By: Lili Helmuth

Life within the NICU is hard, plain and simple. It is an emotional rollercoaster ride. People often tell me, "You are handling everything so well," but am I really? Maybe, maybe not. Even now, I'm not entirely sure, and I’ve been in the trenches for over four months. 

 I believe part of my uncertainty stems from still processing the fact that I went through a traumatic birth experience. I had the most perfect pregnancy; zero ailments, my bump was just starting to show, I had just started telling people I was pregnant, and I was enjoying this new journey. I'm still grappling with the disbelief that just a few days prior to Oliver’s arrival, I was talking with my OB and asking if everything looked great. I was a premature baby born at 27 weeks and, while being premature is not hereditary, I kept asking the same question, “How can I prevent this from happening to my child?” Unfortunately there was nothing that could prevent me from having a preterm baby.  It's astonishing to think that in a matter of days, my perfect pregnancy was over, and Oliver entered the world at 24 weeks gestation. 


The arrival of my baby left me battling with a profound sense of sorrow and self-blame. I mourned both the unexpected termination of my pregnancy and the absence of a traditional childbirth experience. I felt that in my first acts of motherhood, I had failed. I was completely bewildered. Mental preparation had eluded me. Throughout my pregnancy, my attention was exclusively on the process itself. Envisioning my baby arriving 16 weeks earlier than expected was a daunting task. Rather than delving into literature on childbirth and packing a diaper bag, I was unexpectedly thrust into a sudden and rather traumatic delivery. Overwhelmed, I entered autopilot mode. Throughout the first couple of weeks, the doctors and nurses kept reassuring me that this was not my fault. At first, it was hard to believe, but eventually, I accepted the current reality and realized that yes, this was not my fault. Oliver just had other plans. 

After his birth, I remember my husband and I walking back to see him. We were scared at what we might see and unsure what the future might hold. There in his incubator, was a perfectly pink, baby boy. The nurses told us we were unable to hold him but could softly rest our hands on his body. I will never forget that moment for as long as I live. We stood there sobbing uncontrollably, yet kept giving Oliver words of encouragement. Throughout the next couple of days, nurses taught us how to gently touch his fragile skin because stroking his skin would cause him pain. Imagine—it’s not enough that we could not hold our child, but we had to learn how to touch him, too. Most others give birth and get to hold their babies right away, no questions asked. They have no idea how lucky they are. A few days later, I was able to hold him for the first time. He immediately grabbed onto my finger, and I knew that everything was going to be OK. 

In the following weeks, my instinct was to take action. I felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness, so I kept myself busy with everything I could do for his well-being. Just four days after giving birth, I was driving myself to and from the hospital and going back to work. Despite still recovering from giving birth, I was consumed by the demanding routine of multiple daily visits and three-hour milk-pumping sessions. I was perpetually tired, both physically and emotionally, though I didn't realize it at the time. I was so fixated on my routine that I never gave myself the chance to process and acknowledge the pent-up emotions I was harboring, including fear, guilt, angst, and jealousy. This eventually led to a few emotional outbursts along the way.


Experiencing the NICU with a newborn is a profoundly intense journey that strikes you with a giant slap and then right as you’re recovering, you get hit, again. It's not just about being heartbroken, terrified, and desperately longing to witness your baby's growth, development, and eventual discharge. It also involves teetering on the edge of losing your sanity due to the constant stress, exhaustion, worry, and the tumultuous emotional rollercoaster. The summer days were spent with countless sleepless nights, hours of learning medical jargon, and constant worrying and waiting. Some days I had to tell myself I could get through the next five minutes, It’s just five minutes, and I did. I have made it through minutes that have turned into days that have turned into weeks that have turned into months. I would like to say it has gotten easier, but it hasn’t. The wires, tubes, and beeps have become a piece of me that I’ll never forget. 

Though the journey is ongoing, we’ve discovered an incredible reservoir of strength within ourselves. We’ve learned to find solace in the small victories, to be patient when the road ahead seems uncertain, and to cherish every moment with our precious baby. It has taught us resilience and gratitude, reminding us of the fragility and beauty of life. We are filled with profound gratitude. Our baby, once so fragile, has grown stronger day by day, and we are filled with hope for a bright future. I've gleaned invaluable lessons through the pain. Tragedy and love will do that to you, teaching you lessons in a day, what may take others a lifetime to grasp. Once you go through the NICU experience, everything you thought you knew about what to expect changes. Suddenly, everything is different. You’re different. You will forever be different. When you watch your baby fight for their life it gives you a new outlook, a new appreciation. Our family has emerged from this experience with a deeper appreciation for the precious gift of life and the incredible people who support and care for us.

My intention for now and the future is to help women speak out and acknowledge their trauma to allow their healing to begin. Remember, your partner might also be suffering the effects of unresolved trauma. Check in with each other. Throughout this process, I have been so lucky to have a strong support system with family, friends, and colleagues, yet I know there are many women out there who are not as fortunate as I am. Unresolved trauma manifests itself in your body in so many ways and it is okay to acknowledge them.  

Am I handling everything so well? Maybe, maybe not. But I have been fortunate to be surrounded by love and support and will get through this chapter in my life. My child has become my inspiration, my hero, and I am forever grateful he entered this world when he did. He has changed me for the better.

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