Although I normally focus my blog posts on information, research, and my experiences with counseling clients for postpartum depression and anxiety, from time to time I’d like to feature real stories from moms who have experienced struggles during pregnancy and postpartum. As September is NICU Awareness Month, I’m grateful to have had a colleague, Lizzette Vescera, offer to share her story about her NICU journey with us today.
Introduce me to your family.
I am a 40-year-old mother to an 18-month-old son named Jordan. I am married and we just celebrated our 2 year anniversary. I am a therapist and my husband works for the city. We do not have family here in Long Beach, so at times it has been difficult with having a practice and being a mother and a wife. I find myself being pulled in many different directions at times and wearing many hats.
Tell me a little about your practice.
I love what I do. I have a private practice in Long Beach and participate in community mental health. I have worked with children as young as 2 years old, adolescents, and adults. I have also worked with sex offenders, gang members, homeless, and severely mentally ill. My experience is multi-faceted and sensitive to cultural needs. I am a Bilingual Clinician (Spanish) and I work with extremely diverse populations with complex needs. I approach my work with an agile mind and an open heart. The common thread in all my professional experiences is my dedication to promoting comprehensive, lifelong, and holistic healing. I am trained in Brainspotting, EMDR, and TFCBT (Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). My NICU experience has fueled my passion to work in Perinatal Mental Health especially with NICU mommas.
Please share your story about your journey to motherhood.
I decided to have children later in life due to wanting to pursue my career as well as waiting to meet the perfect man. I also wanted to be established financially and wanted to be married. I was so incredibly happy when I became pregnant with my son. I got pregnant at 39 and it was a pretty easy pregnancy.
During my pregnancy I did everything to remain healthy. I didn’t have any caffeine, I ate well, exercised, did acupuncture, saw a chiropractor, got massages. I was doing everything to ensure a healthy baby.
I was surprised and saddened when I gave birth to my son at 32+1 weeks. My water broke and was leaking at 31 weeks and I had to be put on hospital bedrest. I was so confused— I did not know why this happened and honestly I still wonder if it was something I did?
My son was born on February 12, 2018 at 8:00 pm. I celebrated my 39th birthday in the hospital February 11. I am glad that my son decided to wait an extra day and come the day after my birthday and not on my birthday! His due date was April 8 2018.
When my son came at 32 weeks I was happy but scared because I did not know what that meant in terms of having a preemie. I also was sad because I had planned to have my son in a holistic birthing center. Fortunately, the hospital let me stay as close to my birth plan as possible. I was able to have my essential oils and my music and I was able to practice my hypno baby. I had a natural birth and my son was born at 3.12 oz 17 inches.
My son spent 6 weeks in the NICU as a feeder-grower. Leaving my son in the NICU was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I remember crying and not being able to understand why I was not able to stay with him and why, because I had my son naturally, I was being told I couldn’t stay longer. I visited him every morning and I would call all night to check on him as I pumped throughout the night. I did not practice self care. I would often go all day without eating—I hated leaving the NICU because I would have to go through the whole hand washing process every time I left. I also would leave at 5:00 when my husband got home from work to make dinner and then I would go back and stay till 10:00.
Eventually my son came home after 6 weeks and we were blessed that he had no complications. After he came home he would wake up every 3 hours due to being on the NICU schedule. I also had a hard time sleeping due to being scared of something happening to him during the night.
My son is now 18 months old. We co-sleep and I still check his breathing. I am very grateful that my son is healthy and strong. I hope to continue to nurse him until age 2.
I still have memories of him in the NICU. I still hear the beeps of the NICU. I still mourn the loss of not having a term pregnancy. I still wonder if my son will have learning disabilities because of him being born early or not meeting developmental milestones on time. I mourn not getting to take my pregnancy pictures or having a baby shower (it was supposed to be the week after my water broke.) I still ask myself why. I won’t have another child in fear of having another preemie and not knowing if I will be as blessed as I was with my son when it comes to him being healthy and not having complications.
Though this was a very difficult time, I am also grateful to have a husband that showed me love, patience and understanding during my NICU experience.
What supports, resources, treatments, etc. have been helpful to you in making sense of or recovering from your experiences?
I did not receive any support, resources, or even mental health treatment for what I have been through. I have tried to find resources in my community; however, there are none geared towards NICU mommas. I want to create this community in my city. The resources that did exist were geared toward term mothers. It was hard for me to listen to mothers complain about how they couldn’t wait till their baby came out or how they hated being pregnant. All I would think was I would give anything to have kept him in or would have given anything to have felt how it is to be pregnant full term. There is a part of me that feels that I did not complete those steps and I almost feel like I am stuck on that roller coaster and never came down. I know I still have work to do for myself and I’m continuing process my experience.
What would you like others to know that could help us care for moms in similar situations?
Don’t forget to ask about the mother—how she feels, how she is coping. Everyone gets so involved with the baby and how the baby is doing, but they forget the mother. Be careful what words you use. I would get so triggered when people would say “at least you didn’t have to deal with the last of the horrible weeks of pregnancy” or “At least he was so small so that he came out easier”. Those things were horrible to hear. Don’t forget to check in often (daily, if possible)— the NICU life is lonely and consuming. It’s very easy to want to isolate and to forget about yourself.
What do you want to tell other NICU moms?
Be kind to yourself. I was so hooked on the importance of attachment and how I was not with my baby at certain times of the day. I had to learn to be forgiving with myself and that I was doing the best that I could do with the hand that I was dealt.
Remember that there are so many opinions regarding what mothers need to do in regards to feeding your little one. I was fortunate that my milk came in a week after giving birth. However, I was so stressed— I was taking supplements to increase milk and even pumping every 3 hours. I sacrificed some of my sanity in order to make sure my son had the nutrition he needed. However, if you can’t breastfeed, that is ok—what is important is that your baby eats. This is why I continue to nurse my son who is now 18 months. People can say what they want; I do what’s best for my family.
Don’t take things personally. I always hated being told he was so small and having to feel like I had to defend my son, tell his NICU journey and explain why he was so small. I decided in the end that I would just say “yes, he is.” In the end, it’s important for us mommas to remember: do what is best for your family and what feels right to you.
Lizette Vescera, LMFT, is a therapist in Long Beach, California. She can be reached at www.vesceramarriageandfamilytherapy.com.