Real life: Postpartum with a premature baby

penny and rupert first birthday

by Penelope Jones |
Updated on

Penny is mum-of-one to Rupert, who was born prematurely at 29 weeks and spent 2 months in the NICU. As he reaches his first birthday she reflects on her birth experience and its impact on her mental health...

Tomorrow is Rupert’s first birthday, a day I’ve been dreading and panicking about. I don’t feel this joy of the one year milestone, I’m not excited to celebrate, I haven’t got all the stuff ready for lovely Instagram photos. I don’t have boxes with balloons, or a crown with ‘1’ written on it.

What I do have is rage, at myself for not keeping my baby safe in my belly like a good mother should. I’m angry that when I told people I felt unwell their answer was to drink water and not worry. Anger that everyone seemed to think I should be ok and ‘all’s well that ends well’. Like I should just be ok now, get over it Penny.

It takes everything I have not to scream when other mums at baby groups happily say, “Oh my baby was prem too, so I know what you mean.” Then it turns out their baby was two weeks early and left hospital the next day with them whilst I languished in a bed kept apart from my baby on a ward filled with other mothers cuddling, feeding, and bonding with theirs.

I wasn’t allowed to hold my baby for five days. To this day, a year on, I feel rage and sadness that I couldn’t hold my precious child who needed me so much and who I needed.

My postpartum health

A year since Rupert was born and I have recently started counselling, which is helping. I have been diagnosed with PTSD and I often have intrusive memories that flutter into my mind, it takes me back there. I feel fear that my baby won’t make it and feel helplessness that there is nothing I can do to help him. Weekly sessions have helped in no small measure. I still feel anger but it’s no longer directed at myself. Intrusive thoughts still penetrate my mind, but I am more able to see them for what they are and quiet them down.

rupert and penny

Today as I drove home with my beautiful boy, Rupert, babbling happily in his car seat, I remember coming around after the anaesthesia. The memory of not having my baby there when I woke up and not knowing if my baby was even alive, took my breath away and I remember starting to panic in the car.

Rupert was next to me, yet I couldn’t suppress the panic. He was next to me, he was babbling, and I couldn’t breathe. I tell myself, “You know how this story ends, he’s fine, you’re fine we’re both fine,” however I still couldn’t breathe, even after my small pep talk.

These intrusive little thoughts hit me most days. Sometimes it’s anger about flippant comments people make. The sentences that start with “at least” when people aren’t engaging with what you’re trying to convey but are just trying to shut you up because you’re bringing them down.

Sometimes I to run upstairs to check he’s breathing six times, because I can still hear the machines beeping in my head from those NICU days when he would simply forget to breathe.

Other times I’m taken aback with rage that my sweet baby boy had to go through so much and took it all in his stride, whilst I couldn’t even breastfeed him for comfort. He was simply too small to latch, my breasts dripped disgusting sticky milk over everything except my baby’s mouth, a reminder that made me feel like I wasn’t a mother, I was just a terrified milking cow.

Rupert’s first birthday

Sharing my story with you has helped me. As I think about Rupert’s birthday, I think I will take him to the zoo. He will have presents and see his grandparents, and I might even feel up to buying him a cake. This is not what I thought his first birthday would look like, but it’s all I’ve got in me.

rupert at 1 year old

In hindsight, Rupert enjoyed his day at the zoo. He loves animals and time with his family. He’s absolutely mad about his grandad so being carried around by him was more than enough to keep him happy. I think this was a success, it was a quiet day with just us, and my boy loved it. Part of me is now able to look back and feel proud that I did what I needed to. The fact that we don’t have perfect social media pictures is ok, they aren’t really for children. They’re for us and one thing I’m learning in counselling is that life isn’t perfect and pretending it is on socials does nobody any favours anyway.

However, I’m furious and sad that his first birthday, something you only get one attempt at, is not what I wanted to do for him. I’m ashamed that this is all I can manage and that there will be no Insta-ready pictures or beautiful homemade cake. I’m ashamed because “The bottom line is that you brought your baby home and you’re both ok” when some people don’t and still, I dwell on it, still I panic, still I can’t breathe.

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