Being a single parent on the neonatal unit – Grace’s story

When Grace went into premature labour at 29 weeks she worried about calling her husband, who she had recently separated from. In this blog Grace talks about what it was like to be a single parent on the neonatal unit, and how that affected her experience of neonatal care.

My daughter was born at 29+2 weeks with no prior warning. Up to that point in my pregnancy, everything was normal. We had both been deemed low risk and healthy so shock was an understatement when one day I felt unwell, had blood in my urine and before I knew it, was whisked off in an ambulance to hospital.

When I was told I was in premature labour, in addition to being petrified of what was happening, I faced a dilemma: whether or not to call my husband, my baby’s father. After recently discovering he was having an affair, I had made the difficult decision to leave that volatile environment to raise my child alone.

To bring this man into the most stressful situation I had ever experienced, and to see me and my child at our most vulnerable, was horrific. However I had been told that there was a chance the baby wouldn’t survive, and I felt he had a right to know and experience the birth with me.

After three days in hospital and a very difficult breach birth, my daughter was born. Once stable, she was taken to a larger nearby hospital into NNU where she was to remain for six weeks.

Grace 2

Despite the immense, deep joy that my daughter was strong and well for her gestation and the overwhelming pride of bringing her safely into the world, I didn’t tell a single person at the hospital that I was facing this impending journey without a partner. I felt like such a failure – I had failed my marriage, I had failed my pregnancy and I was failing as a mother as my child couldn’t be with me at home. I felt ashamed and I was terrified that I would be under scrutiny if anyone thought I wasn’t coping. I was petrified that someone would take my baby away from me because I would be deemed unfit to look after her.

My marriage separation was very recent and I knew that if I started to talk about it I would start crying. I was already crying so much watching my tiny, defenceless daughter every day in an incubator, mourning the loss of the last 11 weeks of my pregnancy. I didn’t want to cry again on the ward and I didn’t want anyone to think I couldn’t cope.

I’m fortunate to have a very close family and a circle of very good friends who were phenomenal and surrounded me with support from the moment I was admitted to hospital. Group messages were constant: asking for pictures, updates, weight progressions, details of procedures, and with them came love and humour and a constant sense of companionship. Friends and family would come for coffee to the hospital or come to my home in the evening as much as they could and take my mind off things by telling me stories of life outside NNU.

Despite all of this, the reality was that I was alone. I was the only one by my daughter’s incubator every day, watching her every breath, studying her monitors and learning everything about her. Good news or bad news, it came to me.

Although my husband did visit throughout our time in NNU, he wasn’t an active party – I don’t think he knew what to do or how to act given the state of our relationship and the heightened stress and pressure of NNU. That in itself brought huge emotions which I tried my best to put to the side so I could remain as calm and positive for my daughter as possible.

I created rituals every day to have a degree of control, a way to manage my feelings and to give my day structure both on and off the ward. I practice good luck exercises and kept a diary of milestones and a photo journal which I would write each evening. I took part in integrated care so I was taught how to perform daily cares, feed my baby through her NG and take her stats. But it was only me. With the exception of the doctors and nurses, I was the only one to touch my daughter - to hold her tiny body - for six weeks after her birth.

Grace 1

I felt such enormous pressure to be the best parent I could be to her- to do everything to the best of my abilities to give her the best possible chance. At the same time I tried not to let on for a second that I was dealing with the demise of my marriage. At night, not only would I would have flashbacks about the birth and panic attacks about my daughters health but I would be embroiled in heated arguments about the marriage ending and the logistics and practicalities of finding somewhere to live once my daughter was discharged.

I can’t say if my experience was harder than those who are couples in NNU – it’s impossible to compare as everyone in that situation faces their own challenges. All I know is that despite the love of my family and friends, there were times that I felt alone, incredibly anxious and very low.

One thing that a lot of NNU parents will empathise with is the length of the journey of having a premature baby and it certainly doesn’t end at discharge. For me, once we were home and became outpatients for supervision and care, that brought with it new challenges of being alone. The funny thing is I knew there were support services in place for parents, I just felt like I didn’t quite fit the bill. There is the Bliss helpline - but I felt at the time I didn’t want to bother them. I also knew there was support services for single parents, but these seemed to be more focused on parents with children, not babies and certainly not babies in incubators. So, I was in a strange limbo in the middle of not fitting into either category and not knowing where to turn to.

My loneliness and anxiety was alleviated by two other mothers I met on the ward. Our daughters were all in the same room in their incubators and we became very close - there was an understanding of our experience that friends and families outside couldn’t comprehend. We had lunch together every day, lived the ups and downs of NNU life, laughed when we could and cried when we needed to. Those friendships kept me going on the ward and far beyond – our daughters are still friends and we see each other regularly.

One nurse who spent a lot of time with my daughter and me asked me outright if I was a single parent and as difficult as I found the conversation, I appreciated the honesty as once she knew, everyone stopped asking if the father would be attending appointments and if he would be visiting that day.

Grace 3

To all single parents living the NNU journey – try to use the help around you. Your family and friends want to help, so let them – try not to close people off even though your default feeling may be to prove how strong you are. Be open to new friends on the ward too – they have a unique understanding of the next few months of your life. Use the support services available both at the hospital and beyond -they’re there for anyone no matter what. A lot of wards also have counsellors to speak to which a nurse can advise you on. Your baby is the one being treated and in need of medical care, but your mental health and wellbeing is vital so you can be everything you want to be for your child, especially once they come home.

The advice I would give to the loved ones of a single parent who has a child in NNU is to be there as much as you can be to ease their loneliness. Make sure you ask direct questions and offer really specific help. Do what feels right, but don’t wait for a single parent to come to you - they’re coping with enough.

To health care professionals, hospitals and support services dealing with single parents, remember people aren’t just parents – they have a life and a world that exists separately to their child. The world outside the ward ultimately impacts everyone. Sensitivity around this goes a long way.

I write this now all in hindsight, with a healthy, spirited two and a half year old daughter who brings new challenges to parenting alone every day, but she is well and she is loved. Through our NNU journey, I became a mother able to ask for help when I need to, a lot more humble and appreciative of the support I have around me, and - I hope - a little bit wiser.

This story was written under a pseudonym

If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this post and would like support, you can call our helpline on 0808 801 0322 or view our online support pages.

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