‘They already knew what I was thinking and feeling; they were me’ – Melanie’s story

When few people outside neonatal units can easily understand your experience, Melanie describes how uniquely strong friendships can develop between the parents inside them.

Before I got pregnant, I would always hear my friends talk about their birthing classes and the new friends that they had made there. They would chat together in the middle of the night, catch up post-baby, and have mum nights out. They would go from initially having nothing in common, apart from being pregnant, to being firm long-lasting friends. Excited by the idea of experiencing this too, I signed my partner and I up for two classes when I was 25 weeks pregnant. But two days later, our baby arrived.

The NICU is a weird environment to be, let alone try and make friends in. There’s the knowing looks, the shy ‘hi’s and the challenge of getting used to expressing milk with an audience. You worry that the people around you are dealing with such a horrific experience that they won’t want to chat, and sometimes you’re not in the mood to talk to others either. It’s so quiet that you almost feel like you shouldn’t make a noise.

But what you don’t realise is that, actually, you need to talk and the other parents on the unit do too. Those mums and dads next to you, across from you, in the milk kitchens, pumping rooms, and the parents’ area are the only people that fully understand what you’re going through and there’s a lot to be said for that.

With them, you don’t need to explain the fear of a desat (desaturation) or brady (bradychardia), the panic of an apnoea, the elation when a wire is removed from your baby or they come off medication. And you don’t need to explain why you’re still worrying that there might be a step back just around the corner even while something good is happening.

My family and friends were an amazing support but I’d always need to explain to them the new medical terms I had learned and I wasn’t really able to articulate just how I felt or what was going on in my head.

I met a few mums and dads in our fourteen weeks on the unit, but became really close to four.

My friendship with Beth started with the words 'Where did you get your pumping bra from?' We had exchanged some smiles and frightened looks over the incubators before then but as soon as I asked that question, it was like floodgates had opened and conversation spilled out right there in the hallway. We had both obviously craved to speak to someone, specifically someone in the same situation.

We’d find time to chat around the unit and check in on each other just as much as we did on our daughters. One thing I’ll always remember was the line 'it’s just a bit shit'. There had been some bad news and we realised that sometimes we just didn’t want the positivity that people outside the unit would offer. We just wanted to acknowledge the pain and heartbreak, that ‘it’s just a bit shit’ and that’s okay.

Amy was another mum we became close to in the early weeks. She was someone I’d seen in ITU and who was also staying in the off-site accommodation. She had not long moved to her new town and was now in another new city as her baby needed a level 3 unit. She didn’t have a support network on her doorstep so it made me want to be that support for her while she was there. She was incredibly strong and going through a lot of ups and downs but always made time to check in on others and lend an ear if she knew someone needed to talk.

I met my other two close NICU friends when we transferred back to our birth hospital. Moving hospitals was scary: I was leaving familiar faces, friends and processes. It was a challenging few days but I noticed a mum joking with the nurses who had a familiarity about her that made me think we would be friends. And we were.

Tess was my saviour when we moved. She had the same dark humour I did. We ended up being cot buddies, with our babies side-by-side, and we’d discuss the day’s saturations, challenges with feeding, and our annoyance when other babies could leave quicker than ours. We’d so often be in our pjs that we’d get excited when one of us went home for the night and came back looking fresh. She made the long days and the hard nights so much sweeter with her company.

So when she received news that no parents should ever have to hear, I tried to give her the support she had so richly given me. The last weeks of her daughter’s life opened me up to a world that I wished no parent had to experience. We hugged, cried, cursed and I watched in awe at how this remarkable woman survived in the darkest of days.

I met Cassie when we were next to each other for our final few weeks on the unit and we even got to leave within days of each other. As soon as I heard her joke about putting vodka in the squash on the unit, I knew she was my type of gal. We’d be up feeding in the middle of the night joking, trying to calm our crying babies, or just sitting in a contented silence.

We were both freaking out about being new mums, about taking our babies home where we wouldn’t have the nurses on hand, about breastfeeding, and about those first few nights of rooming in. She made me feel normal which doesn’t happen all too often on a neonatal unit. Going through it together made it feel far less scary.

The five of us got to see the incredibly tender moments of those first few weeks and months of having a child. We saw each other at our lowest and most scared. Often you don’t let your family see that side of you, let alone people who you have just met. But these women were there for me day and night when the visitors had left, when I was sitting there digesting the updates from the doctor’s rounds or when I was dancing with my baby to the radio in the middle of the night.

They didn’t have to ask me anything - they already knew what I was thinking and feeling. They were me.

I’ve not got any photos of these women who mean so much to me. The NICU was hardly a place to grab a quick pic together and yet their faces are etched into my memory. I couldn’t have survived any of it without them. They are the strongest, bravest, funniest, most humble women I have had the pleasure of knowing. I found my long-lasting mum friends: it was just inside the NICU and not at birthing classes like I was expecting.