Thursday 20 January 2011

Nobody's Fault but Mine

There is something that unites most mothers of premature babies. I haven’t met a mother who doesn’t feel this way. Who hasn’t sat by an incubator, tears welling up in their eyes, thinking this is all my fault?

As humans, our gestation period is 38 weeks (40 if you include the 2 weeks from your first menstrual period)  Our wombs are designed to keep baby’s in situ for that period of time, whilst they grow, their internal organs develop, and they lay down fat stores, ready for life in the outside world.

The very sad fact is, that particularly in first pregnancies, there are so many unknowns, and it is impossible to predict who might give birth prematurely. There are so many reasons babies arrive early, and in some cases, no reason at all can ever be found. Even in subsequent pregnancies, the first baby or second baby can be term, then inexplicably, things go wrong next time. 

But that doesn’t stop a mother’s guilt. It is our job to incubate our babies. And when there is a failure, it isn’t “one of the those things”, it’s us. I know of women going into premature labour who are told to push and feel very strongly that it’s wrong, that they should not be pushing yet. We are to blame, we should be caring for those babies in our bellies, not sitting in a scary hospital ward surrounded by equipment, staring and marvelling at our foetus like babies struggling for survival in the outside world.

When I was going through our journey in NICU I struggled every day with feelings of guilt. Every time Joseph had a bad day I would go out into the garden at the hospital and cry, blaming myself. When he cried inconsolably, when I held him and he buried into me, when he had unspeakable procedures done to him, I felt so awful, that my little baby was going through all this, and it was all down to me. Major and complete mummy fail.

Our NICU is in the heart of a very run down area of our town. There are many mothers going through NICU like me, with medical conditions or with spontaneous labour or premature rupture of the membranes, but then there are the “other mums”.

I recall vividly one day, there was finally another 27 weeker on the ward, a little girl. One day her mother was ushered out of the ward whilst x rays were done, she was thrust unceremoniously in the hall way, and left to her own devices. I looked for a minute, and marvelled at the difference. Everything was always explained to me, and someone would invariably offer to sit with me whilst Joseph had procedures done.

This mummy was different, she was 17, she was addicted to crack cocaine. I went up to her and smiled, popped my arm around her, and we went and sat down and talked about babies. She’d gone into labour on the bathroom floor. She was terrified and bewildered. Finally the curtains went up, and the ward was reopened, and she tiptoed up to her baby, and resumed her cot side vigil. One of the nurses came to me later and thanked me. She looked at me and said “do you know why she’s here?” I shot her a look back and said “because she’s had her baby prematurely and she’s scared witless – just like the rest of us”. Blame has no place in the NICU.

I didn’t blame that mummy. Who knows why she went into premature labour? There were crack addicts who were in advanced stages of pregnancy whilst I was on the antenatal ward, why had it happened to this mummy? It’s not my place to judge, it’s my place to be a mummy, and that means helping other people be mummies too. 

1 in 9 babies are born prematurely. There are a lot of mummies maintaining that bedside vigil, hoping, praying, and blaming. 

This was not your fault. It was not your fault your baby came too soon. It’s not your fault that you were unable to keep your baby inside. It really isn’t. Even if you did do something that looking back you wouldn’t have done, such as smoke, or drink or take drugs, there are people who do these things and have healthy term babies.

I don’t know why you had your baby early. I don’t know why I got pre eclampsia at week 27 and not week 37. I don’t know why. You don’t know why. Not even the highest consultant in the land can say why it happened to you and not your sister, or your friend, or your neighbour. 

This is not your fault or my fault, and the guilt and regret is not helpful, not moving forward into the future, it’s counterproductive.

If you’ve had a premature baby, in all honesty, I believe you have saved your baby’s life. You have gone to hospital in a timely manner, your baby can be treated, and your baby can grow, and through all this, so can we. It may be a cliché but “it’s all character building”, and if you learn and move through it, the guilt and regret, can make you a better mother.

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