to them. Give them as much leeway as possible. And fight for parental leave and support for all.
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Communications and Public relations